As a pioneer of the Dutch design movement and creative director of the furniture brand Moooi, Marcel Wanders spends most of his time traveling on business. But his creative and physical home remains Amsterdam, a city he has lived in and loved for 20 years. A prolific designer, Wanders recently launched a line of circus-themed products for Alessi, completed interiors for the two-tower Oh! Residences in Quito, Ecuador, and self-published Masters of the Golden Age, a monumental tome dedicated to the masterpieces of the historic Rijksmuseum. Up next: a Mondrian hotel in Doha. In between these projects, I caught up with Wanders in Amsterdam, where he willingly played the part of the savvy tour guide to this endlessly charming city. Here, a personal review of his favorite local hangouts.
EAT: THE DUCHESS
Look up upon entering The Duchess restaurant, located in a former bank, and perspective shifts wildly. It’s the great height of the ceilings and the beautifully maintained Belle Époque details, from the towering stained-glass roof to the beautiful turn-of-the-century clocks, that give one a sense of going back in time. A dramatic spiral of lights floats above the tables. While the menu offers a variety of decadent European bistro classics, from lobster and king crab salad to duck breast served with foie gras, it is the space, not the food, that appeals most to Wanders. “There are only a few places like this in Amsterdam,” he explains, looking around and pointing to the shimmering geometric bronze installation behind the marble bar. “Look at that wall behind the bar. It’s beautiful. Sitting here is a pleasure.” Located in the W Hotel, the property was just awarded Best Hotel Design 2016 by the city of Amsterdam. “They deserve it,” says Wanders, of Office Winhov designers and Baranowitz + Kronenberg architects. “Look at all the effort they put in to restore and respect the history of this space.” Sometimes, it seems, there are ways to innovate without losing something, although these days, many find it easier to just knock something down and build anew. “We cannot rely on the past,” says Wanders, “but we also can’t just keep covering it with new wallpaper.” Although the meal was very good, Wanders has nothing to say about the food. “I go out to eat to meet people,” he says. “It’s all about the company. I remember who I was with and much of the conversation I had, but I will not remember what I ate tomorrow.”
The entrance to the Andaz hotel is a narrow hallway, at the end of which is an automatic sliding door. It opens up into another world—a wonderland that is still recognizable as modern-day Amsterdam but that is really like walking into the mind of Marcel Wanders. That’s because he designed it: the lobby, the Bluespoon restaurant, the courtyard garden, and each of its 122 rooms. Massive, bell-shaped chandeliers hang over the reception table, lamps with shades of all sizes are scattered throughout the hotel, there’s a giant spoon that morphs into the shape of a fish. The elevator’s back wall is covered with wallpaper made from the covers of vintage books, which make insider references to both the city and to Wanders himself. Museum-quality video-art pieces are screened in the most unexpected corners. We hang a left and head to the intimate bar, which is made up of a cluster of low-slung chairs and couches, and a long, glossy counter that serves as a bar, open on all sides. A half dozen mismatched glass lanterns hang artfully above. The bar is filled with guests and locals alike nibbling at little bar snacks. Wanders sinks into a chair and lets out a satisfied sigh. “I feel happy here,” he announces. “This space embraces you. You feel comfortable to do whatever you want to do.” Wanders orders sparkling water and a nonalcoholic beer, although the bartender recommends the award-winning cocktails, many inspired by Prohibition-era classics. Wanders is relieved when a hotel feels authentic and has a strong sense of place. “Hotel spaces can be so ubiquitous. I want to fly from Bahrain to Amsterdam and know I am in Amsterdam.”
“It was a real drama for the city when the museum closed down for renovations for more than ten years,” Wanders said as we entered the revolving door entrance of the imposing, castle-like Rijksmuseum. “It is the museum of the Netherlands, the institution of our heritage. My daughter was two when it closed for renovations and she was fourteen when it reopened, so she wasn’t able to come here at all during her childhood.” The Rijks reopened in 2013, and in celebration Wanders, along with a friend, spent three years working on a groundbreaking book that features artwork from the Gallery of Honor, a large, vaulted exhibition corridor that holds the museum’s 17th-century masterpieces, such as Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul.” It’s a massive book, weighing in at over 10 pounds, and to fill its pages, Wanders asked 30 of the world’s leading critical thinkers, from Alain de Botton to Ferran Adrià, to each write an essay about a specific piece. Wanders himself favors the Vermeer paintings in the museum’s collection, which includes “The Milkmaid.” “What I admire about Vermeer is that art at the time was about big kings, big gods, big subjects. But Vermeer paints a girl pouring milk in a bowl. In a way it’s an abstract work. The subject is the painting itself.” He strides across the room to the painting by Rembrandt known as “The Jewish Bride.” “Look at this beautiful paint work,” he said, pointing to the arm of the bride. “The reason I felt compelled to do this book was to show how relevant these artworks still are. We seem to be rushing to change things without really knowing what we are doing. Yes, yes, let’s innovate, but let’s not forget we are losing valuable things and knowledge in the process.”
Droog, originally a design cooperative founded by Gijs Bakker and Renny Ramakers, is often given credit for bringing the Dutch design movement to the global stage in the 1990s. The defining moment was when they brought 14 objects to the 1993 Milan Furniture Fair, among them Wanders’s Set Up Shades, a stack of ready-made lampshades. “It made a huge impact and boomed immediately,” said Wanders. We were inside Droog’s most recent home: a three-story, 17th-century townhouse that has been reinvented as a boutique, gallery, café, meeting space, and one-suite hotel on the attic floor. The two rooms of the white-walled store on the ground floor are loaded with hundreds of design objects; Wanders’s Knotted Chair, from 1996, was given a coveted position on a low platform. The iconic chair was another early work that Droog introduced to the world, and it brought Wanders his first real international recognition. In the other room, Wanders pointed out some knee socks with woven fish tails attached to the toes. “Droog is great. It’s so good at doing and supporting things that don’t fit in anywhere else,” he said. “If it’s possible to find a red thread that goes through Dutch design, it’s that we don’t care about what something should be. We can just enjoy it even if we don’t know what it is. And there is always a sense of humor in it.”