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Living the American Dream

Three Dutch-born US-based designers Maaike Evers, Jan Habraken, and Alissia Melka-Teichroew compare the ups and downs of working in the two countries, where the biggest differences concern the business of design.

By No author / 23-11-2010

Residents of the Bay Area should have an affinity for the Dutch. San Franciscans are open-minded and engaged socially, they’re prone to bicycling. But do they embrace design with equal fervour?

An answer to that question began to crystallize in mid-November, during San Francisco Dutch Design Week. The event marked the move of The Consulate General of the Netherlands in California from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and the governmental body organized the effort in partnership with multiple local architecture and design groups.

Maaike Evers, Jan Habraken, and Alissia Melka-Teichroew, all Dutch-born talents working in the United States, participated in one festival highlight—a conversation at the consulate that was moderated by Dwell magazine editor-in-chief Sam Grawe. reconvened these dynamic, up-and-coming industrial designers to assess that talk, the design savvy of San Franciscans, and the opportunities and challenges of working in America.

Was the panel discussion a success?
Maaike Evers: There was a good discussion about the differences and commonalities of Dutch and American design culture and industry. Everybody knows Droog and the Design Academy in the design scene in San Francisco but this week exposed a larger cross-section of work coming out of Holland.

Alissia Melka-Teichroew: It started a dialogue between design and technology, and between design, fashion, graphics, and the arts in general.

The design scene in the Netherlands already emphasizes cross-pollination.
AMT: Linking technology and art and design is a big conversation in Holland, especially in Eindhoven, being such an industrial area. People here should recognize that Bay Area legends like Apple and Facebook and Twitter are not far removed from design.

ME: In Holland there is an openness to inspiration from other disciplines, and to embrace technology as a tool. We find it important to experiment in order to grow as designers, which I recognized this week in work by other Dutch designers. Niels Meulman presented his Caligrafiti work, an example of graphic design meeting graffiti arts. Alissia’s portfolio is incredibly diverse, and her new necklaces use technology and industrial process to become wearable art.

Does it make sense for Dutch designers to be working in America, then? Let’s start with how you all got here.
ME: While at the Academy I saw these videos of MIT and Xerox-PARC, which intrigued  me; I liked the idea of making technology relevant and personal. I ended up doing an internship with Philips Design and was recommended to intern at Fitch in Ohio. At Fitch I worked on the Zip drive and the first Compaq home PC, which reinforced my interest in design and technology. From there I moved to San Francisco in the hopes to find more. Five years ago my partner Mike Simonian and I decided to start our design studio, Mike and Maaike, here in San Francisco, to focus on conceptual depth but with a diversity of subject matter.

AMT: After finishing the Design Academy, I wanted to go to grad school abroad, because in the little world of Holland we were all aiming for the same thing and everyone knew everyone; I felt like I needed to see my work in another light. I started Rhode Island School of Design in 2002, and I didn’t like it at all but I was intrigued to be in this place where people didn’t really understand what I was doing. After finishing school I realized I should stay and learn all there was about American design. I wound up getting a job at IDEO in Palo Alto, quit nine months later, moved to New York, and started showing my work at the designboom mart at ICFF. That’s when my products started taking off, and it was clear that I had to start producing as soon as possible, even though I hadn’t planned it. And then I dragged Jan over here.

Jan Habraken: Alissia’s business was skyrocketing and so I made a big jump. I didn’t have any thoughts of how I could survive, and I learned fairly quickly that I couldn’t sustain my existing business: When there’s a big distance between yourself and your business partner, you need to communicate more than when you were sitting next to each other. Two years after closing that company, I went on my own. The thought was that I should jump into the market as quickly as possible, and actually, it’s easier to do that here than in the Netherlands. People are much more open to doing business.

So, if you stayed in the Netherlands, how would you be doing business? Would you be designing as well as producing and distributing product, like you are now?
JH: The big difference is that in the Netherlands you have 17 million people who are very conscious of what they buy and when they buy it. In the U.S. you have 350 million clients who just want to buy. Dutch subsidies are helpful, but the commercial opportunities are still way smaller and, in my opinion, less professional.

AMT: I might still be producing objects, but I also don’t think success would be as great. This is a very different culture for manufacturing and selling items. And I think American people are not afraid of trying a project—they’ll just go for it. In general a lot of stores will take a risk, and they might win over a customer with their own enthusiasm for a new product. That’s not a typically Dutch way of working. I don’t think my sales would have taken off in Holland as they did here.

I do think a project may be more creative if it were designed and made in the Netherlands. But in America you have to make a living and you have to be realistic about which projects make money. There are no subsidies. For me that’s been good, because I’ve learned to be commercial while sticking to my beliefs. Tweaking something for a more mainstream market, without destroying its essence, is something I didn’t learn in Holland. The academy was very conceptual.

ME: I’m not sure my work would be that much different. I’ve always liked to combine high-tech industrial design with small-scale craftsmanship and making. The type of client might be different, though, because there are many more technology companies in Silicon Valley.

Over the years has your work become more American, spiritually speaking?
JH: Within the last four years I’ve seen a big change. American companies have become less adventurous, they’re only calculating numbers.

ME: But doesn’t that happen anywhere? If you work for industry, there’s a certain balance between the purity of a concept and attracting the most people.

AMT: I think U.S. companies are more conservative than Dutch companies. And subsidies would allow even the most traditionally minded Dutch company to try to do something different.

JH: The Dutch consumer is way more design-savvy and art-oriented. That’s a big difference, as well.  

ME: Everybody in the Netherlands is more educated about design, because beautiful, well-thought-out products are all around them. Just look at American currency versus the design of Dutch money. And tax forms.  

These cultural differences are likely sown in school?
AMT: Jan and I are teaching a junior studio at Pratt, and the students aren’t even coming up with ideas or stories they want to tell. They’re just giving form to objects. And they’re not even building or rendering that well.

ME: Knowing how expensive education is, I think American students’ primary goal is to get a job right out of school. They don’t understand that design is not a tool you can just learn; you have to develop a particular mindset for it. A mindset that can imagine opportunities and experiences and the future, and one which understands the overarching cultural responsibilities of design.

AMT: That is something you do have to learn. You don’t just wake up one day and that sensibility overcomes you. In my case, I learned it by being in America and out of my element: I wanted to complain about something. I learned then, too, that communication was as important as design, because if you can’t express the story behind a solution, then the solution is useless. I don’t think students learn those presentation and communication skills in either Holland or America.

JH: The way we got taught at the Design Academy Eindhoven was that critics would question you and question you. In America, professors hold students’ hand through every step.  

ME: I really like working with Mike [Simonian], who was educated in the U.S. at Art Center. Our cultural backgrounds and differences in education make for a holistic design environment that starts the design process with a lot of questioning. At the same time Mike keeps us focused on a tangible product in the end.

What about production capacity? Do you have more proximity to it in the U.S.?
JH: I don’t think there’s necessarily more production capacity. Especially in the southern part of the Netherlands, every technique is available. And the quality is better.

So, after weighing all these pros and cons, would you prefer pursuing your careers back in the Netherlands?
AMT: We’re struggling with that question right now! I think it’s 50-50.

JH: On the one hand I love living in the Netherlands and having the liberty to live a little more, because the overhead costs are low and you can do projects that don’t just make money. Yet here, you get to sell, and that’s enjoyable. I don’t know whether my desire to live here or there is cultural or design-based.

ME: I have a similar thought. I love San Francisco, because so many cultures coexist, but I could go home anytime. Of course, that’s not possible. Mike is from LA and he hates the Dutch weather. 

Main image: Panel discussion
Image 1+4: Maaike Evers
Image 2+5: Jan Habraken
Image 3+6: Alissia Melka-Teichroew

Image 7: Comparing the US and Dutch taxation forms

Click on the images to enlarge

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