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Amsterdam by Design

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Photo: Paul Bellaart

Consider Studio Job, a firm whose principal, Job Smeets, is among the Dutch design world's current stars. "Twenty years ago, no one would have been interested in using the techniques Job Smeets uses," Hekking said. Pointing out a Studio Job dowry trunk in the corner, Hekking noted that it was made using the inlaid-wood technique called marquetry. The last big design-world obsession was new technology, as we all know, and not a craft form as old as the guilds. "There is this link with the past," Hekking said. "There are these traditions and factories, and the designers are using the past now, instead of hiding from it."

Perhaps the least often acknowledged dimension of that past is the Dutch colonial adventure, very likely the origin of what the American critic Aaron Betsky—now director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam—admiringly termed the infusion of "spiritual beliefs borrowed from other cultures" into contemporary Dutch design.

More than once on my visit, it struck me that Holland's complex colonial past (Indonesia was not granted independence until 1950) was at least partly what her designers were attempting to invoke with all their scavenged rags and castoffs and their purposely naïve reworking of historical motifs.

When I saw Ramakers, I asked her about this. "That's your interpretation," she curtly replied.

Yet a visitor to hip Amsterdam shops like the Frozen Fountain or Droog or Pols Potten can hardly fail to note the embrace by designers of the country's layered history in all its complex ramifications. This includes the bourgeois coziness beloved by the Dutch and enshrined in the catchall word gezelligheid. It includes the vaunted simplicity exemplified in an observation often made of the Netherlands' queen: "Bea- trix is a simple person," a friend of mine explained, "but she is always 'Your Majesty.' " It includes the unexamined utilitarianism that was a requisite of global conquest: more than once on this trip it was pointed out to me that the Netherlands was the first multinational.

"At the end of the eighties there was a lot of design based only on form and on concealing technology," explained Cok de Rooy, co-owner of the Frozen Fountain, an influential design store located on the Prinsengracht. "Philippe Starck made a radio and you had to tell people it was a radio, because you couldn't figure out what it was or how to turn it on."

The frank legibility of designs by the Dutch who came after Starck evolved both in response to design-world conceits and also as a result of a native obsession with functional honesty. "Dutch designers want to say, 'Look at it. This is what it is. This is what it does,'" de Rooy said.

I thought then of the humorous Wookiee-like rugs, felted from the wool of sheep that she raises herself, by Claudy Jongstra; of cabinets mitered and assembled from Javanese scrap wood by Piet Hein Eek; of the fractured fairy-tale patterns of Table Stories, a set of china designed by Tord Boontje; of Hella Jongerius's dishware, whose flaws are preserved in homage to reality in an era of mandatory physical perfection; of the wittily tweaked blue-and-white delftware by Margit Seland, Jacob de Baan, and Marjet Wessels Boer.

The porcelain service Jurgen Bey recently produced for venerable manufacturer Royal Tichelaar Makkum (the oldest company in the Netherlands, founded in 1594) is made with clay mined from prehistoric Friesian deposits, using molds and relief techniques that date back to the 17th century. The anchor-and-chain shapes Studio Job employed to create deceptively massive-looking but actually light accessories for one of Viktor & Rolf's shows in Paris made clear allusions to the Netherlands' maritime past.

It was the Dutch architect and intellectual magpie Rem Koolhaas who once pointed out a hunger in contemporary life for historical depth, for coincidence, for what he termed "the rising and waxing of individual cultures and relationships." Koolhaas's observation came to mind one morning as I stumbled upon Amsterdam's eccentric and out-of-the-way Tropenmuseum, a wondrously weird hoard of loot accreted across the centuries during which the Dutch East Indies Company dominated the lucrative global trade in spice.

In a sense, the Tropenmuseum is a monument to what is romanticized as the golden age of exploration—and to a less splendid reality of fortunes made on the backs of coolies and slaves. The pepper prized for centuries at Continental tables was supplied by Dutch Sumatra. The Dutch-controlled islands of Banda grew nutmeg and mace. Dutch Molucca raised cloves; cinnamon bark came from Dutch Ceylon.

The enduring influence of subject cultures—those borrowed spiritual beliefs of Betsky's—continue to enrich Dutch design, albeit in ways that are sometimes intentionally left obscure. Or so it struck me when I came across a woolly-wigged effigy of the amateur scientist and collector Georg Rumphius.

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