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Ernst & Kirsten, MacGuffin
At work with

Ernst & Kirsten, MacGuffin

We first met Kirsten Algera and Ernst van der Hoeven here as issue three of their annual ‘Life of Things’ magazine MacGuffin appeared on shelves. Five years later, we join them for an update as issue eight, The Desk, arrives, and hear about their week, the new issue, and the continued role of desks in our lives.

Tell us about your typical Monday journey to your work.
Actually, we had a very atypical Monday morning. Firstly because we had to clean the office after the VrijMiBowe we had this Friday to celebrate the new issue with all the contributors. No Dry February here. A VrijMiBo by the way, is the Dutch abbreviation of the Friday afternoon drink at the office, characterized by bad office pranks, cheap salted sticks and drunk colleagues.

The other thing that was unusual this Monday was our rediscovery of the bus. Normally we bike, like everybody else in Amsterdam, causing hefty morning bike jams. Because of the storm we took the bus and it’s great. You get to meet lots of other people and surrender to waiting and walking, very Zen.

Describe your office/studio.
Our office is the attic of an old Catholic Boys School on the Singel in Amsterdam. The building has been a free haven for artists and designers since the Seventies. Actually, it is a relic of the artist policy that the Amsterdam Municipality used to have (and still has, but seriously curtailed): that artists deserve a place in the city centre.

We are overlooking a canal and the oldest whores of Amsterdam. We feel like it is a secluded island in the middle of a city that is getting more and more like Disneyland.

Ernst and I sit face-to-face behind an Eiermann desk, perfectly described by Florian Bengert in the issue as ‘designed disappearance’. But what is on it has definitely not disappeared. Far from it.

On one side we count forty-three books, twenty-four zines, eight To-Do lists, seven indeterminate cables, three cold coffees, two shrivelled mandarins, two empty water bottles, a vintage desk lamp that doesn’t work, a mound of crumpled receipts, a box of invitations, a box of hard disks, a black ball, two plastic containers of miscellany from an earlier attempt at tidying up and a small bird house.

Ernst is looking at the colour schemed bookshelves behind Kirsten; Kirsten is looking at the collections that Ernst found on the street (laughing gas cartridges and little rakes, amongst others).

What have you been doing since the last issue of MacGuffin?
Next to the magazine, we have a rather intense program of activities this year. Right now we are working with curator Johan Deurell from the Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden to make an exhibition from their 50,000 object collection, tracing narratives of migration in and through objects.

But we’re also preparing workshops with Disarming Design from Palestine and Alexandre Humbert about the rug (the theme of our next issue) in Amman and Palestine and a research project in Beirut together with Ibrahim Nehme and Rawad Baaklini, dedicated to the lighter. We feel it is urgent to have a closer look at objects in a complex and turmoiled situation like those of the Arabic diaspora. But to be honest, we also do a lot of humble office work. People tend to forget that 80% of making an independent research magazine is dedicated to finding funding, distribution, PR, administration etc. People often come in and ask, “Where is everybody?” but it is just the two of us, ha ha.

Which magazine matters to you the most right now?
Last week we were at a panel at the New Radicalism festival in Rotterdam with MENA-oriented independent magazines The Outpost, Azeema, MyKali and State. We were so impressed with their activism and devotion. They all advocate for urgent causes like being gay in Jordan or femininity in Middle East societies. For us it is important because of our Middle East research, and also to counteract mainstream journalism, that tends to focus on impossibilities instead of possibilities.

Describe your magazine in three words
Life of Things

What was your first desk like?
Ernst has a small trauma of the wobbly tables in his youth - his mother tended to drag in every door she could find on the streets to turn it into a trestle desk. Kirsten never had a desk because she attended a ‘free’ school where there were no individual desks but one communal table surrounding a communal aquarium.

Photograph of her desk drawer by Jessica Gysel, Girls Like Us.

What attribute changes a table or shelf into a desk?
We think the ability to leave your stuff on top. Tables have to be empty, and shelves have to be ordered, but desks can remain chaos, at least, if you are not working at an office with a clean desk policy. You probably all know the famous Einstein saying, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” His piled-high desktop and those of Mark Twain and Steve Jobs are invariably used as proof of the theory that genius flourishes in a chaotic environment.

Scientists at the University of Minnesota wanted to find out whether this was really the case, so they put it to the test. Students sitting in a room full of muddle gave more creative answers to questions put to them than students in a tidy room.

What new element of content did The Desk bring to MacGuffin?
We are so happy that we could do a collaboration with enigmatic French artist and designer François Dallegret (above). He combined photos of his works from the 60’s and 70’s with recent images of the same pieces in his Canadian countryside home and sheds, fusing life and work like he did in his career. We love his whimsical and speculative inventions.

And it is the first time that the MacGuffin can be used as a DIY manual - to make one of the 70s desks by Mario Scarpa, Enzo Mari or Kazuhide Takahama, among others (above). We spent a lot of time to get the instructions and measurements right (why are there still inches?), so our readers can make their own, like Mari called them, ‘anti-kitsch desks’.

Photograph: Blommers & Schumm

Does the desk still matter today beyond our metaphorical computer desktops?
Writer Liv Siddall described it very well in a hilarious story she wrote for the issue: we all need somewhere to go where we belong, a static area reserved only for us where we can leave our mess. So yes, we do think the desk matters. In our opinion working ‘on the go’ is, like Liv describes with verve, just as bad for you as eating on the go.

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MacGuffin #8, The Desk

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