words Marcus Fairs
“Yap! Ya ya. Yoo hoo. Bye!” That’s Gijs Bakker ending a call on his mobile phone. “Ya, yuh yuh. Ya.” That’s Renny Ramakers taking one on hers.
It’s not the best day to interview the two founders of Droog, the Amsterdam-based company that put Dutch design on the map in the early Nineties and remains one of the most influential design stables in the world.It’s just a couple of days before the grand opening of their new headquarters building and Bakker and Ramakers are working with the furrow-browed intensity and sleepless eyes of people on a major deadline.
They’re supervising the installation of their most famous products in the ground floor showroom; overseeing the builders who have far from finished the kitchen, café and toilets; and attending to the perpetual buzz of the intercom system that announces the arrival of a stream of tradesmen, collaborators and couriers.
The opening is a key moment in Droog’s evolution from ramshackle design collective to sophisticated brand, and coincides with a major overhaul of the Droog way of doing things. “Yeah, well, we have quite an ambition,” Bakker says later, with dry understatement. “We want to make design more normal. You make something more normal when it is accessible to people. Not only the top people.”
Best known for their high-concept, high-cost one-off pieces, they are now about to add a new range of cheaper, everyday products. They have also restructured their production lines, parting company with the third-party firms to whom they used to subcontract their manufacturing and packaging and setting up their own facilities.
Droog’s new home is a gingerbread 17th-century townhouse on Staalstraat – a typical Amsterdam street with a barber shop, an antique shop and a hallucinogenic mushroom shop – that was once home to the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild. Droog has now taken it over as its offices, showroom, gallery, shop and café. There’s even a Droog “library” on the ground floor, for exhibitions and relaxation. The 700sq m building is ten times bigger than their previous premises.
Besides the fact that they’re extremely busy, the other complication is that Bakker and Ramakers have an odd policy of never being interviewed together (“Interviews together is boring, yeah!” says Bakker). So we have to prise them individually from their tasks and coax them up the stairs to the second floor meeting room (which is the only quiet corner of the building). But as soon as we think we’ve cornered one of them, they’ll slip off somewhere else. Or their phone will ring, and they’ll start yap-yap, yoo-hooing all over again.
“My hangup is that you have all these luxury design shops here in Holland and everything you buy there is very expensive,” says Bakker, when I finally have his undivided attention. “And on the other hand you have Ikea, where everything is average as design, but the price is fantastic. We don’t want to end up in the ghetto of these fancy design shops.”
Droog, which started in 1993, launched the careers of an entire generation of Dutch designers, including Marcel Wanders, Hella Jongerius, Jurgen Bey and Richard Hutten. But recently Droog has been criticised for persevering with conceptual pieces when the tide seems to be turning towards more accessible – and cheaper – products. Is Droog now trying to be more like Ikea?
“Oh be careful, I see the headline already, Droog goes Ikea! No – oop, yeah. We will find our own way. In terms of design and technical innovation I have much more admiration for Muji.”
Does this mean you’ve changed your philosophy? “It was our philosophy right from the beginning not to be constrained by all those horrible things like commerce and development of products. But we have learnt over the years it doesn’t work. If you are not involved with every stage yourself, things don’t go the way you want them to.
“So now we do everything ourselves. The labelling, the barcode, the packaging, the manufacturing. Some of the products are produced in China, some others are produced now in Romania and Portugal.”
Are you moving away from avant-garde products to more mainstream products? “That’s a dangerous question because I hate the idea of mainstream, but on the other hand you could consider we are going two different ways in terms of concepts and products. There are the unique pieces – we call them one-offs – which is going very well and we want to continue that. Pieces like the Chest of Drawers by Tejo Remy [designed in 1991 and one of the first pieces manufactured by Droog] are selling more and more, although it’s a product that costs €15,000. Although of course it sells in limited quantities.
“On the other hand, in summer 2003 we decided to mass-produce products ourselves. Downstairs we’re installing an exhibition featuring 17 new products that are in development – and some are already ready – which have a price that is competitive with products in normal shops.”
Whats wrong with being mainstream? “As a price, mainstream is good, but [a Droog product] always will be a product with a little bit more content. Mainstream sounds to me as if all the special features of a product have been smoothed off. For instance when we go downstairs I’ll show you the highchair by Maartje Steenkamp. We saw it at her graduation show at the Rietveld Academy and we liked that idea of a highchair where you cut off the legs as the child is growing so it gets lower. In the end it’s just a little chair children can play with. It’s just a marvellous idea.
“Originally she made it by hand in a small workshop and it was terribly expensive. We’ve now developed it like Ikea: flat-packed, self-assembly. More importantly, it’s €149. When she produced it herself it was €400.”
What’s your definition of a well-designed product? “It’s when you take great care about the content. A product is interesting when it has a story; when it has layers of meaning. It can be social or political or about the environment or whatever, but if there are layers of meaning, and nicely hidden, then it has a nice balance. It shouldn’t shout about it.
“If the consumer is unaware of the story, it’s okay. I compare it with music. I’m a lover of music, so intuitively I feel a quality in a performance or a certain composition. The composer could have meant so many things, but it’s okay if I don’t know what they are because I feel it’s much more than just the melody. I think design should be the same.”
How do you choose products for the Droog collection? “Renny and I together select every product. We have to both agree that it’s right. Our strategy is to make a written statement about the design. We call it a ‘rationale’ – a short statement in one or two sentences. You don’t describe the product, but we explain the concept in words. And for the products we select there’s always a nice little story.”
What’s your bestselling product? “In terms of numbers it is Strap [an elastic wall-mounted storage device by NL Architects] – it’s really a bestseller. And in terms of budget, the 85 Bulbs by Rody Graumans [a chandelier consisting of 85 standard light bulbs]. But I’m not the right person to ask; I’m really bad at counting. I’m quite a lunatic in that. I easily can forget a zero or something like that.”
How has the Dutch design scene changed since you started? “We started in 1993 when there was this generation of designers who were rebelling against what was fashionable in those days. It was still the post-Memphis period, and also the time of very luxurious Italian design; very fancy, very beautiful materials, very high style.
“At the time, this country offered few possibilities for young designers. We didn’t have much industry – you had to go to Italy or other countries. I’ve been involved in teaching a lot and I have always told young designers who have an idea to make it and show it; don’t wait until an industry director is passing by and says wow, because that never happens. Instead, develop yourself: have ideas and realise them and present them to the public through galleries; try and sell things.
“So when we started there were a number of [Dutch] people working like this, not part of any industry, who were very free and felt liberated to explore ideas.
“But now we work with young Japanese designers, or somebody from Stockholm or someone from Barcelona like Martí Guixé, or students from Ron Arad’s course at the Royal College. So you can’t really say that Droog is Dutch design now.
“But you could say that the mentality of being pure and being basic and daring to ask yourself a question – what is a product, and why – instead of just making the next chair. Yeah, you could see that still as a typically Dutch kind of mentality.”
We decide it’s time to go and look for Ramakers but don’t find her; instead, Bakker gives us a tour of the building. The charmingly crooked, gabled exterior masks an anywhere interior – a legacy of the original 1641 building’s witless conversion in the 1970s into spec offices. But Bakker and Ramakers, as you might expect, have Drooged the whole building. The ground floor kitchen has been completely clad in the company’s famous Tile Kitchen by Arnout Visser, Erik-Jan Kwakkel and Peter van der Jagt, while the bathrooms feature more Droog products, including Hella Jongerius’ floppy silicon sinks.
The upper two floors have been left exactly as they were found, complete with low-slung ceiling system, dodgy partitions and wires and pipes running all over the walls. Yet every surface, including the floor, much of the furniture and a kitchenette, has been painted by artist Franck Bragigand in different tones of green (first floor) and blue (second floor). The rhomboid pattern flows over everything in its path, playing havoc with your depth perception.
Ramakers, however, is nowhere to be seen. We almost give up on her interview as we need to get to the airport. But just as we’re leaving, she appears and says she’s got five minutes – which thankfully turns into more like 20.
I tell her about the “Droog goes Ikea” exchange from the conversation with Bakker, and ask her how she views the new Droog mission.
“Everyone says okay Droog, very nice, but it’s all concepts and prototypes and it’s not really real. And I want to show the world that it’s real and they’re products you can buy and use. That’s a very important mission at this moment.
“But what Ikea is doing, their volumes, is impossible for us, of course. We want to continue with the limited editions like the chest of drawers, but increasingly produce functional, everyday products like dishcloths, mops and brooms that still have the Droog touch.”
What is the Droog touch? “It’s a mentality. It’s about interesting concepts, but concepts that fit with the way they have been executed.”
People have been saying lately that Droog-style conceptual design is no longer relevant. Is this a response to these criticisms? “No, not really. The criticism is only from last year and we wanted to do this from the beginning.
“But I think society has changed. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed an attitude of anti-intellectualism in this country. People expect design to be realistic, to address reality. The whole intellectual approach is slowly fading away. It’s not the young generation of designers; it’s more the establishment, the government, [state design agency] the Premsela Foundation, the older designers. A lot of designers who started out being conceptual now want to be realistic. They’re getting older and they want to work for companies.
“But I don’t want to listen to this criticism and give up the conceptual way of designing. If people are now asking for more realistic design, then I think conceptual design is needed more than before. I want to show that conceptual design can also be produced and sold.”
How would you describe the approach of the younger generation of Dutch designers? “They’re not anti-conceptual but they’re different from the conceptual designers of ten years ago. In February we’re holding an exhibition of four young designers and the common thread is that they are all very decorative.”
Yet their work is still conceptual? “Yes, because decoration is part of their concept. Like the Rococo radiator by Joris Laarman. What strikes me about the young generation is that they have the same kind of mentality but the concept is different and as a consequence the result is different.
“In the projects they did for our exhibition, they are not asking how many can we produce, how many can we sell, all those kind of questions. They just have the concepts. That’s the difference. If you’re a hardcore industrial designer, you have to think about how to manufacture it, in what kind of quantities, what materials.
“Of course Joris Laarman, with the radiator, was thinking about functionality, but not in a very functional way. A radiator needs a large surface area to radiate, so his idea was to make the surface in a rococo pattern. And now we are going to produce it we’ll see how much it will have to change – but keeping the concept.”
At this point, we have to terminate the interview as flight check-in time is looming. As we ferry the photographer’s equipment down the stairs to the reception area, Bakker and Ramakers are back in the gallery, discussing where to put a low bench with thousands of marbles rolling around on its seat, a huge wooden see-saw seat as big as a car and a red pinball machine filled with small china cats.