“Let’s make a watch!”
Piet Hein Eek is usually noted alongside the scrapwood furniture that made him famous throughout the world, but the Dutch designer is more – much more – allround. Without being held back by rules or habits, he designs and manufactures furniture, lighting and accessories, but also complete interiors. Occasionally, he strikes up a collaboration with a different company. In the past he has worked with a very diverse array of associations and designers. This time he teamed up with the young design brand LEFF amsterdam. Together they created the tube series, a timeless design collection.
Since his graduation project in 1990, a scrapwood cabinet that brought him fame reaching as far as Tokyo, the ‘distressed wood man’ has created a wide variety of leather chairs, mirrored fluorescent lighting, aluminium furniture, wallpaper-covered cabinets, carpet tiles, beds, summerhouses made of tree trunks and lacquered tables. He has designed a series of baskets made from recycled wood and ceramic vases for Fair Trade Original, created wooden crates for champagne house Maison Ruinart, a porcelain dinner service with a nod to Delft blue for Douwe Egberts and a collection of basic furniture for online department store Wehkamp. The collaboration with LEFF amsterdam fits in seamlessly with all of these, because it is equally unconventional. This young brand makes designer clocks, an area that is uncharted territory for the designer.
‘People often think that this kind of partnership is based on a rational decision,’ explains Piet Hein Eek from his disorganised office in his factory premises in Eindhoven. ‘But actually, intuition is usually what lies behind it. I just look to see if I like someone, and usually know fairly quickly.’
In this case, it all started with a phone call from Arno Ruijzenaars, who founded LEFF amsterdam in 2011 with his brother Dennis and designer Erwin Termaat. Eek: ‘He asked whether I wanted to design a clock. Since we seemed to click and the idea sounded fun, I thought, why not?’ He leans forward, playing with his telephone. ‘For a while, I was toying with the idea of do-it-yourself kits. Wouldn’t it be great if you had a phone that you could assemble yourself? It’s the best idea Phillips could have ever had. For LEFF amsterdam, I originally wanted to create a DIY clock.’
His starting point was a tube and an extrusion ring. ‘Extrusion moulding is a design technique involving forcing metal, or paste for example, through a mould,’ explains Eek. ‘The extrusion profile is what gives the material its shape. I devised a ring like that for the design of the clock face. The guys at LEFF amsterdam could not believe that such a thing did not already exist. It’s such a simple idea. They searched like mad, but it had not yet been done.’
He grins. ‘Often, a good idea can be surprisingly simple. The simplest solutions usually have not been invented yet. This clock could have been designed a century ago. It is actually a textbook example of the Dutch mentality: keeping things normal and down-to-earth. But everybody is trying to be extraordinary.’
Are you bright, I ask? The designer gives a shrug: ‘I did not do badly at school, but I’m not the most academic. I’m smart insofar as I understand things, and have insight, but not in the sense of studying or learning. Very little seems to stick.’ He laughs: ‘I am quite capable of forgetting my way home.’
This unconventional attitude is characteristic of Eek, who stood out at the Design Academy in Eindhoven with a series of products that he created, welded and sewed together himself, using materials that cost almost nothing, and who still prefers to work with waste and scrapwood than quickly sawing off a couple of new planks of wood. It has nothing to do with saving time: the material is his starting point and ultimately determines the form and working method. ‘So it is not a question of: we want to make a chair, how shall we go about it? But instead: we have this or that material, what can we make with it?’
Perhaps it is the ‘going against the grain’ mind-set that Eek and the LEFF amsterdam team recognize in each other. Because why would you want to design a clock in an age when everyone can see what time it is at any time and anywhere? For that very reason: if your attitude is that it is an even greater challenge to make something so beautiful that everyone will still want to have one. Eek: ‘The beauty of products is in how they are used – you need to be able to live with them.’ In the end, I gave up on the idea of a DIY clock. ‘The designers at LEFF amsterdam found the existing clock so cool that they developed it further, rather than making it a DIY clock. It may be stubborn, but justifiably so: it worked out exceptionally well. It just goes to show how an idea can snowball and turn into something quite different from what was originally intended. This clock would never have existed without my original DIY idea. What is so great about the end result is that the circular shape is exactly the same size as a standard drill size, so the clock can be integrated anywhere and the DIY element is still maintained to some extent.’
LEFF amsterdam manufactures the brass, stainless steel and copper tube-shaped clocks itself. ‘Normally, we take care of all the production and distribution ourselves,’ says Eek. ‘But the great thing about a partnership like this is that you ultimately develop something that you would not have been able to achieve on your own. For example, while travelling, Arno came up with the idea that if you have a clock on your bedside cabinet, a speaker might also be nice alongside it. So we designed some small speakers in the same shape as the tube clocks. You can connect them to your telephone using Bluetooth and listen to music.’ He points towards the factory around him. ‘We do not have the technology for that here, so I am leaving it to them. We complement each other and by doing so reach a higher plane.’
Eek designed special wooden beams into which the tube shaped clocks fit, but the clocks, like the speakers, can also be bought separately. For the launch of the collection, he designed unique large beams with built-in clocks that will be displayed at various trade shows and in stores.
The collection is being launched during Dutch Design Week in Eek’s premises in Eindhoven, the massive former Philips ceramics factory that he purchased years ago with his partner Nob Ruijgrok and has transformed into a creative stronghold, with a workshop, offices, a retail outlet and restaurant. Where once radio and TV components were manufactured, people are now hard at work designing, polishing, painting, gluing, varnishing and upholstering. The old canteen is used to host events and the studios on the ground floor are let to artists and designers. This three-storey building exudes an atmosphere of traditional crafts: full of carpenters and joiners, machinery and visitors. It is bustling with activity, as staff come in and out of his office: ‘We have a problem! We have even tried calling, but it usually has more effect if you do it.’ Eek already has the phone to hand and moments later the problem has been solved. ‘I also give guided tours myself, I have one scheduled this afternoon,’ says Eek as he fills in a few forms. ‘It is fun to do, because everything we create is made with special care and attention. Every product has a story to tell. I call them fairy tales,’ he says, with a twinkle in his eye. ‘The funny thing is, that the people who seem to leave most impressed are people like bankers and insurers. Here, we do everything that they are not permitted to do in their everyday life: think outside the box and let the creative juices flow.’
Eek does not believe that his work is intended for any particular target group. ‘If something is truly beautiful and you have invested time and devotion in it, people can appreciate that, regardless of their age, profession or background. Take our scrapwood cupboard, with visible screws and nuts. You might say it’s a young and fresh design. But we had to deliver the first one we ever sold to the 27th floor of an old people’s home. The lady in question simply loved it.’
Eek’s domain In his old jumper, in an office packed with bulging drawers, cupboards full of files, boxes and countless other things, Eek has clearly changed little since his days in the workshop. Amid all the activity, he presides over his business with all the calmness of a designer who is confident that the bright ideas will continue to come. He laughs. ‘There is a continuous stream of ideas in my head. I used to write them down, in case I forgot them. But now I know: if it is a good idea, it will always return. My brain is like a Wheel of Fortune. The ideas spin around and occasionally a good one drops out. Incidentally, sometimes when you have a good idea, you cannot really see how good it is until you have made it. It happens more often than you think.’
With a business worth millions and a brain that never stops, it is easy to wonder whether he achieves a good balance between work and personal life. He shakes his head firmly. ‘Far from it. I never have, but I have no complaints. I can put all of my ideas into practice. It is actually extremely egocentric. People work night and day here on things I have thought up. Life does not get any better.’
The tube series During Dutch Design Week from 18 to 26 October, the tube series by Piet Hein Eek and LEFF amsterdam will be launched in Eindhoven at Piet Hein Eek’s premises. The collection will be available in the best design and home and living stores from mid-November. Prices: audio tube: EUR 149; tube clock: EUR 149; tube wood – clock: EUR 249.
Piet Hein Eek is married to Jeanine and they have three daughters: twins, Roos and Geertje, and eldest daughter Lieve. He lives in Geldrop, in Brabant. His work has featured in exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Groninger Museum and the Museum of Modern Arts (MoMA) in New York, where he also designed the furniture in The Garden Cafe. LEFF amsterdam’s products are available in museum shops and other stores across the world, including the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Selfridges and Paul Smith in London, Le Bon Marché in Paris, Design Republic in Shanghai and La Rinascente in Milan.