Yet like its one-time colony, New York, Amsterdam bristles with mechanical cranes. Dumpsters jam the tiny lanes laddered between muddy canals. And so one has to wonder how long the city's more evocative and ramshackle quarters will stave off the sanitizing influx of wealth, how long the politicians will continue to cede the heart of the city to glorious vice, and whether the whole place will soon enough take on the tedious sameness with which so many cities now seem cursed.
But thoughts like this were far from my mind as I dined one evening at a street café with French pretensions and New York prices, which could only be reached along an alley at the terminus of the Red Light District's main drag. When a jittery American couple arrived to claim their reservation, they were accompanied by an embarrassed hotel bellman kitted out in a buttoned tunic and monkey cap. For a brief moment after their duenna took off, I considered sending the couple a drink and suggesting that they relax. A little edginess, some disorientation, a bit of contradiction: isn't that half the point of leaving home?The area's potheads, I wanted to explain, were too spaced-out to present much trouble. The prostitutes, it was worth noting, were simply business people pulling up the shades for a night of love-for-sale.
Paradox is a "very Dutch thing,'' an antiques dealer named Hesdy Artist explained to me the following afternoon, the two of us seated on plump bergères in a gallery he owns near the Spiegel-kwartier, Amsterdam's antiques district. "In one way, nobody in Holland wants to stand out,'' Artist says, alluding to the prevalent "act normal" ethos. In another, less overt sense, the Dutch, he explained, like it understood that beneath their very proper image an unruly spirit lies barely concealed.
Artist himself is a clear anomaly in some basic ways, at least professionally. "There are very few dark people in antiques sales in Holland,'' says the 37-year-old former banker, whose skin is the color of a ripe plum. "Maybe in Europe," he adds. "Maybe the world."
To browse through Artist's stock of Dutch copies of 18th-century French furniture, or 19th-century English copies of 17th-century Flemish silver, or 17th-century lithographs of old master paintings of slaves, is to conclude that his taste is far from the concerns of contemporary Netherlands designers. Yet it seemed to me that much of the Dutch output now captivating the international marketplace has something in common with Artist's interest in mining what appear to be exhausted veins of history.
Among cognoscenti, the names of Dutch designers have taken on near-totemic status: Hella Jongerius, Marcel Wanders, Jurgen Bey, Piet Hein Eek, Tejo Remy—each has contributed so much to Holland's current stature on the international map that it is still a little startling to recall that most were unknowns before the debut, at the 1993 Milan Furniture Fair, of a Dutch collective called Droog.
For that first show, Droog's founders, Renny Ramakers and Gijs Bakker, cracked the lacquered surface of the design world with a bunch of materially humble and intellectually sophisticated objects that were unlike anything anyone could recall having seen before. A dresser was made from secondhand drawers jumbled atop each other and loosely held with a belt. A bookcase was formed of compressed paper. A chair was shaped from bundled rags lashed with industrial packing straps.
These same objects, of course, now turn up everywhere—at New York shops like Moss, at high-end auctions held by Phillips de Pury, and at prestigious fairs like Design '05 in Miami, where a New York dealer sold as a rarefied object Remy's aforementioned chest of drawers, charging roughly as much as a BMW might cost. That the dresser is still in production at Droog might be reason enough for some folks to get on a plane to Amsterdam.
"Of course, we still make it," Ramakers told me one afternoon in the conference room of the company headquarters, a simple attic space where an artist had been commissioned to paint each surface and object a different shade of blue.
"We're getting one in tomorrow if you're interested," the pragmatic Ms. Ramakers remarked.
One afternoon I asked the furniture dealer Wiet Hekking what it was about Dutch designers that had suddenly made their work so appealing. The two of us were drinking iced tea at WonderWood, the gallery where he sells classic 20th-century objects alongside work by Droog alumni and newcomers like Karel de Boer, whose laser-cut mirrors are inspired by Rorschach inkblot tests.
"We Dutch have a tremendously rich history, and for years we didn't really understand that," Hekking said. From outside the windows came the unexpected rhythm of hoofbeats on cobblestones. "The 16th century in the 21st century," Hekking said, grinning at the anachronism. "That is the point."