A Gift for Everyone
Published: June 2009
By Shax Riegler
From de Stijl to Droog, Amsterdam's shops and markets offer something for everyone
Dutch design is white-hot; the buzz is deafening. New York's MOMA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have mounted shows. Karl Lagerfeld and other style mavens snap up the newest furniture and objects of Droog, a foundation dedicated to promoting forward-looking Dutch talent. And on the clothing front, Viktor & Rolf, Josephus Thimister, and Saskia Van Drimmelen have taken bored fashionistas by storm (though their looks have yet to be seen much beyond runways and magazine layouts).
Yet despite the high profile, it's practically impossible to just walk into a store and buy some of the most sought-after pieces. (Generous government grants free Dutch artists and designers from the need to produce for commercial consumption.) But not to worry: intrepid shoppers descending on Amsterdam in search of cool creations will be delighted by the city's unrivaled antiques shops and flea markets.
Frozen Fountain 629 Prinsengracht; 31-20/622-9375. Since 1992, this beautiful two-story shop has been a mecca for design junkies. Partners Dick Dankers and Cok de Rooy display one-of-a-kind contemporary furniture and home accessories crafted by artisans and students. They're also Amsterdam's best source for Droog items: the aluminum furniture of Piet Hein Eek (table, $830; chair, $230; step stool, $380); Rody Graumans's iconic 85 Lamps ($1,600), a bouquet of bare lightbulbs suspended upside down. Unlike Droog, however, which presents all the work under its own name, "we want to foster individual designers," Dankers says. If something's too big for your suitcase, the store can ship it, but best to stick with portable trinkets like the StarLED ($6) and HeartLED ($7.50), sculpted bits of wire and tiny bulbs soldered into the shape of a star or heart; the Critter ($10), a storklike windup toy, with exposed mechanism, that hops around on its long legs; and the Lucky You ($5), a vacuum-packed chunk of vermiculite that produces a single four-leaf clover when watered.
HEMA 208 Kalverstraat; 31-20/422-8988. "Imagine a store like Wal-Mart that has the style of MOMA," says Aaron Betsky, curator of architecture, design, and digital projects at SFMOMA. Betsky included several of HEMA's products in his museum's show "Do Normal: Recent Dutch Design" last summer. "Along with their food-hall sausages-- for which they're famous-- you'll find some of the greatest watches for less than twenty-five dollars. I own about six of them." In recent years, HEMA, which stands for Hollandische Enheidstrizen Maatschappy Amsterdam-- small wonder no one uses the full name-- has held student competitions organized around themes such as garden lighting and alarm clocks. It's a way of encouraging young talent while searching for new products. And fabulous work radiates from every aisle: colorful, geometrically patterned tote bags ($10), practical yet chic toiletry kits ($18), thick stationery in a rainbow palette. Even the straightforward, minimalist packaging of household ammonia, permanent markers, and cans of paint is remarkable.
Leitmotiv 20 Nieuwe Spiegelstraat; 31-20/625-3366. In Amsterdam's staid antiques district, Leitmotiv is the wild card, with its huge furry pillows from India ($100), plastic crates recycled into garden furniture ($410), coatracks made of deconstructed wooden hangers ($85), and some of the funkiest light fixtures around. In Bart van Heesch's luminous creations, bare bulbs glow inside wire cages hung with the empty frosted-glass casings of industrial lightbulbs (The E-14) or tiny, clear glass bottles (The Chandelier with 48 Bottles).
Chambre d'Amis 58 Bloemgracht; 31-20/623-6204. Owner Johan de Feijter founded Chambre d'Amis by accident. "I used to fill my house with things I'd find at flea and Belgium," he says. "A few years ago there was an art fair in my neighborhood, and someone asked if she could show her paintings in my house. As they walked through, people kept asking to buy my things, and I thought, Maybe I should go into business." These days, in his front room, kitchen, and courtyard garden, you'll find all the flea-market treasures you've been too impatient to hunt for -- vintage mercury-glass bowls ($190) and candlesticks ($125), creamy ceramic French, Belgian, and Dutch tableware from the 1800's, turn-of-the-century photographs. Since the exquisitely edited store is a sideline for de Feijter (he's a sexologist), he keeps eccentric hours -- usually Thursday through Saturday, noon to six.
De Looier Kunst & Antiekcentrum 109 Elandsgracht; 31-20/624-9038. Upon entering this group antiques market, you'll find yourself drawn into a vast maze of showcases featuring vintage delftware, early-20th-century pottery, mid-century furniture, books, watches, eggcups, even translucent plastic bangles embedded with real beetles. At half the stands, you can haggle directly with the owner. See something you like in one of the unmanned showcases?Ring a service bell and a staff member will hurry over to help (prices of these items are not negotiable). On Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, De Looier sets up tables where civilians come to hawk their goods -- you never know what you'll find.
Rommelmarkt 38 Looiersgracht; no phone. Around the corner from De Looier is another immense indoor flea market, though this one's a bit lower in quality. (But you might find that vintage schoolroom art or Three Degrees album you can't live without.) Speaking of flea markets, Amsterdam has several good outdoor ones, including the Noordermarkt (Monday, 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m., opposite the Noorderkerk) and the Waterlooplein (Monday-Saturday, 9-5, behind the Stadhuis). For books and old ephemera, in all languages, check out the weekly Boekenmarkt, or book market (Friday, 10-3, on the Spui).
Fifties-Sixties 13 Huidenstraat; 31-20/623-2653. Hundreds of vintage lamps hang from the ceiling and stand on the floor. Shiny chrome housewares -- toasters, blenders, vacuum cleaners -- crowd the shelves. Of course, you'll need to rewire the appliances when you get home, but your stuff will look terrific, and at these prices you'll be able to pay an electrician to do your dirty work.
Kitsch Kitchen 21-23 Eerste Bloemdwarsstraat; 31-20/428-4969. When Amsterdam's pervasive good taste gets to be too much, Kitsch Kitchen's Mexican, Guatemalan, Indian, Chinese, and African products in Day-Glo colors are the ideal antidote. Garish lucky charms, wacky gift wrap, and bowls, cups, and plates are fashioned from all kinds of recycled castoffs.
Nic Nic 5 Gasthuismolensteeg; 31-20/622-8523. Hanna-Barbera meets Piet Mondrian at Nic Nic, providing Amsterdam's best selection of 1950's and 60's housewares, lamps, and furniture. You could easily spend an hour just gazing at the tchotchke-filled window -- swinging stripper glasses, Technicolor tea sets, tacky souvenirs from an earlier generation's vacations. But definitely make your way inside, where the friendly staff is more than happy to bargain with you.
A Space Oddity 204 Prinsengracht; 31-20/427-4036. Still depressed about your mother tossing your Millennium Falcon spaceship?This meticulously organized toy shop can fill the loss. Not only does it have an enormous selection of Star Wars collectibles from 1977's Episode IV to this year's Episode I, but you'll also find mint Corgi cars, Pee-wee Herman dolls, and the latest action figures from Japan, among tons of plastic playthings you haven't seen in years.
Dominio 301 KNSM Laan; 31-20/419-0546. Out on the KNSM Island (a 20-minute bus ride from Centraal Station), a hip new residential development where a shipping company formerly unloaded cargo, the cavernous Dominio welcomes shoppers hungry for style with Italian overtones. After 12 years in Milan, owner Taco Joustra returned to Amsterdam and opened this two-story emporium: "I try to show people that it's possible to combine past, present, and future in a great way." Here you can pick up the perennial winner of Tuscany's annual olive oil festival, Fattoria di Massedonica ($14), and be fitted for a custom-made shirt ($100) -- Joustra works with tailors in Naples. You can also score classic furniture pieces such as Poltro Nova's Joe chair (shaped like a baseball) and vintage sixties ceramics by Ettore Sottsass. A tiny espresso bar sells panini and biscotti. While you're on the island, check out Dominio's equally enormous neighbors: World of Wonders (an Ali Baba's cave piled high with embroidered pillows and colorful linens), Pilat & Pilat (sophisticated furniture), and Pol's Potten Amsterdam (quirky kitchen and garden supplies). For something macabre, cross the street, cut through an apartment complex, and head to the waterfront, where De Ode sells gorgeous custom-built coffins. If only you could take it all with you.
Queen for a Day
Once a year, on April 30, Amsterdam is transformed into a huge outdoor flea market. Most of the residents set up tables in front of their houses to honor Queen's Day, a citywide birthday party for Her Royal Highness, Beatrix. It's an amazing display of bargaining and drinking that gets under way on the 29th.
Sue Cowell, an English designer living in Amsterdam, says she turns Queen's Day into "a quest for saucy trinkets to use as birthday gifts throughout the year." Last year she picked up a set of colorful, square Pyrex coffee cups and saucers for $1.25 each.
Ron Beinner, a photo producer at Vanity Fair, has traveled to Amsterdam for Queen's Day seven years in a row. His favorite hunting ground is the Jordaan neighborhood. "Once, I found a little de Stijl-style mirror near some garbage cans at the end of the day."
New York freelance photographer David Bartolomi was dubious when he went last spring. "A funky cookie tin for fifty cents got me in the mood. Best was a set of Pioneer headphones from the seventies -- they look aerodynamic. They work perfectly. And they only cost a guilder!"
"Never assume an item will be too expensive," says American nightclub singer Kate Holder. One vendor was selling a gypsy painting. When a buyer offered $8, he declared, "Too much!" and began soliciting better prices from the crowd. Holder bid fifty cents. "My heart was pounding -- but I got it!"
Shax Riegler is an associate editor at Travel & Leisure.