Dutch treat

Lynda Relph-Knight talks to Dutch group Droog to learn what inspires its designers to make chairs out of rags and washbasins out of felt.

If you want to work with Droog Design, don’t feast too long on the images on these pages. The ground-breaking Dutch ensemble is on the look out for fresh thoughts, rather than a variation of what it has created before.

To the observer that is what separates Droog (pronounced Droha) from the rest. As with the Ron Arad/Ingo Maurer collaboration, it throws up new ideas and ways of working with conventional materials, earning it cult status on the fringe of product and furniture design.

Like the work of Arad and Maurer, Droog’s eclectic mix of designs makes a stunning sideshow to mainstream events such as the annual Milan furniture fair. But it was good to see a handful of Droog pieces in London earlier this summer at the opening of the Same “lifestyle” showroom in Shoreditch.

“You always see people smiling when they visit a show,” says Gijs (pronounced heis, the way Prince Charles would say “house”) Bakker, who, with Renny Ramakers, founded Droog (meaning “dry”) in 1993. It is refreshing, he says, to see their response to products that “talk”, but are neither glossy nor glamourous. Washbasins fashioned in polyurethane and stitched felt or a chest of drawers consisting of a bound assembly of recycled drawers may seem improbable, but you find yourself grinning and think “Why not?” nonetheless.

Bakker, originally a jewellery designer who sees jewellery as a way of communicating with people rather than ornament, puts Droog’s growing status over the past five years down to “a single secret”. “It is not a group of designers, but a collection of products,” he says. What links the products is the “chemistry” between him and Ramakers, former editor-in-chief of Dutch design magazine Industri&#235el Ontwerpen, as they “edit” contributions.

“You could describe us as very curious people,” he says, meaning inquisitive. “We’re open to being shocked or to things that provoke our brains. People applying to us (to have work included in the collection) often reflect what we’ve done in the past. But we’re moving forward.”

Like the Italian design movements of the Eighties – Ginbande, driven by Milan architect Alessandro Mendini, and Ettore Sottsass’ Memphis group – Droog is driven by a philosophy that is more about challenge than about what makes a product sell. Like those movements and the earlier Bauhaus in Germany, it goes beyond contemporary design, adding a social context to its ideas. But, its initiators are loath to be pigeonholed.

Many early pieces in the collection had, for example, a recycled theme – more a comment on the times by designers such as Tejo Remy, author of the chest of drawers, a rag chair and other Droog “classics”, and Marcel Wanders than Droog’s main motivation. The new generation of Dutch designers of the late Eighties took the Dutch tendency towards basics a step further, producing stripped down, styleless products, according to Ramakers. They weren’t created for mass production or with function as their central theme, though both have since proved possible.

This simplicity and the recycling by Remy and other new graduates of familiar fitted neatly with the Green thinking of the late Eighties and early Nineties. And it was from this pool of talent that Droog first drew.

“We found ourselves driven by the environmental thing,” says Bakker of Droog’s original collection, “so we went to the aircraft industry to counterbalance it.” What followed has proved to be quite different, though equally audacious.

Droog started a collaboration with manufacturer DMD in 1993, and that continues. But designers featured in the collection – such as Hella Jongerius and Dick van Hoff, authors respectively of the polyurethane and stitched felt washbasins – have experimented with materials and form to an extent that Droog has also been brought in by mainstream manufacturers to push the process forward. These include German ceramics company Rosenthal, now part of the Wedgwood line-up, Italian lighting company Flos, a French perfume house and Mandarina Duck. But, however successful these collaborations are, Droog is more likely to be remembered for its influence, than for particular products.

One reason for this is that, like so many design “movements”, it has strong academic connections. It started out, says Bakker, by picking out items from college shows for its collection. It was in its second year that Bakker and Ramakers started to initiate projects. The Droog collection has since been exhibited all over the world, though mainly in European shows, representing the new wave of design.

You might ask why The Netherlands is home to such a venture, given the UK’s claim to the title Cool Britannia, the ascendancy of the Royal College of Art as a hothouse of creative talent and a Government that at least plays lip-service to design. Quite apart from the chemistry between Ramakers and himself, Bakker puts it down to fundamental national differences.

Like it or not, the class system continues in the UK, with a royal family that is not altogether toothless at its head. The Dutch, he maintains, have the oldest democracy in Europe. There is more socialist emotion in The Netherlands and no hierarchy. The Dutch are a small community, but are strong consumers. They don’t produce much themselves, but have a strong consumer tradition built over centuries as a trading nation. It helps that home electronics giant Philips shares a building with the Eindhoven Academy of Industrial Design, where Bakker teaches. It is particularly good news that the visionary Italian Stefano Marzano is design director there and heads an exploratory “futures” unit.

Tony Blair’s support of design is a new thing in Britain, whereas successive Dutch governments have shown the way by example. In the Sixties and Seventies Dutch graphics was boosted by government commissions, bringing the likes of Gert Dumbar to the fore. Now all design is “on the spot”, says Bakker.

The simplicity of Droog designs is part of the Dutch Calvinist tradition, though you don’t have to be Dutch. Previously an art director in the ceramics industry, Bakker commissioned Australian designer Marc Newson for projects some years ago, and more recently Jasper Morrison. Now there are Spanish and German designers on Droog’s books and Bakker and Ramakers “follow the design magazines in London”.

As ever, this year’s Milan fair marked the debut of a new presentation by Droog. Entitled The Inevitable Ornament, it took decoration as its theme – a departure for a group known more for austere experimentation – with work by ten designers including Jongerius, van Hoff and Wanders. But this year’s big launch for Droog has been its book, Droog Design: Spirit of the Nineties, designed by Roelof Mulder. Edited by Ramakers and Bakker, this collection of images and essays puts Droog in context with other design philosophies and social changes, while providing an inspirational catalogue of its work.

As for the future, Bakker is not easily drawn. Much will depend on what catches his and Ramakers’ imagination. But, with decoration already on the agenda, Bakker says it might be to do with colour. He also loves the idea of mass-production – when a Dutch department store took on a Droog dishmop for mass-consumption he was thrilled.

But, he adds, “It’s difficult to stay fresh when you’re trying to do it for 1000 people.” Could that be the next challenge.

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