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Dutch, by Design

Back at my hotel, I collapse, but soon enough the siren call of Amsterdam's infamous red-light district beckons. It certainly provides a contrast with the quiet chic of the Nine Little Streets: teenagers crowd the bridges, many of them actively inhaling that other merchandise for which Amsterdam is so famous. In all, the neighborhood strikes me as a schoolboy's fantasy of vice, with nothing really dangerous going on, despite the illicit trappings.

Oddly enough, there is more than one upscale shop in the area. A block away from a porn supermarket is Capsicum Natuurstoffen, a pristine emporium where glass shelves fairly burst with ikat coverlets ($104) and smocked cotton kimonos ($238). The American owners became fascinated with textiles while traveling in India and opened the shop in 1975. Capsicum doesn't carry synthetics, and the proprietors are involved in a number of India's social service projects: "Fair trade is very important to us," a saleswoman tells me earnestly.

I have my heart set on a visit to Droog Design, Amsterdam's famously frisky collective, known for developing arcane but useful products and for nurturing young talent. Unfortunately, when I arrive at their headquarters I find out that they are in the midst of moving and the showroom is shuttered. So I'm not able to examine any of the products—the stemware made to resemble Bubble Wrap, the knotted chairs by Marcel Wanders—I've heard so much about. (Droog has since opened a larger shop on Staalstraat, just a few blocks away.)

One of the odd, appealing things about this city is that a block or two from the red-light raunch, the town reverts to the dignified grace that characterizes the vast majority of its streets. Wandering away from those scarlet-lit windows, I find Grimm Sieraden, a consortium featuring 30 jewelers, including Ela Bauer, who takes copper wire, silver-plates it, and adds melted car-window glass for a bit of dazzle. The stunningly original results include earrings ($73) that look like gossamer fishing nets.

The next day is Friday, when the weekly secondhand-book market is held in Spui Square. It's very well organized, but you can still leaf freely through the Dutch children's primers and 19th-century English novels without making a purchase. (Warning: Don't try this in Spain! There, dealers practically slapped my hands when I tried to fondle the merchandise.) Next I stop into the department store Maison de Bonneterie, an amazing architectural relic, like a miniature Galeries Lafayette, with stained-glass windows and a monumental curved staircase. Alas, there's not much to buy at Maison, although a few doors down Jan Jansen has plenty of reasonably priced, Dutch-designed footwear—plaid booties, puckered ballet slippers—that is perfect for this walking, biking city.

Luckily, my own shoes are flat, since I'm off to spend the afternoon in the Jordaan, a once-raffish working-class enclave that has become a magnet for young designers. At Goldstrasse, I am mesmerized by a ring ($268) made of silver, aquamarine, and a swatch of fur, and get involved in a long talk about how you train to become a goldsmith in Holland; at Eva Damave, I linger over the store's trademark patchwork sweaters ($366), hand-sewn of brightly colored square panels. I am still debating whether one of these pullovers will make me look like a female Hans Brinker—in a good way—when I stumble upon the shop of Richard Walraven, who works at his bench right in the store and has built an international reputation crafting silver and gold for more than 20 years. I am enchanted by his designs: the spare, geometric cutlery; the attenuated silver candlesticks; and, especially, the necklaces. One looks exactly like a paper chain; another seems composed of straightforward circles until Walraven shows me that the "circles" are intricate, interlocking loops. He explains: "When you look at one of my pieces, I want you to have a question: How does it work?" The northern light is fading outside the window, and although I know there are many, many shop thresholds yet uncrossed, the laid-back atmosphere of the Jordaan is infectious.

Suddenly, Walraven leans into his showcase, retrieves a necklace, and deftly unhinges the apparently permanently fused links. He could be talking about Amsterdam's retail scene, and the works of all the young designers I've seen, when he says, smiling, "You think it's simple, but it's not."

LYNN YAEGER is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.


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