A short history of (Philips) Design, from a female perspective.
“And in the end // the love you take // is equal to the love // you make” (Lennon, McCartney, 1969). And in the end, I delivered my keynote to close the Philips Design Alumni Global event, second leg in US-friendly time zone, organized by Jeroen Frumau, MBA, for the benefit of his good cause and great initiative, 4better2morrow supporting youth and young talent worldwide to inspire a better future (please donate: see above bitly URL). Jeroen had been calling out to all former talents of the creative industry powerhouse of the Dutch technological manufacturer, and yesterday they responded and gathered they did. Of course, I deviated from the announced script as presented on Medium two weeks ago, because (as each stage performer, even in his coda, however virtual the stage) knows that the element of surprise is key to reach deeper to the heart of the audience. After my colourful set with inspiring photography, I joined the closing panel, where former leaders of Philips Design to share views about better futures. The panel triggered indeed some very valid points, however the composition of the panel reflected the reality of yesterday’s design leadership, as it was representing only my gender. Retrospectively, this comes as no surprise, as Philips Design, however being relatively highly inclusive in terms of generational and gender representation in its staff base, is an organisation that in in its nearly one 100 years of existence, always had men at its helm. Great men with grand visions and unparalleled managerial courage, like my 1990’s personal hero, Stefano Marzano. However, at its very top, mostly “men without women”, as Ernest Hemingway titled one of his best collections of short stories. This is not meant to be a political or ideological contribution, as that would expose me to possible accusations of “mansplaining”, or worse. The issue of gender equality, like all issues of Diversity and Inclusion, is a major one also in the design and creative industries, as proven by what I consider scandals like the 2013 petition to extend the 1991 Priztker Prize from Robert Venturi to also include his wife, Denise Scott Brown. I will make my best efforts to intellectually produce reflections in scholarly writing, for the Journal of Tourism Futures, where I will soon review literature about feminism in my areas of scientific research. Instead, with this personal, somehow intimate, article, I am attempting at offering a modest yet heartfelt contribution to acknowledge and to pay my tribute to some of the great female talents I had the privilege to meet at Philips Design, to their history or legacy or to just one anedoct that might shed a different vibe on this organization. To quote Elton John:
Firstly, my roaring decade at Philips Design started because of a little miracle of female intuition, in a Milanese restaurant. In 1998, I was 31, with ten years of odd jobs and relatively junior positions in the Italian creative industry, a family business with a strong tradition of Small Medium Enterprise. As a result, entering my 30’s, I had a professional portfolio that was a multidisciplinary patchwork, worthless to any corporate recruiter without a leap of faith and a superior ability to connect the dots. I applied to a generic vacancy for a “Trend Research Consultant” at Philips Design because a) my Italian employer, Euro RSGC Milano, just installed this new digital miracle called “the internet” in the studio; b) although futures research was not a discipline yet, back then I already had a keen interest in foresight and trends, in which I designed and delivered a course at IED Milan; and 3) I generically wanted to “change the world”, and writing Italian commercials for diapers and tuna fish brands did not feel like the best place to be to achieve such purpose. To my surprise, Philips Design replied to my unlikely application, where I only scored a 50% match with the job requirements. A meeting was planned, in the aftermentioned Milanese restaurant, with the leader of the new “Trends & Strategy” team that Stefano Marzano, then Managing Director, was initiating in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. Josephine Green was in her 40’s then, with an impeccable British accent and an exotic Italian musicality in her voice, given her roots in Naples from her mother’s side. Having been the linking pin between Francesco Morace’s FutureConceptLab and Philips design teams in the legendary Vision of the Future program, Josephine had recently decided to move from“the Lioness”, Brescia to the “Heart of Brabant”, Eindhoven, to set a whole new future practice of Social Science and Humanities, within a rapidly transforming High Tech universe. After the inevitable Italian introductory “chit chat”, her severe English review of my peculiar portfolio of mixed commercial work and fine arts articles followed. As expressive as she was in Italian, Josephine held her cards in English, and at the end of the meeting, while calling from a public phone booth (Note for Millennial readers: back then, mobile phones were not everywhere and had very tiny plastic keyboards), I remember calling my soon-to-be bride: “The interview went fine. The job will never be mine”. However, I was wrong. I have never asked Josephine what made her decide to let me pass her first filter but she might have seen in me potentialities I was not able to express, or even she might have connected the dots within my schizophrenic portfolio, from Miuccia Prada to Baby Pamper’s, with her unique intuition.
Josephine Green led “Trends & Strategy” in the formative years of the practice. She contributed in hiring an exceptional team rich of talents from all over the world, hence multicultural, multilingual, and multidisciplinary. She put on the corporate agenda themes like equality, female values, and her leading single, “the pancake society”, as a metaphor for a future world where societal hierarchies of patriarchy and authority would be collapse, thanks to digital technologies. She pursued her political vision with drive and passion, in spite of a highly positivist and engineering-driven context. Josephine was not the only Senior Director I met in my first years at Philips Design. As much as Josephine was a humanist at heart, Irene McAra McWilliam engaged in Design Research and digital design as a tech-savvy visionaire. Strong of her Scottish accent and event stronger of her ideas and taste, Irene led early Ambient Experience projects that changed the way we look at technology. As anecdotal level, in 1999, Irene vigorously introduced “The Experience Economy” by Pine & Gilmore to Philips Design by purchasing a box of 25 copies and distribute them among teams. I did not understand, receiving the book, how groundbreaking this marketing paradigm would be for the future, to the point that it is still referenced and imitated now, nearly 25 years after its printing, in academies and creative agencies worldwide. Irene went on to rightly become a successfull professor in Glasgow, where she inspired and promoted generations of young design talent. In 2016, she has been appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) “for services to art and design”.
So, there I was, at the age of 32, freshly married and recently hired in the best design team in the world as a “trend research consultant”, a fancy title for a job which description we were collectively writing ourselves, with our daily practice, inspired by exceptional senior leaders like Josephine or Irene. What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything. In a perfect twist of fate, or rather a perfect empirical demonstration of the universal validity of Murphy’s Law (at least for what pertains to my own life), the mighty heir to the Philips throne, the next President and CEO, left. He was “the guy” who promised financial support for the ambitions connected to the trend research program I was hired to be part of, and therefore this translated in all related budgets being put on ice. Or at least, this is how I remember it. In any case, beyond historical accuracy, fact was that I was sitting in the studio without a cent to even buy a bus ticket on a project budget, and without any way back to Milan or exit strategy to anywhere else. After parading all about town to celebrate my migration to the promise land of treds, how could I return to Milan after three months, empty-handed? Not the kind of glamorous future I anticipated as a “trend research consultant”. My self confidence as a “whatever-I-dreamt-I-would be” was greatly challenged. I needed serious help. My direct manager, though, saw a spark in me as the potential manager of a small but very vital team. The “Visual Trend Analysis”, or VTA, practice within Philips Design has established a few years before by Marion Verbucken, a sharply ironic, deadly witty, extremely talented creative mind with a taste for strategic mapping. The team was looking for a manager, although it was apparently self running. I was looking for an internal job to justify my own existence in the company, and my leaders, at that particular period in time, did not want to let go of me. So, in a typical Dutch democratic managerial ritual, the team was proposed to try me out as their long vacant manager. Thank God, they accepted. And that is how I met Claudia and Brechje.
At that time, VTA required the endless browsing of fashion and design magazines, like The Face, or ID, or Dutch, and the cutting and glueing of visuals on moodboards that would then used to map trends, to facilitate design strategy sessions, and to inspire business leaders to choose the best combinations of colours, materials, and finishing, for a future-proof aesthetic factors. I had actually spoken on the phone with Claudia Lieshout, from Milan, before moving to The Netherlands and back then, I inquisitively asked her: “So, your job is basically to read fashion magazines all day?” Well, Claudia and her main partner-in-crime, Brechje Vissers, then Innovation Director at SigmaKalon and now accomplished entrepreneur with her own consulting firm, could take my dark humour, cynical jokes, and intellectualised wit at face value, namely as a manifestation of deeper care that most might not (want to) see. Just like the rest of this small team, they were alumni of the prestigious Design Academy Eindhoven, our neighbour on the 3rd floor in the historical “White Lady” industrial heritage building in Eindhoven, where Lidewij Edelkoort moulded trends into design, and the other way around. Claudia and Brechje, however, were not be moulded, but inspired. We designed, we ran, and we promoted a trend research program, under the name of CultureScan, a name that was conceived by Josephine Green before hiring me, with the task to develop it. We worked together bottom up, earning small budget after small budget, earning credibility with projects and with conferences and publications, raising the profile of the VTA practice into a cultural trend analysis and into brand design. With their natural talent for networking, Claudia and Brechje were instrumental in growing our small team by internal connections with their peers in Paris, Hong Kong, Singapore, Atlanta, and with our progressive “sister studios” in Milan, London, California, India, and then with designers, students, and what have you in the magic worlds of architecture, advertising, fine arts, all-things design. Having graduated in Modern Literature and being a former copywriter and editor, I was not trained as a manager. I was very unlikely, insecure, and ultimately fragile as a leader. As a relative junior professionals, Claudia and Brechje and the rest of the team granted me their trust and that made me what I became, or at least for the best part of what I have become. Ultimately, the team was mostly self running and when Ieft, Claudia naturally inherited my former role, by then grown into a global responsibility. Just like the finest Swiss watches, the job had always been hers and it still is. I merely treasured it for a few years and passed it on to its owner.
For a few years, the entire Strategic Design practice was “the” platform that aggregated talent and inspired dialogs across aesthetics, cultural analysis, social sciences, and all things multidisciplinary and multicultural. Its extended team was strong of variably 35 to 50 globaltalents, where I like to recall the ones, who -just like Claudia- went on with excellent corporate or company careers: Kitty Suidman, Director CMF at Sonos; Annemartine van Kesteren, now Curator at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam; Stefanie Un, now Global Consumer Planning at PepsiCo; Lorna Goulden, a charismatic thought leader who enjoyed top design positions at the likes of Cognizant; and Pernilla Johannson, who after 25 years abroad became Swedish again to lead the Electrolux global design team as their CDO; and the others, who -just like Brechje- went on with successful entrepreneurial enterprise: Lisa Yong, Founder of Y Studios in San Francisco; Patta Arkaresvimun, Founder at BiteUnite, in Hong Kong / San Francisco; Zuzanna Skalska, who divided her charisma between Poland and The Netherlands, building a continental reputation and profiling in media and in the industry; Laura Traldi, who developed from Public Relations Officer into one of the most influential design journalists in Italy and beyond; and Lucy McRae, based in Australia, whose world class visionary work as “Sci Fi Artist and Body Architect” is simply immense.
The above list might read a bit dry, as the economy of this article requires synthesis, it is however purely a reference to stand for the greatness of the sheer talent that these design professionals, entrepreneurs, and leaders expressed through the years, year after year, in business or in education or wherever they operated. Most of all, the above list is just a reflex of genuine admiration and gratitude for having crossed path with so many gifted individuals. There is, however, a special one who I want to especially remember, Lucile Rameckers. She worked closely with Stefanie on people’s behavior and they wrote together groundbreaking work on persona’s and the fuzzy front of innovation. I remember Lucile’s sharp critical insights and great intellectual resilience. I remember how she came back to work, still in her 30s, after her first, long hospitalisation, with her condition changing her appearance and her diet but not her smile and her wit. I remember the sobriety of her 2009 funerary service, with red balloons released in the clear Spring sky, for the two little chidren she left behind to watch with their father pointing at them and explaining that their mother was now above, in the clouds. I sometimes think of those toddlers, now young adults, and I remember the Summer workshops or the sometimes sarcastic, however goodhearted, exchanges with their mother. And I think of the legacy we all leave behind, being Lucile’s intellectual legacy in our small personal history in this Strategic Design team, always alive to me.
If the above is the history of some who left, there is also a small history waiting to be written about the ones who were left behind or -in this case- the ones who kept their jobs at Philips. Besides Claudia Lieshout, who runs nowadays trends lab, to Dr. Mili Docampo Rama, whose resilience in earning her Ph.D. in the early 2000s at the Technical University Eindhoven was rewarded with a leadership position overseeing People Research with a senior portfolio of managerial and scientific tasks, to Dr. Simona Rocchi, who built a prestigious academic record in Lund and Rotterdam, with Professor Ezio Manzini among her promotion committee, and has established and led efforts towards sustainable design and sustainability at large within Philips and beyond, for the last 20+ years. Both Mili and Simona earned their doctoral promotion while working on tight deadlines, tighter budgets, and all sorts of “missions impossible” within tour Strategic Design team and this is should be a perfect testimony of all the good reasons why their growth should not stop where it is now. After all, the current CEO of Philips Experience Design has been there for a decade already and perhaps it will be the turn of a female card for the next leader of this world class creative force? Why not? I personally think that today is about time. I personally think that tomorrow is already one day too late, for change to come.
If I have to think about the future and about tomorrow’s talent that will make a better future, I think about two young but already accomplished designers who are somehow related to Philips Design although they never worked there a single day. Lizzy Stuyfzand, CMF and Stretagic Designer based in Switzerland, and Lucy Stuyfzand, Service Designer, based in Copenhagen. These two Dutch sisters are the offspring of Jos Stuyfzand, Senior Director Ambient Experience Design at Philips, formerly Design Director for Philips Lighting, and possibly one of the best talents I ever met. I guess neither Lucy not Lizzy would recognize me in the street if they saw me (neither would I) or even know exactly who that slightly overweight, quite overdressed, somehow funny Italian guy might be but I am always delighted when I remember Lucy and Lizzy as (screaming) children in back of Jos’ Volvo Station Wagon, shouting loud: “Museums are boring!”. I guess in time, they might have changed their mind and perhaps one day soon their work will be featured in design museum. I find it inspiring to think that both of them chose to follow the steps of their gifted father, a designer of unique perseverance, although sometimes with a surprisingly short temper beyond any diplomacy, whose best contribution to design might still be yet to come. Carmelo Bene, the Italian actor, used to say: “No one is father to no one” but I retrospectively disagree with him. Collectively, generationally, and in view of our civic responsibilities, we are all mothers and fathers of the next generations, in which the children of today will bring their dreams forward and perhaps sometimes a fragment of our own dreams, if we will inspire them, even further than we managed to do in our time on the planet. Talents like Lucy and Lizzy will shape their world of the future as we tried to shape ours, hopefully even better. Or better said:
The future is female. That’s why the future is better.
(Editorial Disclaimer: All the mentioned talented individuals are linked to bios or online referencing at least once, from Josephine to Lucy and Lizzy. In spite of his best efforts to identify and refer to qualified sources, the author is available to any of the directly or indirectly represented individuals who to report or request any correction or change to any representation that might prove incorrect)