The craft skills of Piet Boon

He doesn’t conform to the image of the eccentric Dutch designer, but Piet Boon is achieving success through craft skills and the ability to understand the needs of his clients. David Chaloner looks at his work

I was talking with a floor tiler the other day about his trade and experience. He was diligently sweeping arcs across wet screed, in a tight space, prior to repairing a black-and-white ceramic floor, effortless, exact and impressive in his movements. He explained that he had always wanted to follow in his father’s trade, and did, picking up the techniques and tricks from the older craftsmen he worked alongside, eager for knowledge of their many skills.

The exchange reminded me of a comment made by Piet Boon, the Dutch designer, who said, ‘What I can’t make, I won’t design’.

This simple ethos has informed Boon’s career. As much artisan as architect, craftsman as designer, where a complete project, working with his partner Karin and a committed team of professionals, delivers an integrity of vision rare in a world driven by contracts, completion dates and cost expediencies.

It is refreshing, too, when Dutch design has seemingly been hijacked by an increasing reliance on wilful exaggeration and eccentricity and it is, perhaps, why so little of his work has been included in the many illustrated books now available. I predict that will change as Boon’s reputation – and examples of his consultancy’s work – spread beyond The Netherlands.

The early development of the consultancy hinged on its founders building knowledge and skills, having a fully functional workshop – then located below the design studio – and possessing an innate ability to balance strict design principles with client briefing. This created the enviable working relationship of having a prototyping capability adjacent to the design studio. A group of craftsmen and women, who not only selected materials, but also understood their suitability for any given project, where details might be discussed at full size, in three dimensions and away from the limiting frame of a computer screen.

This craft-based methodology quickly led to a furniture range that is often used in the Boon housing projects, and exists under the separate trade name Piet Boon Zone, with its own retail outlet in Amsterdam and a growing range of fabrics for the Zone furniture range, as well as light fittings that complement and enhance the single-minded direction of a project’s vision.

There are a number of private house commissions that comfortably fit their local vernacular, and the Boons’ own house is complete with gardens designed by fellow Dutch visionary, garden designer Piet Oudolf. The structure follows a form derived from local buildings using natural materials that hug the flat landscape and create a perfect dialogue with their surroundings.

I asked two clients why they chose Boon to carry out residential projects. Both, without prompting, said, ‘We like his work and he understands our needs.’ Their responses were immediate and clear. Would that commercial clients could summon such decisive answers when searching for designers to work with. It seems that Boon has tapped a vein that appeals across a spectrum of projects, from houses, both fixed and floating, through automotive styling and hotel design, to furniture, fabrics and ironmongery. A recent addition to the business is a kitchen furniture range that will extend the design influence into new and expanding markets. It has been a long-term dream to produce an affordable version of its one-off kitchens.

Much of the appeal of the early work is embedded in the cultural understanding and integration of space, materials and context in a challenging landscape. A lightness of touch, where each small detail has significance in the final manifestation of the project, and the ability to engage with the user’s desires and the builder’s skills in a seemingly effortless process.

It should be emphasised that such practitioners are rare, not just in Holland, but also throughout Europe. However, in The Netherlands, where form and flamboyance have for a decade subsumed content and purpose, where the next big idea is a sad reflection of the last, there are emerging examples of a rigorous determination to avoid the pitfalls of wanting to be a designer ‘rock star’ and instead continue to produce a body of work that will continue to enrich the canon and act as a testimony to the skills of a hands-on, craft-based method of design articulation.

There are three books on Boon’s work published in The Netherlands, all with Dutch/English texts, beautifully illustrated with detailed case studies. Few examples of his work are available in the UK. This lack of acknowledgement will no doubt change very soon – it will be both deserved and overdue.

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