There is a conundrum at the high end of interiors: do you go for the ubiquitous aubergine and silver decor with monumental faux stone vases favoured by stratospherically priced developments from Hong Kong to London? Spend hundreds of hours scrolling through design blogs? Or follow word-of-mouth recommendations for designers whose end result may or may not be quite what you’d wanted?
A new movement among innovative designers may offer a practical answer: ateliers or workshops, created by leading entrepreneurial designers, that double as living showrooms where staff and visitors eat, drink and relax.
A few pioneering Dutch designers, such as Marcel Wanders, Piet Hein Eek, Belgian-Dutch duo Studio Job, and one Englishman, Tom Dixon, are creating these spaces for visitors to get a feel of what it’s like to live in one of their interiors.
In the industrial Dutch city of Eindhoven, Hein Eek, famous for his playful furniture constructed from thickly lacquered scrapwood, has created a universe of his own within two adjoining, formerly abandoned, brick warehouses that he bought for just under €3m in 2009. Once used by Philips to manufacture ceramic objects, when the walls and ceilings were taken down and rooms were divided by glass walls, the factory complex went from being “the darkest building in Eindhoven to the lightest and most transparent one”, writes Hein Eek in a book about the conversion. The result is a “transparent company in a transparent building”.
This factory-cum-concept shop and atelier is now a hive of activity. The largest building houses Hein Eek’s production facilities and offices, as well as a two-storey gallery over the ground-level shop, where he sells his own designs alongside vintage glass bottles and signs, and pieces by other designers, such as turquoise ceramic dishes made by his wife Jeanine. Staff and visitors meet in the colourful café filled with Hein Eek’s scrapwood furniture and chandeliers made from vintage glass lampshades.
“I wanted to create a whole, self-sufficient world in which the company, our ideas and products, could be presented in a totally distinctive way. It would be a place that visitors would want to stop by, a destination,” he writes
And the visitors do come: more people than Hein Eek had imagined, from Amsterdam, from Berlin, from Japan. What Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli was to gourmands, Hein Eek’s factory has become, in a smaller way, to design lovers. They come to see (and buy) his work but, more importantly, they come to experience the world according to Piet Hein Eek: a compelling collage of interiors that mixes found objects with vintage pieces and his own original designs within a light-filled, industrial space.
Shortly before Hein Eek bought his factory in Eindhoven, British designer Tom Dixon was initiating a similar project with an industrial redevelopment on the Grand Union Canal in London. The economic crisis in 2008 had given him the chance to buy, at a low price, a building that in the 1980s had been the offices of Virgin Records.
Originally planned as a new headquarters for his growing showroom and studios, over the past few years the space, a 3,700 sq metre brick and glass Victorian wharf complex, has evolved into something more than just a work space: there’s an eclectic shop filled with curated objects, from Brompton Bikes to Cire Trudon candles; a tea shop called Tart overseen by Dixon’s daughter Florence; a showroom laid out like a multi-room stage set and built with materials (copper, wood and cast iron) inspired by his designs; and the popular restaurant Dock Kitchen. On any given night, when most design offices are closed, the connected buildings – which resemble glasshouses – are glowing with the warm light that emits from Dixon’s copper pendant lamps.
No fan of design fairs, Dixon says he wanted to show his work in a real world context rather than just showing “two chairs and a new lamp on a podium”. “It’s more interesting to see something as part of a functioning living space. It’s fantastic to have a stage to indulge the things I am interested in. I can bring in friends and collaborate with people I respect. It’s the beginning of a network of like-minded shops and people that work together and share experiences. It’s a bit utopian. We’re not completely there yet but it’s a very healthy way of doing business.”
Dutch designer Marcel Wanders, too, has always been extremely adept at creating his own self-sufficient design worlds. When he co-founded the design company Moooi in 2001, he created a commercial platform for his own work as well as for the work of other designers he admired. Not one to think small, when it came time for his offices to move into a larger space, Wanders decided to convert a former schoolhouse in Amsterdam’s Jordaan district into a laboratory of working spaces, not just for himself but for other creative businesses.
In 2006, with investment from Aedes Real Estate, he created the Westerhuis: five storeys of work spaces and showrooms designed with the same clashing colourful interiors Wanders is known for. He moved his studio, as well as the Moooi headquarters, into the Westerhuis; it is also home to a contemporary art gallery, a production company, a photography school and several other marketing and advertising businesses.
“The building offers special qualities like high ceilings and a lot of light,” says Paul Geertman, managing director of Aedes Real Estate. “On every floor is an excellent kitchen and there are places to mingle with other tenants. It’s about creating extra economic, social and cultural value – a smart mix of all three.”
Wanders explains that he designed the Westerhuis to be a place where innovative people can form a real-time – not online – social network. “It’s like the medieval European craft guilds where artisans would exchange information and ideas. If you hang out with people you respect and like to be around, you inspire each other.”
The Westerhuis is so lucrative (the building had 120 applicants for 16 available spaces) that Wanders is now in the process of creating several work spaces in a former library building on the Prinsengracht that also includes the newly opened Andaz hotel, designed by Wanders. Up next: another building for creative businesses in Amsterdam’s developing east district.
Back in Eindhoven, duo Studio Job, known for their provocative Holocaust-themed pieces and a cast bronze furniture series that comments on the excess of Russian oligarchs, are currently negotiating an equally ambitious architectural project: the Studio Job Building. Along with a developer (a collector of their work), they plan to take over one of the city’s empty buildings and turn it into a complex for creatives.
Since 2009, when Job Smeets and his partner Nynke Tynagel opened the Studio Job Gallery in Antwerp, the two have been experimenting with spaces that make a break from the traditional industrial design process. Last year they debuted their Studio Job Villa in Eindhoven, a modernist villa designed by a friend of Gerrit Rietveld in the late 1950s that is a permanent showcase for both their work and their impressive personal collection of mid-century Dutch and Italian furniture. Although it is usually open to visitors by appointment, they have also lived in it themselves for weeks at a time.
“It’s a combination of historical and contemporary pieces that you’d never see in a gallery or at a design fair,” says Smeets. “It’s a space in which you might imagine that the owners collected this work over their lifetime.”
‘There’s a lot of what I call artistic licence’
In Hastings, on England’s south coast, photographer and food journalist Alistair Hendy has created his own take on the atelier with two ventures: a house and shop that let you glimpsehis romanticised vision of the past, and then buy into that vision, writes Nathan Brooker.
The Tudor House is a charmingly uneven 500-year-old property that Hendy has spent five years restoring – pulling out everything from the contemporary bathrooms to the fitted kitchen with the aim of creating a rustic idyll. But Hendy’s house isn’t trying to recreate the past; it is entirely – proudly – unauthentic. “There’s a lot of what I call artistic licence,” he says, which is clear from his props and trinkets. There’s an old Bakelite telephone, for example, and a range of primitive wooden buckets, slippers and ceramic ware imported, new, from eastern Europe.
Open to the public for a few weekends each year, the Tudor House is otherwise Hendy’s second home. No retail is done in the house; that’s saved for his other premises. AG Hendy & Co’s Home Store and Restaurant is a Georgian building made to look like an Edwardian hardware shop. It’s the past according to Alistair Hendy again, with no consistent period to the stock – there are lines of Denby ceramics not made since the 1930s; Beryl crockery by Woods Ware and a selection of brushes and dusters made new in Germany. Two assistants are decked out in old-fashioned livery but, while they might be at home selling Hendy’s curated mixture of old and new hardware, they’re less confident with some of the shop’s more antiquated features, frequently checking on the shop’s hissing log fireplaces.
The restaurant is in the back, with artfully weathered tables. It’s open for lunch on weekends, serving hearty seaside fare cooked by Hendy himself, and is becoming very popular. “It’s still very much a shop,” says Hendy, musing on what to call the Home Store since the restaurant opened six months ago. “I just wanted to create a different type of shopping experience, and I think that’s what we’ve done.”
See ‘Curious Georgian’