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Droog Design Founders Split

Friction between commerce and conceptualism have led to a split between Gijs Bakker and Renny Ramakers, Holland’s most passionate design duo and the minds behind Droog Design.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 22-06-2009

Droog Design, the godfather of contemporary Dutch design, made headlines this weekend. Its founders, Gijs Bakker and Renny Ramakers, took their brawl public in a spate of press releases, emails and newspaper articles that revealed some of the issues the pair have been arguing about over the past few months via lawyers.

The issue is money and the more commercial vision Bakker feels Droog has embraced. He claims he has not been compensated duly for his creative input and that too much of the company's money has gone towards the new New York shop, which he never supported. Unsurprisingly, Ramakers disagrees claiming that Bakker’s public outburst, “hit me unexpectedly like thunder.”

“The original goal of Droog was to discover and present new Dutch and foreign talented designers and to stimulate discussion about the profession,” wrote Bakker in the press release that circulated last Friday.

That goal, he feels, has been undermined by Ramakers’ New York project. “It involves millions of euros and pushes Droog's original philosophy to the background,” he writes. “Its existence also implies that to maintain profitability, only big and expensive products will be developed from now on … I refuse to let the Droog direction be decided by commercial considerations.”

Since 1993, Droog Design has showcased contemporary Dutch design internationally and has helped to launch the careers of star designers like Marcel Wanders, Hella Jongerius and Jurgen Bey.

It has enjoyed so much success and wields so much power that inside the corridors of Dutch design, no designer ever dares to criticize the company on the record. “Too gimmicky,” “a joke that got old,” “unrefined,” and “an absence of quality” are comments whispered at the end of interviews with strict instructions to not include them in any printed copy.

it is ironic that it takes a move by Gijs Bakker, who almost everyone lauds as a brilliant designer and educator, to open the floodgates of opinion on Droog. His charge is that Ramakers is an ambitious businesswoman who has sold out.

Ramakers has counterclaimed saying Bakker’s aversion to the New York store makes no sense. “Please note that he agreed [with it] and he himself arranged [to open] a Droog shop in Tokyo without my knowledge,” she wrote in an email to industry contacts. “Furthermore, he never expressed any disagreement about the direction Droog was moving in content-wise during our weekly management meetings.”

“All in all it's a sordid affair,” Ramakers continues. “Gijs is clearly aiming to damage Droog and me for the benefit of himself and his new label. He has actually been working on this for some time now. Halfway through the academic year, for instance, he pulled the contract Droog has with the Design Academy Eindhoven for himself without my knowledge.”

Ramakers also defends her role as a creative equal in the company. “Content was always developed by both of us,” she wrote. “I had to focus on commercial activities as well because money has to be made.”

Li Edelkoort, celebrated trend-forecaster and the recently departed head of the Design Academy Eindhoven, supports this. “She should definitely not be downplayed or dismissed for being only commercial,” she says. “Renny is very capable at critiquing design and is very insightful.”

On the split, Edelkoort says it is “sad, but normal. Money, marketing and management,” she says. “I call it the three Ms and there is a related beast in the air at the moment, which I think is going to really change the way Dutch design exists.”

Edelkoort thinks the best thing for Droog now would be to find another person or persons to fill the gap. “Bakker is a masterful scout and educator so no replacement will be the same," she says, "but Droog already wasn’t the same.”

By that she means Droog’s early role as a communicator. “In ithe beginning, Droog spotted something in Marcel Wanders, in Hella Jongerius, in all of us,” says Richard Hutten who has known Bakker for 25 years. “It launched our careers, but it did that by noticing something and then showcasing what it noticed. It wasn’t until after that that they started to initiate projects of their own, which of course changed the whole nature of what it was about. If you are selecting things that already exist, you know what to expect, but once you start initiating things, it is harder to achieve the same quality and spirit.”

Hutten’s views resonate with many in the industry who say that international students from China to Australia started to come to the Design Academy Eindhoven (where Bakker teaches) to learn the Droog way. What at first felt original and witty soon started to feel old. “In the end, you had Droog rip-offs being represented by Droog itself,” says Hutten.

Bas van Beek, one of the few Dutch designers who likes to say it how he sees it, says that Droog was never an innovator anyway. "They could've foreseen that they had to institutionalise and would eventually become a political and economic tool to propagate Dutch Culture," he says. "They got so caught up in protecting their own limited vision of design that they were never able to renew, or deepen their collection. In other words, a chair cannot be a chair within the Droog framework, but a "chair". If designers, the public and the press start to question the "chair" then you have a serious problem and may as well just call it a day and quit."

Love, hate or envy, whatever the feeling, industry professionals all acknowledge the huge debt Dutch designers from all disciplines owe Droog.

“Jesus. What can I say,” says head of the Association of Dutch Designers (BNO), Rob Huisman. “Droog has been very important. When we travel abroad, the first thing people ask about is Droog Design - so much so that I think Droog has almost become synonymous with Dutch design, which of course causes some tensions.”

Designer Jurgen Bey calls the timing of the Bakker Ramakers split horrible. “It’s just such a pity because long lasting relationships are the platform from which you can build bigger things,” he says. He also points out that when things aren’t working in a relationship, both parties suffer and output isn’t as productive or creative. “Now Dutch design has two new opportunities and both could be great,” he says trying to find the positive. “As the storm dies down, they can both move on to develop their visions with no interference from the other. I look forward to seeing what they are both doing one year from now.”

Tejo Remy
, who designed the iconic Droog product “Rag Chair,” can also spot a positive and suggests that a less powerful Droog Design might not be such a bad thing. “Maybe new things can happen more easily now,” he says. “One is dead and another is bred.”

Remy also points out that while the Dutch design industry fires off email after email with words of shock and commiseration, nobody can truly understand what happened between Bakker and Ramakers. “They are two highly intelligent and successful people,” he says. “Of course I’m astonished and to be honest I don’t see a problem between having both commercial and conceptual ambitions. Why can't their strengths just be two different legs of the same organization? Perhaps the truth is that they are just bored with each other.”

Dick Dankers from Frozen Fountain in Amsterdam offers another insight. “I don’t know why it happened. It’s not like I go around with Droog Design in my head all day, but given the triangle between Gijs, Renny and Leon, its understandable that problems developed,” he says hinting at the role Ramakers’ husband, Leon, a successful marketing and promotions entrepreneur played. “Leon has a lot of money to play around with and when something like that enters into the equation, I think things can more easily lose their balance.”

Dankers also points out that Renny is very talented at making choices and that Droog will find a new way to survive. “They will always stick their necks out and experiment with new things just like they did with the shop in New York,” he says. “That is what is so beautiful about them.”

But new is the clincher for Droog. Built into the title of Bakker and Ramakers’ first book, “Spirit of the Nineties” was the answer to the brands own demise. “It really marked the beginning of the end,” says Hutten. “And to me that is exactly what Droog was, the spirit of the 90s. There was the Memphis Movement in the 80s, Droog in the 90s, and so far this decade I’ve seen nothing important take over.”

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