Piet Hein Eek alongside his iconic scrapwood design, 1994.

Dons of Design

Piet Hein Eek

For this instalment of Dons of Design, we take a look at the work of Piet Hein Eek, the Dutch designer and disruptive thinker on a mission to change how the Western World values labour.

It’s possible to read the story of Piet Hein Eek as a modern parable about our relationship with the material world and the value of good design in it. However, parables are supposed to be simple, and this story is not. Piet Hein Eek’s working life has spanned a period which has seen both great change in the design industry and also something of an existential crisis. To get some understanding of it, we need to go back to the beginning.

Iconic Piet Hein Eek designs photographed at the Casa Perfect in 2018.

In the wonderful book Droog Design, Spirit of the Nineties, the central essay by Renny Ramakers details the emergence of Hein Eek. “As the nineties dawned, the Netherlands was hit by a flood of reactions to the design profession’s emphasis on beautiful materials, careful detailing and a perfect finish, on design with a capital D. In 1991 Piet Hein Eek graduated at Eindhoven Design Academy of Industrial Design with a cupboard of ‘the most evil scrap-wood’ he could find. The cupboard was built up of floorboards from houses due for demolition, old timber with the paint peeling off. Eek wanted to show that even ugly materials and a rough-and-ready finish could produce beautiful products. His cupboard had splits and cracks all over it, but this didn’t seem to matter. It is part of the aesthetic of the object. In fact the colours produced by the paint flaking on the wood only enhance the qualities of the cupboard, giving each piece its own identity.”

"As the nineties dawned, the Netherlands was hit by a flood of reactions to the design profession's emphasis on beautiful materials, careful detailing and a perfect finish, on design with a capital D."

Renny Ramakers
Scrapwood pieces by Piet Hein Eek.
Scrapwood cupboard detail.

The values and ideas encompassed in Hein Eek’s first scrap-wood piece were both powerful and persuasive. On the one hand, there was the idea of re-using materials, which at the time was gaining much more currency in the design industry and in broader culture. Then there was the aesthetic quality, which acted as a total antidote to the idea of newness so prevalent in 80s amd 90s consumer culture. Yet, in the final analysis, it might be neither of these things that were most important, as Hein Eek explained in our In Conversation piece with him last year. “For me, the feeling behind the product, and the way you relate to it, in terms of what you know, and what you enjoyed in the past, and which objects, colours, materials you actually felt as being nice and rewarding and warm, or cold – for me this aspect of feeling in furniture is much more important.” The success that he has achieved implies that what we feel about furniture, regardless of what material it is made from, or the aesthetic or function, is perhaps more important than everything else. It is rare to have conversations or discussions about feelings and furniture, but that is where the world of Piet Hein Eek takes you.

"For me, the feeling behind the product, and the way you relate to it, in terms of what you know, and what you enjoyed in the past, and which objects, colours, materials you actually felt as being nice and rewarding and warm, or cold – for me this aspect of feeling in furniture is much more important."

Piet Hein Eek

From a successful and well-received graduation project, Hein Eek was able to develop a design studio and production facility in an old Phillips factory building in Eindhoven. His approach to creating a manufacturing facility was influenced by some serious thinking around the idea of labour, particularly from the Nobel Prize winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman. Hein Eek explains his thoughts around the subject. “In the Western world, because not everywhere is the same, we should change the way we think about labour, for ourselves. It is not for money, in the end, labour is a necessary and nice part of life. So, we should reconsider our way of thinking, apart from the system we have created for it. That is the most important issue we will have in the near future.” Considering he said this last year, his words now seem surprisingly prescient. However, the reality is that Piet Hein Eek has been steadily developing his working practice and the whole operation for nearly three decades, with broadly the same approach. In practical terms this has influenced the ecosystem of products that are created in the factory, which are mostly items that have had an extensive amount of labour and hours put into them. The idea is that the craftsperson who is making something is enjoying the process, and the longer the labour, the more value is imbued in the product.

The former Phillips factory built in the 1950s now houses many different types of craftspeople.

For anyone who has visited the Piet Hein Eek facility in the last decade, it’s a bit of a wonder to behold, both because of its sheer scale and ambition, but also because there is an unmistakably good feeling there. In the main factory, they do a lot of carpentry and also make products in ceramics, metal and wood. They also have upholstery, painting and printing processes on site, as well as a gallery, shop and restaurants. This year, for the Dutch Design Week, they are even opening a new hotel on the top of the building, which has been created under the new architectural practice Eek en Dekker (Hein Eek alongside Iggie Dekkers). The whole operation is impressive and it acts as a real signpost to an industry currently wrestling with the complexities and costs of international trade, ever shifting manufacturing bases and the whole thorny idea of value.

Piet Hein Eek has taken a holistic approach to creating design objects, and his story has real worth at this moment in time, when our industry is having to think very hard about how to transition to a “new normal” and how to regenerate local economies. His story also has a resonance for anyone taking greater interest in the quality of their life, as Hein Eek explained last year. “What I do think is important is that my working environment, as well as where I live, my personal environment, is an environment that makes me happy. What I have created here is a sort of chaos, but also with a huge amount of possibilities, processes, skills and opportunities. This variety always gives inspiration, so for me that is an important part. Then, I like the team and the people that I work with very much. It is extremely important to have a stimulating environment in terms of the people you work with, friends and family. All the people you are with, it is important that they are a positive part of your life. For me, those are much more important aspects. In the end, furniture or design, what I try to do, is be part of this environment, and if it is well done, it makes you feel happy.”

"It is extremely important to have a stimulating environment in terms of the people you work with, friends and family. All the people you are with, it is important that they are a positive part of your life.

Piet Hein Eek
Piet Hein Eek table tennis design at the Casa Perfect in 2018.

Piet Hein Eek Collection

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