First Hand — Following design activism from Holland to the Maldives: Charlotte Allen’s first year out of uni
Charlotte Allen’s first year out of university has been anything but typical. Having spent six months living and volunteering as part of a design-activism commune in a warehouse in the Netherlands with help from an Erasmus grant, she now works in Amsterdam as an artist’s assistant. Charlotte tells us how her passion for sustainability in social design has been the driving force behind her career decisions, and reminds soon-to-be graduates that it’s okay to take risks and deviate from a clearly mapped-out path.
Following an interest in sustainable design – to Holland
During my last year at Kingston, my design work really steered towards more social design. Particularly in my graduation project Prolong, where I made a kitchen stool from one month worth of my household waste. I started to become obsessed with what we considered ‘waste’ and the potential it had for providing materials.
I applied for Erasmus, with the goal of working in Amsterdam, but during my graduation project, I discovered Precious Plastic in Eindhoven, who build open source, low tech machinery for people all around the world to start recycling plastic. Dave Hakkens (the founder) was shocked that only 9% of our plastic is recycled today, so he gave the power to the people to change this.
Precious Plastic had an open call for 40 volunteers to go and work on their biggest project yet, all inside a warehouse in the centre of Eindhoven. I applied for a designer role – over 600 people applied overall and I was lucky enough to be given a spot.
“All my university friends were applying for graphic design studios, and I was applying to volunteer and live and sleep in a warehouse.”
Taking a risk
It was funny because all my university friends were applying for graphic design studios, and I was applying to volunteer and live and sleep in a warehouse with 40 designers, activists and engineers.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into – my friends called me mad, saying, “You can’t work for free for that long.” But I knew that volunteering at Precious Plastic was something way more valuable than a typical design internship. This was also temporary and I could do all the ‘serious’ stuff later in life.
While I was volunteering we had accommodation and food covered for us, so that really helped. I also had the Erasmus grant for three months so I was able to live off that. But I really wasn’t spending much anyway in Eindhoven, and now living in Amsterdam I have some savings and I’m making (some) money to support myself.
Charlotte in the Maldives
With the Precious Plastic group
Becoming part of an ethical design community
Living in a community that large is one of the best things I’ve done yet. Surrounding myself with open-minded and like-minded people, all passionate about one thing, helped me develop not only as an individual but also as a designer.
Yes, it was like living in a bubble for six months as we never really left the warehouse, working on the weekends and until around 9pm or 10pm each night, but it didn’t feel like work. It was fun and we would just experiment, play, test, and discover all day. I also stopped using social media, so I really was out of the loop.
During my time there, I worked on numerous projects, bouncing between the workshop and studio. I built and curated our Dutch Design Week 2018 show, designed a shop window in Amsterdam, worked on the identity for their new project ‘One Army’. I also got to visit the Maldives with Dave and Jerry (another volunteer) where we set up a plastic recycling workspace inside a shipping container, and ended up teaching yoga every morning!
I learnt a lot about myself in those six months. I really discovered what I like, what I don’t like, what I want to do, and who I am as a designer. I’ve come out with a burning passion for doing work for good, to design for people, with people, and have a positive impact through a variety of combined disciplines. I’m basically half activist, half designer.
“I don’t ever want to settle for ‘normal’. I would just get bored.”
Willem Van Doorn's workshop
Chopping and changing
Now I am living in Amsterdam, working for [artist] Willem Van Doorn on his family farm in his wood and metal workshop. Before this, I had an internship planned in Amsterdam, which unfortunately fell through, so I moved to Amsterdam with no job and no plan.
Luckily, I was put in contact with Willem through Dave. Now I’m surrounded by fields and greenhouses. It’s so peaceful – other than the sound of Willem’s chickens and the machines, it’s silent. I’ve had a weird transition from being with 40 people 24/7, to moving to a new city and now working one-on-one with a designer, in the middle of nowhere, building stuff and designing products. I’ve realised that I don’t ever want to settle for ‘normal’. I would just get bored. I can’t sit at a computer all day; I need to be up on my feet, making or directing.
Words of advice
A note to those graduating very soon: do what you really want to do. Don’t follow the crowd, even if it means making less money. Don’t compare yourself to others, and don’t think that now you’ve finished studying you’re in this big serious world and you need to get a ‘proper’ job and do ‘proper’ work. You’re still young, so muck about and remain playful. And value yourself – because if you don’t, who will?