What Designers Can Learn from the Dutch Masters

What Designers Can Learn from the Dutch Masters

A conversation with Paul Bennett about Rijks: Masters of the Golden Age
Paul Bennett
Anna Silverstein
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Paul Bennett has always had an appreciation of the Dutch Masters: “I love the craft of them, actually, the feeling of the pictures.” So, IDEO'S Chief Creative Officer jumped at the chance to contribute to designer Marcel Wanders' latest project, Rijks, Masters of the Golden Age, a lavishly gilded coffee table book that pays homage to the 17th-century masterpieces hanging in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour.

Featuring commentary from leading thinkers in art, philosophy, business, and design, the publication draws out the modern day relevance of the period’s most iconic paintings. Paul's essay reflects on Pieter de Hooch’s work, "A Mother Delousing Her Child’s Hair", also known as “A Mother’s Duty.” I asked him to tell us more about the book, and why it should be on every designer's wish list.

The unique arts edition of Rijks, Masters of the Golden Age, a Marcel Wanders publication.

How did you get involved in the book?

Marcel was an artist-in-residence at our San Francisco office. He’s a world-class designer and we learned a lot from him. Later, his team approached me about this project. They sent me a list of paintings and asked if any of them sparked anything for me. The de Hooch was the first piece I saw and I picked it straight away. At IDEO, we often take shocking or not-beautiful things and make them poetic. So a girl having her head deloused immediately struck me as a great human truth. I love that de Hooch has made it beautiful and celebrated it and used all this classic technique around it.

A Mother Delousing Her Child’s Hair” by Pieter de Hooch.

You say design acts as a witness to our smallest moments of triumph and tragedy. How do we witness increasingly broad challenges, like poverty and citizenship?

Tackling a big problem doesn’t mean you have to look for the big solution. It’s always the tiniest thing that begins the catalytic chain that unlocks things. I firmly believe that looking for the tiniest moment at the center of the human experience is the place to start. So you toggle back and forth and try to look for things that are both human and universal, and personal and individual.

I was in Kansas City the other day talking about the plight of the citizen, and at the same time we were telling very specific stories of people that we knew or had met that day. We were able to talk about citizenship at one scale, and still refer back to individuals. Nobody reacts to a segmentation study or a bar chart or a number, everybody reacts to a story. You have to find the meta in the micro.

Art does this, too. De Hooch does a fantastic job of telling a story in which I can recognize myself. I remember sitting there and the feel of my mother’s hand in my hair. I think design is about asking people to feel it in their own skin, remember their own experience. Good art makes you see yourself in the frame, and that is our work these days, too—to help join together small and big and to help people see themselves inside the big system.

The book features period appropriate hand-calligraphy by Brody Neuenschwander and Massimo Polello.

What was your first impression of the book?

It’s beautiful. I think beauty is very important. Having beautiful things around you makes you feel alive. In the age of digital—which these days has become almost synonymous with disposable—it’s really nice to stop the train for a minute and put something in your hands that has heft, and is an extremely lavish, unapologetically gilded object. To me it’s like holding a piece of jewelry or going to the symphony. The sensorialist in me is awakened by this book and I’m very proud to have been included in it.

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Paul Bennett
Paul Bennett is IDEO’s Co-Chair and Chief Creative Officer. With a 20-plus year career at IDEO, Paul works with clients, partners, and colleagues to bring to market human-centric, commercially successful, and socially significant new businesses, products, services, and experiences.
Anna Silverstein
Marketing Lead
A former actor and improviser, Anna lives for moments of hilarious vulnerability and unexpected candor. She finds these daily as mother to her 2-year-old son.
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