New Amsterdam

In a city where tradition meets the avant-garde in shops, cafés, even living room windows, Reggie Nadelson finds the heart of modern Dutch design.

Along Amsterdam's Prinsengracht Canal, in the heart of this cold, upright, lovely northern city, some of the tall, thin houses are four or five hundred years old. And some of the faces you see in this staid paradise of exquisitely correct social policy still resemble the merchants, matrons, and maids painted by Rembrandt. Go to the Rijksmuseum and see those same faces surrounded by starched caps and lace collars. But amid this palpable history, Amsterdam—in fact, all of Holland—is in a frenzy of cutting-edge design: squishy vases, knitted coffeepots, cupboards fashioned from old window frames, necklaces of paper and cloth, graphics and books (not to mention architectural confections by the likes of Rem Koolhaas, whose Prada shop in New York's SoHo looks like a skateboard park). For the best part of a decade, Dutch design has been on the move.

The only way to see Amsterdam is to walk it. Walking the streets actually creates an obsession with walking: Just one more block, you think, one more canal, one more shop. And after a couple of days, my feet are killing me. Which is why I'm taking my time, resting my tootsies, wallowing in the highlands of contemporary design at Frozen Fountain, where I find myself after a huge Dutch breakfast of cheese and ham and bread and a stale whiff of last night's marijuana. (I'd been checking my e-mails at an Internet café because the phones at the awfully chichi little boutique hostellerie where I'm staying—the 707 Hotel—are broken.)

Over the front desk at Frozen Fountain, this veritable fountainhead of modern design, hangs Jurgen Bey's chandelier. The Light Shade Shade, as it's called, is an old-fashioned chandelier aglitter with crystal drops and covered by a shiny transparent cylindrical shade, as if to say: Every modern light fixture has an antique inside it waiting to get out. Or every icon of cool has an ancestor, a history, a provenance. Or does it? Does it matter what it says? It's pretty and provocative, and so much an emblem of modern Dutch design it's as sought after as an Eames chair. At Sketch, the almost pornographically chic club and café in London, Bey's lamp hangs in serried ranks above the knowing and the hip who drink their tea by its lights. In Amsterdam, perhaps less reverent, I see one of the fixtures in a barbershop.

That chandelier could be a metaphor for Amsterdam, the city of solid, beautiful old houses, the surface shiny with avant-garde design at once witty and restrained. This is the quality that seduces me: I would not associate funny with Dutch any more than I would think of the Netherlands as the wild one of international design. The pleasure is in the surprise.

"Dutch design seems ingeniously quirky," says Terence Conran, the British guru of style. "To me it doesn't have the Shaker seriousness or solidity, but it does put a smile on your face."

I first heard about Frozen Fountain from Murray Moss, the boss at Moss, New York's inimitable design shop, which sells much of the best of the Dutch. Two hours at Frozen Fountain and the counter is piled with my purchases—a white pot from Hella Jongerius, a set of floral china with photo transfers of a forties muscleman working out on the beach, a gas-powered candelabra, another Hella pot, this one spongy and in red and white. I'm considering shipping a sofa to New York!

"It's too expensive to ship," says Dick Dankers, one of the store's owners. "Why don't you buy a secondhand sofa back in New York and get some of that Hella bird-print fabric to cover it?" Dankers is good-looking and effusive, a Dutchman who spent some of his youth working on an oil rig in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Back home in Holland, he dealt for a while in secondhand furniture before setting up Frozen Fountain in 1985. In 1992 he moved to this two-story shop on Prinsengracht.

Dankers carries pieces from most of the country's design stars—Piet Hein Eek tables that resemble patchwork quilts, a spectrum of Hella vessels—as well as textiles, china, toys, and when I was there, a cosmetics bag printed with MAKE UP YOUR MIND. He has a visceral feel for things that is infectious. He also likes a joke. Seeing me pass the shop one morning, he puts his head out, raises an eyebrow, and, as if he knows I'm heading for one of the city's most touristy sites, asks, "Off to see Anne Frank's house?"

Cok de Rooy, Dankers's partner, a tall, patrician Dutchman with a handsome mane of white hair, started his career in retail, and he's impressed, he says, with not only the seriousness and originality of the designers but also the quality of the furniture. "Holland has a very lively design scene. This is a very open society; everybody can express what they like, and there are very good design schools," he says. "The Dutch have a history of modern design dating back to the turn of the twentieth century." I am reminded of the de Stijl movement and of the artists Piet Mondrian and Gerrit Reitveld, both of whom were obsessed with the strict minimalist line and had much influence on both the Bauhaus movement and International Style right up to the sixties.

"We're down to earth," says de Rooy. "We're not as sober as the Scandinavians, but the whole country is very well organized. We have to be. Some of the country is sitting eighteen feet below sea level."

It's true; Holland itself is a gigantic feat of engineering and design, much of it reclaimed from the sea. And fittingly, the city's canal belt, where the waterways run in concentric circles, is home to the design district. Even the mailman I pass is thoughtfully designed: His bright red Polarfleece perfectly matches the saddlebags on his bike (of course, in this environmentally sound nation, the mail is delivered by bicycle).

Amsterdam's shops provide a showcase of design across the centuries. Some are old, like the House of Hajenius, the 178-year-old cigar shop—which Murray Moss told me not to miss—or the thickets of antique shops along Nieuwe Spiegelstraat (if you have to have those old blue-and-white tiles, that fireplace furniture, the copper pots). There is the newly modernized Lairesse Apotheek pharmacy at the corner of Jacob Obrechtstraat, and there is also Bebob Design, where tiny versions of classic modern chairs bear the words WELCOME and SIT DOWN. There are shops selling old movie posters and Elvis memorabilia and furry Indian pillows. HEMA, Holland's version of Target, purveys high style at low prices: household goods, garden tools, clocks that students designed for competitions. And for recherché books, there's the ultracool Mendo and the fabulously named Boekie Woekie. At Galerie Ra, "almost salacious beauty" is how the catalogue describes Georg Dobler's jewels. (I love "salacious beauty"; I love the explanation of a necklace that "tells a story. Nothing specific, however.") Dozens of other jewelers turn up here—Bettina Speckner and her rock crystals, Sally Marsland and her cast-aluminum forms, Johanna Dahm and her heavy cast-gold rings. But it's Dobler's pieces I covet. I want to touch them, wear them—great slabs of amethyst on a bold neckband, or cast-silver and -gold branches with cabochon stones as fruit.

The houses on the winding streets of the old town, near the canals, reveal the history of Amsterdam as a kind of layered archaeology. The interiors provide a glimpse into how the contemporary Dutch live. The curtains of every apartment and house are always left open. The reason, it's said, is so that people looking in will know that the house is clean and that the owners have nothing to hide. Peer inside and you'll see, in some homes, white walls and modern sofas on spindly metal legs; in others are antiques, with antimacassars on plush velvet chairs. When the light is right, you can imagine that you're looking at a Vermeer—a bowl of fruit on the weathered wood table, the lamp turned up as winter dusk descends early.

Holland is the most domesticated country on earth, its bourgeoisie firmly dedicated to life's comforts. But a liberal culture also figures into the plan, a necessity in a tiny country stuffed with 16 million people. Marijuana is legal, so is euthanasia, and Amsterdam's prostitutes (also legal) famously sit in windows, knitting. On my second day, I stop for lunch at the Café Américain, a faded shambles with terrible service but evocative Art Nouveau decor. "Most restaurants have lousy service or none at all," says Rodney Bolt, a British novelist and travel writer who has lived in Amsterdam for more than a decade. "This is a deeply egalitarian country."

The next evening, Rodney and I have a drink in the black-lacquered Long Gallery of Blakes hotel, itself a temple of the modern, the minimalist, the self-consciously chic. It occupies the shell of a 17th-century mansion on the Keizersgracht, Amsterdam's prettiest canal. Here is where you stay if you're in the mood for a high-design supper in the restaurant (Asian fusion, exquisite, seven little courses or more—who's counting?) or a night in a four-poster covered in strict red-and-gray cloth.

Bolt surveys the staff at Blakes, attired, of course, in the requisite black. "Tolerance is more of a duty than anything else," he says. "In spite of the design and the dope, Holland is a very conservative country." Walking Amsterdam, not just the canals but the old town, the Jordaan District (once working class, now jammed with cafés), it does feel ancient. You fall in love with what appears the most elegant of cities, coherent, intact, undamaged, unthreatened by anything except its residents pedaling wobbly old bikes. Crazed riders, they push on as if by entitlement, bike bells jangling, unconcerned for pedestrians. Again and again, as I poke my head into hallways of the houses for a peek, it feels as if this is a country that had its day in the 17th century, when the Dutch East India Company gave it an empire and made it a center of philosophy, science, and art.

But somewhere at the crossroads of history and engineering, of the conservative and liberal, the imperial and domestic, has come the reverence for great design. What's more, Holland doesn't just produce designers, it supports them. Government contracts go not only to the lowest bidder but to those with the best design, the greatest vision.

Dip into any building in the city and you'll find scores of design firms. Graphics companies like Experimental Jetset, book designers like Irma Boom. There's an almost patriotic pride in design, a fiery conviction that it matters. This is design as public policy, and even the most venerable businesses are committed to employing young designers with fresh ideas. As Jan Tichelaar—the scion of delftware maker Royal Tichelaar Makkum, the oldest company in the Netherlands—puts it, "Profit does not come first." Tichelaar, who's of the 12th generation to run the factory, has commissioned designs by Bey, Jongerius, and Marcel Wanders for a raft of finely made, witty tea sets, carafes, beakers, and vases.

Serious conversation about design is everywhere. " 'Crisis in Dutch Design' is a lecture you can hear almost every night," says Helen van Ruiten at Galerie Binnen, which features revolving exhibits as well as pieces for sale. "What crisis?" she asks merrily. "There's never been so much to choose from."

Tonight, at De Kring, a private club for artists and writers, I'm eating steak by candlelight at a communal table. Everyone, everything—the slabs of meat, the red wine, the hot faces, the bright eyes—seem to have come right off a Brueghel canvas. The talk is of architecture and design, everyone speaking English for my benefit. "Oh, he is world famous," someone says. "Sure," says someone else in that self-deprecating Dutch way, adding, "world famous in Holland!" But some of the Dutch design luminaries are world famous: Tokyo adores Bey's street furniture; the British buy Wanders's (Moooi) Flare Table at the Conran Shop. And most of them began as part of Droog Design, a kind of Dutch collective.

Threading my way across canals and through back alleys, I find Droog, part foundation, part gallery, part shop, in a 17th-century house. Renny Ramakers is the stylish design historian who founded Droog with Gijs Bakker in 1993. The two showed furniture by young Dutch designers at the Milan Furniture fair. Everything was made from cheap industrial material or found objects. There was a paper bookcase by Bey, Rody Graumans's cluster of 85 lightbulbs that hung upside down like a bouquet, Tejo Remy's bureau made out of a stack of drawers tied with thick cord. Droog was the hit of the show.

And so contemporary Dutch design was launched. Museums around the world put it on the map. The cognoscenti bought it, whispered about it, and still pretend they were first. There's something ineluctably appealing about the found materials, the sober design, the unpredictability. Of that first Milan show, the French newspaper Libération proclaimed that a medal should be given to the "unknowns," as the Dutch designers then were, for their "spiritual savoir vivre"—that is, the way of living in style with a soul, the fun that is in the spirit of it all.


Amsterdam Address Book

FROZEN FOUNTAIN
At 629 Prinsengracht; 31-20/622-9375

THE HOUSE OF HAJENIUS
At 92-96 Rokinstraat; 31-20/623-7494

LAIRESSE APOTHEEK
At 40 Lairessestraat; 31-20/662-1022

BEBOB DESIGN
At 764 Prinsengracht; 31-20/623-5763

HEMA
At 208 Kalverstraat; 31-20/422-8988

MENDO
At 11 Berenstraat; 31-20/612-1216

BOEKIE WOEKIE
At 16 Berenstraat; 31-20/639-0507

GALERIE RA
At 80 Vijzelstraat; 31-20/626-5100

ROYAL TICHELAAR MAKKUM POTTERY
At 65 Turfmarkt, Makkum; 31-515/231-341

GALERIE BINNEN
At 82 Keizersgracht; 31-20/625-9603

DROOG DESIGN
At 3 Rusland; 31-20/626-9809

BLAKES HOTEL
Rates, $350-$600. At 384 Keizersgracht; 31-20/530-2010