words Justin McGuirk
It’s a cold Tuesday morning in Rotterdam, and my photographer and I are standing in front of an uninteresting brick building on the docks. We came here to do a story about a warehouse full of designers.
“A microcosm of the Dutch design scene,” is how I sold it to my editor, listing a rollcall including Joris Laarman, the Verhoeven twins, Richard Hutten and Rem Koolhaas’ modelmaker. “Not a conventional profile piece but a story about a community, a network, the life of a building,” I said, picturing a double-page spread with a characterful warehouse across it. Not this unphotogenic lump.
There’s a much better building across the road. Maybe that’s it. Good Dutch industrial modernism with flaking paint – loads of character. But Tim the photographer is already shooting away at the boring one.
“Hang on,” I say, “don’t waste your film.”
“I’m shooting digital.”
At this point a scarved figure walks out of the boring building and shields his eyes from the sun. It’s Joris Laarman.
Laarman leads us down a corridor lined with bicycles, at the end of which he pushes open a heavy metal door to a studio in which slants of morning light pick out motes of dust and trails of cigarette smoke. There are half a dozen people in here all looking busy but casual. A redheaded man in his mid-twenties is holding a rifle. “This is for clients who don’t pay,” he says. It’s either Joep Verhoeven or his identical twin, Jeroen, of the practice De Makers Van. I can’t tell, but then his brother marches up to shake hands. “Hi. Joep.”
Jeroen Verhoeven’s beautiful Industrialised Wood table is in the middle of the floor, while his brother’s elaborately woven chain-link fence, How to Plant a Fence, is rolled up in the far corner. But there are also new pieces of theirs here, such as a pair of stool prototypes adopting suggestively human positions – one with the front legs crossed in a masculine way, the other in a feminine way. To our left is Laarman’s curlicued climbing wall, Ivy, on which two interns are taking turns to see how high they can reach. The scene lends the studio something of a funhouse atmosphere, exacerbated by the tent pitched on a high platform behind us. “Sometimes we sleep here,” explains Laarman, “but don’t look up there because it’s a mess.”
Laarman moved to this building in April 2005, bringing with him the Verhoeven twins and their partner in De Makers Van, Judith de Graauw, all of whom were friends at the Design Academy Eindhoven. They were joined by two other young designers, Christien Meindertsma and Sietze Kalkwijk, and by the various interns and assistants required to help them cope with the commissions that flooded in, unusually, almost immediately after their graduation show. The group call their studio Fruitport, as these docks were used for importing fruit, and this particular building for storing first bananas and then coffee. They had to do some basic work on the studio before moving in, such as putting in windows, and you can tell that the job wasn’t done by professionals. “The windows are still a bit …” says Laarman. He means, I later discover, that they leak when it rains.
It was more than just the pioneering spirit, though, that made the studio an exciting move. The warehouse has contained a design community for nearly a decade, and the Fruitport group are very much the youngsters. It was discovered by Richard Hutten, one of the early stars of Droog Design, and Vincent de Rijke, modelmaker to Rem Koolhaas’ practice, OMA. When they found it, in 1997, the building was just a shell, but it now contains a dozen or so studios on two floors, housing artists, designers, architects and a publisher. De Rijke in particular seems to be a mentor figure for the new arrivals. “It’s nice to have someone upstairs to ask about things,” says Judith de Graauw.
Tim and I find him in a side room of his first-floor studio showing two students how to use a computer-controlled cutting machine – he is covered in a fine grey dust. At first reluctant to talk, and keeping a nervous eye on Tim’s camera, de Rijke gradually opens up. “It was cheap,” he says of the building, “but the city was surprised we wanted to rent it because it was in such bad condition.” He is bemused by the attention the new arrivals are bringing to the building – “I didn’t expect them to be so ambitious” – but he likes the current mix. “Creatively it’s a really nice group. A lot of these people are really going for something in a serious way. The main connection is the Design Academy in Eindhoven. We all studied there, but it’s nice that it’s all different generations.”
Down the hall is a photographer called Bas Princen, whose studio is next to a painter’s and a graphic designer’s and opposite an architect called Krill, which is designing a drug rehabilitation centre modelled on the panopticon. There’s also another architect and, next to them, a publisher. The photographer is planning a book with the publisher, one of the architects uses de Rijke to produce furniture and everybody uses the graphic designer.
Downstairs, the Fruitport studio invites us to have lunch with them, so Tim and I join ten others around a ping-pong table piled high with dark seeded bread, salad, cold cuts, sliced cheese, chocolate flakes (for sandwiches), a concentrated apple spread called Appelstroop and yoghurt drinks – the stuff of the wholesome Dutch diet. English and Dutch are interchanged comfortably. This sense of communal spirit is almost unheard of in London, where people often sit alone with their sandwiches in front of their computers. But Fruitport do this everyday – in fact, they used to join the rest of the building for lunch upstairs but it got awkward trying to share the responsibility.
With the ping-pong table cleared, Tim and I renew our attempt to meet the rest of the studios. We have an appointment with Richard Hutten, who rents the largest portion of the ground floor. His front door is on the street outside, except that there’s no answer and it’s now pouring with rain. Someone tells us that there’s a back entrance through a stairway from de Rijke’s studio.
The stairway, which feels like a secret passage, leads us into a kitchen. The kitchen door opens into a workshop buzzing with the noise of electric cutting tools. There are two men here, who stop sawing and give us a look that one might well aim at two strangers emerging from one’s kitchen. One of them pulls out an earplug.
“Um, is Richard here?”
He isn’t, but we are pointed towards the office. There are neat line drawings of chairs and tables on the walls of the workshop. In the tiny office, which is on the other side of what seems to be a stockroom, we discover that Hutten is in Belgium. But we are assured, in that relaxed Dutch way, that he should be back before the end of the day.
I go back upstairs to see if I can talk to the publisher. According to Princen, her young imprint, called Episodes, is an emerging force in Dutch architecture and design publishing. I knock on her door and open it to find her deep in conversation with someone. Finally she turns towards me and, as I explain that I’m writing a story about the building, looks at me as though every second I’m standing there talking is a second too long.
I try her neighbour. The studio belongs to a small architecture firm called Made. The practice designed the internal layout of the building after it was gutted by a fire. Telling the story, partner Laura Weeber finally makes me think that I’m not wasting my time trying to treat this building as a cohesive community. Apparently, in 2004 the studios in the building were in an exhibition at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam about artist and design communities. During the opening of their show, which happened to be on 11 September, a fire started in Vincent de Rijke’s studio sparked by a chemical reaction between some polyester and rather too much hardener. “We were celebrating in the Boijmans and meanwhile the building was burning down,” says Weeber.
But having de Rijke in the building has its advantages. He sometimes produces furniture for Made, plus, laughs Weeber, “We get to see OMA’s projects before anyone else.”
According to Weeber, the dock in which the warehouse sits will eventually become residential. The city had once wanted to turf out the designers to keep the dock exclusively for fruit importation. “But then they decided it was good to have designers here,” she says. “What do they call it? Gentrification?” adds her partner, Wim Kloosterboer.
All of a sudden it’s dark outside, and Tim and I have to leave soon to catch our flight. We head back downstairs to see if Richard Hutten’s back, and we find him chain smoking in his little office. The room contains various pieces of his furniture and a revolving stand stacked with postcards of his work. “I found this building with Vincent. He was my neighbour in my previous place in ’97,” says Hutten, ashing into his own design for an ashtray-topped humidor. “There’s no other building like this. There’s a next generation coming up of new designers and these guys are some of the best.” Hutten has a definite air of the founding father about him, and yet, while he makes furniture for people in the building, his studio is completely detached from the common areas. Is he a mentor figure? “I’m a bit apart from the rest. And I’m not the mentor because I don’t lunch with them.”
Having started off cool, he begins talking about his new work. He’s collaborating with Muji on a host of products from stationary and furniture to toys, and he’s designing the public spaces for a social housing project designed by MVRDV. He’s even designing a house. Suddenly, with Hutten pulling out folders full of drawings, it looks like it’s going to be difficult to get away. We start edging towards the door. “Er, we need to go call a taxi …”
As we say goodbye, Laarman tries to provide us with a coherent point to our story about him and his fellow tenants: “There’s the same kind of spirit, more of a social thing than an artistic thing. You have to build things yourself, it’s a kind of mentality. It’s not a polished design office like you get in Amsterdam. Rotterdam is more rough.”