A Dutch Factory Town, Now a Design Center
Herman Wouters for The New York Times
By GISELA WILLIAMS
Published: July 29, 2011
SOMETIMES the most sublime and unusual enterprises can grow out of the grimmest of circumstances. In the late 1970s and ’80s, Philips, the multinational company best known for electronics, which had been based in the small city of Eindhoven in southern Holland since its founding in the 1890s, started to farm out its production to Asia. Not only were hundreds of skilled professionals out of work, but the city was also left with several abandoned and polluted factory complexes just a few minutes from the city center.
But over time, the acres of empty factory space proved too tempting for graduates of Eindhoven’s prestigious Design Academy, an institute that is widely recognized as the country’s design source. In recent years, former students have laid claim to the buildings, which have been cleaned up and are now blooming with art studios, design fairs, alternative music events and pop-up restaurants.
“I think the fact that Philips moved out and left behind so many empty industrial buildings has made a major impact on the area,” said Piet Hein Eek, a major figure in the Dutch design star pantheon, sought out by international contemporary furniture collectors for his bohemian-chic tables and beds made from richly laminated multicolored scrap wood. “By leaving, they forced Eindhoven to evolve and to become an adult city.” (In 1997, Philips moved its headquarters to Amsterdam, though elements of the company remain in Eindhoven.) Last October, during the now 10-year-old Dutch Design Week, hosted in Eindhoven, Mr. Eek celebrated the opening of his vast new headquarters in the Strijp-R, a series of industrial brick buildings that used to house the Philips ceramic factory.
On a clear warm day this month, enormous windows framed airy production areas humming with local workers, a quirky retail space selling Mr. Eek’s signature patchwork chairs and tables, as well as objects from his favorite international designers, like the British-based Tom Dixon, and a cheerful, sprawling cafe, which doubles as a canteen for the workers.
“People from Eindhoven have always gone to Amsterdam but now people from Amsterdam are coming to Eindhoven,” said Laura Weeteling, a cafe worker who was preparing a cappuccino. In another part of the complex are several small spaces that are rented out as design studios. (They are open to the public, though appointments are recommended. During Design Week, all studios are open to visitors.) That morning Dirk Vander Kooij was at work with a new intern and an enormous robotic arm in his two-story work space. The 28-year-old has been receiving buzz and awards at design festivals this year for his ElephantSkin stools, contemporary chairs he creates out of plastic “strings,” produced with the help of the robot and tiny bits of recycled refrigerators.
Like Mr. Eek, Mr. Vander Kooij graduated from the Design Academy, whose alumni list reads like a who’s who of Dutch design stars: Marcel Wanders, Hella Jongerius, Jurgen Bey and Studio Job among others.
In the past, Academy graduates generally headed straight to Rotterdam or Amsterdam to carve out their careers. Now many are sticking around.
“I can’t call Eindhoven boring anymore,” said Anne Mieke Eggenkamp, the energetic chairwoman of the Design Academy, which, since 1997, has been located in another former Philips building. “The city is changing, absolutely,” she continued. “Graduates are attracted to the space and opportunities here. Space, literally, in terms of the buildings available, but also the space in the city to explore and experiment with ideas.”
Graduates of the program agree. “There’s a really good atmosphere here,” said Nadine Sterk, one half of the design team Atelier NL. “I have a lot of friends who have stayed here as well.” Since graduating five years ago, Ms. Sterk and her partner, Lonny van Ryswyck, have gained a small but influential crowd of admirers for their work, a conceptual series of simply formed ceramic and glass pieces made from clay and sand the two have collected, mostly from spots throughout the Netherlands.
They also stayed in the city for the affordable — and, in their case, unusual — choice of work space. In a city where the study and industry of design is on a par with a religious movement, it seems fitting that Ms. Sterk and Ms. van Ryswyck conceive their projects in a converted church.
Ms. Eggenkamp cited another recent alumnus of the Academy, Rocco Verdult, who specializes in spontaneous social events in the city, transforming a children’s climbing web into a transparent teepee for socializing, for example, or performing unannounced at random spots in the city as the “disco garbage man” (dressed up as a city worker, he blasts music, hoping to entice passers-by to dance).
Across the street from the Academy is an enterprising project spearheaded by another recent graduate: the Temporary Concept Store, opened by the accessories designer Jannita Van Den Haak. She calls her retail concept “slow shopping” — the retail equivalent, she said, of the slow-food movement.
At the Eindhoven shop, which showcases work from Academy students, Ms. Van Den Haak sells her own glass jewelry and leather bags, along with a mix of fashion and design objects, like a series of handblown glass carafes by Lotte de Raadt, designed to reflect various types of water sources in the Netherlands. And both women, like the other designers featured in the shop, use local craftspeople to bring their products to fruition.
Along with the growing cultural scene, of course, comes the need for creative dining options. Though it’s taken a few months to find the right chef and get into the groove, the friendly, light-filled cafe at Mr. Eek’s complex is now serving lunch and dinner every day except Mondays. The food — local, seasonal and simple — is meant to match Mr. Eek’s design philosophy.
In yet another converted Philips factory in the heart of Eindhoven, Usine, a chic and cozy French-style bistro, is open all day. It was no easy task for the owners, successful Rotterdam restaurateurs, to convert this sprawling industrial space into the laid-back hangout it has become, but the outdoor seating area, which looks out over “The Blob,” a new glass and steel dome designed by the Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas, has helped it become one of the more popular meeting places in the city.
Yet visitors to Eindhoven might be surprised to find that, despite all the hardworking innovative designers that live and work there, the city itself is not much to look at. It’s one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands but much of its historic architecture was destroyed during World War II.
The look of the city will certainly become more interesting with the realization of an ambitious project in the works: the Strijp-S, a 70,000-acre complex where Philips once manufactured everything from light bulbs to radios. In 2004 the site was bought by the development company Trudo, which then spent several years developing an innovative master plan with the help of the respected Dutch architect Jo Coenen.
Already in place in the complex is a skatepark; multiple design ateliers; Popei, a recording studio; and a concert venue where bands like the Chemical Brothers and Slayer have performed. The site also hosts a range of events, including exhibitions and pop-up restaurants during Dutch Design Week, running this year from Oct. 22 to 30, and the Glow Forum of Light in Art and Architecture, which, from Nov. 5 to 12, will focus on innovative uses of artificial light.
Up next are 240 affordable loftlike apartments, a sprawling modern market of regional food products, a park similar to the High Line in New York City, and a “village” built of containers by the New York-based architects Lot-ek that will serve as a “breeding space for artists and retail companies,” according to Trudo’s project director, Jack Hock. Philips might have abandoned the city, but even without the company, Eindhoven is still a place where all sorts of light bulbs are going on.
IF YOU GO
Eindhoven is an easy day trip from Amsterdam or Antwerp and best reached by train. From Amsterdam it’s about a one-hour-and-20-minute ride and costs about 17.20 euros, $24 at $1.39 to the euro, each way. Buy tickets through NS, the country’s national rail network (ns.nl/en/).
WHERE TO STAY
Right around the corner from the Design Academy in the center of the city is the Best Western Premier Art Hotel Eindhoven (Lichttoren 22; 31-40-751-3500; arthoteleindhoven.com), with large, colorful design-friendly rooms at affordable prices; rates in August from about 70 euros.
Another decent central option is the recently renovated Park Plaza Eindhoven (Geldropseweg 17; 31-40-214-6500; parkplaza.com), with well-priced modern rooms and an indoor pool. Rates in August start at about 80 euros.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Usine (Lichttoren 6; 31-40-217-1890; usine.nl) is one of the few places to eat in the city that’s open all day, so you can start off with breakfast, stop for a snack in between shopping forays or have a glass of wine or two on the terrace in the evening.
The Hoogste Tijd (Vrijstraat 38; 31-40-296-2488; hoogstetijd.nl), which translates as High Time, is a contemporary-style bar and restaurant that serves up small plates and snacks and is popular with the Design Academy crowd.
The friendly, light-filled cafe at Piet Hein Eek’s complex (Halvemaanstraat 30; www.pietheineek.nl) offers lunch and dinner every day except Monday.
Locals were thrilled with the arrival of Jiu.nu (Willemstraat 9; 31-40-202-7154; www.jiu.nu), Eindhoven’s first modern wine bar. The sleek but intimate space with glossy wood interiors has a good choice of European wines by the glass as well as Spanish-inspired upscale bites like razor clams with caviar and Spanish ham.