Features & Images » Travel

Travel: Dutch by design

Modern interpretations maintain respect for tradition and history in The Netherlands



“Basically, the Dutch are lazy — they pick something that already exists and abstract it further,” jokes Dutch museum director Erik Schilp at the ZuiderZee Museum in northern Holland.

Schilp is a mover-and-shaker in the process of transforming the 60-year-old ZuiderZee from a one-dimensional open-air museum of fishing and farming culture into a hipper destination that incorporates contemporary culture, design and art.

Schilp is saying, playfully, that modern Dutch design — and it is everywhere in this tiny footprint of a country — is rooted in tradition.

Or, put another way, that rather than jettisoning what has gone before, the best designers incorporate long-honoured craft in a way that is unique and modern.

It was reality I’d appreciate again and again as we drove north from Amsterdam through the provinces of Noord Holland, Fryslân (or Friesland) and back south and east to the province of Gelderland.

In 1932, the Dutch government dammed the north side of the salt-water Zuider Zee (“southern sea”) to create two vast fresh-water “lakes” — one of which is the Ijsselmeer. Around that time, more than 100 historic buildings were relocated to the harbour town of Enkhuizen and reassembled as the ZuiderZee Museum.

For years this collection that includes fishers’ cottages, a functioning bakery, a warehouse selling huge wheels of cheese, steam laundry and a smokehouse where you can sample herring and eel, has drawn hundreds of thousands of mostly Dutch tourists.

However, “the interest in history for history’s sake is declining,” Schilp said, so he invited, for example, the Dutch fashion duo of Viktor and Rolf to put their trendy spin on traditional fishing garb and textiles, and hang their garments in a museum gallery.

Visitors still explore the delightful village, with its Church District, canal, harbour and polder with sheep and windmill. But at the individual houses or shops you’re as likely as not to encounter an exhibit of contemporary graffiti (on a historic theme) or an avant-garde take on traditional Delft pottery.

We dined at an elegant restaurant in Enkhuizen and slept on a ketch moored on the Ijsselmeer. In the morning we headed north on Highway A7 and across the incredible 32-kilometre-long dike (that created the Ijsselmeer) to Friesland.

At the village of Makkum, we pulled up to a “factory” called Royal Tichelaar Makkum. The modern single-storey building looked unassuming, but when we stepped into a large foyer filled with trestle-like tables laden with ceramic objects of art, I knew this place was unusual. The sale items — richly decorative bowls and plates, tiles and sculptures in traditional and contemporary design (and not inexpensive; no souvenir trinkets here) — were invariably knockdown gorgeous.