How Tjeerd Veenhoven creates space by creating new value chains through design

Happyplaces Stories (video)

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Tjeerd and I go way back. We were classmates at Miverva Art Academy in Groningen, in the north of The Netherlands. We shared at least two things: we both didn’t live in Groningen and always had to go home at the end of the day by train, and we both saw and used Miverva as a workshop, a place with possibilities, facilities, instead of a school. During our path there, Tjeerd went into the more tangible matters like materials, products, the interdisciplinary spatial things where I had good fun in projects next to school, and eventually decided not to graduate because spending time on real subjects and questions was far more exciting and satisfying than exploring hypothetical questions for grades. We both enjoyed the available space for its practical attributes, but felt a bit limited, restricted, regarding the facilitated curiosity space.

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In the train to, and frequently on our way home, we always had lively conversations. Obviously a bit of school stuff, but mostly about possibility, what if’s, about things that could be beyond what we knew.

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Then, a couple of years later, we met again. In Berlin. Two guys from the north of The Netherlands, both still living in the north of The Netherlands. Conquering the world from there, at a party and exhibition about Dutch Design at the Dutch Ambassy in Berlin, designed by Rem Koolhaas, of all places. Tjeerd had some projects on show, I had made books on Dutch Design (while working at …,staat) that were launched there. Interesting: sometimes you have to travel somewhere far to find people that are really near. I remember walking up the spacious balcony of the embassy, seeing Tjeerd there, reading something and taking a picture of him. With this thought in my head: go far to find near. We continued our never-ending conversation where we left off way back then. But now with champagne on a sunny rooftop in Berlin instead of horrific coffee in a train. We stayed in frequent contact ever since.

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I really admire what Tjeerd does. Still doing what he always did, relentlessly chasing after his curiosity and finding opportunities by wishful thinking while wishfully doing he created his own space, physically and mentally: not being a star designer that is recognised for something aesthetically beautiful that doesn’t solve something, but being a designer that designs complete new systems, materials, from scratch. And, then using those systems and new materials to create value for everyone and everything involved. Now, everyone is talking about sustainability, purposeful business and more. This has naturally been a part of Tjeerd’s way to look at things, to make new things.

He still has his studio in Groningen. Well, it is actually more a 600m2 possibility space with tools and gear to create anything you can think of. And I think that, while space becomes more scarce within cities and companies to create, tinker, play, make, try-out, places like this become more and more crucial to come to new ideas, materials, products. And I hope Tjeerd’s curiosity, his humbleness and determination will bring even more good into the world, and that he will eventually get the recognition he truly deserves, when people finally recognise that being a star designer involves a whole world more beyond aesthetics. His story.

I currently do a lot of work abroad. Since I have been doing this, a lot of things have changed. The world has become much bigger which led to the creation of many beautiful new things. What I want to do here is explain how I arrange my space. Or how I create space to function optimally as a designer and a person. And that is a special journey. We are here in Groningen, in my studio. 800 square metres of creation-oasis. A paradise of creation, really. I have created this place over the past five years because I was looking for a place where I could come at any time. This took some time and effort because I have been working on this for about 15 years now. And, I’ve had a short academic period, a long time ago. It took me a long time to get started. I never really understood why this was. But many of my colleagues, who are also my friends, are quite well-known. I always found that impressive. I used to tag along as their sidekick, or something like that. And now, during the last years, it appears that what I was doing has been given a place socially. Or in this field of expertise. It is really nice to witness this. Especially because I now appreciate my work even more. I now have a better understanding of what I create and why I make these things. I appreciate the success I have on my own conditions all the more. I am me and I make what I make. Nowadays, this always feels right. It feels quite real. A number of projects and things have contributed to this feeling. Maybe it is nice to mention some of them.

I was often nicknamed Gyro Gearloose or inventor. I never really understood this, because I am truly a designer. But I do find it extremely interesting to start from the beginning. To start from scratch. This often brings you to the materials, because a product is made from materials. As people, we are surrounded by many products but there are even more materials surrounding us. This fascination has always been there. A few years ago I started using palm leaves. You have to imagine… This situation is funny. I am a Dutchman in and out, I have never travelled around the world much. I found these small boxes made of palm leaves. These are the type of disposable boxes you see at festivals sometimes. They are made from a wood-like material and I thought this was really interesting. And, em, why?

They have long fibers and Mother Nature makes beautiful products. I surrounded myself with these boxes in my studio, in my personal kingdom, where everything goes. And I started experimenting with these boxes and I eventually found a way to make the hard material of these boxes very soft. That was a revelation. A ‘eureka’ moment. It is very important to create the conditions that allow you to witness what you are doing. There are so many things going on in a creative process. What is qualitative? When is quality non-essential? When is something a lucky shot you have to pinpoint? Because therein lies the quality of a process. The moment these palm leaves turned soft, and also remained soft, I felt like I had discovered a new material. And, I named it palm leather.

I began making lots of products with this material. The fun thing was that this sparked sort of sort of a snowball-effect. You are in your studio, focussed on the I-process: I create something, I invent something. It is in my head, in my world. And then it has to come out. We call this the design crescendo. When things start off small and intimate and ultimately have to be put out there. At one point you will have a material that you want to turn into a product. These leaves do not grow in The Netherlands, they come from India. So I had to go to India. The first time I went there was about three years ago. I was completely unprepared. I never even planned to go to India. At one point in July I was staying in Mumbai, which is the rainy season. In a city with 22 million residents. And, em, yeah… A design project, an intimate project, suddenly became… All pieces fell into place. In the country where these leaves grow. In a country with extreme poverty. Where a large part of the population lives below the poverty line. Suddenly this becomes part of the project as well. The nice thing about this material, palm leather, and this is progressive insight, it is a material that can be found all over the country. Though mostly in its original hard structure. But with this extremely simple open-source process, even the locals can soften these leaves and use them for production. I have designed lots of products with these materials and the demand is still high.

After I had done this, many more similar projects emerged in The Netherlands. They all have similar creative processes, where I create the conditions to start off small in my own studio and where I slowly let it grow. Almost like cause and effect. Almost like a process that is very, em, easy.
We have attempted to express this through a number of methodologies. If you want to be surprised by the creative process, do not start designing too soon. That is what we always say. Do not try to get to the end product as fast as you can. So we use a system called Postponing Design. The use of this system is very important, because most people who start working for us are idealists. They come to us because we do, and have done, a number of nice projects in which they see value. World improvement values. This is a difficult theme, but anyways, they come in here with their idealist ideas and then they have to get to work. I discovered that there is not much you can do here as an idealist. Idealism is not easily to put into practice. Or in reality. So with us, these people are paired with a material, so to say. They are presented with a material and then they have to do an abundance of things with it. There is hardly any introduction and we set little to no boundaries. They just have to experiment. This experimentation phase lasts for about three months. We named this the ‘explorer phase’. So they have to explore and search. They cannot work towards an end product during this phase. The most extraordinary happens during this phase, where someone moves from completely incapable to expert. Indeed, a self-proclaimed expert. And why is the self-proclaimed part of importance?

It is unimportant if someone already has knowledge about the subject. Your trajectory as a creative person is of much more importance: moving from investigator to expert. A completely unique outlook on a material or a unique outlook on a creative process. In this process, you are the only expert. Also the guarantee of originality. Because no one came up with what you did in the past three months. So when you have become an expert, and you can move to, according to us, call yourself an activist.

When you are an activist, you have the tools to strengthen your message. I think this is one of the most beautiful things we have discovered in the past three years as a studio. Also because we work in India and in Ecuador and in Nigeria. That a design process now covers much more than it used to. Or at least, when you start from the materials. Because the materials are one thing, but the social side is important, and we also pay close attention to the ecological aspects. Em, what happens with the product when it is used. All those aspects. But the explorer phase is indeed what is most important. When I look back at twelve or thirteen years ago, when I look back at what I was doing then, it is actually the same as what I am doing right now. But then, indeed, it had no significance.

We, as consumers, were not interested in products that did not only look pretty, or a useful object, or… or… or tasty or gadgety. If it was placed on a pedestal, you wanted to own it. And my work was never placed on a pedestal. My work never even left the workshop. It was never completely finished. This is something I enjoy right now. It no longer bothers me that things are never finished. Because, with us, the design process is the main process. You could also say that it is finished in every phase. This has given me a lot of satisfaction and peace. I now know the tricks of the trade. So if you place it on a pedestal, it is more often seen as ‘finished’. I think this is funny.

So these twelve or thirteen years ago, when I was insecure and asked myself why I chose to do this, is when you are intuitively doing it already. I also believe that a creative process is something very personal. I don’t think you can move away from what and who you are in this process. I think this is a nice thought. But anyways, this is equally intense. The reality of the trade is that, you have to work hard to arrange your surroundings in such a way that it delivers what you want to gain from it. But em… That is tricky.

What I really enjoy is that it seems as if there are so many possibilities. I think I am happiest when I am able to get a small glimpse of all that is possible. So when I walk around in India. We are doing a beautiful project there. They have these eucalyptus trees. Big trees: about 40–50 centimeters in diameter. And, I walk through these woods and I see strips of bark hanging from these trees. The strips of bark are hanging from the trunk of this eucalyptus tree. So I walk past these trees and I see this, and it is veneer. It is paper-thin, around 1 millimeter thick, and it is dark brown…
and it is just hanging there, in big chunks of several meters long. And while I am walking there, I think to myself: Wow, this is beautiful. Such a shame… Why are we not doing anything with this?

So what we are doing right now, before these strips come off, because this is the same process every year, the bark comes loose and makes room for the new bark to grow. Before the bark comes loose, we use a sort of bandage made from really thin burlap. This burlap is soaked in our organic glue and we use it to wrap the tree. Two meters high, fully wrapped. A marvellous process. This glue then dries up within a few nights, and then we take a knife and slice the burlap from top to bottom. After this, you fold the burlap wrap and remove the complete bark in one go. Why does this bark come loose in strips? Because the bark cannot come off as one single piece. The tree is round so it comes off in strips. But this burlap wrap arms the bark and allows you to peel off huge strips of veneer. It is, em, so simple. You don’t need a specific technique or a fancy bark removing machine. It is there. It is up for grabs.

In Ecuador, we have the Tagua nut. And to my surprise… This is a piece of fruit, it hangs from a tree, when it falls off the tree it lays on the ground, then the fruit slowly hardens. And this nut inside the fruit is foamy at first but becomes incredibly hard when the fruit ripens. It is so hard that you can carve in it and use it to make things. People call this ‘natural ivory’. And indeed, it has the exact same appearance and qualities as ivory. But it is not ivory. So, you arrive in Ecuador, you walk into a store and there you see several small elephants, carved from natural ivory. There are no live elephants in South America. They do not live there. So because this material is called natural ivory, this craftsman decided to carve an elephant from something that is not ivory. He wanted to create the link to ivory. While you normally shouldn’t aspire to carve elephants made from ivory. What we do with this nut, because that’s what it is… This nut is carved and treated by craftsmen, with machines and knives. So we have now developed a tiny cast-iron mould. A two-piece mould. In this mould, we cut out a small button. A button which you would find in the dashboard of an expensive car brand.
And this expensive car brand is German. It is extremely precise. What we want is that the craftsman, or the native, from the jungle of Ecuador uses this mould to slowly clamp nuts that are still foamy. Tightening the mould every day. And, this way, slowly force the nut into this German precision. And when it comes out, you have a value chain that begins with the native, and ends with the ultimate consumer. You have caught all these people at once. That is awesome. It it would be possible. That is the test.

But the thought that in this world, where we all are much more closely linked than in the past, you are capable to… This value chain, which was once based on colonisation, transport by sea, complicated processes, this value chain is now much shorter. A large part of this original process, from raw material to end product, can now be removed. Thanks to technology, thanks to communication. Thanks to open source. That is the future. It is in there. In our urge to update everything.

We look at the products that surround us and the world we live in. Where do raw materials come from? It is absurd that we do not realise where our products come from, what they are made of and where they end up. It is absurd. And, don’t get me wrong, I have been around for way too long to be restricted by basic terminology. In all-purpose terminology. It is extremely complex and it makes sense that we are where we are right now. In The Netherlands and in Europe, we have cut up our complete production processes and spread them across the globe. Raw materials come from there, production happens somewhere else. It is finished in a different country, and we consume it here. The waste is sent back to a faraway country where it is recycled, and so on. So we have no clue. There is a gap between raw material and end product. And in almost all our projects, or in all our projects, you see in the end product, you smell, taste and see where the end product came from. And you also know where it might end up. And that alone fills the gap in the production trajectory which I, and other production members, experience. That we buy something and wonder why it does not satisfy. I think this will make up a large part of our future as designers. Filling this gap. And this also makes you realise that young and new designers also notice this gap. They are already less interested in the product on a pedestal. They just want to create a useful object which they can use with love, while at the same time knowing where it came from and where it will end up.

Written by

Founder of Happykamping & Happyplaces Project, author, sensemaker

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