How Dutch designers are adopting a new craft-led approach
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Since Gerrit Rietveld and the de Stijl group helped to introduce modernism to the world in the early 20th century, Dutch design has inspired interiors around the world. In the late 1990s, the design company Droog, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, led the way towards an era of conceptual, collectable products and a period of design as art. But now a new Dutch style has started to emerge – a style that adopts a more craft-led approach with a focus on colour and natural materials, which is taking root at home and overseas.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a case in point. The museum, which houses the country’s national cultural collection, reopened in April after a 10-year, $500m renovation. Its interiors are dramatic: instead of traditional white walls typical of galleries across the world, its rooms are painted deep grey and charcoal to complement the Rembrandts, Vermeers and other Dutch masterpieces on its walls. “We’re beginning to see a broader colour palette, the deep blues and greys of the old master’s colours, back in vogue in Dutch interiors,” says graphic designer and blogger Irene Hoofs.
Take Pier Tjepkema and Willem Meek’s home in Mensingeweer, by the coast near Groningen. The couple run design store Laif & Nuver and their home features deep greens, blues and greys, enlivened by original wooden floors and rough-hewn wooden furniture. “We wanted to create something that was cosy but resembled a still life in presentation,” says Tjepkema. “In some ways the house is like a decorated image or painting.”
Irene Vermeulen, trend forecaster at the global crafts guide Craftscurator, says the move towards a warmer aesthetic is a reaction against the conceptual approach, which often saw function and warmth sacrificed in favour of the idea behind the product. “Dutch design was too conceptual for too long,” says Vermeulen, “but today the style is becoming more hands on and more down to earth.”
Designer Lex Pott is typical of the current trend in Dutch design in that he embraces traditional materials and processes but employs modern technology to create products that feel anything but antiquated. To create his Transience mirrors, Pott manipulates the natural oxidisation process of mirrored glass and the finished mirrors show various stages of oxidation in bold geometrical patterns. “Designers are taking craft and tradition as a starting place for innovation. It’s not about going back to traditional methods and reviving them simply for the sake of it,” says Vermeulen.
The Netherlands has a long history of craft, with techniques such as lace-making and crocheting employed in textiles and ceramics. Willow weaving, for example, is being used to create wood furniture and other objects. Today, Dutch designers are taking these old-fashioned skills and using them to create new forms.
Vermeulen points to the work of Scholten & Baijings, a design duo beginning to attract worldwide attention. The pair’s Colour Porcelain collection is part of a current show at the Art Institute of Chicago and their work was also exhibited at London’s V&A Museum during the London Design Festival last month. “Their work, with its focus on colour and aesthetics, is beginning to influence the direction of more mainstream brands,” says Vermeulen.
Stefan Scholten and Carole Baijings graduated at the peak of the Droog era but, says Scholten, “the conceptual approach that was dominant then felt too narrow for us”.
Instead, the pair took a more craft-led method to create a broad range of products, including glass, textiles, furniture and ceramics.
They work with traditional craftspeople but inject new technology and vivid colour to create modern products. Although local crafts, such as willow weaving and glassblowing play a part in some of their designs (notably their Grand Bernard glass jugs), most of the group’s designs have an international influence. The pair work with Danish furniture manufacturer Hay on furniture and textiles and are in talks with US-based manufacturers. They have also delved into the archives of 1616 Arita, one of Japan’s oldest ceramics companies, to create the Colour Porcelain collection.
This international outlook is in part a necessity: the Netherlands has always been a trading nation and its manufacturing sector is relatively small. According to the European Commission’s latest Eurostat figures, Dutch manufacturing turnover was €270bn in 2010, compared with Germany’s €1.75tn.
But there are cultural factors at play, too. The Dutch government identified the creative industry as a key economic growth sector and, for the past two decades, generous subsidies were made available to designers. But the financial crisis has seen an inevitable reduction in this financial support for the industry and designers have been forced to reconsider their approach in order to fund their work.
Jorre van Ast, creative director of Dutch furniture manufacturer and retailer Arco, says: “Dutch design evolved the way it did in the 1990s because of a lack of local industry and generous government subsidies. Both those factors gave designers the space to be more conceptual in their thinking and we have never had designers like Konstantin Grcic or Matthew Hilton, who take a commercial and more applied approach to their work and who are connected to industry.”
The financial crisis has changed that. Piet Hein Eek is one of the country’s best-known designers and made his name over the past decade with a range of handcrafted furniture. Made in his studio using reclaimed wood, the Scrap Wood collection was aimed at high-end collectors. In a sign of the changing times, Hein Eek has turned to industry, working with Vietnamese and Thai manufacturers on a range of ceramics for the Dutch fair trade organisation, and launching a wallpaper collection.
Other product designers are looking beyond mainstream furniture industry to find opportunities to work with scientists and engineers. Droog is collaborating on several projects, including one with creative groups DeMakersVan and Studio Molen and the solar energy company ECN.
“The project is investigating how to make solar panels more aesthetically pleasing,” says Droog co-founder and director Renny Ramakers. “Companies within the industry are keen to innovate and find ways to differentiate themselves, and the studios have come up with some visually exciting designs. We’re acting as the link between the science and the creative elements and working together to see if we can create some commercially viable new designs.”
Daan Roosegaarde is a rising Dutch star. In his studio, he employs creative industry specialists alongside scientists and engineers in equal number. He is working on a device for the Chinese government that is designed to remove smog from the air using static electricity and a “smart highways” project that uses simple tools, such as temperature responsive paint, to give drivers information about road conditions.
“Design isn’t just about new technology and creating new products, it’s about creating new ways of thinking,” says Roosegaarde. “The role of a designer is pushing people to think about the future rather than the past.”
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