Favorite Color

Seldom has such a small building occasioned as much fuss as the bright orange studio MVRDV built for the graphic-design firm Thonik in a secluded courtyard in Amsterdam. From the street the building is invisible, but some neighbors whose windows overlook it are offended by the color. “People are always saying how beautiful Amsterdam is,” says Winy Maas, a partner at MVRDV. “Well, we wanted to show a different kind of beauty. If that elicits a lot of criticism and anger, so be it. It doesn’t bother me. You could say, in light of the commotion, that the object has done what it was supposed to do.”

The local spat triggered by the building is the flip side of a singularly harmonious collaboration between Nikki Gonnissen and Thomas Widdershoven of Thonik, and MVRDV and Richard Hutten, who designed the furniture. All of them are leaders of a conceptual radicalism that has made Dutch architecture and design so notable in recent years.

Studio Thonik is tucked away in the interior of a courtyard block in Amsterdam alongside domestic backyards, parking spaces, and a couple of other businesses. Three sides of this perimeter block consist of housing, and one short side is occupied by an eight-story office building (tall by Amsterdam standards).

For Widdershoven it was an illuminating role reversal. “As a designer I automatically come up with suggestions as to how it could be done, how I would like it,” he says. “Richard listened to all that and came up with something completely different. That’s just as it should be. If we had gotten what we asked for, we would have rejected it.”

Hutten qualifies this: “To some extent I made what they wanted—like the worktables—but for the rest I went my own way. And Thomas and Nikki let me. They had designed my Web site and regarded me then as the ideal client, so I think that when they were my client they didn’t want to restrict me too much.” The result was space sculpted by MVRDV and custom-fitted with furniture by Hutten. “I’m not an interior designer but a product designer: I don’t go out and shop around for things—I make everything myself.” Although what he makes looks no-nonsense and simple, it is never quite that straightforward. In the work space downstairs Hutten designed a filing cabinet in the form of a 60-foot-long counter made up of standard kitchen cabinets. For a 13-foot-high wall unit in the tallest part of the studio upstairs, he devised a wagon that is both a storage cabinet and a stepladder for reaching the top shelves. Other cabinets made in the same style—wood tops with bright blue steel frames—recall carts used by lab assistants to wheel chemistry equipment along high school corridors.

The choice of Maas, Jacob van Rijs, and Nathalie de Vries of MVRDV was as logical as that of Hutten because, as Widdershoven puts it, “their rationality with a twist struck a chord with us. But MVRDV’s first design was nonetheless a shock because it was just a big box, whereas we were expecting a much more complex form.” The shock didn’t last long; it took about a half hour for Gonnissen and Widdershoven to become accustomed to the concept. The 60-by-26-by-23-foot-high box was the result of three factors: program, budget, and a zoning plan that dictated the maximum height. In the first design phase the short elevations at ground-floor level and one long elevation at first-floor level were of glass. This was modified at the client’s request (who needs a panoramic view of a neighbor’s unlovely side wall 33 feet away?). The glass facade panels were replaced by 17 identical double doors that function as either window or entry.

The single most important intervention in the box is the staggering of the intermediate floor, which makes two 20-inch jumps in height, thereby generating three zones of space on both floors and turns the shoe box into a sophisticated spatial experience. Because all the window-doors are placed at ground level, the staggered floors are rendered visible on the outside. What is not visible from the courtyard is the balcony on the north side, which abuts the highest zone.

The construction was as basic as the form. The facades consist of blocks of aerated concrete; the floors and roof are precast concrete slabs. Facades, roof, and rooftop accoutrements—a round Jacuzzi-size swimming pool and a Ping-Pong/picnic table—are finished with a coat of polyurethane. Studio Thonik consists of one big open work space for the graphic-design studio on the ground floor and a private atelier on the upper floor. Because the zoning plan excludes permanent residence in the courtyard, Gonnissen, Widdershoven, and their children live elsewhere in Amsterdam. However they do occasionally cook, eat, bathe, and sleep there.

Work and life at Thonik are intertwined. More than once the designers have become part of their projects by incorporating photos of themselves. A book about Droog Design, for example, includes photos of them furnishing their house with the collective’s creations. An annual report of the Council for Culture, the government’s cultural advisory body, is illustrated with holiday snaps of their trip to Papua New Guinea. And for the publication of “Eternally Yours,” a design conference on durable products, they used private photos of their life as a couple. They did all this in reaction to the cold minimalism of graphic design in the late 1990s, which they too had practiced.

The decision to paint the studio orange was a functional extension of that. “It’s more than just a favorite color,” Widdershoven says. “The polyurethane coating is made up of two coats, a gray waterproof coat and a colored top coat with UV protection. If something has to be colored, that’s a design decision; MVRDV and we agreed on that. And so you go for a real color. MVRDV were rather taken by bright blue, which would have made the building look like plastic. We wanted a warm color: orange, yellow, or red. Orange struck us as the freshest of these, and it also has a suggestion of brick about it, which gives the building mass.”

This cheerful building has provided Thonik with some nightmarish moments. When they bought the land in 1998, the owner—proprietor of an adjacent motorcycle repair shop—had just won a protracted court case brought by locals objecting to the alleged nuisance caused by his business. It was Gonnissen and Widdershoven’s first inkling of the neighborhood’s sensitivities, although this didn’t really manifest until completion, when a number of residents started to perceive the full effect of the orange exterior.

The protesters could not have prevented construction of the building: it was in line with zoning, and the design and color had been approved by the design review board, the only body permitted to pronounce the beauty or ugliness of a scheme. The only action these neighbors could have taken was to lodge an objection when the plans were first made available for public inspection. But aesthetic considerations do not constitute valid grounds for complaint; they’re the sole preserve of the design review board.

When the building was finally completed in all its orange glory in 2001, the neighbors sought redress via lawsuits (one of which is still ongoing), the press, and television. The media reacted with glee. Not only did the case involve famous architects—who thanks to the Dutch pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hannover were familiar to the public—but the aggrieved neighbors included a popular television comedian and a well-known photographer.

On a talk show, the comic Michiel Romeyn attempted to verbally demolish the building; photographer Eddy Posthuma de Boer complained that he was no longer able to evaluate the color of his own photos and slides properly because of the orange glow infiltrating his house. “He claimed that all the soup served in his house became tomato soup,” Widdershoven says, “which is unlikely enough given the distance between his house and the studio but quite impossible when you consider that he looks out on the north side of our building, where there can never be any orange reflection because the sun doesn’t shine on that facade.” Gonnissen and Widdershoven have gone some way toward appeasing their northern neighbors by planting the garden with bamboo, which will increasingly hide the building from view.

Even though it cost them a lot more energy (and sleepless nights) than they could ever have foreseen, Gonnissen and Widdershoven are happy with the result. Furthermore, it was an instructive experience to be a client. “It has given me a greater understanding,” Widdershoven says. “As a client you feel quite strongly that you’ve got to decide quickly and that you’ll be held to your decision. I know now that clients are often more nervous at a presentation than the makers.” (Translated from Dutch by Robyn de Jong-Dalziel.)

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