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The Art of Transformation

Fotografin: © Julia van den BroekPhoto: Julia van den Broek

The Art of Transformation

Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek turns industrial scrap or discarded wood into designer products that last a lifetime.

It is almost two thirty, but most guests are still enjoying their lunch at the coarsely built tables and benches made of construction lumber. Some visitors have already moved on to having their after-lunch coffee on the dainty vintage lounge chairs, upholstered in green and red velvet. Old glass lamps, arranged to chandeliers, are dangling from the factory hall ceiling, next to lampshades sewn from silk scraps from an Italian tie manufacturer. A friendly waiter is polishing glasses behind a counter made of layers of iron pipes, their yellow, red, and blue paint peeling in many spots. “These are the old gas and water pipes that, until recently, used to hang from the ceilings and walls here,” explains a smiling Piet Hein Eek as he walks across his restaurant floor towards the next factory hall that houses the studios.

From MoMA to the universe

Making brand new things out of old junk – that is the famous Dutch designer’s specialty. His works can be admired not only at design and art shows, but even in museums such as the MoMA in New York. Whether it is discarded wood, industrial scrap, fabric remnants or old doors and windows – the 49-year-old has a unique skill to turn items that others consider unusable trash into new products – rough, robust and crude, yet amazingly beautiful.

Eek also demonstrated his art of metamorphosis in late 2010 when he moved his 90-staff-member-operation into the almost 11,000-square-meter premises of a former Philips factory at the outskirts of Eindhoven, to create his own universe, as he calls it. Studios, offices, sales department, showrooms, workshop, manufacture, restaurant and, on top of all this, the huge room he calls his ‘chamber of miracles’ on the upper floor of the second factory hall. “This is where I showcase my own designs, along with works by other contemporary artists and photographers,” he explains as he makes his way past the studios towards the stairs. His clients hail from far away – all over Europe and some as far as Japan. “I have to offer them something,” he says as we arrive upstairs in the chamber of miracles.

Dining in the chamber of miracles

Eek has furnished his chamber of miracles like an eclectic, whimsical apartment, featuring bedrooms, offices, various corners to lounge in and a large dine-in kitchen. Up to 24 people can enjoy a private dinner with Eek at a table he designed, all while looking down into the workshops where people are sawing, stripping and hammering to create the latest furniture. For ‘offering something’ means more than food and drink to the upbeat, energetic Dutchman with the brown curls. He also wants to offer his guests some glimpses at his work.

  • Classic cupboard in scrapwood | Photo: Julia van den Broek

  • Beam armchair with cushions | Photo: Julia van den Broek

  • Beam Table | Photo: Julia van den Broek

  • Green table, round | Photo: Julia van den Broek

  • Canteen table in scrapwood | Photo: Julia van den Broek

  • Tile Cupboard | Photo: Julia van den Broek

  • Tile cupboard, open | Photo: Julia van den Broek

  • Cube tile table | Photo: Julia van den Broek

  • Beam cabinet | Photo: Julia van den Broek

This way, he has everything under one roof – and under control: starting with the concept, to the manufacture, marketing & sales, to direct contact with the clients. There is no intermediary, no distributor, no distant factory at the other end of the world. “No one tells us what to do.”

For Eek is one of a rare species of designers who do not stop at designing a product – he also wants to make it himself. To be able to do this, he is willing to accept that his designs can only be marketed in small numbers or as individual pieces.

Coarse and rough rather than smooth and immaculate

Eek, who is a graduate of the renowned Design Academy, found success right out of the academy gates thanks to his final project in 1989: his scrapwood cupboard, made from a variety of different pieces of scrap lumber. It caused a small earthquake in the design scene – it was neither smooth nor immaculate, but rather coarse and rough, with peeling paint and bare screws.

He has since been known as “Lumber Piet” or the “Wood Butcher”. But wood is not the only medium he works in, he also uses metal, glass, and fabrics. His principle is always the same, no matter whether the products be lamps, chairs or cupboards: “I always start with the material. Every time.” At the outset, he asks himself what he can do with the means and tools he has available. Think simple! is his motto. “I always take the path of least resistance.”

For to make ends meet in Europe and market your own collection, you have to be efficient. Eek can neither afford complicated solutions nor waste. Both material and time must be used as efficiently as possible.

A world where recycling is a thing of the past

Every customer brings the Dutchman a little closer to his goal: A world where no one throws anything away and recycling is a thing of the past. “Yet instead, as a society we are currently doing all we can to keep on consuming like we have been doing.” Wood is labeled with an FSC-seal to justify buying more of it, and “instead of driving less, we drive ecological cars.”

Therefore Piet Hein Eek does not think that labelling him as an upcycler amongst designers is very revealing: “A product isn’t good or bad because it is made of good or bad materials,” he clarifies. “What’s the benefit of a chair made of 100 percent ecological materials when we end up throwing it away?”

According to Eek, a post-waste society is not a society without commerce, far from it. “A pair of jeans that lasts ten years will cost ten times as much – yet be ten times less of a burden on the environment.” He himself is living proof, for a piece of Eek furniture isn’t cheap. But his customers are willing to pay the price and usually keep their Eek table or cupboard for a lifetime. “One of my youngest customers is the son of one of my first clients – he is still using his father’s office furniture!”


    February 2017
    Netherlands, Eindhoven

    Piet Hein Eek


    Kerstin Schweighöfer
    is a freelance foreign correspondent for German media in the Netherlands, reporting on the Benelux countries for the ARD public radio stations, for Deutschlandfunk, FOCUS and art magazine, among others.

    Translated by

    Kerstin Trimble


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