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November 26th, 2003 Elizabeth Dye | Fashion
 

GOING DUTCH

Portland ain't Holland--yet.

     
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Hurry, you only have a few more days to check out the Pacific Northwest College of Art's A Roadshow of Dutch Design.

This collection of more than 250 works of poster art, as well as a few oddities and Web projects, showcases the spirit of what could be considered one of the best things about the '90s: Dutch design.

If you've never given a thought to what that means, here's a lightning-quick abstract to Holland: Dutch
culture is known for a progressive public spirit that dovetails neatly with opinionated individualism. It's a country very hospitable to new ideas. And I'm not just talking marijuana and euthanasia. Year after year, many of the world's boldest fashion designers (Viktor & Rolf), architects (Rem Koolhaas) and print designers are Dutch.

And to hear Ed McDonald tell it, Portland might very well be the new Holland.

To introduce the show, McDonald,
a Dutch historian and graphic guru for a local design firm, The Felt Hat, led a panel discussion at the college titled "From Private Vision to Public Policy."

It was heady stuff. McDonald marched us through a breakneck history of the past 100 years in Dutch design--the post-World War I design movement de Stijl, its intersection with Dada, World War II-era protest design, even some Communist stuff.

To art and design novices, names like Piet Zwart and the Dumbar Group may not peal quite as loudly as, say, Piet Mondrian. But those designers have been as influential in modern graphic design as those famous Dutch painter guys we know from school.

So what the hell does this have to do with Portland?

The thrust of McDonald's talk was that money-minded entrepreneurism and arty progressivism can work in tandem to produce bold public projects. At least in Holland they do.

And Portland, with its "pride of apartness" and its "youthful, creative, attractive" population, is better positioned than any American city to take similarly bold steps. McDonald conjured a Portland where culture and government,
creativity and economy sashay through the city.

Then Mayor Katz approached the podium.

After a rambling aside about her distaste for Portland's "modern" architecture ("ugly, ugly, ugly"), she posed this problem to the crowd in her typical Katz-ian prose.

"How can Portland's civic and
economic institutions better support the creative community?" Katz asked. "How do we make Portland a design city?" In Vera's words: "How do we engage creative people to raise the bar?"

Now, did I mention she gave this declamation while literally surrounded by posters?

The walls of PNCA's were papered with bus-shelter adverts, screen-printed posters for concert series, handbills for experimental plays with eye-catching suggestive imagery.

Quite simply, this is stuff you don't see on the streets of P-town. Vera's ban on posters may have died in committee (or just plain died of embarrassment), but the lingering controversy proves Portland is miles away from Dutch dikes and discos.

What I take from this particular road show is that, over there, designers themselves make the decisions. They don't "give input" from the remote vantage of an advisory panel, or bellyache into the mike at a dreary town hall meeting--they are entrusted outright with the public end product. McDonald mentioned that it wouldn't be unusual for the principal of a Dutch design firm to hand off a high-profile project to a 25-year-old upstart. If we're just as brave and modern over here, let's prove it.

Come on, Vera. Dig deep.

Give one of Portland's thousands of creative outsiders--not those you invited to your Design Festival, not the fat and sassy principals of name-dropper design firms--a park or a public space or (gasp!) a poster campaign. Given that the alternative seems to be blank utility poles or "ugly, ugly, ugly," what's the worst thing that could happen?


A Roadshow of Dutch Design
Pacific Northwest College of Art,
1241 NW Johnson St., 226-4391.
Closes Nov. 29.

Next week's column will be a guide to Portland's most chic holiday bazaars, especially those that feature fashionable handmade goods. If you'd like your event to be included, please write or email me care of WW ASAP. Due to space limitations, we can publish only a selection of bazaars.

 
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