Emerging neighborhoods and a boutique hotel boom are spurring renewed interest in the Dutch design capital.
By Gisela Williams
August 01, 2017
Amsterdam’s storybook canals, lined with brick-gabled townhouses, arched bridges, and houseboats, are so absurdly appealing that even underwater, creatures are vying for real estate: In the last few years tens of thousands of American crayfish have moved into the waterways. “They are quite tasty, though,” says Yvette van Boven, a popular cookbook author and TV personality. On one of her most recent shows, she taught viewers how to make a savory bisque from the shells and claws of the invasive crustaceans.
Van Boven’s pragmatic ingenuity is exemplary of Dutch creatives: Faced with a problem, they laugh, turn it into something lovely, and eat it for lunch. After all, a millennium ago, Amsterdam itself was just a muddy backwater until some industrious “Aemstelledammers” engineered the Amstel river; at least a sixth of Holland’s land mass is reclaimed from the sea. “The whole country is designed—we even turned water into land,” Dutch designer Richard Hutten says.
From my very first visit to the city, as a 17-year old backpacker in 1989, I was immediately intoxicated by the Dutch capital. At first, I fell for all the clichés: I smoked a joint by a canal near the red-light district and toured the Anne Frank House, the Heineken brewery, and the Van Gogh Museum. Since moving to Europe in the mid-aughts I’ve returned to the city dozens of times and have quickly discovered that exploring Amsterdam’s contemporary design and creative scene gave me much more of a buzz. Dutch design, which exploded on the world stage in the early ’90s with the collective Droog and Marcel Wanders’s iconic Knotted chair, has since evolved into something with a more social bent, such as Studio Drift’s Obsidian mirror, created from chemical waste and Formafantasma’s collection of objects made from solidified lava.
While established talents such as Wanders still live and work in the city center, in the last few years the energy has moved to the edges: west, beyond the Jordaan; east, to the typically immigrant hoods; and most significantly, north, to a new area across the IJ from Central Station. Which is why these days, after a mandatory spin through the central canals (they never lose their charm), I head for the new frontiers. The city is relatively small, so all the quirky experimental restaurants and design studios popping up on the outskirts are easily accessible, especially when I travel like the locals do, by bike.
Ten years ago, I rode to the newly built residential islands of Java and KNSM, about a 10-minute trek along the harbor from Central Station, to check out the architecture. At the time, there were very few signs of life, save for Renzo Piano’s Nemo Science Museum and the shiny Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ concert hall, designed by Danish architects 3XN, but it was inspiring to see a modern vision of the canal houses designed by the likes of West 8 and Cruz y Ortiz. The seeds for this return to the waterfront, especially around the IJ river, were planted in the 1980s by forward-thinking city planners and Dutch architects such as Jo Coenen. Now, everything east of the Central Station is fully occupied and buzzing with families and cafés, including the latest district to undergo a metamorphosis, Amsterdam Noord.
Resembling something between modern-day Detroit and Blade Runner, the area wasn’t even considered part of the city until recently. Originally home to docklands and industrial sites, it was left to rust and decay when the majority of the shipping industry pulled out. But with the opening of the A’dam Tower, originally the headquarters for Shell in the Netherlands and now home to a hip hotel called Sir Adam, the neighborhood is finally having its moment.
Even as it continues to evolve and redefine itself, the city still manages to maintain and cherish the past. Amsterdam’s most famous museums, the Rijks and the Stedelijk, have been dramatically renovated and expanded, and the red-light district is being cleaned up but not shut down. This past spring the city promoted a new project called My Red Light, a cooperative for sex workers that cuts out the middleman, directing profits to benefit the social health of the cooperative’s members. The interiors were envisioned by the progressive furniture company Lensvelt with the help from some of the country’s top designers. The ladies of the night sit on Richard Hutten stools by walls covered with Studio Job wallpaper. “Holland is where contemporary design was born,” says Hutten, who recently reimagined Amsterdam’s Dutch National Opera and Ballet house, pointing to Gerald Rietveld’s first modern chair 100 years ago. “So it’s only normal that bordellos are considered with the same attention as cultural institutions.”
Look north across the IJ river from Central Station and what appears to be a massive diamond ring set in concrete and hovering over water comes into view: the Eye Film Institute, designed by Austrian firm Delugan Meissl. The opening of the national cinematography museum and film archive, in 2012, was a major tipping point for North Amsterdam. Now the Eye’s café and terrace are perennially packed with visitors coming to check out exhibitions such as the tribute to Martin Scorsese, on through early September, and a showcase of film artists Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Cao Guimarães debuting in the fall. Near the NDSM wharf, the Nieuw Dakota is an innovative space for contemporary art shows and events. Launched in 2010, it filled the cultural vacuum left behind from the closing of the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseum for major renovations. It’s also a hub for the Amsterdam Art Weekend (Nov. 23–26). Helping visitors get the lay of the land, the nearby sculptural headquarters of ARCAM, by architect Rene van Zuuk, has the best design maps of the city.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the De Stijl movement, an influential artistic school that has crossed over to design and architecture; several exhibitions will take place at the Stedelijk, including works by Mondrian and a rare example of a Rietveld interior. In honor of the historic pieces shown in the Rijksmuseum Gallery of Honor, which is a mandatory stop, Marcel Wanders published a gigantic tome, Rijks Masters of the Golden Age, dedicated to Amsterdam’s national treasures and paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Frans Hals. To see works by the old masters, book a visit months in advance to the Six Collection, housed within a 58-room palazzo on the Amstel River. Also worth booking ahead of time are tickets to the Dutch National Dutch National Opera and Ballet, whose public spaces have just been reinvented by Richard Hutten.
Amsterdam has become skilled at repurposing historic structures into stylish hotels. In the Museum Quarter, across the street from the Stedelijk, the Conservatorium Hotel is the gold standard for the trend. Located inside a heritage building by celebrated Dutch architect Daniel Knuttel, it started out as a bank in the 1900s before a second act as a renowned school of music. Designer Piero Lissoni marshaled it into the hospitality world, meticulously restoring the west facade and enclosing it in a glass box to create a soaring light-filled atrium, now a lobby and brasserie helmed by local chef Schilo van Coevorden. Lissoni looked to his native Italy for inspiration in the public spaces and 129 lofted rooms, outfitting them with furniture from Living Divani, Kartell, and Cassina. Another flag bearer for adaptive reuse is the Pulitzer Amsterdam, a series of landmarked townhouses and an oasis of a private garden in the central canal district. The labyrinth-like interiors, conceived by Tom Dixon alum Jacu Strauss, are contemporary Dutch meets Wes Anderson. In the lobby, guests check in at trunk-shaped pedestals covered in Delft tiles; the bar is lined in ancestral portraits and serves theatrical cocktails such as an Old Fashioned made with fermented pineapple syrup and genever, the Dutch answer to gin. Part of his creative process included spending a night in every room, so as to infuse a sense of individuality into the décor. The resulting mix of vintage furniture, contemporary art, and offbeat objects—Thierry de Cromieres’s beer-and-hamburger-filled recreation of The Last Supper, “Hals Brunch,” for instance—is best expressed in the Extraordinary Suites. Eclecticism reigns, too, at Andaz Amsterdam, a former library on Prinsengracht reinvented by Marcel Wanders. Entering the lobby feels like stepping into his famously Suessian brain. Almost everything, from the gigantic bell-shaped chandeliers to the tulip-form chairs, is of his design.
iCrave imbued the new Sir Adam hotel with musical touches that reference the emerging creative spirit of the industrial Amsterdam-Noord neighborhood. Embedded inside architect Arthur Staal’s famous postmodern tower, rechristened A’dam Toren, guests will discover Crosley Cruiser turntables and Gibson guitars in the 108 rooms; a burger bar and vinyl library in the communal spaces. The Hoxton is like a mini Soho House without members. (It might have something to do with their partnership on the Italian-inspired Totti’s restaurant.) Set on the Herengracht waterway in the historic center, five canal houses were reimagined by interior design practice Nicemakers. The 111 rooms come in varying sizes and amenities, including freestanding tubs, original fireplaces, and two-seater sofas. Be on the lookout for the recurring talks series with some of Amsterdam’s most notable designers.
A decade ago, Amsterdam was, for the most part, serving up bad pub food, sugary baked goods to satisfy the munchies, and half-decent Indonesian cuisine. But an exciting culinary revolution is quietly underway, having not yet received the credit it deserves. One of the most coveted dining experiences is found at Vuurtoreneiland, on a miniature, windswept isle of the same name in Ijsselmeer Lake, an hour’s boat ride from Central Station. Guests are retrieved at the harbor by a vintage boat from the 1920s and delivered to a stunning glass structure led by restaurateurs Brian Boswijk and Sander Overeinder, the chef and owner of the excellent As restaurant. Overeinder and his team deliver a carefully prepared four-course menu of foraged ingredients grown on the island and prepared with fire.
Back on land, there’s a triumvirate of chefs propelling the food scene forward. Merijn van Berlo is behind Choux, an open-format bistro accented by a cherry-red staircase whose stylish crowd comes for the biodynamic wines and dishes like monkfish cheeks served with a poached oyster, spinach, buttery bread crumbs, and Champagne beurre blanc. Giel Kaagman’s exceptional Kaagman & Kortekaas may occupy a pared-down space, but his menu of six complex courses, many of which incorporate his handmade charcuterie, is anything but simple. Benny Blisto of Bak, a cozy but refined restaurant hidden in a building that overlooks the IJ river, serves a daily menu of seasonal dishes that highlight fresh vegetables. All three restaurants offer exceptional value, averaging about 30 to 40 euros for a three-course meal. One rising talent to keep an eye out for is the young and ambitious Joris Bijdendijk, who helms the sleek open kitchen at the Rijks Restaurant, inspired by the world-famous artworks in the museum that houses it. His beautifully constructed dishes are highlighted by unusual combinations of local and global ingredients.
The cool kids hang out at the De School, a sprawling former 1970s-era technical school with beautiful big square windows in the West of the city. It’s now home to the club of the moment, a lively comfort-food café, restaurant, art space, and gym that teaches parkour and hosts dodgeball tournaments. One of the pioneers of Amsterdam North is restaurateur Niels Wouters, the owner of Hotel Gouzavant and Café Modern. He and a partner have recently opened up the popular local hangout FC Hyena, an indie-film house and natural-wine bar. Around the corner in an old factory building is the hidden Skate Café, a skate hall and café by day and a club at night.
Thanks in part to the country’s influential Eindhoven Design Academy, The Netherlands is known for producing some of the world’s most exciting designers, including Marcel Wanders, Hella Jongerius, Studio Job, and Jurgen Bey, to name just a few. Their work, along with projects from the next generation, can be found throughout Amsterdam. The two major meccas are still Droog, a collective founded in 1993 by Renny Ramakers and Gijs Bakker, which is now a sprawling complex that includes a shop, gallery, and café, and the Frozen Fountain, now more than 25 years old and quite possibly one of the world’s most legendary design boutiques. Owners Cok de Rooy and Dick Dankers keep their two-story space as au courant as ever. They continue to sell iconic pieces, such as Vitra’s Polder Sofa by Hella Jongerius, but every year add a few objects that catch their discerning eye. De Roy’s latest picks are Dirk Vander Kooij furniture and chandeliers made from recycled Murano glass by Piet Hein Eek. There are, of course, newer design hotbeds, including the headquarters for Moooi and the sprawling, funky Pols Potten, in the eastern docklands. The current concept shop topping everyone’s list (including Marcel Wanders’s) is X Bank. Located in the historic bank building that was recently transformed into a W hotel, it offers a polished and colorful curation of Dutch and international brands.