Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Christien Meindertsma

“Everything Connects” in Talking Textiles magazine 2019.
Photos by Roel van Tour & Mathijs Labadie.

Ten new projects were started in January of this year by the Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma. The reason, she explains to me, is simple enough: 2018 was a particularly busy year preparing solo exhibitions for the Vitra Design Museum Gallery (Beyond the Surface) and the Art Institute of Chicago (Everything Connects), alongside contributing to a Dutch television programme about object histories. “There was no time to develop new products.”

Products, ironically, have not been the mainstay of Meindertsma’s practice. After graduating from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2003, she first drew attention for her book PIG 05049 (2007), which methodically traces the whereabouts of every single part of a slaughtered pig’s body. Bone china, bullets and sandpaper make the surprising list. The publication established Meindertsma’s forensic approach to teaching herself – and then us – where the materials of daily life end up and where they come from. Projects that took a myopic approach to production by narrowing investigations down to a single traceable material followed. One Sheep Sweater (2010) was a collection of twenty sweaters each knit from the merino wool of one Dutch sheep, while The collected knitwork of Loes Veenstra (2012) offered a poetic detour along a similar line of thinking – this time a community focused celebration of the 550 sweaters Veenstra knit during her life.

Meindertsma’s sleuthing has now become one of her trademark strategies. Fibre Market (2016), for example, exposes the rampant mislabelling of the fibre content on our sweater labels. The project is often exhibited as a wall of colour coordinated fibre samples accompanied by the original clothing label plus laboratory analysis of the actual fibre content. Curiously the darker the colour – black and navy blue dominate – the more likely the samples are to stray, some quite outrageously, in the truth of their fibre content.

As much a communicator as a designer, Meindertsma has longstanding collaborations with several photographers and filmmakers. It is often the visualisation of her research that we experience as her end product. Really/Kvadrat, for example, recently commissioned her to produce a publication and video to communicate their new material, Solid Textile Board, made from waste textiles. A single sample, Really (2017) uses Meindertsma’s discerning eye for material details to communicate a recycling story about white-on-white textiles using her stark, serial aesthetic. Visual repetition that include small differences – from the personalities of each of the twenty sheep in One Sheep Sweater to the rainbow of colour coordinated piles of loose fibre sourced from 1000 sweaters she exhibited when Fibre Market was in the Fear and Love exhibition at the Design Museum, London – often appear. It is a technique that demands the viewer’s concentration.

In a departure from her design work, last year saw Meindertsma contribute to research and presenting Voor de Vorm (For the Form) for Dutch television. Each of the eight episodes explored the history, present use and future of an everyday product such as the wineglass, bicycle, and sneakers. The costs and time pressures of television production taught her that “there always needs to be a clear question to ask” – something she admits is a stark contrast to her own experience of research which can often begin from a place that is quite vague. Working for television, she reflects, was a refreshing break from the solitary work she often undertakes, although she admits stepping away from her usual identity running her own business to work with a team tasked with executing the producer’s vision took some adjustment. But Meindertsma speaks very positively of the experience: “How many times do you get to step into another profession?”

The experience has sewn seeds for several new research ideas, which are emerging alongside her ongoing project Flax Project (2012), and its numerous offshoots. Based on Meindertsma’s purchase in 2010 of an entire harvest of plot GZ 59-West – 10,000 kilos of flax fibre to be exact – Flax Project is an experiment in understanding to what extent local linen production in the Netherlands might still be possible. To date, a series of damask napkins depicting the various stages of processing flax have been woven in the Netherlands from linen spun in Hungary; coarser yarn from the same plants were made, after spinning in Belgium, into rope in the Netherlands that became a collection of lamps and carpets; and the biodegradable Flax Chair (2015) has been produced from a composite of existing woven flax combined with dry-needle felted flax.

Are there misconceptions about her work? “People think I am really into craft, but I am into industry; but industry thinks I am a difficult research person. It takes years to build relationships with industry. Now I can show projects I have been doing and it is becoming easier to communicate through examples.” She has recently noticed that “risky projects, started earlier and given more time have become more long lasting.” Time is always a question. “When I first had children, I started taking client work with a much more rigid approach because I was concerned about my time. But on reflection the projects I have taken more risks with, and spent more time on, have brought more in return.” I wonder if Meindertsma still feels the pessimism I have heard her speak of in the past about the challenges of truly impacting consumer behaviour. She admits that while she does see change, “especially how design students think and work”, she also recognises that “younger people are aware but that does not always change consumer behaviour.” The sheer amount of time and energy she has devoted to unearthing where materials come from and where they go arguably makes her a little impatient: “When you are in something you don’t see things changing fast enough.”

Christien Meindertsma: Everything Connects is exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago through October 20, 2019.