Piet Hein Eek is striding around his Eindhoven factory, occasionally stopping to rescue offcuts of wood from the floor. The Dutch designer wants to explain the economics of bespoke furniture manufacturing with the help of a dining table made from waste timber, and with a price tag of €10,000.
The tabletop is a patchwork of planks — some natural wood, some retaining the dents and scraps of paint they wore when they arrived in Eek’s workshops. Those scars and imperfections have been glossed and preserved with lacquer — one of the most time-consuming, labor-intensive and fiddly processes in furniture design. The effect is something like antique porcelain.
This table, says Eek, is as conceptual as it is functional; a subversion of the conventions of manufacturing and economic value that lead to waste.
“This is the problem: leftover wood that is big enough to use but the labor to make it useful is excessively expensive. We were throwing away leftover wood which was 100 per cent useful but too small to keep on the factory shelf.”
Eek turned the problem upside down. He designed the table by imagining that labor and lacquering were bountiful and cheap, and offcuts were scarce and expensive. “That way I designed something different, deliberately conceptual — because in reality labour is expensive and lacquering is expensive. And in the end it turned out to be one of our most successful products.”
Such wilful design experiments are part of wider Dutch traditions of salvaging architectural material and rethinking production methods, he says. These planks were once beams, staircases, facades and roofs. Eek waves towards a second table made from painted and lacquered cubed scraps — “the leftovers of leftovers” — with an effect of something like marble. This table — with chairs — costs €85,000 and has been commissioned by a music-industry superstar.
Like Philippe Starck and Tom Dixon, Eek has turned his name into a global design brand. Since graduating from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 1990, the breezily open, wild-haired, perma-rumpled Eek has built a career and business out of high-end recycling, largely by refashioning waste timber into furniture, both bespoke and manufactured.
These days his patched, scrap-wood aesthetic is copied by co-working centres, Airbnbs, cafés and bars everywhere as visual shorthand for sustainability and so-called conscious capitalism. But Eek was the first to make it an aesthetic to aspire to. He employs about 100 people and exports furniture, lighting, ceramics and more all over the world.
Over time, Eek’s factory on the outskirts of Eindhoven — a former Philips ceramics plant built in the 1950s, which he opened in 2010 — has grown into a kind of design campus, with a shop, showroom, art gallery, restaurant and artisan studios. Late last year, he opened another project: what could be described as an immersive urban resort for design obsessives.
The 13-room Piet Hein Eek Hotel occupies the third floor of his 11,000 sq m campus. It is intended “to create context around our products, and the place where everything is made”, and where guests can be “completely immersed in the Piet Hein Eek world of material, color, design, antique, art, music and hospitality”.
Eek has added another restaurant, The Lobby, painted a deep green and kitted out in reclaimed-wood furniture; a room for private events with wall friezes made from old mattress foam; and Dakbar, a rooftop bar with views across the city, housed in the factory’s former lift-engine cavity and with a ceiling installation made from Philips LPs. A self-catered private apartment for short lets is also under construction. Most of it was built by Eek and his team his during lockdown.
Eek believes he is unique in expanding a raw manufacturing business into a hospitality venture. True, other designers, including his friend his Dixon, are involved in hotel design. But Eek’s concept is different : he invites guests to share his lavish-yet-informal world his.
Through the factory corridor windows, visitors can watch him and his team at work. As they wander among the homewares, fashion and antiques in the galleried design superstore, they can look down on the factory floor where carpenters and ceramicists are busy with wood and clay. As Eek describes it: “I want you to stand next to the products, then look through to the workshop where they are made.”
Reclaimed materials in restaurants and bars can feel hippyish and slightly shabby, but in Eek’s hands they take on a luxurious sheen. There are no splinters or chips here; nothing feels compromised, shambolic or lacking finish.
Eek, too, may appear relaxed but he is all over the details. When he shows me to the restaurant, a ballad is playing as the lift doors part. Eek immediately asks the staff to switch to his prepared Afro-funk playlist. “I’m very particular, especially about music,” he says. “It must be good. It cannot be crap.”
The decor is not all Eek. He designed the hotel rooms, including conceptual copper bathroom ware, chandeliers and patch-wood cupboards. But the rooms also feature Dutch and Belgian antique furniture and are themed with original work by artists and craftspeople Eek has worked with or exhibited in the campus gallery. One room has acid-bright geometric canvases by Mexican artist Daniel Ruanova; another a mural by Jan van der Ploeg; Another a collage by Peter van der Heijden.
There is also a Piet Hein Eek room, in which I stay. It features a wall installation of reclaimed wooden beams, whose variegated colors and battered textures take on a monumental quality that is oddly moving. Eek has retained the Philips-era Crittall-style windows, complete with metal frames and winding mechanisms, which are extremely satisfying to operate.
Eindhoven takes design and refurbishment seriously — repurposed factories are everywhere. Eek’s is part of a mid-20th-century industrial estate that grew up around Philips, the electronics conglomerate, founded here at the end of the 19th century.
Philips outsourced the last of its manufacturing from Eindhoven to Asia about 20 years ago, though its legacy still litters the city, from Art Deco former factories to the vast Philips Stadion, home to PSV Eindhoven, to an enormous statue of a smiling lightbulb in the middle of a roundabout, and the Evoluon, a flying-saucer-shaped exhibition center.
Former factories have been upgraded and converted to support the creative industries — a sector worth nearly €46bn to the Dutch economy and growing, according to recent data from Topsector.
The high-tech VanBerlo product design agency, part of Accenture, is housed in what is now known as the Innovation Powerhouse, a handsome former Philips power plant dating back to the 1950s, still with its slender brick towers. The former Nolte Electrotechnical and Mechanical Industry factory once made switchboards, lamp posts and traffic signs; it is now Sectie-C, a collective of more than 250 artists and designers and open for guided tours and events.
Much of Eindhoven’s design scene — including Eek’s hotel — is driven by the 20-year-old Dutch Design Week, which takes place in October and pulls in 2,600 exhibitors and 350,000 visitors to the city, doubling the population. It is a younger, less showy event than the leading European design fairs: calmer than Milan’s Salone del Mobile, less corporate than Stockholm. But that is not the point: like Eek, Eindhoven is focused on design experiments.
Miriam van der Lubbe, the festival’s creative director, says it was founded to promote early-stage work: “We’re showing first concepts — tryouts and tests with audiences of things you will be able to see in Milan in two years’ time. When we started, no one was fond of Eindhoven. It was an ugly town, but that meant it could only grow better. And then there was so much space with Philips moving out.”
She is right about the festival, but I don’t agree that Eindhoven is ugly. Cycling around its revamped industrial estates (Eek keeps a stack of Dutch bikes for guests), I am struck by their utilitarian, low-rise brick elegance. Neither have their monumental qualities been lost on developers.
Over dinner at the Lobby restaurant — a tasting menu prepared by Italian chef Mario de Prisco, comprising fat, delectable seafood and a pecorino spaghetti — Eek talks more about his career.
Is there something compulsive about his ever-expanding ventures? Why doesn’t he stick to the core business of design and manufacturing?
He looks bewildered by the question, as if the answer is obvious. He always wanted people to feel welcome in the factory, he says, which is why he opened a restaurant and shop in the first place. “Then that all became a valuable part of the concept, because people made it a day trip. I proved it works.” The hotel is another way to promote his aesthetic and design his : the lacquered plank tables, the chairs, the ceramics.
“You need to understand, I always use material and technique as a starting point,” he says.
His hotel-in-a-factory is an expression of the same: “I try to use what’s available as the starting point. It’s not that I have an idea and the rest has to follow. There exists something, and then I deal with it.”
Helen Barrett was a guest of Piet Hein Eek hotel (hotelpietheineek.nl); double rooms cost from €135 per night. For more on the city, see thisiseindhoven.com
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