INTERVIEW: Renny Ramakers


Slow glow lamp for Droog by NEXT Architects & Aura Luz Melis

Photographer: Robaard/Theuwkens (Styling by Marjo Kranenborg, CMK)


Renny Ramakers is co-founder and director of Dutch conceptual design company Droog.  We first worked with Droog during Pioneers of Change, a festival of Dutch design, fashion, and architecture on Governor’s Island, which occurred in Fall 2009 during NY400 week, a celebration of Dutch culture in New York.  Mary Barone and I met with Renny and Sheldon LaPierre at the Droog storefront in Soho to discuss slow food, Droog, and the future of design.

 

Brandon Johnson: The Pioneers of Change is our launching point, since that is when we first came in contact.  We donated zingmagazines to be placed in the Go Slow Café.  We’re interested in your involvement in the slow food movement, or how that relates to the Go Slow Café, and how it all ties in with Droog and your ideas about design.

Renny Ramakers:  We started the Go Slow Café in 2004.  Not because of the slow food movement.  The slow food movement is based on regional qualities.  It started in Italy and is based on using what to land is giving you, not transporting it all over the world.  That is part of it, but was not the main objective.  The main objective was to give attention to processes.  Because we live in a world where you only buy final products—especially here in the States.  If I go for an orange juice, it’s already there.  In the Go Slow Café, in Milan where we first presented it, we were pressing the orange juice by hand.  And maybe that’s not allowed here…

B: It’s allowed, some places do it but it’s more expensive.

R: You see the people don’t know where things are coming from.  Children think that milk comes from a factory and not a cow.  So, that was behind it.  The second thing we wanted was the serving and preparing of the food to be done with attention and care and people who would sit down at the Go Slow Café didn’t have to hurry.  They can sit and have a nice time.  They can sit there all night if they wanted to.

B: That’s perfect for Governor’s Island, as a location, an escape from the city.  When I was out there to drop off the magazines, it was a like a whole other world coming from the Financial District where the ferry departs.

R: We also did it in Milan.  There was a big hustle and bustle, everyone was excited to see as many shows as possible during the furniture fair, but they sat down and spent hours at our café.

Mary Barone: The city is so frantic during the Milan Furniture Fair.

R: The idea of using seniors [as employees of the café] opposes the normal practice of using people who are very young as they are cheap and maybe because they are easier.  Instead we used retired people to work at the café for the week at Milan and two weeks at Governor’s Island.  People loved it.

M: Yes, I ate there.  They were wonderful.

R: We have done it in Toyko, we have done it in London.  In London we had ninety-year-old ladies.  They had to sit very often, which was not a problem, but every half hour they would sit down.  And in Tokyo we had a man in his eighties, and he was so young—so fit and energetic.  It was wonderful because people are used to being served by younger people and here there were people who could be their grandmother or grandfather.  In Milan, they started singing songs from the childhood and giving massages.

B: In that sense, the “slow movement” is literalized in the word “slow”.  I had previously interviewed an artist in Williamsburg, Mike Ballou, about an installation he did at a restaurant called Diner.  They source their beef from a farm in upstate New York and he did a large sculptural portrait of a cow from that farm, which was then placed on top the restaurant.  The individual, the original source is represented in that piece.  Now, Droog is taking it in a more literal linguistic sense, slowing down the process of eating.

R: Yes, very serious, but we also want things to have a twist.

B: Right, because there’s some humor to it as well.

M: When I dined at the Go Slow Café on Governor’s Island, the food was represented in a diagram according to its origin.  Like where the walnut came from.  Then it finalized on something very traditional.

R: The moon.  Black and white powder.  It’s a kind of licorice.  We say it’s dust from the moon.   But the idea is that food is transported all over the word.  We wanted to show the food in proportion to its distance traveled.  So, there was very little “moon powder” because it had to arrive from the moon, so to speak.  It gives you an idea of where the food is coming from.

B: And obviously it takes energy to transport the food.

R: And that’s a damaging thing.

M: They sourced the ham from West Virginia.

R: The butter from Russia.

B: So, it’s proportionate to the distance it traveled?

R: Yes.  It’s a message that you can eat a lot of the things that are grown around you and less of things that come from far away, like Japan.

B: Makes sense.

M: One always thinks you need Italian prosciutto or Serrano ham from Spain, but it fact there are delicious hams nearby.

R: There you go.

B: How would you tie the Go Slow Café into Droog in a larger sense?

R: It’s part of our whole philosophy.  You see there are objects here in the storefront.  But most of the objects are coming from our projects.  For example, the Slow Glow lamp in the window, had been designed for the Go Slow Café, but now we are selling it.

B: That lightbulb lamp?

R: It’s filled with fat.  When you plug it in the fat is solid, but as it heats up, the fat slowly melts.  It was a product of the project.

M: Who designed that?

R: NEXT Architects.  We have all been interested in a conceptual approach and projects that activate the visitor.  Interaction is very important to us as well as showing processes.  Many of our products are based on interactions, like the marble bench downstairs.  It’s an experience.

It’s part of our philosophy to produce things that make people happy.  Many people start smiling when they see our products.  There’s a sense of humor, but it is understated.

M:  it’s a dry sense of humor.  Because “droog” means dry, right?  The English are said to have a very dry sense of humor.  The Dutch, I think, as well.

R: Yes, it’s the same word in Dutch.  There’s always a twist.  It’s not meant to make something humorous.  It’s meant to produce something to make people happy or to convey a message, or something else along those lines.

B: What’s going on at Droog now?  Any upcoming projects we should be talking about?

R: We want to continue with Pioneers or Change.  We are now talking about presenting it in Bangkok, but it’s still very early.  Pioneers of Change can be repeated in every city all over the world.  It’s based on collaboration with local parties, interaction, local context, and current topics.  The second part is Droog lab.  We started this last year.  The first one we did in Dubai.  The leaders of the Droog Lab are always one or two established designers, so Rami Farook, Jurgen Bey, and Saskia van Drimmelen went to Dubai with a few designers.  The idea is that you go to a region, learn from a region, be inspired by a region and come back with something new.  Our goal, and this is very ambitious, is to define the next generation of design.  When I started Droog lab, I noticed that entire design world is only concerned with products.  We had these fantastic projects in Milan, but the press is only showing a few products.  Also, many designers are only interested in making products, limited editions.  We also produce limited editions, but for us a story is more important than owning an object.  Because it’s been going so well that last few years with studio work in limited editions, you see companies asking designers to do limited editions.  So, there’s no story anymore.  There are too many objects in the world right now and not enough stories. 

M: What are the designers in Dubai working on?

R: Yes, this is where we are leading into.  They went to Dubai and came back with all kinds of observations.  Now they are working on a new model, presented digitally, of collaborative design.  I cannot explain it yet, because it is being developed.  But there is a new model based in collaboration that will eventually produce products.  Also, maybe a different kind of currency based in time.  The original ideas have nothing to do with objects or products, but in the end there will be a number of very beautiful products based on this philosophy.

The second group is going to northern Canada in June.  The topic is sustainability.  Winy Maas and Cynthia Hathaway, she’s Canadian.  There are always also local designers involved.  They’re going to see how the Inuit people in the far north survive, to learn their way of living.  I have no idea when they are coming back.

M: That’s very exciting!

R: We want to do a third project in New York, based on the service economy here.  Yesterday on the street I saw someone walking with the dogs.  Dogwalker is a new profession.  I’ve only seen it here.  We don’t see it as something negative or positive, but only interesting.

Sheldon LaPierre: One thing that resonates for me about the lab is that it’s about exploiting already positive qualities of an existing situation.  The designers are not saying “We’re here to provide a solution, we’re here to attack a problem.”  It’s not that way at all.

R:  There is no problem for them.

S: It’s about using these qualities that may already exist in this inherent situation—something I’ve even tried to employ a bit in my own life having learned about this method.  The person who manages the lab will actually be here later today.

R: Perhaps I should explain why they came back from Dubai with this model.  They saw three clear qualities of Dubai.  For one, it’s very ambitious because it’s a desert.  They have made this entire city out of nothing.  The second is that there is a wide hierarchy.  The top is very small, only the sheiks.  The third thing is that Dubai is a hub.  A hub for richness, for luxury.  We wanted to make a hub of content, creation.  Those were the observations and that’s why they came back with this model.  A few weeks ago I told this to someone and they said I was not critical of Dubai.  I said “Of course we are critical.  But that’s not the issue at this moment.”  We are critical of this hierarchy where some have outrageous amounts of money and others have none.  So, we’re thinking about a timebank, where you pay with time or with something you are able to do.  Someone is a hairdresser and pays for their purchase with a haircut.  It’s just a model of course, but that’s where it comes from.

There’s one more activity we would like to pursue.  We are presenting a kind of parasite product.  Say you have a porcelain cup produced in China.  If it were made in our countries, you could not afford it.  It comes from China, and it’s not quite right, so it goes back and forth all the time.  Because of this, it takes a long time for products to be developed.  We were also thinking there are already so many objects in existence already.  We have glasses, our neighbor has glasses, the shop down the street has glasses.  Do we need so much glassware?  Then there’s the financial crisis.  Each month in Holland there are 500 companies that go bankrupt.  What happens to their products, their inventory?  It goes to auctions on the internet.  We started bidding on all kinds of items: napkins, a table, glasses, you name and we bought it.  We asked about 15 designers to see this as their raw material.  Each designer came up with an idea.  There’s a lot of commentary.  It’s fantastic.  In three months time, we will present about 20 new products.

B: Based on the products that were procured from the auctions.

R: The designers came up with such unexpected things.  One example, not sure if he will succeed, was given a water dispenser.  A cooler.  He has taken it apart and is making a perfume dispenser from it.  He also has 100 salt glasses that he making into perfume containers.  This whole idea gives a new brainwave for designers.  They don’t have to think about the system, the system is there.  They just have to stage it.  That goes for all the products.  There is cutlery, which takes years to design.  But here, the designer already has it at hand.

M: Will you be staging an exhibition here?

R: In Milan.  We will sell as much as possible.  If we have things left we will sell it in the storefront here in New York.

M: The fair’s coming up soon?

S: April.

R: They will be limited editions because there is only so much material available.  We are also thinking about moving beyond bankruptcy auctions to work with existing things.

S: To make access limited is interesting.  A new perspective.

R: We work with other companies as well who demonstrate a similar spirit.

B: I was reading up on the history of Droog before coming here and it’s interesting how these ideas tie in with the founding of the company, designers using discarded and pre-existing materials.  It goes all the way back.

R: It’s not on purpose, we aren’t forcing ourselves to do it.

B: It’s natural?

R: The idea returns in a cycle.  It’s in my genes to do these types of projects.

M: The store is a great resource in SoHo.

R: Yes, we are trying to make it more lively.  In the beginning we were a bit of a showroom and now we’re trying to change that by bringing in smaller items and doing more interactive projects.

B: We’re looking forward to it.