Beyond Buildings


Scratch the Itch: Talking Design with Hella Jongerius

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Design can be itchy. Maybe it even should be itchy. That is the conclusion I came to in a public conversation with the designer Hella Jongerius at the Milan Furniture Fair last week. The Vitra Design Museum had called a group of us together to talk about the heritage of the furniture designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld (they are organizing an exhibition of his work) and they wanted us to consider his heritage (the whole program will be available soon at


Now Jongerius might not be the first designer you would think of were you to ask who Rietveld’s heirs today might be. Yet I believe her work is very much in the tradition of a designer who gathered together readily available materials to create simple chairs, tables, lamps, and houses that did not impose their order on you, but rather invited you to complete and extend the intersections they indicated.

Photo courtesy Vitra


Jongerius became famous for designing vases that combined glass and ceramic held together with packing tape. She embroidered decorative motifs on plates. She made a washbasin out of polyurethane. She designed a low sofa that mirrored the geometries of the Dutch landscape. She collaged together different fabrics for Maharem. Now, she is designing the new Delegates Lounge at the renovated UN Building by, among other things, stringing together 40,000 ceramic beads to make a curtain.

Photo courtesy Jongeriuslab

In all these projects, and now as Design Director for Vitra, Jongerius has brought together history and innovation, familiar forms and strange patterns, the mundane or cheap and the expensive, craft and mass production. She has not merged or subsumed these contradictions, but has rather made them the point of her designs. Her aesthetic is one of ruthless combination.

Photo courtesy Jongeriuslab

What makes all of this work is not only her strong compositional sensibility, but ornament. As she explained during our discussion, ornament is like a narrative you can lay over any designed artifact. It will awaken memories, evoke stories, carry your eye from part to part, and invite your hand to touch the object she has adorned. Ornament is not decoration, but intrinsic to the object’s ability to work in a social sense. It is an addition, but a necessary one.


It is that ornament that is itchy. It catches the eye and the hand. It interrupts the smooth surface and takes the vase or the sofa out of the realm of utility, where you use it without noticing it, and into being an active part of your life.


Itching is not hurting. It can be annoying, but it can also be a symptom of desire. Irritation is natural the reality of the human body and to social interaction. It is to social harmony what consciousness is to dreaming. I should caution that Jongerius did not mean that her fabrics or her chairs cause itching. This is aesthetic, social, and meaningful itching.


I would love to see an itchy architecture. I would love to see ornament that was neither reactionary nor additive. I would love to have buildings that evoke worlds and seem familiar without falling into clichés. I have an itch for that kind of reminder of what good design can do.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.