words Alex Wiltshire
When icon was invited on a whistlestop tour of the Dutch design scene, we of course said yes. But the trip took on new meaning when, in last month’s issue, Marcel Wanders said design in the Netherlands was in crisis, stifled by state subsidies and a lack of business sense. So what do leading figures in Amsterdam, Eindhoven and Rotterdam think?
And here Aaron Betsky, author and director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, explains how such a small nation rose to such prominence
Wednesday January 28: Amsterdam
13.57 a meeting with Gijs Bakker, MD of Droog Design, at its office in central Amsterdam
The journey starts where the current high tide of interest in Dutch design began – at Droog. Set up in 1993 by Gijs Bakker and Renny Ramakers, Droog is run from a small and surprisingly simple office – it’s moving to larger premises in May. The Droog collective launched the careers of internationally known names including Marcel Wanders, Hella Jongerius, Jurgen Bey and Richard Hutten, and its global reputation has come to typify the Dutch conceptual attitude. “Droog makes interactive products, tactile things that invite people to make choices,” says Bakker. “I don’t like the slick, rounded design of Karim Rashid; I’m interested in a real point of view from a designer – it needs a story.”He says that this success in conceptual design has been great for such a small country, and has helped to nurture the next generation. What’s more, he denies that there is little new in Dutch design, citing the work of young designers like Frank Tjepkema and Joris Laarman. Bakker is the head of the Man and Living course at Design Academy Eindhoven and sees Droog as having a similar role in design as Rem Koolhaas in architecture – an established entity working with and stimulating younger designers. This is an important time for Droog – it took over the production and distribution of all its products last year. “We wanted to give them the look, the mentality and the atmosphere that we want,” Bakker says, explaining that Droog products used to be confused with lookalikes made by their external producers. He acknowledges that few designers succeed in surviving commercially, a common criticism of Droog and Design Academy Eindhoven’s conceptualist approach. But he says that Droog’s new control over production is a sign that this is being addressed. “Bringing our own production into hand brings new freshness. Trends say that conceptual design is over, but this is nonsense. Conceptual thinking is typical for the Dutch. We’ve reached a point where we can make real products based on concepts.”
15.40 a visit to Cok de Rooy at the Frozen Fountain design shop in central Amsterdam
“We show the new classics,” says Cok de Rooy from within a plume of cigarette smoke. His shop, the Frozen Fountain, sells unique or limited-run furniture from self-producing Dutch designers and international brands, and also exhibits small installations. It was opened in 1985 as a crafts-based shop but became focused on design when de Rooy took it over in 1992. Before the current interest in 3D design, the Netherlands was celebrated for its graphic design. Why did Dutch conceptual design develop? “I don’t know!” de Rooy says. “Maybe because the Netherlands is very liberal. We have had to cope with the large countries around us so we have an open view. Maybe we don’t have so much baggage with us – France and the UK have long traditions in craftsmanship while the Dutch were traders.” He also cites the influence of the generous Dutch educational grant system, subsidies for travel and opening studios, and the numerous design academies – he estimates there are 14 major institutions. De Rooy says Dutch design is mostly still grounded in the conceptual. “It was a marvellous generation. It showed the world we had that talent and the Frozen Fountain wouldn’t exist without it.” But he feels the fad for Dutch design is beginning to wane. “I tend to see the same things all over – the same typical design – and this is becoming diluted as the ideas become more globalised,” he says, adding that the design academies have tended to concentrate too heavily on conceptual thinking and are neglecting making things. But the number of unsuccessful designers isn’t necessarily a sign of real problems with the industry: “You’ve got to have lots of ‘failures’ for every success.”
16.59 Edo van Dijk of Eden Design in their offices in east central Amsterdam
Eden Design is one of the Netherlands’ oldest design agencies, originating from the famous Dutch bureau BRS Premsela Vonk, which was established in the 1950s. Edo van Dijk, one of the eight partners, says it was graphic design that the Netherlands was best known for until the conceptual product designers of the 1990s. The graphic design scene is still thriving: “In the last BNO Dutch Design Series overview of recent work, 200 graphic designers and agencies showcased their work on over 450 pages.” “What is very Dutch is our love of clear and readable typefaces, uncluttered typography, primary colors and straightforward layouts,” says van Dijk. It is a manner that formed from De Stijl and the Bauhaus educational system. “Those roots will linger on for a few more decades,” he says. This educational philosophy means that students are taught to express themselves, and this is why it is so often hard to precisely pin Dutch design down. Van Dijk quotes author and curator Toon Lauwen, who said: “Dutch design is not a style, but the result of a culture of individualism”. The Dutch government funded graphic design in the 1980s and 1990s. “Eden grew in that period from 30 to almost 100 staff, largely through governmental assignments,” says van Dijk. But in recent years the government has provided fewer contracts. “It really is a shame since there’s still so much work to be done.”
18.12 a meeting with Marcel Schreuder, a partner at Springtime in east Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s equivalent of the London Docklands, an island north-east of the centre covered in converted warehouses and new flats, is home to Springtime. This design consultancy, founded in 1995, does everything from product design to interiors and marketing campaigns, and has offices in New York and Taiwan. It also develops its own ideas, such as a table football table and a folding bike for the new Volkswagen Beetle. They are preoccupied by transportation design: “We work on a lot of mobility ideas because we’re interested in the green movement, and we want to make it sexy,” explains Marcel Schreuder. He feels that these ideas are common in the Netherlands because it is a small country: alternative thinking is required. “European design is good because we’re used to limitations – space, air, everything.” But what makes the Netherlands distinct, he says, is a sense of “soul” and a willingness to take risks. He cites the yellow livery of the Dutch train service: “Yellow was a dangerous colour when it was chosen in 1968 – trains were usually designed to blend into the scenery.” Schreuder feels the Netherlands’ tradition of good public design has contributed to the there being such a large, talented – and varied – design scene in comparison to its size. “Dutch design is not just the Droog scene, it’s also the graphic design scene and the architecture scene. Maybe this typical conceptual style will fade away but there is a solid basis underlying it.”
Thursday January 29: Amsterdam/Eindhoven
9.05 a meeting with Hermen Hulst and Jeroen Brinkhuis of Guerrilla Games at their offices in central Amsterdam
Guerrilla Games is one of just two videogame developers in the Netherlands and is working on Killzone and Shellshock, currently two of the most highly anticipated games for the Playstation 2. Both are characterised by a very strong, grittily realistic visual style. Established in 2001, Guerilla has rapidly grown and are based in a canalside 17th-century building. “There’s a good talent base here, but it’s also a good selling point for attracting foreign staff,” says MD Hermen Hulst. He estimates that the staff is 60% Dutch, but as there is no real videogame development community in the Netherlands he has to look abroad for experienced employees. So far, the Dutch government has provided little support: “It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation – the government needs the scene to get to a certain size before they’ll get involved.” Jeroen Brinkhuis, who graduated from Design Academy Eindhoven, is one of the three visual designers that produce the distinct style of Killzone and Shellshock. He is proud of the way they have created environments with a “twist” – made up from a mixture of the recognisable and the new. He cites the example of a mountain base in Killzone that is structured like an aircraft carrier – a recognisable form set in an unexpected way. He compares this ethos to the approach of a lot of Dutch design and architecture, and says that in creating Killzone’s devastated urban environments they were in part inspired by Dutch skies and their Dutch urban outlook. To this end, they worked with Dutch graffiti artist Delta and have used digital pictures of Amsterdam surfaces for in-game textures.
10.32 a visit to Li Edelkoort at Design Academy Eindhoven
Some call Eindhoven’s Design Academy the best in the world, and Li Edelkoort has been its chairwoman for five years. Among the academy’s alumni is the cream of Dutch design, including Marcel Wanders, Jurgen Bey, Hella Jongerius and Tord Boontje. Edelkoort oversees a four-year undergraduate programme and a Masters programme, and many of the tutors and course heads, such as Man and Identity (headed by Droog’s Gijs Bakker) and Het Atelier (headed by Hella Jongerius), are members of the “Droog generation”. For Edelkoort, the central role of the academy is to take the essence of conceptual design and to embed it into the industrial process. “We don’t want to look at one-offs,” she says. “We’re in a period of new modernism in the sense that as a consumer you want a combination of the one-off and the mass-produced.” The challenge is to build new relationships between industry and designers; Dutch industry has tended to neglect its domestic design talent. She approves of Droog’s decision to take over production and sees it as a sign that they believe in themselves, perhaps able to develop into a new Cappellini. She counters the argument that few designers achieve real commercial success, saying that the media tends to ignore the thriving industrial designers in the Netherlands; for instance, Max Barenbrug, an Eindhoven graduate who designed the hugely successful Bugaboo Frog baby carrier. Edelkoort holds the current generation of students in great esteem. “I’m really intrigued and in admiration of them,” she says. “They were born with technology from day one and it’s hard to add anything more.” As a result the Netherlands design scene has moved to a distinctly new period. She says that students are questioning the reasons behind their work and try to work on immaterial things, designing design away and adding subtle new touches to existing forms: “It’s a period of editing and updating things.”
12.49 Niels van Eijk and Miriam van der Lubbe’s studio in Someren, near Eindhoven
The thought of work in expensive and noisy Amsterdam is anathema to designers Niels van Eijk and Miriam van der Lubbe, who share a studio in a village about a half-hour drive from Eindhoven. “It might be rural here but the Netherlands are small,” says van der Lubbe. “Working for people in New York, Japan and Milan, why do we need to run to Amsterdam?” The pair graduated from the Man and Living course at Design Academy Eindhoven in the mid-1990s and produce work that epitomises the Dutch conceptualist approach, where the story underneath is as important as the function. “The stories I tell with my work are very much to do with problems I see, but I’m not a problem solver,” explains van der Lubbe. She believes that people work better with adversity, a maxim that in part explains why design is so central to the Dutch. “The land of the Netherlands was created by people, and we’re mainly Protestant, which makes us very no-nonsense, straight and direct,” says van der Lubbe. “There’s no opulence in Dutch art and design. Dutch designers don’t create form just for form or make bigger just to make bigger.” Van Eijk and van der Lubbe mix experimental projects with product design, but they say that many good designers are not able to sustain themselves despite extensive government support. “There’s a lack of trust in industry with respect to designers – they don’t see the worth in design,” says van der Lubbe. “And even with Moooi, not really that many are actually sold. So many good designers end up doing something else or have to just take any work that comes to them.”
15.43 a meeting with Wick Thijssen at Vanberlostudios in Eindhoven
MTV is playing on widescreen TVs in the reception area of Vanberlostudios’ modern office on the outskirts of Eindhoven. MTV’s blizzard of images reflects the design consultancy’s wide range of clients, with work including communications, packaging and products such as a coffee machine for Douwe Egberts and a baby seat for Dorel. “The Dutch are ‘feet-in-the-clay’,” says Wick Thijssen, the business unit manager. “We have a pragmatic, pure, Calvinistic approach to design and Droog came from that. Act normal, do normal. It’s reflected in the way we do things.” He says that the economic climate in the Netherlands is hard right now and that businesses are increasingly looking to design to help them. He says the little government support given to support his sector of design is being cut back. But this isn’t necessarily bad: “Designers should be able to develop and grow by themselves.” For Thijssen it is almost as if contemporary Dutch design is too well known for the conceptualists. Like Li Edelkoort, Thijssen says that the media reports little on industrial design, and says that as a whole the industry is too inward looking. “Droog is how we’re known but it’s a small group. Companies like ours also work in design and we’re much more down to earth. We try to be realistic and pure. It’s a little like German design but we put more warmth in.” Because the market for conceptual design is limited, few conceptual designers succeed: “How can they all fit into society? We need certain individualists to trigger people into new thinking but we also need designers in day-to-day situations. Boots still need to be designed: we need a lot of professionals to make the smaller steps.”
Friday January 30: Rotterdam
9.49 a meeting with Richard Hutten in the docklands of Rotterdam
Richard Hutten, one of the fathers of Dutch conceptual design, has designed for Droog since it was established. He runs his studio from an undistinguished factory in the Rotterdam docklands and it is not until we follow the big red plastic dots hung on the otherwise featureless wall that we can find the door. “A lot of Dutch designers complain they’re not making enough money,” Hutten says. He speaks precisely and economically with a direct, serious gaze, chain-smoking throughout. “Marcel Wanders is one of the few able to jump and work with foreign companies.” Only a quarter of Droog’s designers have achieved international recognition. Because the Netherlands has little native industry, attention from abroad is crucial. Hutten explains that as a result many Dutch designers tend to work more for museums. “They make art and folkloristic handcrafts and are unable to communicate with industry – they don’t understand the system.” Hutten argues that it is the designer’s role not just to make form, but also to pursue new ideas with manufacturers. Designers’ lack of commercial thinking is a long-running problem. “In the early 1990s we were in recession,” Hutten says. “There wasn’t much work and that combined with the lack of industry meant that many designers produced without asking themselves whether there was a market,” he says. “There’s too much statement – stories aren’t enough. This was definitely one of the mistakes I made.” Conceptual design is still very influential with students and the media worldwide, and Hutten, who lectures and teaches all over Europe, is still waiting for a generation to come up with a new set of ideas. “My work is very personal. Students should work in ways they feel most comfortable with, not how the magazines write.”
So what is it about the Dutch? What does this puny country with little to no manufacturing base and few name-brand designers, have to offer the rest of the world? In short: design that is more than skin deep. In a world in which design these days means packaging, propaganda or advertising, Dutch design makes you think. It proposes objects and images that maybe don’t always work more efficiently or smoothly than what those big in-house design studios can produce, and it lacks the zip and the pow those slick Brit star designers can come up with, but it does make you wonder. The best Dutch design makes you aware that we live in an artificial environment we have made together and continue to remake. With irony, wit, and earnest criticism, it dissects the objects, images and spaces of everyday use right in front of you, and then refuses to put them back together again. Figure it out, Dutch designers say, that is what our culture is all about.
There are very basic and logical reasons why Dutch design has taken this route. The first and most obvious point is that the historic core of the Netherlands, the area known as the “randstad” where seventy per cent of the population lives and works, is an artificial environment lying below sea level. It was reclaimed from the ocean, the rivers and the marshes. Onto this small territory crowd enough people to make this one of the most densely populated countries in the world. This is a truly artificial environment, in which space has to be continually divided up and reallocated to make room for everybody and everything. You also need really good signage to find your way through this dense labyrinth and a sense of humor to survive in close proximity. The best Dutch design does no more than make you conscious of that situation.
It’s not all destiny. For the last few decades, the Dutch government has supported design through subsidies, study programs, and direct propaganda. They realise that design is one of the few aspects of culture the Dutch do better than most. Tens of millions of euros a year are spent on exhibitions, symposia and seminars; museums, exhibitions and trade shows; installations, subsidies to small-scale manufacturers and commissions to young designers. If you are Dutch and want to show your work at the Salone di Mobile in Milan or the Design Museum in London, there is money to support that promotion.
All of that could still not add up and, in fact, for many decades it did not. There have always been talented Dutch designers, and especially in areas such as typography and chair design the Dutch have made strong contributions to modernism. Most of the design, however, was not particularly original or well-made. It was, however, ubiquitous, because it had to be to make this intense country work. It was not until Droog Design presented its first collection at the Salone in 1993, however, that something clicked. The direct outgrowth of decades of high modernism in education and commissioning, but also of a new consciousness about a need to preserve and reuse, collect and reassemble in an era of environmental and social limits, the products Renny Ramakers and Gijs Bakker collected into what became Droog Design were funny or sometimes cynical takes on the place of design in our world. They were often made out of strange combinations of cast-off materials, they were usually assemblages or collages, and they all had a conceptual point. In a society in which everything was designed and calibrated, they made you see the cracks, the gaps and the detritus of the past that surrounded you. The Dutch were the first to make us aware of our artificial environment. They blew all the city slickers with their plastic moulds right out of the salon.
By now several generations of designers have followed in the footsteps of those experiments, and some critics think that the Dutch wave has crested. That may be true, but it also might just have been poldered in. The Dutch are now learning how to integrate their methods with, on the one hand, larger and often international manufacturing techniques (Hella Jongerius for Maharam, Marcel Wanders for Moooi) and, on the other hand, with the international art scene. The last is evidenced by the major exhibition on Ten Years Droog currently at the Haus der Kunsten in Muenchen. This, too, is the Dutch way: map, mirror, invent and then invest, so that your work becomes invisible and the riches pile up in ever more complex compositions in the homeland. If the bankers and investors can do it, why not the designers? What Dutch designers have is an attitude: an ability to collect, analyse and make serious fun. That is something you can do everywhere, and they just might.
Aaron Betsky is director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute. His new book, False Flat, is published by Phaidon at £35