Why We Love Amsterdam
As the Dutch capital booms with international talent, its artistic side is stronger than ever. We meet the creatives shaping the city
Amsterdam is a city defined by opposing forces: land and water; preservation and progress; a high standard of living at a relatively low cost. But its ability to harmoniously house these contrasts is what makes the Netherlands’ most populous city one of Europe’s most unique, where creativity and commerce seamlessly co-exist.
As more and more global giants – such as Nike, adidas and Tesla – use the city as a base for their activity in the EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) region, there’s a continual influx of international talent. The competitive corporate tax rate – 20 per cent on the first €200,000 and 25 per cent thereafter – makes it endlessly appealing to bosses with their eye on the bottom line.
As a result, the capital’s population has ballooned in the last two years, and there are plans to build 50,000 new homes in the next decade to accommodate new arrivals. But what makes it so appealing to said talent, aside from the cobbled streets, winding canals and 800,000-odd bicycles, is its rising status as a global art and design hub.
A city is nothing without its people and so, to get a better impression of Amsterdam in 2017, MR PORTER hopped across the North Sea to meet the creative cast of movers and shakers shaping its future.
Mr Bart Van Der Heide
Mr Bart Van Der Heide grew up in Cotonou in Benin, West Africa. He moved to Amsterdam in 1998 to study museology and art history at Vrije University. Having worked as an in-house curator at the Cubitt Gallery in London and the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, he was appointed chief curator at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 2015, tasked with bringing the next generation of Dutch artists to the fore.
Why did you choose to return to Amsterdam?
I had to come back and work at the Stedelijk because it’s such an exciting place to be right now. My director [Ms Beatrix Ruf] wanted to bring experimentation back to the museum, and understood the importance of placing talented emerging artists within a social and political framework – either by giving them solo exhibitions or positioning them alongside more established artists. Here you not only have the opportunity to expose talent to an international audience, but the chance to help emerging artists become fully established, too.
How does the government help emerging artists?
It is incredibly supportive of new talent and offers bursaries or financial support if you need it, but there is also a great education system. Aside from postgrad schools and performance colleges, there are residency programmes to provide a space for research, experiment and production. They are currently developing a new institution for contemporary art in the centre of Amsterdam, too, which will help keep Dutch art in the spotlight.
Which Amsterdam-based artists should we be looking out for?
I’m currently really into Metahaven, a design studio founded by Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden. It creates odd assemblages – mainly digital – that are quite reactionary and unapologetic. Metahaven’s work has been shown at biennales before, but we’re putting on its first solo exhibition next year.
What do you do to switch off?
There’s a great brewery on the canal called Butcher’s Tears. It serves the best beer in Amsterdam and it’s an artist hotspot, always full of people I know. De School throws amazing 48-hour parties, and there is a night in the north called Progress Bar, run by Sonic Acts, which invites techno and electronic artists from around the world to headline its events. It attracts a really diverse crowd.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to visitors?
See Amsterdam by boat. The views you get from the Amstel river are second to none – it’s so beautiful. I love that we have so many canals here; it gives the impression of an outward-looking city – a curious city. They all lead somewhere, so why not check it out.
Mr Cassidy Hallman
How is life different in Amsterdam, compared with the US?
New York is fast-paced, but everything here is so much more chilled-out. It’s a better, safer way of life. I don’t speak Dutch very well, but everyone speaks English fluently. New York is such a melting pot of cultures, but in the two years that I’ve been here I’ve noticed that Amsterdam has become far more diverse. A lot of people are moving here, as it’s an attractive place to settle down – it’s inexpensive compared with other European capitals.
What do you make of the food scene?
It’s becoming a lot more international, as chefs are moving here from around the world. When I first arrived, I quickly realised that people love hearty, feel-good food such as stamppot – a dish made from potatoes and other vegetables. For me, that screamed of a big demand for comfort-cuisine.
What local flavours do you bring to the table?
Ninety-five per cent of the ingredients I use are locally sourced. My microgreens, for example, come from a company called GrowX, while a lot of my vegetables come from Lindenhoff farm. The menu is a combination of classic dishes but with an international twist – roasted cauliflower and wild mushrooms served alongside lemon and sweet pine nuts, and miso-glazed cod with a subtle dashi sauce.
How do you like to do to wind down?
I like to travel. Being in Europe, everything is relatively close – Paris, London or Berlin are all within a three-hour journey. You don’t get that in America. I also like trying the other restaurants: my favourite so far is Guts & Glory.
Do you see yourself staying here for the foreseeable future?
I set a two-year mark for myself in each place. My goal is to get this place up and running. Once it’s peaked, I’ll look at a new venture, a bigger project.
Mr Germans Ermics
Furniture designer, 32
Mr Germans Ermičs is a furniture designer who works with glass. Born in Riga, Latvia, he moved to the Netherlands in 2007 to study at the Design Academy Eindhoven. Having worked in the Paris studio of furniture designer Mr Robert Stadler and on interior design commissions from fashion powerhouses Dover Street Market and Raf Simons, he moved to Amsterdam to establish his own studio.
Glass furniture doesn’t sound very comfortable…
I guess not, but I really wanted to push the limits of what you can do with such a fragile material. It’s generally considered cold, flat and comfortless, but by treating it with pigment, manipulating it and making it 3D you can really change people’s perception. Many think it’s plastic, which I find quite amusing.
Describe your aesthetic.
I’ve always been fond of Russian constructivism – a style of architecture and graphics used on early 20th-century posters. I’d like to think you can see that brutalist design approach in my work. Saying that, I’m also hugely inspired by Californian minimalism and the relationship between light and space; those artists and architects also experimented with unconventional materials.
You’ve spent a decade living in the Netherlands. To what degree has the country influenced your work?
Dutch design is well known for its simplicity and disregard of decoration. Instead, there is a bigger focus on functionality.
Why is Amsterdam such a hotbed of creativity?
Amsterdam is a very open-minded and progressive place to work, but creatives also do well because of the availability of large work spaces and the creative communities within them. To have space is one thing, but to share it with other artists and designers is very stimulating. You’re also granted access to a lot of manufacturing companies and design headquarters, who let you mess around and experiment if they see potential in you. They’re not just concerned with making money or securing business deals, but also like to nurture talent. The government also offers financial support, although that’s been harder to come by since the financial crash.
When you’re not in the studio, how do you spend your downtime?
My girlfriend and I just bought a boat, so whenever I have a free moment, I like to explore the city from the canals. It can be quite romantic. I live in east Amsterdam, but I love going to Westerpark, where there are some really cool galleries, cafés and gardens.
You speak highly of the city. Do you think you’ll stay here?
I really like how laid-back it is. Commuting is so easy – I cycle everywhere, it’s such a healthy lifestyle. For foreigners, it’s a great place to live because it’s international and diverse. I don’t plan on moving anytime soon, but who knows where my work will take me?
Mr Dax Roll
Interior designer, 32
Mr Dax Roll studied marketing and communication at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences before working for a small high-end fashion brand. After he met his interior-designer girlfriend Ms Joyce Urbanus, they quit their jobs and set up Nicemakers, an interiors firm specialising in hospitality and residential spaces, in 2011.
What do you love about Amsterdam?
Everything is within walking distance. If you want to go to a café, the shops or one of the parks, it’s all very close because it’s such a small city.
How would you define your aesthetic?
I find it hard to define our own style. We travel extensively so we pick up inspiration along the way, and buy furniture wherever we go. If it suits one of our projects, we’ll try to incorporate it somehow.
What other projects are you currently working on?
An 80-room hotel in the centre of Paris, which will open next year. It’s privately owned with a lovely central garden, which all the rooms will overlook. There is also a jewellery store in New York, a new-build hotel in Amsterdam and a couple of residential projects, including an 18th-century farmhouse in east Holland and a brutalist-style penthouse in Maastricht.
Do you and Ms Urbanus play together as well as work?
Of course. We go to The Hoxton a lot. There is a 30-year-old Italian restaurant here called Toscanini, where we go to celebrate securing a new commission. We’re lucky to have a garden, which is quite rare, so we spend a lot of time there with our families.
Mr Herman Verhagen
Mr Herman Verhagen was born in Dordrecht in the Netherlands. He started pottery classes as a teenager, inspired by his grandfather, who sold Zaalberg pottery. After stints at the St Joost academy in Breda and Hogeschool in Rotterdam, he joined the Gerrit Rietveld academy in Amsterdam to study audiovisual arts. His ceramics are used by some of Amsterdam’s top restaurants, including Bak and De Wilde Zwijnen, and can be bought at Chez Moi in Paris.
What attracted you to the potter’s wheel?
As an animator, I was sitting at a computer all day, every day, and eventually I got fed up. I happened to buy a nice plant at the time and couldn’t find a pot for it at any of the flea markets, so eventually thought, “I’m going to make it myself.” That’s the moment I decided to become a professional ceramicist.
What prompted you to move back from Paris?
Paris was too expensive and my French was awful. Plus, my boyfriend lives in Amsterdam so I used to visit quite a lot. Through friends, I had heard about the 1012 Project to diversify the red-light district. The government moved a lot of the sex workers out and introduced more shops and boutiques. I was able to get a space, which was very cheap for such a central location. I stayed there for three years before moving to a bigger studio here on Herenstraat.
Do you think there’s a renewed interest in handmade products?
Yes, I think it’s the reason I’m still here. People no longer want products that come out of a mould, that are too pristine or mass-produced. Items that are made on the wheel have more character and charm. I try to keep a handmade aspect quite visible in my work; sometimes the glaze isn’t perfect or there’s a small dent here or there. Each item is unique, which is a lovely thing. When Danish restaurant Noma received a lot of attention for using handmade ceramics, other restaurants and chefs wanted the same. I supply pieces to restaurants here in Amsterdam.
How would you describe your work?
When I first started, I was working in the Delftware style, which is very, very Dutch. I made a few tulip vases, of course. Some of my work is quite minimalistic, almost Calvinistic, in approach, which I guess I picked up both here and in Paris. I think you can see a lot of Japanese influences, too, especially in the tea sets. My work is a hybrid of all of these: a little bit of me, a little bit of madness.
What’s the most romantic thing to do in Amsterdam?
If the weather is nice, you can swim in the Oude Houthaven harbour and then have a glass of wine on the promenade afterwards – it’s bliss. I like walking along the canals in the evening, or eating out at a great restaurant above my workshop called Bak, which also uses my plates.