Anna Lina Litz

For the Love of The Object: Design in the Opposition

A/artist roundtable with Marjanne van Helvert

Marjanne van Helvert is a designer, researcher and writer based in Amsterdam. Her focus is on the injustices that permeate the fashion and design world, and the possibilities of creating more just and responsible ways of designing and treating objects. During this roundtable, she introduced us to some of her projects including manifestos, clothing collections, and a lecture-performance of her love letter to the containership Christopher.

What does it mean to practice respect and care for an object, and what would the world look like if we all did it? Can caring for objects in this way be called love? And do people on the autism spectrum relate differently to objects than neurotypical people? 

Dirty Design Manifesto 

The best starting point for understanding Marjanne’s work is her Dirty Design Manifesto, which she wrote as her thesis at the Rietveld Academy in 2013. 

“I looked, and I saw it was clean. I looked again, and I realised it was dirty.“, the manifesto begins. The idea, Marjanne explained to us, was to take a closer look at the dirty realities that are usually covered up by shiny surfaces in the design world. “It’s very metaphorical, but also very activist“, she remarked. “An angry rant at a design world I didn’t want to be a part of.“


Dirty Design Manifesto flyer - Read more about Marjanne van Helvert's Dirty Design Manifesto here.   Marjanne van Helvert

The manifesto uses the metaphors of dirt and cleanliness to lay bare political ideologies at play in our current (design) world, explores their past and proposes a vision for the future. Marjanne also created riso-printed flyers of the six principles of Dirty Design. Principle No.1: Know what you work with. Where do materials come from, how are they made, who made them, and where do they go when you throw them away? 

“When you unbox a new smartphone it feels like it just descended from heaven or from space or something“, Marjanne said. “But of course it actually comes from the Earth, from metals and minerals, and has been touched by many hands before.“

Putting Dirty Design into Practice

“Of course, after writing this manifesto, it was a bit of a problem to then go and design something“, Marjanne pointed out. She set out to design clothes anyway, challenging herself to follow her own guidelines of Dirty Design. 


Piece from 'Fade to Black' collection by Marjanne van Helvert - Marjanne van Helvert

For her graduation project, she collected a lot of textiles, mostly used clothing. “I think that was the start of my hoarder existence“, she  joked. She focused on black pieces, sorted them, took them apart and rearranged them. This project, titled 'Fade to Black', came with riso-printed flyers of the manifesto, which on the other side featured a story set in an apocalyptic future, where people have only just begun to recognise the treasure that is discarded textiles. “I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of mountains of clothes in the Chilean desert“, she explained her inspiration. “It’s really amazing to me that people are still designing new clothes.“


'Fade to Black' flyer - Marjanne van Helvert

“I also wove carpets“, Marjanne told us, “from black cotton pieces like t-shirts and sweaters. I really liked all the shades of black that appeared, brown-ish and grey, green - washed out black is sometimes a reason for people to throw clothing away but I think it’s really beautiful.“ 


'Fade to Black' carpet - Marjanne van Helvert

After her 'Fade to Black' collection, Marjanne continued to work with discarded clothing, an ongoing project resulting in a 'Dirty Clothes' collection. “I made a lot of pants and leggings from tops, and tops from pants - often you can still see the previous garment in the seams of the new piece.“, she explained. 


Pieces from 'Dirty Clothes' collection - Marjanne van Helvert

Marjanne shared that she feels unsure about this work, partly due to the fact that she is opposed to selling the items, instead occasionally giving them away. “Does that make them less valuable?“, director Willem Velthoven asked. “No, I actually think it makes them more valuable.“, Marjanne considered. 

The Value of Materials and Handiwork

She explained why the thought of selling her hand-made clothes and carpets does not sit right with her. Calculating the hours she spent working on them in minimum wage, the carpets turned out to be a thousand euros per piece. 

“That really sucks, because at IKEA you can get the same kind of thing for 15€, and those are also handwoven because you can’t do this kind of stuff with a machine. So I’m really uncomfortable with selling stuff I make. In the end it’s just the handiwork of a rich white person that suddenly makes it expensive compared to when someone in for example India does it.“

“Maybe you should put that on the label“, Willem remarked. “’Carpet made by rich white person“.

The value of materials and handiwork, and how it’s changed over time, is something that Marjanne grapples with in a lot of her work. She showed us a painting from the Dutch Golden Age depicting a  wealthy woman in a black dress with an elaborate white lace collar. “The black dress is supposed to express her Calvinist modesty“, she explained, “But of course it’s actually just to show off how crazy rich they were, because all of this needle and lace stuff takes forever to make.“ The silk and velvet fabrics of the “modest“ black dress were also very precious materials, which used to be recycled endlessly. “You would never let a piece of that fabric go to waste“, Marjanne told us. 


Marjanne van Helvert -

Somewhere in time between the Golden Age and today, this high regard for fabrics and handiwork appears to have gotten lost. Marjanne plays with these themes in her own work, recreating the precious lace collar out of a stack of 500 sheets of white A4 paper for a self-portrait, and later again out of discarded white t-shirts for her 'Fade to Black' collection. 


“Lace collar“ from 'Fade to Black' collection - Marjanne van Helvert

Foundations of Design: The Responsible Object 

Marjanne continued to explore the philosophies that have shaped the design world, and in 2016 published a book called “The Responsible Object: A History of Design Ideology for the Future“. “It’s a traditional design history book with a twist“, she said. “It’s also the kind of book I was looking for as a design student - so I decided to create it.“ The book covers the traditional design history canon, but focuses on the original ideologies and ideas behind their work. “Nowadays we see a lot of design history in light of capitalism, planned obsolescence and so on, but a lot of the influential design movements were originally very idealistic in their views on ecology, social change and other issues.“, Marjanne explained. “I was a bit uncomfortable with this book, too, because I ended up repeating this list of well-known, rich European designers“, she admitted. “But I felt like it had to be done.“ 


'The Responsible Object' - Book by Marjanne van Helvert Marjanne van Helvert

She created a list of chapter topics to include in the book, then invited different authors to write the chapters. I made an effort to look for people who didnt necessarily have the same perspective as myself, she told us. 

The Most Important Thing is to Remain in the Opposition 

The graphic design of “The Responsible Object“ was created by designer Ruben Pater. Interspersed throughout the book are spreads of pages with poster-like quotes by the contributing authors as well al the designers they write about.


Spread from 'The Responsible Object' - Book by Marjanne van Helvert.  Design by Ruben Pater.   Marjanne van Helvert

“These are quite random and contradictory on purpose“, Marjanne pointed out. “I have this one hanging in my studio:“

“The most important thing is to remain in the opposition“, - Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School. 

“This quote feels like my life slogan; I tend to always place myself in the opposition“, Marjanne said. “But why is it the most important thing? It is for me, and for Walter Gropius, apparently, and maybe for artists in general… maybe it’s the idea that in order to create interesting or relevant work, you have to stay near the politically sharper edges of debate.“

“So do you oppose anything you encounter?“, Willem asked, and Marjanne replied that of course there are also many things she actually agrees with. “But my first instinct is always a sceptical hmm…“, she added. “Disagreement is interesting.“

Is choosing the opposition an autistic trait? 

“To me, this is the main autistic trait in the work you presented, this being really annoyed with the easy acceptance of comfortable practices“, Willem pointed out. “That’s something I see quite often with autistic minds, that they don’t allow themselves to go along with the socially accepted, practical and comfortable ways of dealing with the world, but instead insist on seeing the basic truth - just like you were studying fashion and felt the need to express quite strongly that there are real problems which you could not ignore.“ 

Marjanne agreed: “Yes, some people might say sure, but whatever, let’s just go along with it, make some money, make a name for yourself… that’s not an option for me.“ 

Other artists speculated that a sense of moral responsibility or even rigidity might indeed be characteristic for people on the autism spectrum. “Isn’t that a common thing for autistic people, to perceive injustices very strongly?“, someone asked. It could have to do with not being able to tune out injustice, as well as a need for precision and inability to generalise. “I don’t know if everyone on the spectrum is super idealistic or activist“, Marjanne said, “although that would be nice, actually.“

Could it have to do with empathy, too? “There are many different theories about empathy on the spectrum“, Marjanne said, “it’s a controversial and complicated topic - one of the theories is also that autistic people feel too much empathy, which is why they need to build up some walls.“ 

In the end, we agreed that no one position - being conformist or positioning yourself in the opposition, saying the honest thing or the socially acceptable thing - could ever really be classified as a either a neurotypical or neurodivergent trait. “There might be tendencies“, artist Jenny Konard summarised, “but all 'symptoms' on the spectrum are tendencies and we shouldn’t generalise.“ 

Material Rights for Materials Left

From her own practice of Dirty Design as well as her immersion into the philosophies of design, the theme of material rights naturally emerged in Marjanne’s work. In 2018, the art centre Stroom in Den Haag organised a manifestation called “De dingen“ - the things - inspired by Bruno Latour’s concept of the Parliament of Things, a hypothetical institution representing the rights of inanimate objects. For this purpose, Marjanne, together with a former student of hers, Pauline Gustoni,  created a “Library for Material Rights“, an interactive installation of books and objects inviting visitors to browse around and explore their human relationship with objects. 


Installation “Library for Material Rights“ - Marjanne van Helvert

Building on this work, Marjanne wrote another manifesto, which she titled “Material Rights for Materials Left“. 

“I like writing manifestos because it’s a form that allows you to be really dogmatic, to really think through the question What if we did everything this way?“, Marjanne said. In this manifesto, she explores what it would mean to treat objects in truly responsible ways. It starts with the designer: designing something new means that you are responsible for this new object for the rest of its life. You might want to think about only putting a new object in the world if you can make sure that it will be well cared for. Would that mean that we could never throw anything away anymore? Would we all become hoarders? 

Marjanne also gave a lecture-performance of the text at Stroom. “For me, this was kind of a funny text that I wrote“, she told us, “but I read it in a very serious way, and was asked a lot of serious questions at the end. That was really great, I really enjoyed doing that!“ She decided to create more lecture-performances, one of which we were lucky enough to hear live during this roundtable. 


Lecture-performance of “Material Rights for Materials Left“ -

A Love Letter to Christopher 

A few years ago, Marjanne spent two weeks travelling around the Baltic Sea on the container vessel Christopher. On this journey into a completely different universe of sea and ships, ports and containers, she imagined what it would feel like to fall in love - not with a person, but with the ship itself. A couple of months later, she composed a love letter to Christopher, which she read to us as part of her presentation. 

“Dear Christopher,

it’s been two months since we travelled together. I’m thinking about you a lot. Everything reminds me of you…“

The piece is an empathic reflection on the differences between container vessel Christopher and his human passenger Marjanne: one belongs to the sea, the other to the land. How does Christopher experience navigating the seas, being so expansively large and heavy? But the letter also explores what connects them, as both of them (like all of us) are trapped in the larger-than-life system of global markets and trade. The letter ends with a vision for a shared future: What if Marjanne could steal Christopher like a pirate and turn him into an ark, a floating garden where they could live together until the end of their lives - one becoming humus for the garden, the other rusting and sinking and slowly disintegrating.


Lecture performance of 'A Love Letter to Christopher' -

More reflections on Christopher 

“It’s interesting that you end there“, Willem remarked. “The human trying to turn the ship into soil - into land - as her ultimate declaration of love.“ - “Well, it’s a combination of our worlds“, Marjanne replied.

Willem also pointed out the contrast between Marjanne’s earlier and ongoing work, which is very critical of overproduction and consumption in the design and fashion world, to her falling in love with a containership whose primary purpose it is to move (excess) products around.

“That’s part of the reason why I wanted to go on that journey“, Marjanne explained. She described the giant port of Hamburg, which is largely automated with cranes and robot cars. “It’s a world we never usually get to see and it’s crazy. Imagining all the stuff inside all of those containers - it’s humbling.“

“What I want is for designers and consumers, which is all of us, to realize there is a dirty side to the clean perfection we seem to be trying to reach for, and that there is both horror and unexpected beauty there.“ - from Dirty Design Manifesto 

“Did that drive you into the opposition even more, seeing these things up close?“, artist Arjan van Amsterdam inquired. It did reinforce her convictions in sustainable design, Marjanne reflected, but  being confronted face to face with the sheer scale of the global trade system also takes away a sense of personal responsibility. It can make you feel hopeless, she admitted - but you can also choose to see the beauty in it, which is exactly what she did in imagining her relationship with Christopher. 


Marjanne and Christopher - Marjanne van Helvert and her Containership love Christopher. Read more about her recounting of this unattainable kinship with an entity sailing the Baltic sea in the context of objectophilia on our A/artist round table event page and in her article . Ruben Pater


“I want to show you something“, Marjanne added, and together we “stalked“ Christopher on a website called, which lets you look up the positions of containerships all around the world. “Look, this is Christopher. But he has been renamed!“ 

As it turned out, the ship is now called Judith. “But I mean, I’m fine with that.“, Marjanne said. “I’m okay with whoever Christopher is.“

Objectophilia - What Does it Mean to Love a Thing? 

“Did you intend to build a relationship like this with Christopher when you started out on your trip?“, Jenny asked, and Marjanne replied that this was not her original intention. She added that the love letter is more of an exercise in relating differently to an object and somewhat performative in nature - she didn’t really have romantic feelings for Christopher. However, she added that she has researched objectophilia - the romantic and sexual attraction to objects - and feels a certain kinship with the people who identify as such. A flakturm in Vienna was her first object “love interest“, she added.

“What I find fascinating is that these people only fall in love with human-made objects, bridges, fences…“, Marjanne said. “There are some famous examples, a woman who married the Berlin wall, another one who fell in love with the Eiffel tower… but it never seems to happen with things in nature, like rivers or trees.“

We speculated that this might have to do with human-made objects usually being designed deliberately to look attractive to humans, and to complement human bodies. They are also discrete, separate entities, while rivers and trees are always part of a continuous landscape or ecosystem. 

Advertising further plays into this idea. “Think of car commercials“, another artist pointed out. “It’s always just you, the car, and the road. A monogamous relationship.“ 

“I know a photographer who made a series of photos of the same tree for years.“, photographer Marna Slappendel said. “Isn’t that like being in love as well?“

It might come down to the intention, we agreed - is it to create art, or is it out of an appreciation for the thing itself? Another aspect is reciprocity. In a romantic relationship, there is always the hope for the feelings to be mutual. “Do you feel me?“, Marjanne writes to Christopher. Maybe the difference is there, in hoping for the thing to love you back. 

Do you think objects have a soul?, someone else wondered. “I can imagine that for trees, but for human-made objects, I don’t know…“ 

Marjanne replied that rather than looking for a yes or no answer to this question, she likes to go with a speculative “what if“. “I think this kind of animism would be an interesting option for a different way of relating to the stuff around us. I’d propose it as a new religion or system of thinking and acting: Everything has a soul, also this thing - then what?“ 

Autism and objectophilia

Inspired by Marjanne’s story, other guests also started sharing stories of feeling strong connections to certain inanimate objects. A pair of headphones at Mediamarkt, an old bike… “I think sometimes objects are lonely, or abused.“, one of the artists said.  

Could objectophilia, or a least forming special relationships with objects, be an autistic trait? 

“There are some ideas about special interests as the equivalent to building love towards someone or something“, Jenny told us. “Or maybe it’s like having a crush on someone - hyper fixation would be more like a crush. For me, it never made sense how other people could not have these strong feelings for things when I did“, they continued: “I also wonder how much it has to do with sensory sensitivity and attention for details - to have a favourite fork, for example, because it has the exact proportions that feel good.“

A/Artist intern Lynn told us that there is research proving that autistic people become very attached to objects that they are familiar with because of an oversensitivity in their amygdala which is responsible for fear response. “Collecting things gives comfort, and then when you have to get rid of them you don’t want to, you feel empathy for the things - so it’s a cognitive thing“, she explained. 

“Do you think that this makes autistic people better caretakers for objects?“, another artist asked, and Willem elaborated on the question: “Is being a curator an autistic profession?“

We didn’t come to any conclusions about these questions, but ended the evening with new perspectives on relating to the objects that surround us.