“As a student, I was trying to find the best material to express myself with,” Marije Vogelzang tells What We Seee. “At that time, food was not a subject or material for design.” And she changed that. Now known as “The Grand Dame” of eating experiences, Vogelzang has changed the way that we look at food and pioneered the field of food design. Her latest project, part of the V&A Future Series with Propela: Food talks at the Victoria and Albert Museum, centers on the future of food. Discussing synthetic biology, movements toward cruelty-free consumption, and an evolving perception of food, Vogelzang shares her unique take on an integral part of our lives.
It’s something that is such a present part of our day-to-day, which is exactly why Vogelzang became fascinated with food in the first place. “As the conceptual design wave just started, I started exploring organic material in my kitchen,” she tells What We Seee. “The reason to stick with food from that time on is that I was amazed by the omnipresence of food. Food is the biggest industry in the world. Food is culture and intertwined in many rituals. Food is identity and health (or sickness), food is linked to the climate, and food is politics. By simply choosing food, I suddenly entered an urgent, sensorial, and exciting field unexplored by designers at the time. Besides all of these larger motivations I was also just fascinated by the fact that, as a designer, I could make a design that would actually become part of your body. A very intimate and emotional effect of food.”
One of the things that keep Vogelzang — and her audiences — engaged in her work is her deep understanding of how our relationship with food has changed over time. “As most of the world is living in the land of plenty today, many of us (including myself many times) do not realise how amazing it is that food is there,” Vogelzang explains. “That it is fresh, affordable and seemingly always in season. In our rather recent past where hunger was our default setting, humans have always longed for the land of plenty. We would imagine our gratefulness if we would ever be lucky enough to encounter this place. The irony is that the land of plenty is a sticky trap where we do not value food for what it is, where we get sick from overeating, make lots of waste, and get detached from how food is really grown and produced. In my work, I want to trace back to the humble feeling of gratefulness in a light and engaging way. The act of eating nowadays is a confusing, multi-layered one as if it has lost its innocence. I try to link back to food through the lens of a child to make people experience the thing they think they already know in a fresh way.”
A Variety Of Futures
But when it comes to the future of food, there’s not a sense that it’s moving in one, inevitable direction. Instead, to Vogelzang, it’s all about the possibilities. “I see a variety of futures all at the same time. Some dystopian, some hopeful. Making predictions for the future is a funny thing to do as designers are always looking to create original and authentic work that preferably hasn’t been yet long foreseen,” she explains. “That’s why I sometimes design vehicles to project future scenarios on (like plant bones and the embassy of food) in that way I do not need to define or predict the future. I create a stone to sharpen the mind on while thinking of the future.” But no matter what direction we go in, she expects big changes. “I do think that food in the future will change drastically. Perhaps not that much the food itself but food culture, the things people eat and what they choose to eat. Climate change will have an impact on crops and on freshwater supplies. We’ll have to develop seaweed, fungi and seriously rethink microbes and their importance in the gut. Fermented food but also eating (the right) soil will all be part of this.”
The Food Girl
One of the most interesting things about her career is that Vogelzang found that narrowing her focus actually helped open up her possibilites. “I was scared I would become the food girl and that it would limit me. It needed a bit of time to realise it was the best thing to go for and that it opened up an amazing space to explore and grow. Still, I feel this space is empty and needs more designers stepping in. Eating design is now becoming a worldwide movement but the food system is so large and diverse and needs so much change that there is enough space for plenty of young designers working on food. “
She’s not afraid of working outside of the box — even though it can be challenging working in a career so off the beaten track. “Still even after almost 20 years, it is sometimes hard to explain what it is I do,” she says. “People think I make food styling or decorate cakes. I understand it is hard to imagine when there is no example everybody knows that I can point to. Fortunately today I find more and more people seeing the potential of food and design but it still needs explaining.” It’s what often happens when one forges their own path — and her career trajectory has been an exercise in experimentation. Vogelzang never fails to admit when she’s made a mistake and is always willing to try something new. “At the beginning, I simply didn’t have anything else to do. Nobody wanted to hire me and I just had so much fun working with food that it felt natural to pursue the path. I don’t think it is a particularly clever thing for me to do. I made many mistakes, especially when I had two restaurants in Rotterdam and Amsterdam alongside my design practice. I think I just kept on going because I didn’t have a clear view in front of me. I just went with it organically. Perhaps a more clever person would see all obstacles and move in a different direction but I tend to get enthusiastic and just do stuff. Sometimes it works out.” It certainly seems to.
And with her exhibition at the V&A, she’s excited to bring audiences a more interdisciplinary, holistic look at the future. “When thinking about the future, many people tend to focus on technical development solely. I am fascinated by the link between the technical and cultural part. What kind of scenario’s could you imagine for the future that not involve some sort of technical development?” You’ll have to check out the event to find out.
The “Future Series: Food” discussion will take place on Friday, 18 of May. Tickets are on sale now.