Interview Madeleine van Lennep

For the past ten years, BNO director Madeleine has devoted herself with love and energy to our profession. Gert Staal interviewed her for the Dd Yearbook.

Interview conducted by Gert Staal | Photography: Valentina Vos

Click here to read this interview in Dutch.

An interview with Madeleine van Lennep, Director of the Association of Dutch Designers (Beroepsorganisatie Nederlandse Ontwerpers, BNO) since 2013, demands the necessary preparation. This applies to the interviewer, who received a hefty reading package a few weeks previous. And also to the interviewee. When we meet at the BNO offices, some notes lie next to her tumbler. Certain passages have been highlighted in colour. Doing your homework is half the battle, she would later emphasise. “It’s simply a matter of professionalism. And it means you stay in control.”


In the hours that follow, the evidence is presented convincingly. The interview largely follows Van Lennep’s chosen course. Her approaching departure from the professional association – she’ll turn 67 next year and thinks that will be a ‘fitting moment’ – is absolutely no reason to start slackening the reins. Amiably yet decisively, she forges her own farewell interview. In the same fashion as she has become accustomed to working after decades in various positions in the world of culture, policy and heritage, from the Council for Culture to the Mondriaan Fund.

Knowing in advance what results you want to – and can – achieve. How to nourish a growing network, and to activate it at the right times with the right argumentation. During the decade with Van Lennep at the helm, the BNO has made strategic advancements and become more visible and effective. Or, in her own words: “I’ll soon leave the BNO behind in good shape: robust, dynamic and alert.”

How would you describe where the professional association is currently at?

“We have our goals: the BNO stands for the interests of the professional group. We support our members  with information, inspiration and expert advice, we connect them with each other, and with other professionals. And we represent the profession in the outside world. How we do that depends on the situation and juncture. And on the target group and ambition. I’m proud to be able to say that we never do things just because that’s how it’s always been. If something doesn’t work, we abandon it and something new takes its place.

You could say there are two speeds. On the one hand, we’re always exploring the interests of the professional community. That has priority and is an ongoing process. In addition, we have to develop a programme that responds to what is currently happening around us and what we think of that as an organisation. What does the collective need, and how do we support the current wishes of individual agencies and designers? That’s what the organisation itself does.

But my mind also turns to our extensive educational offering and the mentor network, which allows members to exchange ideas with other member designers. This allows us to use the association’s human capital informally and in a way that is highly valuable to all involved. The BNO unites many practices, generations, specialisms and levels of involvement. In order to effectively serve such a diverse group, our means are geared towards the requirements or questions of specific subgroups, and always using the principle: differentiate!

Let’s take a step back. After leaving the Mondriaan Fund, this position came up. What did you like about the BNO?

“First and foremost, I was drawn to the possibility of making a switch from the world of art to that of design. A professional field that is ubiquitous in the world, and is highly relevant for how our society functions. That makes the world of design an exciting place to work. I also liked the club character at the BNO, it’s a place that focuses on people and the principle of “stronger together”.

My third consideration was linked to the size of the organisation: large enough to be significant, but with some 12 colleagues, still very manageable. Everyone has their own sphere of activity and I certainly do not need to constantly check exactly how my colleagues do their jobs. How our legal team offers counsel is up to them. For me, what matters is that those seeking advice are happy with the support they have received. That is what you push for in my role.

At the BNO, I was lucky that my predecessor Rob Huisman had the foresight to successfully unite all design disciplines. He also paved the way for the top sector and the foundation of the Federatie Creatieve Industrie. It’s partly because of this that I knew immediately after joining the association that the years ahead weren’t about a revolution, but rather continued evolution.

“I knew immediately after joining the association that the years ahead weren’t about a revolution, but rather continued evolution.”

You mention performing a ‘role’. Does this describe your understanding of your duties in leading and representing the BNO?

“I already mentioned three considerations that attracted me to this job: the undeniable social importance of the field, the association itself and the size of the organisation. I realised the fourth aspect along the way: I was given this position because  it was a good match.

In all of my positions, I have managed to combine a sense of responsibility – performing your role to the best of your ability – with fun: work hard, play hard. I have been fortunate. And what I have increasingly seen is that you can assume not a single role, but numerous roles. It is also a game, and the fun has meant that I have been able to work terribly hard without ever becoming a workaholic.

And what does that entail in the BNO practice?

“Within the organisation, I help people to set priorities. My colleagues in communications, for example, who regularly have to deal with a deluge of questions from outside the organisation. Keep check on the bigger picture, give them confidence, reassure them. So that they can forge ahead. That is rewarding and necessary work, but it demands a certain mindset.

When I first started here, colleagues were sometimes shocked by how exacting I was and by how I was always going on about precision and nuance. I used to describe myself as being more task-focused than people-focused. During my time here, I have gradually adjusted that image of myself. I recall what Rita van Hattum – Assistant Director, and a hugely valuable asset, partly because she has been at the BNO for so long – said after reviewing an email for me. Rita’s response was: “The email is perfect, Madeleine, but you need to include a bouquet.” I learnt an awful lot from moments like that.

And what about with people within the association? I am trying to imagine how, on an overcast Wednesday evening, you set off for yet another meeting that has been organised by the members of a local or regional branch…

“You appear to find it hard to believe me, but I enjoy meetings like that. After an evening at a regional platform, with presentations by designers – whether members or not – I am absolutely buzzing. You're constantly surprised.’ In fact, that’s what our organisation is always doing: listening to what’s on our members’ minds, recognising issues. But also scanning the outside world for opportunities and threats relevant to the profession.

Asking questions and being confronted with questions is very important for how the BNO operates. In the pre-digital era, members often turned to the BNO for all sorts of practical concerns that they now think they can easily find out for themselves by looking online. The organisation itself  and what we do has therefore changed considerably. And we have adopted a much stronger multidisciplinary approach, in the knowledge that colleagues can draw on their diverse backgrounds to inform, inspire and advise each other.

You listen to the members, analyse the environment in which they are active, perhaps recognise the problems. And then?

“It is illuminating to return to the places where designers are at work, to see what they are doing and listen to them. To explore with them whether what they are currently doing is what they want to keep on doing. For the BNO, it’s important to find ‘hooks’ during meetings like this, so that one agency’s experiences can help others. That’s part of the feedback that follows our working visits: we see our members, and our members see us.

Consider the coronavirus pandemic. That naturally also left its mark on the design sector. We got in touch with our members at a very early stage, simply by calling them. What are the consequences for you, the prospects? 

We repeated the process later on, with questionnaires. In collaboration with MKB-Nederland, Kunsten ’92 and the Cultural and Creative Sector Taskforce, we raised the issues – with appropriate urgency – with the government. We asked for more specific policies for the sector.


Our timely response meant that we had things covered, and the designers acknowledged this. The pandemic also brought a different perspective. Whether they liked it or not, the crisis gave many designers the opportunity to reflect on their working practice. Should I continue doing this? Some embraced the ‘luxury’ of research or experimentation. Or they started making independent work, and were surprised with how utterly successful that was, which gave their practice a different vibe. I see it as our job to also register and share changes like this. Gather, aggregate and address; that is what we are always doing!”

Such an example illustrates the diversity of the BNO community. It can’t be easy to effectively represent such a diverse group?

“A little voice inside my head sometimes asks: Are we really a community? Or sooner a community of communities? You have members with a tremendous drive to get the most out of everything and to learn as much as possible. And others who  are members as a matter of principle. The phase of a career can play a role, or the wide range of preparatory training courses that nowadays grant membership. While there are unfortunately still those with the ancient preconception that designers lose their autonomy when they join a professional organisation.”

So it’s down to you to keep everyone on board?

“No, absolutely not. On the contrary: this diversity is exactly what’s needed right now! It’s for good reason that we chose a highly diverse range of role models for our magazine ‘Dude’, a balanced selection of disciplines and practices. And in the reimagined ‘Dd Magazine’ and ‘Dd Yearbook’, we try to link every aspect of the profession – from systems thinker to craftsperson – to the issues of our times.

We need their individual stories to enrich the collective story, in order to make the pursuance of the profession more comprehensible. I venture to claim that we, certainly compared to the subsidised cultural infrastructure, have truly become a robust Dutch knowledge institute.

“Certainly compared to the subsidised cultural infrastructure, we have truly become a robust Dutch knowledge institute.”

How is that evident?

“In the past decade, we have become more visible and more modern, partly thanks to our communications policy. People are once again keen to join us. We hold greater sway in the design landscape. We are an integral link in creative industry policy. That is reflected in the collaboration with the Platform ACCT, an initiative of the entire professional field to improve the labour market in the cultural and creative sector.

In the discussion of  another subject, one that is close to my heart – the preservation of design archives – I see that what we have to say is respected. It appears that, after a good deal of pressure, the journey that started with Het Nieuwe Instituut in 2019 is finally bearing fruit. And we are presenting the next edition of our “Dd Yearbook” at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, another relationship that we have consciously worked on in recent years.

The phenomenon of the ‘creative industry’, with which the BNO has developed a strong association via a range of bodies, appears to have its origins in a rather narrow perspective of the design world as primarily an economic playing field. Is that the case?

“Such an interpretation is much too constricted for me. It goes without saying that entrepreneurship and financial survival are prerequisites of the continuation of design practices. But I would think it is obvious that the economic domain is an integral part of society. As a designer, you want to mean something to society, have impact on the world. And that involves much more than solely a cultural aspect.

Design is active all around us – in healthcare, public space, issues of sustainability, communications, etc. An overly univocal cultural perspective risks presenting the sector as an isolated community, thereby restricting how people see the profession. I think that design can play a significant role in achieving the necessary balance between the three P’s: people, planet and profit. The growing awareness that we are facing a polycrisis is now leading to widespread calls for creativity, as we also recently heard in the King’s speech.

“If the state of the world sometimes gets me down, I only have to look to the youngest batch of designers, who fight so passionately for their ideals.”

The King’s speech brings us to the here and now, on the threshold of your upcoming departure. How would you describe the current state of affairs in the field?

“We are in the middle of a period of fundamental change. The phenomenon of Dutch design, put on the map by the generation of Wim Crouwel and Friso Kramer, and refreshed by Droog Design in the 1990s, now needs to dramatically alter course in the context of the polycrisis. The sector has and is experiencing a greater sense of urgency. Turnarounds are quicker. The perks of yore are truly gone.

What has become very clear, both within the field and outside, is the necessity of teamwork in and between disciplines. Craftsmanship needs to be paired with outstanding entrepreneurial and social qualities. We worked on these qualities in the past decade with the fantastic group of designers that took part in our Driving Dutch Design programme. With this group, you really see how important the so-called soft skills have become for a successful design practice.

Does it make you feel optimistic about the contribution of design to society?

“I don’t envy the politicians currently tasked with finding a path through mountains of pressing challenges. And at the same time: humans wouldn’t be humans if they weren’t able to disentangle Houdini’s knot. I think the assumption that designers come up with their own solutions is too easy. But with their contributions, they can certainly play a valuable role when dealing with issues both major and minor.

That’s why I still unreservedly believe in the future of the profession and the association. If the state of the world sometimes gets me down, I only have to look to the youngest batch of designers, who fight so passionately for their ideals. Just like the generations before them, they want to make an impact, with first-rate, significant work.

This interview can also be read in Dd Yearbook '22. Dd Yearbook is distributed free of charge to designers and agencies affiliated with the BNO. Non-members can order the book here for €29.95 (including postage, invoice and VAT).