Droog Hammers Out A New Design Niche

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006

AMSTERDAM -- On a charming side street in Amsterdam sits one of the city's most historic houses, almost a symbol of Dutch culture's hallowed past. In 1662, a crowd of Rembrandt's patrons -- the Dutch Masters of cigar-box fame -- posed there for his great "Syndics of the Drapers' Guild," surrounded by old wood and precious rugs.

Step behind the building's vintage facade, however, and you run up against the future -- the kind of setting 21st-century patrons will be pictured in. That, at least, is the hope of the radicals at Droog Design, the firm that now occupies the site.

In one front room, there is a table full of lamps, made of perfectly standard electrical cords with perfectly standard light bulbs soldered to the ends of them. Except those shining bulbs are drowning inside water-filled glass cylinders, with their cords in a tangle all around them. They reject Mom's warning that water and electricity don't mix; they seem to celebrate an obviously dangerous idea.

Nearby sit a pair of benches covered in fine leather, as in any fancy waiting room. Except that the tanned hide has kept the shape it had when the animal surrendered it. Each well-stuffed bench looks like a cow reclining in a field -- minus the head and feet that would have been removed after its slaughter. It's as though the animals are offering their backs as seats to us, their executioners.

Through a doorway there's an armchair. Or the germ of one: It's a plain box of highly polished steel, a yard wide by a couple of feet high, and deep. Beside it sits a sledgehammer. To coax out the cube's inner chairishness, someone will have to whack at it until it takes a shape for sitting in.

This is how a Droog home looks. It's strange, demanding and even rather messy. Almost Rembrandtesque, you might say -- or at least a bold attempt to rival the Dutch past the painter represents.

A trip upstairs through a warren of old hallways and chambers now repurposed as modern offices and workstations -- and repainted acid-green and pink -- spells out what Droog is all about.

"We always have said, and we still say, that for us, design is not a style. . . . For us, it always starts with a story, a concept," says Renny Ramakers, co-founder of Droog. Designers around the world now measure themselves against the Dutch firm; few are absolutely certain that they measure up.

Julia Lohmann's leather benches retain the shape of the animals from which they were made.
Julia Lohmann's leather benches retain the shape of the animals from which they were made.( - Droog Design)
The rooms downstairs are the company's showroom and retail store. Upstairs is the labyrinth in which its strange ideas are grown and propagated. On this spring afternoon there's a mad rush of activity as Droog prepares its latest installation for the annual Milan Furniture Fair. That's where it made its first splash more than a decade ago with strange objects such as a "wardrobe" that was a haphazard pile of used drawers held together with a tightened strap and a "chandelier" that was nothing more than a cluster of 85 bare bulbs. The firm should go back into rush-mode later this summer to prepare for a major survey of its work that launches in New York in September at the Museum of Arts and Design.

Ramakers, who recently turned 60, is not as sleek and fit-looking as many other Amsterdamers -- not high-design at all -- with a blond-streaked shag haircut and nondescript but comfortable-looking clothes. She could almost be a harried social worker. Thirteen years ago, however, Ramakers -- then a senior design journalist -- teamed with Gijs (pronounced Hice) Bakker, a well-known teacher and avant-garde jeweler, to unearth and promote designs that pushed beyond the status quo. The result was Droog (it rhymes, more or less, with "oak" if you cough as you let out that final "k"), which means "dry" in Dutch -- as in "dry humor" or "dry-eyed cynic." Its approach is meant as an antidote to the "wet," sloppy, style-conscious design that most of today's objects are drowning in.

The collection rejects the idea that ambitious design should be about a sleekly modern look-- still the norm for high-end products, from Apple's iPod to the Prius hybrid car. Instead, Ramakers and Bakker demand a powerful conceptual component, a driving idea: audience participation, even violence, as in that sledgehammered chair; or danger, as in the drowning lights; and ethics, as in the bovine benches. Or even smell, as in a recent series of lamps that look like pleasantly organic forms until they're lit and a waft of meaty odor gives the game away: Their bulbs are shining through the dried, inflated stomachs of dead cows and sheep.

We think of designers as the people who take care of how things look, with maybe a touch of function thrown in. Droog's truly radical move is to insist that designers should care most about what an object means.

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