To be human is to eat. Food is arguably the most necessary of sensory pleasures; adapted in endless portions, forms, and flavors. They can be sustenance or sin, socialized occasion or solitary escape.
With recent decades bearing witness to an increased emphasis on mindful eating, it’s easy to feel fatigued. But for Marije Vogelzang, reinventing the experience lies not in the form, but in its context: a notion reinforced every time she corrects someone of her title. She is an eating designer. Rarely does the design of the food itself come into play.
When asked what her work is about, she describes it as “[trying] to open up brains – have people recall memories they’ve forgotten.”
She acknowledges the modern gastronome, whose forward-looking appetite for the novel and strange find themselves awestruck in the crannies of Brooklyn or Napa. However, it is the past she prefers to pique in her unique process. Instead of presenting newfangled means of consumption, she will serve you something as quotidian as a loaf of rye with a white bread center, as she did as part of a celebration of World War II’s Liberation Day. What makes the dish truly unique to you, and you only, is your association with it. Once broken into haphazard shapes and minute portions, the bread became a symbol, representing a shift from rye – connoted with government rationing and economic downtimes – to freedom. For somebody who has had firsthand experience with that shift, there is no meal more powerful.
By appealing to universal pastimes – waxing of nostalgia, identity, and human feeling – she ensures that her work is appreciated and understood, no matter the zeitgeist or culture. “I’m trying to tap into human experiences: Simple and basic things of life about the notion of feeding, sharing food and stories, linking things to childhood memories.”
She does not believe in experience design. With the industry being both bogged down and sustained by reviews – Yelp and New York Times alike – this perhaps does not come as surprising. Such reliance on word-of-mouth paves the way for expectations, which Vogelzang sees as an inherent barrier to manipulating experience. Once the anticipation of emotions, memories, and taste come to be, the designer is no longer in charge: “There’s a disconnect between what you expect things to be, and how they’re actually experienced. You’ll have an idealistic view of something, and reality catches up.”
Her reputation as a pioneer of the peculiar certainly ups the ante for most of her patrons and fans. “People go to your place, perhaps they’ve read about it in a magazine. And they expect dishes to be floating up to them or they’ll levitate, or something,” she laughs. It’s not entirely out of the question for someone like Vogelzang, whose Pasta Sauna is exactly how it sounds: exhibit goers experience the beloved carb as both consumable and processing environment. Not to mention other highly circumstantial factors, such as the eater’s mood. Says Vogelzang, “You’re never dealing with a completely blank slate. I’ve tried to design experiences through blocking out senses: blindfolding, blocking the ears, being underneath the table… but obviously you’ll have thoughts in your head, you’ll still hear certain things, [smell] the scent of the tablecloth. There are so many factors.” For her, the rigidity of an expectant audience cannot be imposed upon.
Though factors beyond Vogelzang’s control have no direct impact on what she ultimately creates, they are a part of her process: “All designs – tangible objects or abstract experiences – should be holistic. You can never judge the design itself; it’s like judging the chemical composition of a flavor without [culinary context].” Where the viewer is, who they are with, and how she could navigate them down her desired memory and emotive path are crucial to a well-balanced result. What’s part of their experience should be part of her process, she justifies.
“It’s a very schizophrenic time [for food],” she says when asked about how she sees her work in this foodie-reigned generation. Standards for an exceptional experience have risen dramatically, what with dry-ice cocktails being served in your neighborhood watering hole and no beast exempted from slaughter. For designers like Vogelzang, the hedonic treadmill is in full force. “Two or three generations ago – and everything before that – people were not used to this abundance… Human beings are trained for starvation, and there was never enough food. It was never easy. What we eat now on a daily basis could be considered a wedding banquet for generations ago. Our ancestors would’ve considered an everyday meal of ours to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. It is very difficult for us to refrain from this seduction.”
With perceived value being the crux of experience design, the rapidly decreasing worth of food becomes a liability to Vogelzang’s work. Food has lost its power to establish occasion. What is wedding or birthday cake, if not defined by its ceremonial luster?
To rectify this, she brings the eating experience back to its psychological roots. Vogelzang’s experiences have a static framework; imbuing an emotional democracy into a culinary culture that’s suddenly undergone a dramatic redefinition of what’s worthy. As humans, how we value our memories and emotions won’t fluctuate with the pace of our technological, social, and economic aspects. “Those are universal triggers.” Who we are is, indeed, how we eat.