Room to Grow

Room to Grow

Van Abbemuseum Visitors

Visitors at the Van Abbemuseum cozy up to Surasi Kusolwong’s installation Naked Machine (Volkswagen Modern). Photo: Nick Bookelaar

The Dutch are famous for their innovative and unconventional product designs, with most top retail stores and collectives based in Amsterdam. (Think Droog and Moooi.) But many designers get their start at Design Academy Eindhoven, some 75 miles southeast, and lately more are staying put, contributing to the city’s rebirth.

Paradoxically, Eindhoven isn’t much to look at, which perhaps is part of its appeal.

“It doesn’t appear so nice from the outside, and I think because of that we have more edge and determination,” says Cecile van der Riet, who manages Yksi Store, the city’s most comprehensive retail design shop. “In Amsterdam, everyone watches what you do. Eindhoven could develop itself more freely because no one was watching.”

The manufacturing giant Philips was responsible for the original growth, and ultimate decline, of Eindhoven. The company started in 1891 and built sprawling factories, employee housing, cultural institutions, and even a soccer stadium. Three bombings during World War II destroyed much of Eindhoven’s original architecture. Then came the bombshell of the 1980s: Philips started shipping work overseas and in 1997 moved its headquarters to Amsterdam.

Since the exodus, Eindhoven, the Netherlands’ fifth largest city, with a population of about 220,000, has been thoughtfully reinventing itself as a global hub for technology and design. The internationally respected design academy has graduated thousands of designers in several fields and in 2002 was instrumental in debuting Dutch Design Week, an annual showcase for thousands of designers that now draws more than 250,000 visitors.

Perhaps the most telling testament to the city’s progress is the number of academy graduates staying put, young creatives such as Maarten Kolk and Guus Kusters, class of 2006, whose work can be seen in items ranging from porcelain tableware to pressed vegetable plants.

“We thought we’d leave immediately, probably for Amsterdam, but there were new opportunities, cheap space to rent, and Dutch Design Week was growing,” says Kusters. Their studio is in the Klokgebouw (Clock Building), where Philips once processed Philite (a synthetic plastic similar to Bakelite).

“Others before us have stayed, like Piet Hein Eek and Kiki van Eijk, but I think we’re part of the first generation of graduates to collectively stay because we wanted to be here. Before, Eindhoven felt more like a working town, but now there’s a lot more in the creative field.”

Strijp S 
The best one-stop shopping destination is in the development that exemplifies Eindhoven’s dramatic do-over – Strijp S (pronounced “Stripe S”). Still a work in progress, the 67 acres that once housed the bulk of Philips’ workspaces and factories now boast shops, offices, loft apartments, restaurants, and a budget hotel, with most spaces styled in extreme industrial chic.

Yksi Store, housed at Strijp S, is an offshoot of the design firm of the same name. Here you’ll find work from emerging to established designers, such as waste-paper pulp bowls from Jo Meesters and graduated-tint glassware designed by Scholten Baijings for the Danish brand Hay.

Just up the street are Urban Shopper – a multi-room space with single-proprietor kiosks selling everything from hand-printed T-shirts to design furniture – and Out of the Blue, a clothing, home goods, and furniture store emphasizing Dutch designers.

Around the corner, the ever-changing nonprofit gallery space Mu explores a wide range of art and design. A big draw was an installation by We Make Carpets, a Dutch trio that creates stunning rectangular floor coverings assembled with unexpected materials, from colored sponges to uncooked pasta.

Strijp S also houses the monthly FeelGood Market, where artisans, gourmet food purveyors, and musicians gather.

Strijp R/Piet Hein Eek
Piet Hein Eek, a design academy graduate who first gained fame for his colorful furniture made of scrap wood, moved his design and production facilities in 2010 to the area known as Strijp R, a cluster of red-brick buildings once housing Philips’ ceramics factory. Eek added a showroom and retail store (selling his and others’ designs), along with a cheerful restaurant decked out in his furnishings and lighting. Through the showroom’s enormous windows, you can see designers and makers at work, while upstairs gallery space is reserved for emerging designers.

Inner City
In the nearby neighborhood of Philipsdorp, where company employees once lived, the small but ambitious Nasty Alice Gallery shows a mix of painting, photography, and ceramics, most of which are spotted during Dutch Design Week.

Eindhoven’s only art museum is the Van Abbemuseum, which highlights modern and contemporary art in a stylish building beautifully situated along the Dommel River. During Dutch Design Week, the museum organizes design-themed programs. This year’s, “Thing Nothing” (Oct. 17 – Nov. 15), examines the relationship between design and craft.

A few other downtown spots carry local designs. One recent arrival is the This Is Eindhoven Brandstore, a shop run by VVV, the city visitors’ bureau. Conveniently located just outside the central train station, it sports a “made in Eindhoven” wall with items for sale.

On the lively shopping street Kleine Berg is You Are Here, a hip boutique run by Ellen Albers, who changes the inventory every half year.

“I’m always looking for new designers,” Albers says, pointing out industrial-flavored hanging lights of reclaimed glass, designed by Sander Wassink and Ma’ayan Pesach.

One of downtown’s coolest destinations is newcomer Kazerne, an ambitious project from academy graduate Annemoon Geurts and her partner Koen Rijnbeek. The duo transformed former military barracks into a sophisticated design/art showcase, with a restaurant situated in the middle and a shop filled with wares from Dutch designers, many of them local. Lodging is planned for next year.

Another creative destination in the works is NRE, a 5-acre industrial area used in the 1900s to process fuel. The city is selling its buildings to buyers willing to transform them into shops, cafes, creative workspaces, and residences.

Sectie C
Just east of downtown, Sectie C (Section C) is a 6-acre space that was once used for equipment manufacturers. It recently was turned into studios for creative workers – more than 170 and counting – including ceramics designer Elke van den Berg, as well as Nacho Carbonell, internationally known for his fantastical free-form furnishings. In the next year, the owners plan to add living and gallery space, restaurants, and retail.

All Over Town
What started in Eindhoven as a daylong event is now the nine-day Dutch Design Week (this year Oct. 17 – 25), featuring exhibitions, lectures, and pop-up shops and restaurants at dozens of locations around the city, with free transportation offered in Volvos topped with objets d’art. Also during the week, many Eindhoven-based studios open their doors to the public. A popular destination is the academy’s graduation show, which last year displayed some 150 social, industrial, or functional projects ranging from a play mat for visually impaired babies to vessels made of microbes, with students often on hand to discuss their designs.

“At Design Week, you’ll find finished and experimental projects,” says Guus Kusters. He and his partner serve as art directors for a large exhibition in the Klokgebouw, selecting participants and designing the venue.

Comparing the event to the more famous Milan Design Week, Kusters says, “People like to say that the paint is still wet here, and then you see the more polished version in Milan. In Eindhoven, you get an insiders’ view.”

Diane Daniel is a writer based in Florida and the Netherlands.