A conversation with a happy infiltrator

Featured Image:  Studio Rosegaarde on Flikr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

 As the world is changing, new trends emerge and someone must be there to keep up with them. One of these people is Daan Roosegaarde, founder of Studio Roosegaarde, and the man behind interactive designs like Smart Highway, Dune, Intimacy and the SMOG Project. The studio’s purpose is to bring more life to our surroundings in an environmentally friendly manner. During this revolutionary phase of the energy domain, NRG Magazine had a chance to get an inside scoop on Daan’s story. Go ahead–take a look at the conversation we had with Daan Roosegaarde.

NRG Magazine: What sparked your interest in interactive design?

Daan Roosegaarde: I think there was always a desire to make things which feel alive, which you feel connected to in this over-digitalized world where the virtual or digital world is very interactive, very open and shareable, but the analogue world–the one you and I live in–remains very static and very solid. So the question is what can we do to open that up? I’ve always seen technology as a great tool to make environments more human again.

How did you find your niche?

We created our own market, our own niche. We created the first Dune project in 2007–landscape of light–and then the Tate Modern jumped on it and I think this was very important to make a sort of statement about how this new world could look like.

Tell us about your professional evolution. Can you walk us through your timeline?

The year 2007 is when we built our first Dune and that was the moment we became very tactile. And then the media jumped on it, so a lot of new clients started to call. Here’s when I could also hire a team of designers and “whizz kids” in order to push research further. The idea started at the Fine Arts Academy in Enschede where I started to collect a group of engineers and people who were interested in craftsmanship. The moment we created the first Dune, we sort of became a creative company. I’ve always had this ambition to have a sort of dream factory–so not so much focus on products and thinking about what the client wants, but more to make make our own statement about what we want our future to look like.

Where do you get your inspiration?

It’s all about places. I like architectural offices like OMA, or Schiphol airport. I’m a big fan of places.

How did it all start financially?

In the beginning we self-commissioned ourselves… people were paid in pizzas. Now, we’ve commercialized a bit more, fortunately for my employees. With the profit that we made with the project Smart Highways, for instance–we’re not interested in a new Audi, but we self-commission ourselves and even the small projects are projects we started ourselves and the client came later. So we’re very proactive in investing in our own dreams and this created a new niche, a new language. So, we don’t wait for the client–we create them ourselves.

Do you consider yourself to still be in the startup phase, then?

No, it’s weird–we’ve built our own reputation. I’m not so much interested in what we’ve achieved. I’m more interested in what we’re going to explore. So, we see that the art world has opened up a lot, but we also see the larger corporations like the road manufacturer we’re working with (Heijmans), come to us and say: “can we work with you to think about the future of energy, of mobility, of health?” This creates interesting research and development phases. It’s interesting to team up with the CEOs of today and to work together to make life better and improve it. We still do the art but these kinds of creative dialogues, I think, will have an ever larger impact on today’s society.

“IN THE BEGINNING PEOPLE WERE PAID IN PIZZAS.

NOW WE’VE COMMERCIALIZED A BIT MORE, FORTUNATELY FOR MY EMPLOYEES”

 

Did you have any setbacks?

I think in the beginning (2007-2008), a lot of people thought: “Is this art?” It’s about technology and entrepreneurs and about the future… so is this really art? It’s weird now, because we just came from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where we installed our Lotus Dome. Now, we’re in the middle of the cultural capital scene, so this is a change. I think, the scene changed in this way from more open to innovation to exploration of the role of art in today’s society. So this way, we were pioneers, but it took time for people to get used to this.

Have you ever felt like giving up?

No, this is what I do!

Lotus 7.0 is a living wall made of foil which responds to human behavior. Image: Studio Roosegaarde/Flikr

Lotus 7.0 is a living wall made of foil which responds to human behavior. Image: Studio Roosegaarde/Flikr (CC BY 2.0)

So this is your passion…you’ve actually followed your dream and here you are?

Yes, exactly. There are always people telling you what you want is not possible or not allowed–it’s your job to prove them wrong. It’s funny because we still have this sort of struggle, for example with the smog project–we’re making the cleanest park in Beijing and there are a lot of people telling me “oh, it’s not possible”, but I sort of like this struggle because it means you’re doing something new.

What about your personality–what does it take to make this all happen?

I’m a hippie with a business plan. So there’s an ideology, a dream, and at the same time, there’s a desire to make it happen within the world of today–to operate within the world of the creative (design, art, museums) and to team up with the decision makers of today. Working together to make things better… again, I’m a happy infiltrator in that world.

“NOT A GEORGE ORWELL, BUT A LEONARDO DA VINCI NOTION”

 

What is your favorite design? Why?

I like Lotus Dome right now at the Rijksmuseum. It’s a very tactile and sensual piece. It’s a good example of techno poetry–of where the worlds of innovation and of imagination merge together.

What’s the Beijing project all about?

The Beijing project is a very radical project where we’re exploring how to create the cleanest spot in Beijing…and we’re developing the largest vacuum cleaner in the world. On one end, we’re being praised for innovation and being pioneers, but on the other hand, I notice that I get bored of that very easily, so I’m always looking for the new periphery. I’m a happy infiltrator in that way, I like that role.

Where do you see the world in 50 years? Where do you fit into this picture along the way?

I don’t look at 50… I can tell you a whole story on flying cars, and living on Mars, but I’m not interested in this. I can look at 5-6 years. I’m more interested in what we’re doing right now–where we should realize true landscapes of interactivity and sustainability. So, focusing on roads which generate their own electricity using technology to make places more human again. I’m incredibly fascinated by what happens when technology jumps out of the computer screen and becomes a part of the things that we wear, the roads that we drive on, this kind of notion of “wearability” to inform us, to personalize the world around us, and to connect us to each other again. I think, this is not a George Orwell, but a Leonardo Da Vinci notion.

Dune 4.0 consists of interactive fibers which react to sound and human presence. Image: Studio Roosegaarde/Flikr

Dune 4.0 consists of interactive fibers which react to sound and human presence. Image: Studio Roosegaarde/Flikr (CC BY 2.0)

 

Where does Studio Roosegaarde see itself in the next 5-6 years?

We’re working in glowing nature (light-emitting plants) and on large scale public art works at Schiphol and central stations. I sort of follow my personal obsessions in that way. We don’t do market research, we just have my personal obsessions.

Can you give any tips for new entrepreneurs about conceiving new ideas and start-ups in energy?

Start with paying in pizzas but be willing to upgrade. Get some good people around you who share your dreams and start investing in your own dreams. Build it, realize it, and then think about the context. Where does your idea have the biggest impact? Is it a museum, public space, with an entrepreneur? There will always be people telling you that what you want can never be done. It’s your job to prove them wrong. If you ask people 10 years ago if they want a mobile phone, they would have said “no, of course not–I don’t want to be reachable all the time”. And now it’s the thing we fall asleep with. Life is liquid, reality is liquid. That’s what you should realize–that ideas that may sound awkward today, might be completely natural very soon. This allows you space for freedom, for creativity. In a time when the whole system is crashing and the new one is still unknown, we need new ideas. So yeah, I would definitely go out there and grab that.

TEXT Cristina Huré

*This interview first appeared in the printed edition of NRG Magazine, in April 2014. You can view the original version on ISSUU.

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A conversation with a happy infiltrator

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