Interviewed in Belgrade, May 11th 2007
DROOG debuted at the International Furniture Fair in Milan in ’93. with products such as a chair made of rags, a bundle of second hand drawers, or bookcase made of paper. Then, Renny Ramakers and Gijs Bakker had the intuition, but weren’t quite sure what to expect. It was a try out, but it seems that today after 14 years of their continuous practice their intuition was right. Their importance as platform for launching careers of today’s established designers is inevitable. Their criteria for “being droog” is flexible, practicing activities from identities, publishing books to exhibition concepts and the latest; Climate Change competition, but common denominator is clear: being droog (dry) is about mentality.
ORIS: Droog has existed since 1993 when you and Gijs Bakker put up a group exhibition of designers who shared the same views at the Milan Furniture Fair. The products you selected for the exhibition were completely opposed to design production at the time. What was the motivation behind it?
Ramakers: I was editor-in-chief of Items design magazine and I was a little bit bored by design. At the same time, I realized there was the same mentality in different schools around the country, so I thought this might have been a sign of the times. I loved all these new items because they were so different from anything that was done before. Before that, it was all about form and function, nicely designed, but without any story behind it. I like stories, and for the first time I saw projects that told stories. The stories were different but they all had a connecting element. What these products had in common was that they were all very straightforward, sometimes very rough. They had no decoration and were stylistically incomplete. They only had the concept. I thought that this might turn into a movement, like in the 1980s with the Memphis Movement. I was always attracted to new phenomena, new mentalities, I always try to bring them together. My participation began there. Gijs Bakker, my partner in Droog, and I tried to bring this mentality together and explain it, give it a name. And we succeeded.
ORIS: What were the issues these designers were concerned about?
Ramakers: At that time, I think that one of the main issues was against design with a capital D. Design was very flashy and stylish. Those designers were really fed up with this, and that’s why they used paper and rags as a material. The designer who designed the Chest of Drawers in 1991 said that he didn’t want to do design. He wanted to find objects and use them. It was pure improvisation what he did, and it was, at that time, a reaction against established design.
ORIS: Was it a need for balancing between flashy design objects and something which would be more user-friendly?
Ramakers: Not in the first place, but more to create a simpler, rougher, not so stylized design aesthetic. There was a designer who made a cabinet out of drift wood. All the professors at the university he studied at were asking him to make it much nicer, refined, but he wanted to show that by using the ugliest materials you can make something very beautiful. It’s another way of looking at beauty.
ORIS: Can such products be functional at the same time?
Ramakers: Of course. All the products we show are functional. There’s not a product you cannot use. We don’t want to produce objects for the sake of the objects. That’s why I don’t call this “art”, I call it “design”. And all these issues are always related to design, they always have something to do with design.
ORIS: “Droog” means “dry”. It’s an adjective, not a noun. Does it mean that “Droog” can include a whole spectrum of different activities?
Ramakers: Droog is not about objects, it’s about mentality. That’s why we could design shop interiors, that’s why we could design bars, and we now even completed a commission by a Chinese company to present them a new identity. Because our approach is conceptual and we share the same mentality, we can do various projects as Droog.
ORIS: How did the political and social context in Amsterdam and the Netherlands in the 1990s when Droog started its activities contribute to such a strong design scene? Did you communicate with other disciplines at that time?
Ramakers: There was a strong scene that had a lot in common, but it’s always difficult to answer this question. I think that graphic design, architecture, industrial design, there was a lot in common and it was all about a conceptual approach. They did not strive to be so stylish and of refined style, but they had a twist that made you think. It was truly a Dutch phenomenon, that’s true. But there were other designers in Holland who were not working in this way. That’s the interesting thing. There are lot of designers who are not working in this way. What we do is quite straightforward, quite “droog”.
ORIS: Many of your works make the user think in a different way.
Ramakers: That’s my preoccupation, to change perspective. All over the world I find designers who are doing the same. That’s very interesting. A lot of designers in Droog are not Dutch. Everybody thinks that some of our best designs are Dutch, but that is not true. Some of our most interesting products are not Dutch, but often these designers have studied in the Netherlands and they are selected by us, and we’re Dutch. So it’s our eye.
ORIS: Droog is more a platform than a closed group where you and your partner act as curators. How do you select the designers whom you’ll work with?
Ramakers: By intuition. One time it’s one designer, sometimes it’s a team of eight designers, like we had in a project for the Chinese company Heng Yuan Xiang, where we worked with one interior designer, one fashion designer, one industrial designer, one more communication and so on. It was a very complex project and we needed input from all of those disciplines. In case of the Europe Bar, the EU gave us very high specifications. The chairs had to be durable and comfortable, so we couldn’t afford to work with very young and inexperienced designers. We had to work with experienced designers who would make a beautiful environment, but we added the idea of 25 different chairs, for each member state one chair, to give it an extra touch, not only to make a beautiful bar but to give it something extra. To make it Droog.
ORIS: While they work for Droog, the designers are actually producing a work that should be Droog. What does it take for a project to be Droog?
Ramakers: For example, last year in Milan we did Garden of Delight. The first idea was to make something very nice and peaceful, where people would have nothing but fun. But during the process we started to feel not so happy with it. That’s why we introduced the wild animals, weapons and political issues. We asked a new number of designers to add suspense to it. It made it Droog. It was no longer just the nice environment, but also some things that makes you think, a twist, a change of perspective.
ORIS: The interaction with the user is a very important thing in Droog design and sometimes that interaction is flavoured with playful irony, like in the Do projects. What is the story behind the Do projects?
Ramakers: The story behind the Do project is that we invited consumers to participate in the design of the product or to involve them in other way. An example is the Do Scratch lamp. You have to scratch a drawing in the black surface before it becomes a lamp. But I can tell you that the Do Scratch lamp is very difficult to sell. The lamp has a black surface you need to scratch with something, and as soon as you scratch it, you cannot remove it. So most people don’t dare to do it because they cannot draw very well. They prefer to buy a finished, already scratched lamp. They’re scared and that’s a pity. Do Frame is much easier. It’s a roll with metres and metres of tape. You can destroy a few metres and then start again. It’s so much for so little money. On our website, we also ask people to send us their photos of how they use Droog products.
ORIS: Sometimes your projects are artistic borderline like the Go Slow project?
Ramakers: It was a project of one of our students, a student from Thailand who wanted to make products that improve the life of elderly people. After she completed it, we continued to develop the idea and came up with a much bigger project called Go Slow. And so we brought a few elderly people aged between 60 or 70, the oldest was 74 I think. It is interesting that nowadays old people are not so slow anymore, they were running around so I needed to call them to slow down, because this project includes being slow. These people were invited to have a drink and a bite, sit in the rocking chairs, rest their feet. The menus were embroidered and they were making tea in tea kettles. When you asked for tea, they were making tea bags at your table. It was all about processes and slowness. And we also had a lamp filled with fat. When you turned it on, the fat would slowly melt and the lamp would slowly become brighter and warmer. We’re currently producing and selling a lamp filled with fat called Slow Glow. It’s a product that came as a result of this project. Go Slow was a very big success, we repeated it in Tokyo and London. In Japan, it was fantastic. We had people over 90 years old who were serving and making food. Somebody later opened a cafe called Go Slow. They used only the name, but the concept was completely different because there were only young girls serving the food.
ORIS: Can some of your projects be consider more art projects than design projects?
Ramakers: That’s what we did with the Smart Deco project. We invited designers to work after their own imagination. We made some kind of a concept but it was very, very loose. We wanted to show the sign of the times with it: Smart Deco on one side, Smart Solutions on the other. We wanted to invite designers to do what they wanted. Of course, they came up with their concepts, but there was no one who did anything that was not based on a design discipline, they all connected to the design discipline. For example, in the Bone Chair, one of the outcomes of the project, the designer wanted to create the ideal chair by using the process of how bones are growing. He took the necessary strength, the strength the material can deliver, and fed these parameters into the computer to get this structure. For him, it was real furniture and a new way of design. He used a completely new computer program only used by Opel to make cars more comfortable. Maybe it will end up in mass production sometime, because it’s a new way of looking at the design process. It is sold in a limited edition of 12. Art collectors or design collectors are buying it. At the same time it’s a process that needs to continue, the designer wants to continue, this is a start of a completely new way of design. It’s functional, it’s comfortable to sit on. All these things are very much related to design and that’s how we like it. Of course, there are also designers like Studio Job, they have this project in which they enlarge items in bronze. To me, that’s one step too far. It’s beautiful, but it comes too close to art. For me, it’s too much of an object. Our projects have to be functional, but function is just a part of it. There is form and function, and there’s the human touch. It can be meaning, experience, tactility, it can be interaction, participation, imperfection.
ORIS: A lot of the design today has to scream its presence.
Ramakers: But they have no real content, and for me, that’s sometimes problematic. The Chest of Drawers from our collection is also quite an expensive product. In the first five years nobody cared, nobody found it interesting, but then it was published many times and suddenly people started to buy it. We are now making number 100. It’s an expensive piece, it costs something like 16,000 Euros, quite a lot. It’s selling well and we can only produce eight per year when we could sell much more. The carpenter who makes it has a quite small workshop, and the designer has to walk around and find twenty old drawers every year.
People ask me why don’t we produce it in series and make all the drawers identical. Then we could produce thousands of drawers. But then we would miss the whole story and I refuse to do it. It should be like this. The Chest would be less expensive if we mass produced it, but then it would lose its content.
ORIS: In your shop you sell The Water Bubble which is not your project.
Ramakers: Yes, it is the project of an advertising agency. We liked it so much that we agreed to sell it. The project is about the tap water in Holland which is so good but everybody is buying bottled water. They decided to make a nice empty bottle you have to fill at the tap. It has the same price as bottled water, and all the profit goes to a water project in Peru in this case, where they don’t have enough water. It’s a small project, but the mentality is so nice that we decided to sell it, although we didn’t design it. We do not only sell our own products, we also have what we call “products by friends of Droog”. So whenever we see products we like done by other people we invite them to sell them our shop.
ORIS: The majority of designers today have moved into the realm of conceptual thinking and left the production task to companies. Do you think is it important for designers today to understand and to know how to make things on their own?
Ramakers: There are companies that can do it, but I think it helps when designers, who think in concepts, already know how something can be produced. Of course, there are designs that are so strong that they can always be a statement and never turn into a product. Those designs exist but for a lot of designs it helps when you work on a concept in which you know what is possible and what is not.