Exclusive Interview with Designer Twan Verdonck
Numbers, socially conscious consumption, and how to improve your sex life.
By Maria Popova
Today, we’re picking his brains in an exclusive interview about his socially conscious approach to design and his latest project, the brilliant We Are Numbers.
Hey Twan, good to have you. Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your brand of curiosity.
Hello Brain Pickings! Thank you for having me here!
I’m a 30-year-old Dutch designer. And I’m very much interested in the areas of open design, the nature of things and the internet (especially the concepts of open source, free services, web 2.0 and 3.0.)
In the past, you’ve shown at the MoMA. How did this connection happen, and what did you take away from the experience?
In 2005 my Boezels project was selected for the MoMA exhibition Safe: Design Takes On Risk. I just wrote a letter to Paola Antonelli and explained why my project is a metaphor of how we should deal with design, social care and industry. The Boezels are furry animals developed for snoezelen therapy. They are not only made for mentally challenged people, but they are also produced by a workshop for mentally challenged people.
Paola emailed me back telling me that she loved the project. Later on, the Boezels were purchased for the permanent collection. And they are currently on display in the Rough Cut: Design Takes a Sharp Edge show ’till October.
Of course, I was very happy and flattered when the MoMA was enthusiastic. But the most important thing for me was that now many people had the chance to see the project and get inspired to design for a good social cause. And that was the reason I started the project in the first place.
What was the original spark of inspiration behind your latest project, We Are Numbers?
We Are Numbers is an art project to stimulate the fact that, even though everyone is different, we are all equal. And to show that we are beautiful as we are!
For €30, you’ll receive a tee that’s hand-painted by me (Number 1) with your own unique number. You are then asked to submit a photo or video of yourself in the numbered tee. The first 1,000 participants will appear in an art book. So far, more than 300 people have joined the We Are Numbers art project. Besides the photos and videos, the website also shows the world map and personal links, so Numbers can track down other Numbers and meet each other.
My first inspiration started when I was visiting the Bread & Butter fashion fair a few years ago. I saw all these global fashion brands creating all these new styles every season and thought that it was not logical.
Why are we creating new things even though there’s no real reason for it? Just for the sake of commercialism and hyper consumption? Or for the sake of showing status or superiority to others by buying as many new things as possible?
Even many “eco” brands could not comfort my unease. Since they are still producing things that we don’t really need. Maybe in a slightly better way, but they still stimulate the hunger to buy, buy, buy.
So instead of developing another “hyper consumption” tee, (or an organically produced “hyper consumption” tee), I decided to make uniquely numbered tees consisting of only one simple graphic. The longer you keep the shirt, the lower your number gets in comparison to the majority of the group. An early number, such as 500, may be cooler than a later number like 10,000. And number 10,000 may be cooler than a number 100,000. So instead of going out of style, the shirts become even more stylish with time. The older, the cooler.
I think that a We Are Numbers t-shirt should be an interesting object for life. One should be able to wear and feel great in it as long as it is physically possible. One may even see it as a personal investment that becomes more valuable over time!
I ask people to submit a photo or video of themselves and a personal link, so the whole Numbers family can meet each other and start doing nice things together. We’ve already organised a mini-concert, expo and I’m sure more will follow!
What’s the project’s ultimate goal?
The ultimate goal is to number everyone around the world. Since I think it will help to bring people together and will stop unnecessary consumption and inequality.
There seems to be an interesting duality in your work, with the quest for innovation on the one hand and the outrage at disposable everything on the other. And that’s a bit of a paradox — one needs to get rid of the old in order to make room for the new, it’s the natural cycle of innovation. Is there a happy medium?
Yes, but it’s not a very difficult duality, since I always ask myself if there is a need for this new thing.
Is it a physically better thing than the things that already exist? Or, when the thing is not physically better: is the intention/nature/soul of the thing better than the things that are already there? Because then it will teach people to understand their world in a more meaningful way.
When one of the answers is yes, then I’ll go for it!
For example: The We Are Numbers shirt is physically not much better than any other t-shirt in the same price range. However, if people buy this shirt they will experience that owning just one We Are Numbers t-shirt may be cooler than buying many new t-shirts every year. It will bring creativity, new friendships, access to events, you can advertise your skills, etc.
Many people even claim to have a better sex life since they have been wearing the We Are Numbers t-shirt! ;)
Regardless of how we may feel about it, we live in a commercial culture. Are personality and self-expression even possible without consumerism? How does We Are Numbers approach this?
I have nothing against consumerism. I think it’s great when people can afford the things they need. I only think that people should buy wisely and very consciously.
I think that buying and wearing the latest fashion trends is just overmarketed and overrated as a perfect mean of self-expression and individuality. I think there are more interesting things for people to show than their latest pair of Nike sneakers. You are not what you wear.
The We Are Numbers t-shirts are at once the same (the numbers constructed from a digital matrix) and yet every number is unique. You look at the individual, not the message, or the design, or the attempt to influence through fashion signifiers linked to individious marketing.
A hat-tip from Paola Antonelli is probably every designer’s dream. But achievement in art is subjective — what do you feel is the ultimate acclaim for an artist?
I don’t know and I don’t think it’s very important.
I just think that the most important thing is to be happy with what you are doing. If others like what you do, than that’s great. But happiness is not caused by external factors. No one but yourself can make you happy.
Well, thanks for letting us pick your brains, Twan. Any last thoughts left unpicked?
Thank you very much for the interview and your time!
Please take a few moments to visit the We Are Numbers website. There are some super clever and funny photo and video submissions from Numbered people from all around the world! And you can check who is already numbered in your neighbourhood.
Published July 28, 2009