Interview | Eating Designer Karlijn Souren

Joanne and I (J&S) met Karlijn Souren (KS), a Utrecht-based eating designer, as a part of the effort to create a publication on contemporary design discourse, one of Aalto University’s projects for World Design Capital 2012 (WDC12)

As much as it was fascinating conversation with her, it is hard to deliver what she shared with us as we went through her work chronologically with a slideshow. Here I share some fascinating parts of our conversation.

J&S How have you become to do what you do now?
KS I think it all started with a course. I am a product designer by training, and there was a eight-weeks-long school project in my study that dealt with food. I think the course sparked me, and I was lucky to work with Marije Vogelzang as an intern and later as a staff. In-between I did an experiment with night snacks as my thesis work, the more I work with food, the more I realize how it connects with everything.
J&S It seems that you prefer being considered as “eating designer” over “food designer”.
KS When I say that I am a food designer, many get it wrong as if I design something fancy, nice looking shapes, which I never do. Many people working in similar context also find it hard to communicate what they actually do as the world is not there yet. When I say eating design, people usually ask me what it means whereas they think that they know when I say food design although they don’t. When thinking about food, we have think the different layers. The food itself, the context such as occasion, place, time, different people like the one who cooks, the ones who will eat, knowledge, experience and so on. What I like about food is that it is such a ordinary thing one doesn’t really think about it, but it is related to so many things.

Let me take a typical and traditional Dutch dish, stamppot, as an example. When the Netherlands was poor, Dutch moms who had to work hard in the field did not have much time to cook, so they put vegetables, potato, and meat in a large pot and left it on a low heat. When they return everything was cooked, then they mashed them all. Although it is nice to have and keep the ritual, but I think it is also important to think about the context of today and how we should design ‘eating’ in it, because all the food were designed in one way or the other by necessity. So eating design is not limited to what we eat, but the elements around it–why we eat it, how we create what we eat et cetera.

J&S Why do you think your clients approach you to commission a project rather than a chéf?
KS I think that they do want food, but they want something else as well. They want something to happen, they want community building, or they want more communication. Food is medium for me, but what I try to build is not the food itself. So, sometimes gets the concept, but often they might think “it’s nice to have some special food”. This is especially true when the project is creating a meal for a big audience, which I do not do anymore because I often ended up spending too much time in cooking, transportation, and organization and was left with so little time to think, research, and design It’s nice to have nice food but it is harder to get the message across.
J&S Could you tell us more about your work?
KS I see my work in three main bodies–giving advices, designing, and suggesting new concepts. And ultimately I aims to solve the revolving problems in/through our eating. The context may imply many different aspects: educational, socio-economical, ecological, ethical, indigenous. Food is so very essential for everyone’s life food is connected to everything. The price of ingredients are important to the low-income neighborhood while food can be used to increase the social capital of certain community.

I had once been asking around people in a town to bring leftover ingredients to a park in return to cooked foodstuff. It was called “Wanted” and I also handed out fliers. You know, there are some foodstuff you can never finish yourself–a bag of carrot as a bundle, a bag of flour if you do not a baking person, and so on. So if you brought some ingredients you could have some food for free–like soup or muffin– otherwise you could pay one Euro or so which I used for buying what is missing–such as cooking oil. It turned out to be very successful, and there were so much ingredients left after the event which I ended up bring to charity.

Flier, image courtesy:

"Wanted" event, image courtesy:

J&S I must have helped the community talk more to each other.
KS Absolutely. And there is similar initiative in Amsterdam called Over Datum Eetclub where people bring expired foodstuff and cook and eat together.
J&S It seems partly provocation and partly solution for many problems.
KS Absolutely. That is why designing of eating is so important. At the moment I am co-authoring a book about eating, and in that I point out the problem of disconnect from the farm, animal to consumer, and the processed food. There are now even hams with cartoon character on them, and parents buy them to feed their children. I think it is scary idea to do so, because in the future the interests of these kids in foodstuff and the source of them will lead to health of themselves and the environment as well.
J&S How far does your interest go in term of eating design?
KS From the industrialized foodstuff, distribution, seasonal ingredient to indigenous recipe, social capital, food and eating are connected to everything. Eventually it is not only about eating, but also pedagogy. Alienation of the origin of foodstuff is at its peak and we shall do something about it in the future.

The food journey of one’s life is also very interesting. When you’re young, you eat what is given. At some point of life one gets to make own choices getting independent. Getting a full time job and later on children one’s food-scape changes dramatically for efficiency and healthiness. Getting older one has to go thorough another major change especially when being demented. The toughest time seems to be when you are in a relationship having children. No time at all.

So, as a short answer my interest in eating design ranges from end to end vertically, horizontally, from the big picture to also the tiny details.

J&S How has your work influenced your food choices?
KS Naturally I try to buy organic produce from smaller shops.
J&S You are spending more on food than before.
KS Surprisingly not really. My boyfriends and I have been having a bank account where we put certain amount solely for food, and our new patter of food choice do not exceed what we had spent. I think it need a little more careful planning, but that’s even better. You tend to eat being aware of what and how much you are eating.
J&S You are spending more on food than before.
KS Surprisingly not really. My boyfriends and I have been having a bank account where we monthly put certain amount of money solely for food, and our new patter of food choice do not exceed what we had spent. I think it required a little more careful planning, but that’s even better. You tend to eat being aware of what and how much you are eating.

It’s pity that I cannot share everything we talked as much of the discussion deals with the unpublished contents, and a large fraction of the conversation were based on the slideshow. The negotiation with Karlijn and her publisher is undergoing and hopefully I’ll be able to share more on this blog soon.

What was interesting the most to me was that the conventional food choice may be neither contextual or contemporary. We think we eat what is right, but often times they are just available, and more easily reached than the other. Would this create a virtuous circle or vicious one? That may be a good question.