Laptop, sand, glassware, tile



You can read the original Dutch essay here.

In 2023, a remarkable work of art burned down. A seven-metre-high version of Michelangelo Pistolleto’s (1933) Venere degli stracci (‘Venus of the Rags’) was installed in Naples in June 2023, and lit a month later. It seems that it was ‘ordinary’ vandalism, but works of art are magnets for interpretation, which made me secretly wonder why exactly this work was set on fire. Was it an angry reaction on aesthetic grounds, for combining a plastic copy of a classical statue with discarded rags? Another possibility: is Pistolleto’s criticism of consumer society too inconvenient a truth? [1]

In the 1960s and 1970s, Pistolleto belonged to arte povera (‘poor art’), an Italian art movement. The Italian-American art historian Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (1957) wrote a well-known book about this, in which she cites Pistolleto’s criticism of pop art. According to him, pop art was about ‘adding more and more objects to a consumer society that is based on production and consumption processes’. [2] In a sense, both movements are opposites. Pop art is generally associated with increasing (American) prosperity. Christov-Bakargiev, on the other hand, notes that the artists grouped together under the term arte povera worked against the backdrop of a recession that followed Italy’s strong economic growth in the 1960s, accompanied by major industrialisation and mass production. The relatively young consumer society was no longer received by Italians with optimism, but with skepticism. [3] The art market was also viewed with suspicion by a new generation of artists: it had become too commercial. Against this background, ‘poor’ can be understood not only in the sense of ‘without pretence’, but also as ‘impoverished’. As an alternative to constantly purchasing new materials, previously used – and even discarded – objects and raw materials were consciously used. They were given a new life: an early form of recycling. For example, when I visited the Nove opere (‘new works’) exhibition at the Kröller-Müller Museum (Otterlo) in early 2023, I saw agricultural tools, pottery and living cacti(!).

According to Christov-Bakargiev, arte povera is characterized, among other things, by a ‘process-oriented, open character’. [4] This aspect is given some extra weight by a comparison with pop art: ‘Pop was seen by arte povera as too pure and product-oriented, because of the creation of autonomous objects’. [5] The procedural nature of the Italian movement conflicts with this. Partly because of this, I see similarities with today’s designers, who – to quote Amandine David (1988) – wonder ‘whether even more objects should be made. Given the climate situation, production must be drastically reduced.’ [6]

So in this essay I make connections between arte povera on the one hand and three contemporary designers on the other: in addition to David, also Emma van der Leest (1991) and the duo Studio Plastique (Theresa Bastek and Archibald Godts, both from 1990). First of all: fortunately, they are not the only ones who think about their role as designers and their relationship to (mass) production. However, I was able to interview each of them and they all helped change my thoughts on design. But before I discuss their work, I want to go back a little further in time and look back on another important experience.


Even after having worked as an art critic for a while, the world of design for me was limited to seeing famous furniture in museums and occasionally leafing through an interior design magazine or supplement. Because of this limited view, I assumed that design was about an end product that could be put into production. Boy was I wrong, so I found out when I spoke to ‘conceptual designer’ [7] Lucas Maassen (1975). He told me in 2018 that during his training as a designer he doubted whether he was taking the right path, ‘as if there weren’t enough things already, and things being made’. [8] We also talked about his Sitting Chairs: chairs that had a kind of smaller seat on top of them, so you cannot sit in them. In Maassen’s words: ‘Because the chair performs its own function, it disqualifies itself. That raises the question of whether it is design or art.’ [9]

A year after our conversation, in 2019, he was one of the driving forces behind The Object is Absent, a group exhibition in MU (Eindhoven), as part of Dutch Design Week, which that year had a strong focus on sustainability. There was a lot of attention for the war of attrition that mass production has on both people and nature. The subtitle of the exhibition already betrayed a conceptual slant: ‘Optimistic manifesto for [a] less materialistic design’. [10] Or as Domeniek Ruyters, editor-in-chief of art magazine Metropolis M, put it in his exhibition review: ’the most sustainable new chair is no new chair.’ [11] He also noticed the gap between art and design was closing:

There is hardly any difference between art and design in subject, approach and execution. In both there is a deep involvement with the world, its future, which is highlighted and commented on in a critical way. [12]


As the exhibition in MU demonstrated: design has acquired a strong conceptual component, which means that a physical object – let alone mass production – is often not necessary at all. However, ‘conceptual’ has become quite a broad term; even if you mean the specific movement in art. The very question of whether ‘conceptual’ means that the concept is more important than the object, or whether a physical object is really out of the question, is open to discussion. Partly for this reason I have the feeling that arte povera, which is more than once seen as an Italian relative of conceptual art [13], already forms a much more concrete frame of reference. Although arte povera artists had quite diverse practices among themselves, according to Christov-Bakargiev there are shared characteristics. These, she says, include the “use of worn, culturally significant materials” [14], and “a liberal anti-production aesthetic that focused as much on past cultures as on the future.” [15] These are already more specific contours than ‘conceptual’. 


The Brussels-based Amandine David seems to me to be a descendant of arte povera. There is one caveat: she is already a product designer by training and sees herself as “not an artist at all, but a designer.” [16] Her own practice focuses on production processes, but with an emphasis on the process. Her starting point is not the factory hall, but craftsmanship. She enjoys working with experts in the field of reed braiding and basket weaving. 

She herself chooses to play a supporting role, alongside contemporary technologies such as laser cutters and 3D printers. She uses these to create structures that allow Esmé Hofman – one of her regular collaborators – to bend and braid her reeds in different ways. In the catalog for the Henry van de Velde Awards 2023 she says: ‘My designs tell stories about crossovers, collaborations, explorations, failures and discoveries. The steps of the process are very important to me.’ [17]

Her speed is therefore rather low than high. Many projects have been running for a long time, but never take the form of mass production; rather of a collection of unique items with some similarities. You could say that each object is a snapshot of the process: they show a slightly different approach to the same production process. After all, David doesn’t like making the same thing over and over again.

She also told me: ‘My goal is to show that objects can be valuable, even if they are not functional and are sold.’ [18] She also keeps the failures, because with some adjustments such a process can still be successful. Because the process has such weight within her practice, David moves into the field of conceptual art or design, in which descriptive texts provide important clues about how to understand what you see before you. David regularly combines the exhibition of the objects with (pre-recorded) oral explanations, such as a tour or a video.

But of course, don’t discard the objects themselves. The good listener can, with or without the aid of some explanation, follow the production process to some extent: ‘Of course, there are also certain clues in the objects themselves, which tell something about how they were made.’ [19] For example, the order of weaving is reflected in the final product. This is reminiscent of the ‘poor’ but intensive viewing experience of arte povera.


You will encounter more unusual materials than reed and plastic in the work of Emma van der Leest. This biodesigner, who operates from Rotterdam, works with (micro)organisms such as algae and fungi. When I spoke to her in 2019, I first heard about vegan leather, made with bacteria. It would be another few years before such teachings were discussed in newspapers and more general magazines. She already made the Biocouture Bag in 2014. It turned out to be a real conversation piece, allowing her to talk about how the bag was made and its biodegradability. At that time, the material was not yet suitable for mass production, but Van der Leest was already making serious progress; for example, by making a water-repellent coating from the spores of certain fungi (see her 2019 project Fungkee). [20]

Such materials are reminiscent of the often quoted words of art critic Germano Celant (1940-2020), who wrote that thanks to arte povera, animals, vegetables and minerals entered art. Both the artist and the viewer were able to reacquaint themselves with the miraculous transformation processes in nature. [21] Such a connection between nature and everyday life can be seen in the project through which I met Van der Leest: The Microbial Vending Machine (2019). In a vending machine that is very familiar to Dutch people, in this instance it is not filled with native snacks like kroketten and frikandellen. Instead, you are treated to a tantalising picture of what micro-organisms could do now and in the future. How about shoes and building materials based on fungi, or hamburgers and biodiesel created with the use of algae?

Personally, I find this a more exciting prospect than the pre-industrial society that arte povera often evokes: Van der Leest does not look back, but looks sustainably ahead. Ultimately, for her it is not about speculating, but about putting her shoulders to the wheel and, through trial and error, ensuring that a sustainable future comes closer. [22]


If you are still wondering whether more products should be produced or not, I was pleasantly surprised to discover during the research for this piece that the duo Studio Plastique has in fact started producing. This means that they have taken steps towards their sustainable mission. In 2021, these two designers told me:

Not enough attention is given to what to do with a product when its life cycle is over, and what to do with the raw materials from which it is made. […] It is actually absurd that you order something that will be delivered to you from China in a few days, only to throw it away a few days later. [23]

I initially chose Studio Plastique for this essay because of Common Sands (since 2020): ‘an ongoing exploration of the extraction, transformation, application [of] discarded sand and sand-based products’. [24] This sand comes from equipment such as discarded computers and microwave ovens. Studio Plastique initially used it to make tableware and later also other household items. These objects are one of a kind, exhibited to stimulate a discussion; somewhat comparable to the objects that David and Van der Leest make.

Now sand and glass are of course much more common materials than micro-organisms, but Common Sands reveals an arte-povera-like transformation. It is important for this project that you realize that the glass is made from recycled sand; that someone has taken the trouble to take apart discarded equipment and extract raw materials from it. The possibilities of recycling are becoming increasingly tangible and that reminds me of something Studio Plastique told me: ‘We believe that you can only build a relationship with something if you can observe it.’ [25]

Speaking of transformations: Common Sands has gradually turned into Forite (since 2022). The same materials are used for this, but this time the end product is not tableware, but a tile. This initially involved collaboration with the international architectural firm Snøhetta, but manufacturer Fornace Brioni has also joined this project. As a result, these tiles have now also become a commercial product. This manufacturer has existed for more than a century, and had never before worked with materials other than clay. [26] However, an initiative like Forite shows that it can never be too late to transform and focus on sustainability.


Forite brings me to the marketplace, whether it is for autonomous or applied works of art. After all, the arte povera artists were not entirely averse to tradable objects; otherwise I would never have been able to see an exhibition like the one in the Kröller-Müller. Studio Plastique, Emma van der Leest and Amandine David seem to me to be designers who are not necessarily against sales. Rather, it is about a fairer and more sustainable alternative. If there is still demand for a handbag, for example, how do you ensure that it is produced as sustainably as possible, without animals having to suffer? If on the one hand there remains a need for tiles and on the other hand there is a lot of waste, why not reuse raw materials? As with arte povera, these designers’ imagination and conceptual thinking go hand in hand with social responsibility and environmental awareness. A physical object is not an end point, but a completely new starting point: a way to begin and keep alive a more honest story.

[1]  “It is a work that calls for regeneration, on the necessity to find a balance and harmony between two minds that are represented on the one hand by beauty, and on the other by consummate consumerism, a disaster,” Pistoletto explained about the background of the work. Quoted from 

[2]  Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Arte Povera (Phaidon Press: 2014), p. 35.

[3]  Ibidem, p. 23. What may also play a role is that technological innovations played a central role in the visual language of fascism – and of futurism, an intertwined art movement. In addition to traditional Italian symbols, such as the architecture of the Roman Empire, aviation, among other things, played an important role in fascist propaganda. It is not difficult to imagine that the idea of ​​’progress’ was later viewed with suspicion by Italians, especially in times of recession.

[4]  Ibid., p. 22.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  Maarten Buser, ‘Ontwerpers zouden verhalen moeten vertellen’, in Gonzo (circus) #175 (2023), p. 34.


[8]  Maarten Buser, ‘Design ter discussie’, in Gonzo (circus) #145 (2018), p. 21.

[9]  Ibid., p. 22.


[11]  Domeniek Ruyters, ‘Zitten zonder stoel – hoe kunst en design steeds meer in elkaar opgaan op de Dutch Design Week 2019’, on the Metropolis M website . Published on 21-10-2019, accessed via https://www

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  An anonymous author on the Tate site talks about ‘[Arte povera] can […] be seen as the Italian contribution to conceptual art.’ Quoted from

[14]  Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Arte Povera (Phaidon Press: 2014), pp., pp. 45-46.

[15]  Ibid., p. 46.

[16]  Pascal Cools and Natascha Rommens, ‘De designer als instrument. Een gesprek tussen de hoofdwinnaars van de Henry van de Velde Awards 2023’, in Henry van de Velde Awards 2023 (Flanders DC: 2023), p. 10.

[17]  Ibid.

[18]  Maarten Buser, ‘Ontwerpers zouden verhalen moeten vertellen’, in Gonzo (circus) #175 (2023), p. 35.

[19]  Ibid.

[20]  Maarten Buser, ‘Emma van der Leest laat een duurzame toekomst groeien’’, in de lage landen #1 of 2020, p. 24.

[21]  See Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Arte Povera (Phaidon Press: 2014), p. 29.

[22]  Maarten Buser, ‘Emma van der Leest laat een duurzame toekomst groeien’’, in de lage landen #1 of 2020, p. 25.

[23]  Maarten Buser, ‘Uitdagingen en magie’, in Gonzo (circus) #163 (2021), p. 43.


[25]  Maarten Buser, ‘Uitdagingen en magie’, in Gonzo (circus) #163 (2021), p. 42.