We're in a sprawling shop in Amsterdam called the Frozen Fountain, surrounded by a thousand odd things: a porcelain vase that appears to be melting, a chandelier exploding with a mass of brightly colored flowers and china plates silk-screened with campy photos of men and women in bathing suits. Michelle Lehmann, a petite, thirtysomething New Yorker, is gazing at a long table made of a shiny patchwork of scrap woods in different colors. "Michelle's so hyped up she won't be able to sleep tonight," observes her husband, Daniel.
The Lehmanns are the owners of the modern housewares shop Clio in Manhattan's SoHo. Since it opened, two years ago, their store has become a top source for magazine stylists, chefs (Wylie Dufresne bought his dishes for wd~50 here) and even the occasional celebrity couple, such as Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Though the Lehmanns have no formal design trainingDaniel's background is in sports marketing and Michelle is the public relations and marketing director for the Union Square Hospitality Group, which operates five New York City restaurants, including Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Taverntheir eye for style, and their knack for finding one-of-a-kind items, led friends to urge the pair to open a store where they could display their discoveries.
Shopping trips like this Amsterdam one are key to Clio's success. "We go to a couple of industry shows every year, but to find the pieces that aren't sold everywhere, it's important to search out up-and-coming designers ourselves," Michelle says, adding that they've recently gone on scouting trips to Paris and London.
The Lehmanns already sell some Dutch pieces at Clio, but this is their first visit to Amsterdam. The trip is long overdue: The Lehmanns have been keeping a close eye on Holland's design scene for years. They first became interested in it when they discovered the works of Hella Jongerius and Marcel Wanders, who, like the country's other influential designers, are reinventing traditional housewares with unexpected materials and exaggerated shapes. Jongerius has created vases based on classical shapes from antiquity, which she reincarnates in polyurethane; Wanders, founder of the design group Moooi, is best known for such pieces as a chair made from rope soaked in resin, and a candle-shaped lamp that turns off when someone blows on it. Lately, some of the country's newest talents have been creating more exuberant, unabashedly ornamental pieces, modifying household objects to make them both more decorative and more utilitarian.
The Frozen Fountain
"This is our dream store," says Michelle as she walks around the Frozen Fountain, one of Amsterdam's most trend-setting shops, which stocks pieces by designers from around the world alongside ones from rising Dutch stars. The Lehmanns zero in on wildly patterned garbage containers made out of old billboards by Dutch design team JaJo ($12 to $32) and a plastic dish rack by Australian designer Marc Newson ($65), which looks like a spiked sea creature. One of Frozen Fountain's owners takes their order for both pieces as he laments life's ironies. "Most people who have good taste don't have the budget to buy my things, but those who have the budget rarely have good taste." He only says this to the Lehmanns because he detects that they have both. Still, the Lehmanns can't seem to justify spending the $8,000 for that patchwork table, even though the pieceby renowned Dutch designer Piet Hein Eekis destined to become a collector's item.
An Amsterdam shop launched in 1993 by jewelry designer Gijs Bakker and design historian Renny Ramakers, Droog is frequently credited with defining and organizing the Dutch design movement by promoting the works of the country's biggest talents. At the store, a staff member walks the Lehmanns through some of Droog's most recent hits: antique chairs mummified in foam and silk-screened with delicate flowers by Jurgen Bey ($4,475), known for his radical makeovers of discarded furniture; amusing napkins by Chris Kabel ($7), which can be folded into sculptural shapes along decorative laser-cut lines; and what must be the most attractive radiator in the worldit's made of white porcelain and resembles a large rococo headboardby Joris Laarman, a recent design-school graduate who created the piece as a prototype. The huge radiator looks like a throwback, but it's actually intended to work better than the sleeker, more minimalist styles of recent years, since radiators are most efficient when they have a large surface area. Laarman turns the radiator into a decorative object, too, painting it with flowers and adding colored tiles. Michelle squeezes a vase by Hella Jongerius that appears to be made of glass but is molded from malleable rubber. Daniel, the more practical of the pair, looks at the 140-euro price tag (about $170) and wonders if customers would want to pay that much for a rubber vase. They end up buying glasses by Arnout Visser that look as if they're made from bubbles (4 for $42).
If Droog and Frozen Fountain represent Dutch design's future, Royal Tichelaar is a symbol of its past. Holland's oldest earthenware company, Tichelaar has been around since 1594but recently it has enlisted such people as Wanders and Job Smeets (who works under the name Studio Job) to reinvent its porcelain tableware lines. The Frozen Fountain is about to open an in-store boutique to showcase these pieces.
To view the collection, the Lehmanns decide to drive to the village of Makkum, about an hour from Amsterdam, to visit the factory, which is open to the public. On a tour of the Tichelaar studios and workshops, they watch some employees paint tiles in the classic patterns; others are creating molds for the three-cylindered MaMa vase by Roderick Vos ($265), who has designed for Alessi. Michelle and Daniel are keen on the newer pieces and order the MaMa vase, which Michelle points out resembles an upside-down cow's udder. They also order a porcelain carafe by Jan Broekstra, which looks like it's made of Styrofoam ($110). "Broekstra is taking something kitschy, like a Styrofoam cup, and making it beautiful," Michelle says. They decide to hold off on Studio Job's whimsical version of a piggy bank, a white squirrel holding a golden nut. "This would be a great Christmas display," Daniel says.
One of the Lehmanns' missions on this trip is to stock up on Dutch designer Rob Brandt's "crinkle cups," porcelain vessels that look like crumpled white Dixie cups and that the Lehmanns have been ordering online from Interior Tools since last year. "This item, without fail, makes every customer who comes into our shop smile," says Daniel. They take a train to Rotterdam, 40 minutes from Amsterdam, where the company's public showroom is, and where many of Holland's designers live and keep studios. The shaggy-haired, charismatic owner, Teake Bulstra, who has been promoting Dutch design for a decade, walks them through the current collection, which includes black porcelain "tulip vases" by Ineke Hans ($85) and Joop Steenkamer's "fruit ring" ($80), a doughnut-shaped fruit bowl. They order a glass carafe by Willem Noyons, with glasses that stack vertically on its mouth ($90 for a set).
Pol's Potten, Keet in Huis
For their last stops in Amsterdam, the couple heads to KNSM Island, home of some great design shops. At Pol's Potten, a store that sells its own line of housewares, Michelle finds a set of teacups with brightly colored flowered saucers and disco-gold cups ($70). Next door is the kids' shop Keet in Huis, where she spots a cradle by Piet Hein Eek ($455) in the same scrap-wood pattern as the table at the Frozen Fountain, plus hundreds of colorful handmade toys. "A store like this would be great in New York," she points out. Will Manhattan see a Clio Kids one day?
Clio is at 92 Thompson St., Manhattan; 212-966-8991.
Gisela Williams lives in Düsseldorf, Germany. She has written for Vogue and Wallpaper.