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Modern Netherlands

Stijn & Marie The Shipping and Transport College, on the New Meuse Canal.

Photo: Stijn & Marie

Mention the phrase recycled design and you get one of two reactions these days. Eco-obsessives think it’s totally modern to turn old things into functional new objects. They’ll show off their new bag made of recycled PVC as they wax on about c2c (cradle to cradle) reuse or how breaking their addiction to plastic just feels so good. Eco-dismissives will roll their eyes, grumble about the return of woolly-sock, thrift-store style, then hop a taxi to Gucci to snag another pair of $700 heels.

I know this because over the years I’ve amassed a small collection of recycled objects, which I admire as much for their cheeky wit as for their handmade rough edges. What’s more, serious collectors have been paying handsomely for fine art objects made from reused materials at auction houses around the world. London-based Stuart Haygarth, for example, sells his chandeliers—made of objects like old prescription eyeglasses, truck lights, or the detritus he scavenges from the seaside—for more than $20,000 apiece. Many consider this just the latest fashion, but I suspect it’s a movement in the making. To find out more, I’ve come to Holland, a country carving a path between the stylish and the sustainable. In the past 15 years, the Netherlands has given Italy a run for its money as one of the world’s most prominent design centers. This is also a country that knows a fair bit about recycling (a good portion of its land was reclaimed from the sea, after all).

In Amsterdam I don’t have to go far before striking gold. Tucked between the smoke shops and “smart” (magic mushroom) shops in the Red Light District is De Bakkerswinkel, a bakery with an interior outfitted in the scrap-wood furniture of Piet Hein Eek. Rustic yet elegant, familiar yet totally original, it “creates a homey feeling,” the bakery’s owner, Piet Hekker, told me over coffee and pastries.

Hekker was a hairdresser in London for 10 years. And when he returned home to take over the family bakery, his goal was to avoid “all of those trends that come and go” and create an environment that would still look modern in 20 years. Eek’s unselfconscious furniture—massive painted cupboards holding jars of jam and freshly baked breads and cakes—makes this a place “where the mayor is comfortable having tea next to a housewife and her daughter,” Hekker says.

Piet Hein Eek’s work is as seductive as it is sustainable, but the soft-spoken 41-year-old makes no planet-saving claims. (Nor did any designer I met. The Dutch are either too modest, or too pessimistic about their abilities to change the course of environmental degradation.) He came upon the idea of using reclaimed wood in 1990 while studying at the prestigious Design Academy Eindhoven. His professors urged him to explore new industrial materials for his final project, but Eek was more interested in being pragmatic, saving money, and bucking convention. He faced down opposition and built his multicolored-scrap cupboard. Today, it’s still one of his best-selling items, and he is one of Holland’s biggest design stars.

These days Eek works in metal, clay, wood, and concrete. He operates a 40-person factory and showroom in the small village of Geldrop, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. So popular is his work that lesser shops across the country show painted-wood knockoffs in their windows.

His compulsive, time-consuming method of working is the design equivalent of Slow Food. Woods are salvaged from lumberyards and building sites. They are then separated by color and sawed to even widths before being collaged together. His signature Scrap Wood Table, made from the detritus of other pieces, takes one painstaking week to assemble and is varnished and hand-sanded. Because his output is limited, a 10-foot table costs about $12,500 and is only sold in a handful of galleries and shops in Europe. This winter, Eek will make his U.S. debut at Studio Forbes, the San Francisco–based design enterprise owned by Rob Forbes, the founder of Design Within Reach. Eventually, Forbes says, the goal is to set up a workshop in the United States. “There’s enough old wood here,” he says. “It just doesn’t make sense to ship it halfway around the world.”

By using free materials and slow, expensive labor, Eek says he’s subverting the formula upon which global capitalism rests. “The most important thing is that every piece requires extreme amounts of attention, and that’s what you’re buying,” he says. “Seeing and feeling that attention, that’s what makes them communicate.”

Holland is a hyperdesigned country of 16.2 million. Train stations are perfectly laid out, stamps and phone books win awards, and even government buildings curve, slant, and eschew straight lines in order to be considered “interesting.” But to every action there’s always a reaction, and in the 1990’s a handful of designers began to challenge those well-considered conventions by using crude and, occasionally, recycled materials as a way of unperfecting the world around them.

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