Amsterdam by Design
Published: April 2009
By Guy Trebay
Greetings from Amsterdam, where the locals' innate talent for taking the everyday and making it supercool has ushered in a new golden age of design—and landed the city squarely in the global spotlight
Right before I set off for the Netherlands' fine and aqueous and legendarily tolerant capital, friends who know Amsterdam well informed me that rumors of a city wreathed in a marijuana nimbus were, if not altogether untrue, misleading and unfair.
Sure, they said, one finds "coffee shops" devoted to the sale of marijuana and hashish and space cakes and bongs and seeds and hookahs, and also a score of cheery establishments that offer magic mushrooms in settings as bright and consumer-friendly as a Ben & Jerry's store. Yet keep in mind, my friends added, how, under pressure from the United States and her anxious neighbors in the European Union, Holland has lately deployed the might of its narcotics, tax, licensing, and social welfare bureaus to restore what it could of the old windmills-and-wooden shoes aura to an urban landscape that had come to seem as if it had been hijacked by the spawn of Cheech & Chong.
The number of Amsterdam's coffee shops, my friends were quick to point out, has dwindled radically over the past 15 years. Whereas in 1990 there were 480 of them, now only 200 or so remain. And yet I cannot have been dreaming that the city in which I arrived on a fantastically hot and drowsy July afternoon—a day of milk-blue cloudless skies during the longest sustained heat spell the country had known since records were first kept in the 18th century—was also experiencing a parallel weather front, this one composed of a sweet marijuana fog.
It was pointless to try to ignore it. The odor insinuated itself everywhere. Drifting along the street where I ate dinner on my first night at a canal-side restaurant, it blanketed the robust taste of the wild salmon I had ordered and killed the delicate aroma of a plateful of river shrimp, each hardly larger than a comma.
It crept through the vent of a high-end store where I went to peruse rarities by great Dutch designers like Gerrit Rietveld. It snaked through the shutters at another restaurant like the vaporous genie in comics, the kind that alters shape to form a beckoning hand.
Let me state promptly, in the interest of full disclosure, that I have inhaled. This, however, was many decades ago. My vices now run almost exclusively to intoxicants produced by grape fermentation, so Amsterdam's reputation as a Valhalla for lovers of cannabis turned out to hold no appeal. I could say the stuff was a nuisance, but that would make me sound like a party pooper and a grump. And it would be pointless, too, since the hotel where I was lodged was adjacent to the Red Light District in the oldest part of town.
Once a convent, then a city hall, and now a fancy hostelry, the Grand is where Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands chose to celebrate her civic wedding many years ago; though billed as a pleasantly stuffy five-star, and not a louche rock-star, hotel, it happened that the place was packed with musicians during my stay, many of them inked all over with the Technicolor graffiti characteristic of the tribe. Somehow I found all the tattooed rockers in the lobby reassuring, since their presence took a little pressure off my brief.
I had come to Amsterdam to look into the notion that the city had stealthily turned into a capital of style, an idea that, when I remarked on it to some Dutch fashion designers of my acquaintance, gave them to look at me as if I were stoned.
"Actually, the reason we remain here is the absence of style," said Rolf Snoeren, who, in partnership with Viktor Horsting, makes up the gifted design team of Viktor & Rolf. "There's so little stimulus, it helps us concentrate."
Snoeren had a point, as I soon came to learn. Despite being home to more good-looking locals than almost any European destination I can think of, Amsterdam can only be called a fashionable place if one's concept of chic runs to cargo shorts and Birkenstocks.
True, the city itself is a meticulously rendered work of engineering genius and brute labor (the canals were dug by hand). True, it is a city of seductively shifting moods, crooked beauty, and eccentric architectural poetics. True, it is a Calvinist Venice whose narrow waterways mirror the city back to itself not with the luminous pomp of the Grand Canal but in a series of chaste and intimate miniatures. True, it is a homely city where hollyhocks seem to bloom wherever there is a crack in the pavement. And it is also the European capital most responsible these days for producing a generation of furniture and product designers who seem increasingly destined to swipe the limelight from a fashion world so overexposed that even its more celebrated practitioners can't wait to get out.
But style?"Who told you that?'' Horsting said, with a look of genuine concern.
Style is best taken on its own terms, I suppose. After weeks spent in certified fashion capitals like Milan, where the line can thin pretty quickly between fashionable ostentation and unintended self-parody, and Paris, where the eye quickly tires of by-the-numbers Gallic chic, it's a relief to be in a country where an essential element of the national character is a will to anonymity.
The umbrella phrase the Dutch use to describe this concept is "act normal," a concept somewhat analogous to the communally enforced modesty Australians refer to as Tall Poppy Syndrome. Under most circumstances, acting normal is not an idea of which I am a proponent; way too much normalcy already gluts the world. Yet, happily, in Holland the latitudes for normality are bracingly askew. At least superficially.
The stolidly handsome businessman bicycling to work in a natty double-vent jacket no more sets standards for normalcy than does the pothead slacker in a Rastafarian tam. The burdened member of that international mule-train fraternity, the global backpacker, has the same social valence as the young housewife whose market tote spills over with dahlias and sweet peas. In a fine crazy way, the neatly coiffed matron taking tea on Dam Square is socially equivalent to the kinky beasts who must clearly abound in Amsterdam, to judge from the quantity of retail establishments, and even hotels, that cater to those for whom a night of pleasure is incomplete without a quirt or a neoprene diving suit.
It is a great relief to me that these latitudes also extend politically in Holland to a greater degree than the press would have one believe. Fears of anti-Semitism all over Europe and of a trend toward the radical right are far from unfounded; a bomb barrier was erected around Amsterdam's historic Portuguese Synagogue just a month before I arrived. Yet in the middle of my stay, the government of the rightist Christian Democratic Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende collapsed abruptly when a coalition of ministers from the D66 party quit to protest his party's harassment of the controversial writer and parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Ali, of course, is the Somali-born Cassandra who made her name writing about a Europe of the future swamped beneath an unstoppable tide of Muslim immigrants. She termed this doomful place Eurabia, and since the publication of her best-selling book, The Caged Virgin, has been forced into a security bubble, constantly protected by bodyguards.
Yet it does not escape one's attention that Ali's almost heedless brand of candor (she has written of the prophet Mohammed as a "tyrant" and "pedophile") would be unlikely to find a hearing in many other countries of the world.
This seems consistent, somehow, with Amsterdam's tolerant relationship with various forms of otherness, most famously the "bad women" who ply the world's oldest profession so openly here. A lot of ink has been spilled describing Amsterdam's prostitutes. Yet it is rarely mentioned how, far from being urban one-liners, the people who occupy the city's hundreds of glass-storefront windows constitute a well-organized and taxpaying workforce that even has a union of its own.
And of all Amsterdam's residents, its hookers are doubtless the most sartorially stylized, although theirs is assuredly a style that Paris will not be copying soon. Part Wonder Woman, part Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire, the hookers in Amsterdam during my summer visit favored metallic thongs and gladiator sandals, luxuriant hair extensions and what were certainly man-made bosoms, plump and shiny and as domed as a bombe in a French patisserie.
That these women have not just excited visiting lager louts but also inspired some of Holland's best-regarded writers and artists is, oddly enough, not mentioned in the tourist blather that makes up Iamsterdam, the city's current effort to improve its tourist image; I cannot imagine why. Better than all the ludicrous key chains and delft clogs and bovine bumper stickers crammed into store windows around town, it is Amsterdam's prostitutes that represent something authentic about her history of urbanity.
As illustrated by the harlots he often depicted, this was as true in the era of Rembrandt—whose 400th birthday is being celebrated throughout 2006—as it is now. It would be hard to find on today's international art market a painter more coveted than Marlene Dumas, whose watercolors of personages from the Red Light District easily command six-figure sums. Born in South Africa and now a resident of Holland, Dumas has often spoken about artificial dualities, the deadliness of "them" and "us." These distinctions exist in Amsterdam, as everywhere, but they feel somehow less glaring here than in other parts of Europe, where it is unusual to find people rubbing shoulders across race or class.
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."
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.
Assembled in a 17th-century volume titled The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, Rumphius's collections have been replicated lavishly by the Tropenmuseum in a huge diorama of display cases jammed with chambered nautiluses, sea fans, mottled tortoise shells, stuffed parrots, and blue macaws. What reads today as an accumulation of exotica served didactic uses in earlier times—as the end product of a laborious and protracted 17th-century form of Google search. Yet if the objects in Rumphius's cabinet look forward to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the collector's rapture in the presence of so much natural abundance signifies a certain awe at the splendors of creation, and a wonder that we seem to have lost.
Yet wonderment may be a common denominator in so much current Dutch design, I thought one night at Club 11, where from a high window I had a heady view across the pewter harbor to the city's irregular yellow-brick gables as the late twilight burnished them to gold. Set on a high floor of the Brutalist Post CS building, where the Stedelijk Museum is temporarily housed, Club 11 is a museum commissary at lunch, a dining outpost until late evening, and after that a nightclub that attracts some of the best DJ's around.
As the hostess, Anna Zee, seated me, I asked about the dining scene in Amsterdam, never a city exactly renowned for its cuisine. "It has become much more about quality than quantity in terms of food and wine," said Zee, a former model. "It's like Amsterdam is finally being recognized."
If it happens that Amsterdam has some distance to go before it can be deemed a culinary destination, I nevertheless ate surprisingly well there: a succulent pork roast at the tiny Blauw aan de Wal, a restaurant in the Red Light District that may be the definition of a hole-in-the-wall; a tartly sauced homemade roast chicken at Sukasari, a dingy but welcoming Indonesian place barely two feet from the tourist hordes of Dam Square; a multicourse Broadway production at the hilariously pretentious and Michelin-starred Café Roux, where the sommelier informed me after I had ordered white wine to accompany my fish entrée that he had consulted the tuna and the tuna preferred red.
But it was at dinner with an old friend in a converted greenhouse set well away from the center of town that I encountered the best example of what one ends up admiring about Amsterdam and things Dutch. The set menu at De Kas offered, among other delicacies, a single seared scallop served atop a folded pillow of braised leeks, an oblong of halibut resting on a purée of fresh spring peas, and a roast baby chicken made fragrant with fresh herbs gathered from the restaurant's garden.
The meal had been assembled from fine basic ingredients, prepared simply and with easy assurance. The wine list was well chosen and unpretentious. The service was not so casual that it shaded into neglect, as at some places I tried, nor so hyperattentive that I felt infantilized. I did not have the sense, as one often does, that the same meal, assembled along the same lines, was being served in a hundred other restaurants around the planet, or even one. (Well, maybe one: Chez Panisse.) As with the best Dutch design and art and architecture, the principle behind De Kas felt surprisingly simple and straightforward: extract the fullest portion of pleasure from the stuff of the season, the place, the day. For a moment I found myself sharing in the conviction, or conceit, understandably held by the locals of my acquaintance, that what is fine in many other places is inevitably somewhat better here.
When to Go
Summer can be crowded—and disappointingly drizzly; fall promises sparse crowds and temperatures that hover around 55 degrees. Late spring sees the arrival of Holland's famous tulips and daffodils in Keukenhof gardens, outside the city. (Make this side trip on Queen's Day, April 30, when Amsterdam's streets are always clogged with drunken revelers.)
Northwest, Continental, and Delta fly nonstop from New York's JFK and Newark airports to Schiphol Airport; Northwest has nonstop flights from Chicago and Los Angeles.
Where to Stay
Adjacent to the Museumplein and the Oud Zuid shopping district, this 40-room property is run by hospitality students under a seasoned management team. Guests inclined to overlook the occasional service hiccup will enjoy five-star surroundings at wallet-friendly prices.
1 Roelof Hartstraat; 31-20/ 571-1512; doubles from $260.
Gaze out onto the historic Keizersgracht from this 17th-century charity house turned boutique hotel; spend afternoons relaxing in the tranquil courtyard garden after pedaling around town on one of the Dylan's signature black bicycles.
384 Keizersgracht; 31-20/530-2010; doubles from $536.
This refurbished convent, a 17th-century landmark, has 131 individually decorated rooms, a lavish hammam, and an unbeatable central location.
197 Oudezijds Voorburgwal; 31- 20/555-3111; doubles from $430.
The 116 rooms are rated with up to five stars, based on design. The two-star rooms offer large showers, starkly stylish whitewashed walls and furniture, and river views.
34 Oostelijke Handelskade; 31- 20/561-3636; doubles from $102.
Seven One Seven
It's like bunking with a madcap rich uncle. This über-B&B's eight suites are simultaneously luxurious and laid-back; guests enjoy a jaw-dropping breakfast spread every morning and first-rate South African wines in the firelit library every evening.
717 Prinsengracht; 31-20/427-0717; doubles from $530.
Where to Eat
Blauw aan de Wal
This diminutive multilevel space is reached via an alley off one of the Red Light District's main drags. The Continental menu with Asian and Californian influences is complemented by a wide-ranging wine list.
99 Oudezijds Achterburgwal; 31-20/330-2257; dinner for two $110.
The Michelin-starred brasserie in the Grand hotel.
197 Oudezijds Voorburgwal; 31-20/555-3560; dinner for two $120.
Organic meats and produce from De Kas's own gardens make this one of Amsterdam's freshest and best dining experiences. The setting, a converted 19th-century greenhouse, is stunning. Take a cab; it's a 15-minute ride outside the city center.
3 Kamerlingh Onneslaan; 31-20/462-4562; dinner for two $130.
On the 11th floor of the Post CS building, in the industrial-cool Eastern Docklands. The kitchen dishes up basic lunch fare (sandwiches, salads, beer) and sophisticated dinners (grilled squid with arugula and borlotti beans). After hours, Eleven morphs into the city's premier club.
3-5 Oosterdokskade; 31-20/ 625-5999; dinner for two $150.
A reliable gem just off Dam Square, this family-owned restaurant serves one of Amsterdam's best rijstafels—multiple meat and side dishes with hot sauces and rice.
26-28 Damstraat; 31-20/624-0092; dinner for two $65.
Where to Shop
The showroom of the renowned collective.
7A/7B Staalstraat; 31-20/523-5050.
Owner Cok de Rooy deftly edits a selection of furniture, kitchenware, and accessories, plus the largest selection of Royal Tichelaar porcelain outside the factory showroom in Makkum.
645 Prinsengracht; 31-20/ 622-9375.
Dealer Hesdy Artist's stock ranges from 18th-century sculpture to botanical prints.
9 Kerkstraat; 31-20/428-1360.
A cavernous housewares emporium lined wall-to-wall with handcrafted furniture, pottery, glassware, and lighting, on the main shopping drag on trendy KNSM island.
39 KNSM-laan; 31-20/419-3541.
Gallery-cum-shop specializing in vintage furniture and home accessories from the 40's, 50's, and 60's.
3 Rusland; 31-20/625-3738.
What to Do
Visit the long-running Municipal Art Acquisitions exhibition, highlighting modern Dutch works, in the Post CS building, the museum's temporary home.
5 Oosterdokskade; 31-20/573-2911; tickets $12.
Part of the Royal Tropical Institute, this fantastically weird collection chronicles the extent of Holland's colonial reach in the 17th and 18th centuries—there are more than 254,000 pieces in all.
2 Linnaeusstraat; 31-20/568-8215; tickets $10.