Piet-Hein Eek ‘Don’t go hauling stuff around’

It is a pleasant early morning on the Beeldbuisring at Strijp-R. It is also slightly hectic. To the sound of the fire alarm, the Piet-Hein staff – some 30 people – walks briskly but seemingly relaxed towards the exit. Once outside, one of them whirls onto the site on her bike. It’s her birthday. Her colleagues launch, almost in chorus, into Happy Birthday, swaying to the alarm that dominates the courtyard. Piet-Hein is the only one still inside. It’s his birthday, too. “False alarm, as usual.”

Text: Paul van Vugt
Image: Charlotte Grips

Five minutes later and everyone is back inside. The working day and the Piet-Hein Eek household can commence. For Piet-Hein, the day begins with a visit from Chantal Pollaert – a 2nd-year student of creative technology at Sint-Lucas. “Oh yes, a visitor! Almost forgot”, Piet-Hein apologises. “I’m never entirely on it with my appointments when I’m at work. But so long the other person remembers, we’re OK! And if we both forget, it isn’t the end of the world, either”, he says with a smile.

The entrance to the office feels like home to Chantal. “My bedroom is just as messy as this”, she laughs. Chantal hails from a creative family. Her father is a carpenter and paints, and her grandfather creates animals from flower pots, to name but a few examples. When it comes to her own career, she hasn’t quite formulated a clear plan. She is hoping to get some inspiration and direction from Piet-Hein. “I’m not really into my course at the moment. I want to use my hands more. Or to write. Something to do with media, anyway…. But I’m also very drawn to psychology.”

Piet-Hein recognises the dilemma. When he was younger, he wanted to become a carpenter. Then an architect. And then a designer. “There was one thing I was certain of from a young age: I knew I wanted to make my own products. Executing my own ideas and doing things my way.”

There is no shortage of ideas and individuality in this magical place, the former site of Philips. It makes you want to give every retired factory a second life. Especially with an owner like Piet-Hein, who declared his love to this historic site in 2010. He cherishes all of the original materials and commits them to his own world. The factory, Piet-Hein and the impressive collection are a match made in heaven.

‘Working lots – much more than is the current norm – is the most important thing in life.’

Chantal is a fan of Piet-Hein’s work. She admires his recycled wood furniture. But acknowledges these are merely fragments of his life’s work. As she takes a seat in Piet-Hein’s workspace, she is full of wonder. It is an intimate space, every square inch of it brimming with creations, try-outs and doodles. Possibly a glimpse into Piet-Hein’s own head. The organised chaos, however, is in stark contrast to Piet-Hein’s leaning towards understated simplicity. His vision directly opposes the modern economy, which revolves around endless growth, mass production and boundless possibilities.

“I’d rather choose the most direct route to Rome”, he says. “My immediate surroundings dictate what I make and what technique I use. Very old-fashioned. Because that’s the way people used to work; before people were mobile and they had to make do with whatever lay to hand. In the creative and design worlds, the idea has been elevated. And the techniques and materials are hauled in by hook or by crook to make that idea possible. Very inefficient. It isn’t very sustainable.”

“Typical,” says Chantal: “That’s exactly what we learn at college. Idea first; the rest follows.”

“it’s delusional”, Piet-Hein shakes his head. “Well, that’s my opinion. And I’m in the minority. So much has become possible since the industrial revolution. With machinery, we can make thousands of exact reproductions of products. And in the last decade, we’ve been given so much freedom of choice that designers can do whatever they feel like. And that’s precisely what’s happening. How something happens, appears to be irrelevant. If you’re building a house, you want marble from Egypt, making the footprint many times bigger than if you were to get brick from the Maas. And yet we’ll happily stick Egyptian marble on our walls. Because we can. If you ask me… Don’t go hauling stuff around.”

‘The most direct route to Rome, then. What does that look like exactly?’ asks Chantal.

“Pass me that cup behind you”, Piet-Hein points to an old, bulging display cabinet. “That’s our ceramic tableware. It’s made from crushed clay. The first cup was crushed using a pasta maker the kids used to play with clay. Clay has been cast in moulds for centuries. It gives you perfect copies. We glue each cup together by hand. No two cups are the same – never mind perfect. The result is a set of wonky cups and plates, each shaped differently. The perfectionism of it lies not in an identical result, but in the attempt; In the time-consuming process and endless care that goes into it. Now for me, that’s what gives a product quality.”

“With this approach, we emphasise the labour, as we do with the furniture made from our own scrap wood. In our society, we throw material away because it’s too laborious to keep it or make something from it. Large pieces of wood are in fact much more efficient for the manufacturing process. The thought of throwing it away annoyed me. Because really, it’s totally suitable for manufacturing. I said to myself: I’m going to turn it on its head: labour costs nothing and material is worth its weight in gold. Not very logical from an economical point of view. But very inspiring. Contrary to expectations, the first waste-table sold. Our waste-collection is perhaps the most successful of all, whereas I never anticipated selling a single object from it. It was the expression of a concept, to depict my unease around throwing things away. Not a design to sell.

“When I was at school, people never thought anything of my approach or vision. But I carried on regardless, because I knew I wanted it that way.”

“Knowing exactly what you want must make your education and working life a lot easier. I know it’d make me feel a lot more at ease”, Chantal ponders out loud.

Piet-Hein: “The lifelong challenge of your generation is handling the deluge of information out there. Choosing from all those stimuli is so difficult. I ignore it on purpose. I don’t even watch TV or read the paper. I’m bound to hear about the most important news stories anyway. I think I can afford myself that. But when you’re young, like you, you need to know a little about the world in order to know your place in it.”

Piet-Hein accompanies Chantal to the showroom and talks ten to the dozen about techniques and the provenance of the materials. As though the final result is secondary, and the design doesn’t count.

“What from your collection are you most proud of”, asks Chantal, weaving her way between a shiny sofa made of sheet steel, a sofa made from sturdy coloured tubing and a solid tree trunk desk. “I’m not proud of a particular object, per se. My work isn’t really about pretty. It’s about what you put into it and the satisfaction you get in return. A very important but very much underrated aspect. Since WWII, work satisfaction hasn’t featured in any collective labour agreement. They’ve all been about pay rises and holidays. Never about enjoyment from the job.”

Piet-Hein continues: “You know what it is about a job? It should bring balance to your life. Working lots – much more than is the current norm – is the most important thing in life. I believe you should get home on a Friday night thinking: I’ve nailed it this week. At work, with my colleagues and in a social environment other than the home.”

Chantal: “I don’t think everyone thinks that way. Lots of people want to work as little as possible and earn as much as possible. “Ludicrous”, says Piet-Hein. “The point is to get as much pleasure from your work as possible. Then you also no longer have the issue of deciding how to spend your free time. Which in and of itself takes up an incredible amount of energy.”

At the very back of the showroom, the furniture has given way to impressive art projects. From here, you can see the large workshop where Piet-Hein’s ideas come to life. “This has to be the best spot in the house”, says Piet-Hein. “I said earlier that I used to dream about realising my own plans. Now, I see a factory full of people executing my ideas. And behind it, my study, where everything starts off on paper.”

“When I walk in here of a morning – into this world I’ve shaped myself – I feel nothing but joy. Let me give you and your generation this piece of advice: go with your feelings, don’t be waylaid by meaningless external voices and be true to yourself. You’ll see how work and life become one. And if you manage that, you will have achieved a great deal.”

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