Food for thought should be fun – Interview eating designer Marije Vogelzang

Extending the Human Nature theme we assigned to TEDxAmsterdam 2012, the Human Nature Forecast Series seeks to explore what great minds think about what humanity really means. How does it reflect our moral choices, the way we interact with other people and go about our daily lives? Sanne interviewed Marije Vogelzang.

Food for thought should be fun

An eating designer, that´s what she calls herself. Educated as a product designer and a graduate of the well known Design Academy Eindhoven, Marije Vogelzang decided to go in a different direction: “I’m not interested in just designing food. I think food is already very much designed. I’m much more interested in getting inspired by the verb eating, which means harvesting food, collecting food, sharing food at the table, the psychological, social and cultural aspects of food and looking what happens in your body, what happens in your brain and what happens when you take it to the toilet again”. “So, if you think about it,” says Vogelzang with a big smile, “I am actually a shit designer.”

Honey And Bunny

For her, the connection between food and human nature is very obvious and simple: food means life. That is why she always wondered why it has played such a small role in design, which makes products to answer human needs. Vogelzang states: “Designers always make things for humans, everything is focused on the human being. But the very thing that humans need to live, food, they seem to forget about. If you start to work with food, you start to notice it’s connected to everything. It’s the glue between people, it’s how we interact with each other. The first thing mothers give to their children is food.”

Ignorant food consumption

Vogelzang admits she has a very positive, maybe even utopian vision on food which unfortunately differs a lot from how people interact with food in daily life, since a lot of people “just don’t think about the way they eat, or where it comes from.” Vogelzang sees an explanation for this sad reality in the fact that there’s a food abundance: “There’s no crisis. We can eat like kings and queens everyday. Food is inexpensive and it’s easily accessible. You don’t have to catch the fish yourself or get stains on your hands while cleaning your veggies. People don’t appreciate food anymore, they take it for granted.”
Although she sees positive signals and groups that do care in society – the Slow Food Movement, for example – she points out these movements are relatively small compared to a couple of generations ago: “If you compare these groups to the amount of knowledge people had two decades ago, it’s such a small group. The knowledge that once was common knowledge because it was part of our culture now only belongs to an elite group.”

Eating with your subconscious

Much of her work is thus about raising awareness and creating knowledge about food. Her approach to this is far removed from traditional campaigns about food: “All the campaigns about food are very boring. The choices you make about food are made by your subconscious, which is connected to the emotions you feel when you eat something. So you have to make sure something is pleasurable and fun. Enjoyment is something that got lost in our food consumption. People feel guilty all the time if they eat something.” But, as Vogelzang points out, if you appreciate food, you can more easily make good choices about healthy food. Vogelzang thus thinks, “We need creativity to work on food issues. So in my work, I try to make people enjoy food again.”

From rationality and the warning finger to an approach that is based on designing positive emotions and stories around food, Vogelzang sees creating this new mindset as an important task for designers: “We need people who can make this stuff fun for us again,” she says. Vogelzang points out that it’s not only about changing the mindset about food but also creating new eating rituals: “Family means a different thing than the family of 40 years ago. Nowadays, we don’t eat together as much as we used to. In a new society, we need new rituals and eating designers can help us with that.” To help people realize the broad scope of eating design, Vogelzang created a food philosophy of seven points, which, for example, include science, the senses, technique and psychology. “I want people to see the potential of this field of design,” she says. “In the past 5 years, food has become a serious subject for designers and I’m very happy with that.”

Frankensteinmeat and straight bananas

New technologies, such as the possibility to grow in vitro meat, also create a new awareness about food. Vogelzang explains: “There are so many positive parts about it, no more diseases, no more animals will have to be killed, a cleaner environment. Lots of rational arguments, but still the feeling is ‘I don’t want to eat this Frankensteinmeat.’ Of course, two generations further down the road and it will not be an issue anymore.” What really interests Vogelzang is why we have such a resistance against this techno-food, considering technology is already a big part of our food consumption in daily life. She asks, “You didn’t really think that the banana as you know it is its natural shape? The original banana isn’t that bright yellow, has many seeds in it and yes, it isn’t even curvy. Everything we eat is designed, even the animals that we eat are specially bred.”

MutatoosFor Vogelzang the most important thing that people need to do is to open their eyes and start asking questions about food. She reminisces about the rooster that lived in her backyard: “A while ago I had this rooster. It harassed my daughter, and neighbors started to complain, so I needed to do something about it. So I decided to kill it and eat it. When I put that on Facebook, I got a lot of strongly negative reactions. I thought that was very strange, because for me it was stranger to take it back to the farmer and the next day get a chicken to cook from the same farmer. Why do people get offensive about a rooster that had a very happy life that gets killed, and not if I just put pictures of nicely cooked chicken on Facebook? I think it’s very interesting how people are disconnected from food.”

That’s why Vogelzang urges people to start thinking about food but without judging it: “Just ask questions. One of the best questions in my opinion is ‘why?’ Why is it that all the vegetarian alternatives look like meat? Why do I eat alone? Why do I eat when I’m not hungry? Start wondering about your food. Having too much of an opinion on things kills creativity.”

Further Reading:

– Marije Vogelzang curated the Premsela exhibition ‘De Etende Mens’ where she brought the most famous and innovative fooddesign together. This exhibition is open till the 6th of January in the Designhuis, Eindhoven.

– See this very interesting episode from the Dutch program Tegenlicht about the future of our food.

Photocredits: Honey&Bunny. This interview has already been published on TEDxAmsterdam


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