Caleido interviews Dirk van der Kooij designer

issue #18: whatever it takes

Caleido interviews Dirk van der Kooij, Dutch designer. Welcome to Caleido, an inspirational diary, that narrates many stories: about creative people, trends, travels, objects. / Read the Editor’s letter here.

Diary of: @dirkvanderkooij

Ph. Lisa Klappe for the #dreamoutloud exposition in the @stedelijkmuseum
1. You call your brand “Forever furniture from recycled plastic”. What is your relationship, personally and professionally, with the concept of “forever”? What makes an object truly eternal?

Wow! A lovely question! I do my best to design as few things as possible, but to design them for robust and long-term use. This means: colour through and through, monomatierals, no lacquer, no varnish, no veneer. I tend not to really treasure objects or treat them carefully, which influences my approach as a designer. We test new designs by throwing them off the roof. Attachment is directly correlated with time, so I feel that it’s my responsibility to make sure that the work lasts long enough to be valued in a meaningful way.

Ph. @ernieenkelaar visit to the studio on behalf of @vtwonen
2. The manual component is central to your productions. What differentiates design from art? Perhaps the production techniques? Or the amount of manual skill? Or the amount of creativity?

Having only seen this discussion from a designer’s perspective, I can only give a partial answer. I do think that with design, the role of the client or user plays a bigger role in an object’s conception. For our studio, it is not simply a question of “Is this item beautiful?” or “Is this concept compelling?”. We deal with safety, longevity. It’s also to do with collaboration, we don’t design stand-alone objects; we design a small piece of someone’s home setting. We sell a lot of work directly, which often comes with an advisory role. Good design is also a service.

Because design has an immediate practical application, we find that our audience is incredibly diverse. Everyone knows how to sit on a chair, and based on that experience, most people can easily find a way to engage with or critique the success of a design… In this sense, I enjoy the accessibility of the design world.

Ph. @jakecurtisphoto for @livingetcuk | Stylist @hannahfranklininteriorstylist
3. Many people call you the “plastics craftsman”, evoking your sustainable approach and the traceability of the recycled plastics you use. Was it difficult to combine these characteristics with an aesthetic beauty factor?

Resoundingly, no. Plastic is an inherently beautiful material. The way that it bends and stratifies under pressure is not unlike stone. The way that it polishes to a warm, soft, soapy finish is not unlike wood. It’s sad that we have previously not been able to enjoy plastic as an autonomous raw material. It’s role in our lives has largely been limited to cheap mass production or as imitation of “better” materials. What I hope to do is to reveal plastic in its freest state: to find ways for the material to reveal its surface tension, its texture and its most natural patterns… Because these qualities are all so beautiful.

4. You are gaining a prominent place on the global scene. How is the world of small, self-made brands, such as yours, evolving? What are the directions of evolution?

Because there is so much hand work involved, I do think that the lines between art and design are especially blurred in this scene. I notice many of my contemporaries choosing to define themselves as artists rather than designers, because they are so involved in the physicality of their work. The material often is the concept. Outsourcing, additionally, has proven to be an unstable model for emerging designers. We are able to take (almost) total control of our production process, which allowed us to continue working through Covid, for example. A small studio is too vulnerable to react to changes in the work and material market, but it makes for a more autonomous, interconnected approach to making. It’s essentially a DIY movement that we’re witnessing.

5. Your work reflects many of the issues that characterise modern times. How do you assess the competence of people when it comes to sustainability? Which aspects of sustainability or environmentalism, from your experience, are still too undervalued, and should be addressed more by schools or institutions or the media?

I think it can be difficult for someone who doesn’t have a background in making to be critical of the lifespan of a product. We see a lot of short-term recycling projects arise… Sneakers made from scraps, plates made from waste with epoxy binders. It’s wonderful that these materials are being put to new use, but we have to permanently divert them from landfill. These is where generating value becomes the most important thing for waste materials. How can we devise a new purpose for this work that will never be discarded? For me, this answer in found in ensuring the long-term usability of a product, but also by taking responsibility for production issues. If we didn’t make work that was re-recyclable, then I’m sure we would be doing more harm than good. We make tables each day from 200kg of production waste. I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that production faults or offcuts were going back to where we’d found them.

@atelier.nd.interior @willemijndeleeuw @spacecontentstudio @thefrozenfountain @thijsdeleeuw @leavecaricealone
6. Talking about your productions: how does your production process take place? Is it correct to talk about ‘recycling for upcycling’? How does the production chain take place?

Most of our production chain takes place in a closed loop, with the exception of sourcing the plastic from professional recycling companies here in the Netherlands. Once this material has been secured, everything else happens in-house at our studio. We design and build machines, produce all elements of our designs, package, sell, and export all from this space. As such, it is a holistic process: a betterment on one level of production typically has a knock-on effect throughout the rest, which I love. You could call it upcycling, but I just call it making. There’s something quite romantic about what we do, a lot of slow hand work is involved, which often makes me forget that we are using waste material.

7. If you could design something other than furniture, what would you like to try your hand at? Why this desire?

I would love to make clothing. I have a hard time finding clothing that is durable, timeless, and easy to care for. Spending money on things that quickly lose their integrity drives me insane. I’ve done some tests with a thick, tightly woven hemp fabric, but my time is very much still tied to the studio here! A retirement project, perhaps!

8. In a world of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, what will be the space for manufacturing and craftsmanship?

I’m a big believer in the power of nostalgia. For every leap forward, there is a compulsion to look back, to seek comfort in what we have always known as a way to contextualize new experiences. If anything, I think that AI will only serve to elevate the power of lived, sentimental experiences. Our studio is full of people who come to us from office industries: industrial design, logistics, administration, etc., who are specifically seeking to work with their hands. No matter how sophisticated virtual spaces may become, we can’t escape the fact that we are tactile creatures. Pleasure in the process of making is something that we really try to elevate here, and I think it plays a big part in the quality of the work that we’re able to deliver.

9. Let me ask you a personal question: are you a solitary person or do you enjoy working in company? What is a typical day in your atelier outside Amsterdam?

I work two days in one most of the time haha. Our working hours are energetic and social, I spend a lot of time interacting with my team. It’s taken a long time to build a team that laughs and works together, but now that we’re here, I always look forward to coming to work in the morning. That said, much of my design or development work I prefer to do alone in the evenings, totally uninterrupted. I don’t really have hobbies, I’m lucky enough to do what I’m passionate about every day.

10. What is an object in your home that you would never give up? What is the memory attached to it? Would you send us a photo taken by you?

I have a vase that I strongly associate with my late brother, Bastiaan. As kids, I watched him pour a little mineral spirits followed by a lit match into the ceramic vase, delighting in the explosions that followed. This went on and on, always a little more mineral spirits, always a larger explosion. At one point, the anticipated explosion didn’t follow. He peeked in through the small opening in the top to investigate, only to have his eyelashes and eyebrow singed off! I learned so much from him, this instance being no exception. I’ll treasure this vase forever.

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