A Concrete Strategy for Design

Rob Wagemans is getting used to being in the spotlight. As the co-founder of avant-garde Dutch firm Concrete Architectural Associates, he is behind such successes as Supperclub, an outré nightclub/restaurant concept that’s being exported to several different continents, and specialty pharmacy Lairesse Apotheek, which won the 2003 Dutch Design Prize. Yet the most striking thing about CAA is its approach, in which the firm, together with its sister agency IQ Creative, oversees not only a project’s architecture and interior design, but also its operational issues, from its advertising campaigns and food to its entertainment and choice of chef. The wine bar/gourmet delicatessen Envy, which opened in July in Amsterdam, is the latest example of this holistic style. Indeed: Not satisfied to make it just a restaurant, CAA and its team have turned the spot into an experience centered on food.

Concrete’s handiwork is evident even before you pass through Envy’s front door. Through the giant picture windows you can see the venue’s stainless-steel exhibition kitchen, which serves as a visual counterpoint to the dark, wooded dining room. Three narrow communal tables—called the tasting tables—extend nearly the full length of the eating space, while a few more private seats are available up front. Along one wall is a floor-to-ceiling glass display case that holds…well, nearly everything on Envy’s menu: Cured meats, olive oil, salad dressings, cheeses, preserves, fruits, dew-dropped berries fresh from the market, hand-dipped chocolates, and liqueurs, all arranged as precisely as though they were in a gallery.

CAA can become—and remain—so deeply involved with its projects because “we only do the things we really love” says Wagemans. “We will not be influenced by formulas or managers with calculators.” To wit, if a potential client wants to copy a pre-existing project, or if the client seeks to withhold creative control, then Concrete turns down the project. This allows the firm to devote its time to the projects it feels really matter, which, in the past few years, have included hotel Nassau Bergen on Holland’s North Sea Coast; Supperclub Roma, housed in a former nun’s cloister; and the AMS Beethoven Hotel in Amsterdam.

The approach is working, as Concrete’s roster proves. Among its current jobs are Conimex, a condo complex in Mexico; all of the restaurants and shops in the Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany; and several shops and restaurants in Kuwait. Plus there are plans to expand to the U.S.: Supperclub San Francisco is due to open in September, while Supperclub New York, to be located in the city’s Meatpacking District, is set for launch in 2006.

Although CAA’s success may seem sudden, it’s actually the result of nearly a decade of work. And with projects moving forward on four different continents, it seems that this Dutch design team’s holistic strategy is striking a chord worldwide.

Categories: Cities