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.
One of the cockiest was Tejo Remy. Around the same time that Eek started out, Remy debuted two deadpan objects made of old materials that have since become icons: Rag Chair, composed of recycled cloth held together with metal packing wire, and Chest of Drawers, a pile of freestanding, unrelated drawers delicately balanced upon each other and tied together with a strap. It requires four people to assemble, but practicality was never the point.
Remy and his partner, René Veenhuizen, work in a studio on the industrial outskirts of Utrecht, a small city of broad canals and clanging church bells. Outside their studio, it’s not bells but the hum of trucks on a highway that you hear. Inside, scale models litter the floor; lamps made out of packing materials hang from the ceiling; and in one corner I spot what looks like a box of melted crayons spilling across the floor. Closer inspection reveals it to be a rug, but it’s too gorgeous to step on.
Accidental Carpet was born out of a project to help epileptic, mentally challenged children overcome the anonymity of their institutional environments. “We wanted to give the kids something that would help them transform their colorless surroundings and also remind them of home,” Veenhuizen explains. The idea was to collect old wool blankets from what he calls the “rag circuit,” then slice them into strips, which the kids subsequently folded and glued together. The piece debuted at the Artcurial auction house in Paris last year. After a photo of a prototype appeared in the New York Times, galleries started calling. Of the first edition of 12, several sold for $15,000 each.
What’s the environmental impact of your work?I ask. “None, really,” Veenhuizen says. “Those problems must be dealt with through politics and technology. Fifteen years ago, Tejo was making work with reused materials,” he tells me. “But it was only after Al Gore’s movie that anyone got interested again. We like the small-scale, handmade idea, the idea of transformation. We try not to work with computers, but to do everything by hand.”
So is your motivation to get people to think?
“Mostly it’s getting myself to think. The rest is profit.”
Getting oneself to think (and make a profit) is one of the bigger challenges of reinventing materials. Back in central Utrecht, Stefan Lehner makes that clear when he greets me at the door of his 700-year-old house. The chandelier he is devising is causing him to suffer, he tells me. “It has to function, but it also has to be beautiful.”
Part designer, part inventor, and part mad scientist, Lehner collects old industrial parts, heavy chains, springs, even steel car jacks, and turns them into furniture and furnishings. I was expecting his house to resemble something straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but once inside I was happily surprised. When set next to the Steinway baby grand piano or atop wide-plank wooden floors, his inventions take on a stern but expressive beauty: chairs made from bicycle chains on steel frames (remarkably comfortable); a chandelier of inverted antique lightbulbs, each one filled with water and a white rose.
Lehner, who studied philosophy and mathematics in his native Switzerland, doesn’t sell his pieces in stores. He works on private commissions, which I suspect is because he falls in love with his materials the way a child might treasure a toy he finds on the street, and is reluctant to let them go. “It’s a shame to melt all the brains and design and production technology that went into making those machine parts,” he tells me. “When I find something that looks precious I think it’s natural to want to save it.”
The more his work progresses, the more inspiration he finds in the banal. He takes me on a tour of the workshop that occupies his vaulted basement; he’s developing wall-mounted sconces from discarded umbrellas, and lacy light fixtures made of plastic bottles that he has melted, extruded, and sandblasted. Their delicacy belies their prosaic origins.
But his favorite new object is a container he found outside a favela near Brasília. It’s made from the bottom third of a one-liter Coke bottle. The sides are sliced into flaps that fold over each other to form a top. “This could hold anything,” Lehner says. “I’ve been testing it for months and the flaps never break. It only works with Coke bottles, and the company doesn’t even know the potential it’s sitting on.”
His eyes light up when he talks about the very unsexy topic of garbage’s potential and the promise it holds for designers like himself. “One day design schools are going to insist that students think about a product’s second life before it’s manufactured, and that’s when things will really start to change.”
Of course, that change is already afoot. Although some older designers working with recycled materials may be loath to cast themselves as environmental do-gooders, a number of recent design school graduates I spoke to, not only in Holland but in the United States and Britain, were fired up by the notion. Maybe it’s generational, or perhaps it’s idealism before entering the real world of industrial manufacturing, but they were all convinced they could change the way things are done.
The final stop on my trip is the port city of Rotterdam, which unlike Amsterdam or Utrecht—both steeped in centuries-old charm—was razed during World War II. Today it’s as chaotic and messy as any modern city in Holland could ever hope to be.
On the ground floor of a dreary 1960’s concrete block that’s slated for demolition in two years, I found another idealist who’s hoping to salvage the world through recycling. Studio Hergebruik (Studio Re-Use) was set up by Jan de Haas, a former organizational consultant, in 2005. There are no high-gloss, well-lit displays here; rather, it’s a motley collection of mostly amateur designs that set off every hippie alarm in my head. But amid the recycled bicycle inner-tube bags (big among Japanese teenagers) and a shelving system built inside an open coffin (low in finesse, high in humor), a few treasures could be found. Among them: vinyl records that have been heated and molded into fabulous Penman pencil holders, and a chandelier made of plastic-bottle bottoms that could easily double as 60’s Op Art.
Clearly, de Haas isn’t interested in visual merchandising, or design with a capital D. His goal is to showcase, rather than curate, every cradle-to-cradle experiment that comes along. He has never heard of Piet Hein Eek or Tejo Remy. For him this is a grassroots movement that’s happening in scattered pockets around the globe, a groundswell that’s about to break into a giant wave—one he’s already riding.
“I see this as similar to organic food,” he says. “In the 70’s I had to cycle for miles to get muesli. But now, even in department stores, I’m starting to see fair-trade everything and more recycled objects. In five years it’s going to be everywhere, and when that happens I’m going to be out of business.”
He can’t wait for the day.
Amsterdam artist Marlies Spaan (mes.nl) hand-stitches patches cut from old blankets into colorful pillows, throws, and curtains. In the same way Martin Margiela contrasts rough materials with delicate stitching, she pieces together her bold patches with neon-orange thread. “People respond when something industrial has become handmade,” she says.
Utrecht’s Esther Derkx (estherx.nl) screen prints images of musclemen, and women dancing, swimming, and doing yoga, onto the clunky flowered porcelain found in the back of every Dutch kitchen cupboard. “Many designers want to create a completely new form,” she says. “But there is already so much pottery out there, I’d rather reuse ones that already exist.”
Eindhoven-based Jo Meesters (jomeesters.nl) buys blue-and-white porcelain Boch vases, sandblasts the upper portion to expose a rough white surface, then adds images of mosques, McDonald’s arches, and wind turbines. “It’s the landscape of modern, multicultural Holland,” he explains.
69 Warmoesstraat; 31-20/489-8000; debakkerswinkel.nl; lunch for two $23.
Now-classic pieces by Jurgen Bey and Tejo Remy. 7B Staalstraat; 31-20/523-5059; droog.com.
From furniture to textiles, this shop presents the works of Piet Hein Eek, Marlies Spaan, and Esther Derkx. 645 Prinsengracht; 31-20/622-9375; frozenfountain.nl.
Plywood furniture and small boxes recycled from orange crates. 3 Russland; 31-20/ 625-3738; wonderwood.nl.
Stefan Lehner’s home and workshop is located on one of the prettiest canals in Utrecht. By appointment only. 30 Oudegracht; 31-30/233-1703; en-fer.com.
A great collection of contemporary design, including ceramics, objects, bicycles, and designer Ineke Hans’s recycled-plastic outdoor furniture that looks like wood. 114 Oudegracht; 31-30/230-4305; strandwest.nl.
A mix of art and design, including work from Piet Hein Eek and Jurgen Bey. 15 Van Vollenhovenstraat; 31-10/243-0043; animaux.nl.
A wacky collection of cradle-to-cradle objects, clothing, and accessories. 53 Coolsingel; 31-10/413-3660; studiohergebruik.nl.
Well-edited contemporary Dutch design. 17A William Boothlaan; 31-10/413-6321; vividvormgeving.nl.