Throughout its 150-year history, de Bijenkorf has had a deep connection to contemporary art — playing host, patron, and collaborator to countless visual artists, designers, writers, and architects. Arts and culture writer, Billie Muraben, writes about the Room on the Roof residency programme, and de Bijenkorf’s ongoing celebration of creative practice in all its variety.
At the top of Amsterdam’s de Bijenkorf, there is a tower — the original purpose of which remains unknown. The imposing building has a vaulted roof with a trim of proudly mounted flags, and a sequence of brick half moons, sat along the run of the building’s peak. The store was built in 1909 in the Dam, the historic heart of the city, as the first of de Bijenkorf’s commissioned spaces. The tower sits behind the waving flags, looking out over Beursplain square. It remained a mysteriously underused space for most of the building’s history, ‘It was never really used’ says Inge Schmitt, Head of Creative Office at de Bijenkorf, ‘people snuck off there to have secret affairs, or secret parties, things like that’. In 2015, they decided to do something meaningful with the space, and de Bijenkorf founded the artist residency programme, Room on the Roof. Designed by architectural practice I29, the studio sits in a freestanding frame within the tower, a flexible space where artists and designers are encouraged to think, experiment, and create: ‘Some stay in the tower for a couple of days, to get ideas and sketch, some stay for two weeks, and we’ve recently had a painter in residence, who stayed for two months’.
Time spent in the tower depends on the nature of each resident’s practice, and their methods of production, which are incredibly wide-ranging — from ceramics and sculpture, to audiovisual installations, photography, garments and material experiments. Artists and designers are chosen from a list of names collected by the team, who attend graduate shows, exhibitions and fairs looking for emerging practitioners who might benefit from support early in their careers. The artists are invited to respond to a theme generated by the curatorial team, based on research into topics or issues important to de Bijenkorf’s audience; whether that’s explorations of sustainability, demystifying the production processes around fashion, men’s mental health, or a celebration of 100 years of the Bauhaus. And while the residency provides a private space (and an aerial view), the final outcome, or expression of the work, could not be more public — installed in the store windows.
The installed outcomes of the residency programme are just as various as the artists’ practices. Earlier this year, artist Koos Buster made a window display purposefully ‘under construction’, with ceramic and glass copies of everyday objects. Sets of hammers and drills sat among clay replicas of Alexander McQueen’s ‘thick sole sneaker’ and Loewe’s ‘puzzle bag’, a ladder stands unfolded and a mannequin leans against the window. Around the store, there were ceramic mop buckets and pin machines, disrupting the expectation of high-gloss finish in shop windows and of the work itself, which is purposefully rough around the edges. Christien Meindertsma filled a window with fibrillated wool in the shape of the Irish landscape where Donegal yarn is spun and woven, Martina Taranto installed a series of sculptures made of waste material sourced at de Bijenkorf, in which she planted seeds that sprout and grow from the soft, brick-like structures. Musicians Michelle David and Typhoon recorded concerts that were later piped into the fitting rooms, and Snarkitecture installed a 3D floating forest in the main atrium.
Room on the Roof sits within de Bijenkorf’s legacy as a patron of the arts, and its long history of working with renowned architects, artists, designers and writers — a story that stretches all the way back to 1870 when the store was founded. As it expanded in the 1920s and 30s, de Bijenkorf commissioned architect Piet Kramer of The Amsterdam School to design its store in The Hague, and Marcel Breuer for its third space in Rotterdam, in which works by Piet Mondrian and Henry Moore sculpture were installed. De Bijenkorf gradually built up a collection, creating exhibition spaces in the stores, which grew to include galleries in Amstelveen, Eindhoven, Utrecht, and Maastricht, working with artists including Helmut Newton, M. C. Escher, and Gio Ponti. Often, pieces sat somewhere between the formal space of the gallery and the shop floor, with many artists making work that could be exhibited, but also applied and sold in store. The galleries were later removed, but as the nature of retail continues to change, with customers moving online while also seeking engaging physical experiences, de Bijenkorf has been considering what it can do to revisit creative strategies from its own history. ‘In the 1970s, Andy Warhol said that department stores would become the new museum. The physical store has to change, it has to do more than just display clothes and vases; it needs to be somewhere that you want to spend time — seeing exhibitions or going to lectures. If you do these things in a department store, different people access it than those who normally go to a gallery.’
These considerations have always been a part of Room on the Roof residency program, but de Bijenkorf has also been responding to the changing circumstances brought about because of the pandemic, with both immediate and longer-term plans to support emerging artists: ‘We really felt we had to support artists during the Covid-19 pandemic. In August, we created space in each of our stores and invited local artists to show and sell their work. We just gave them a space, we didn’t get money from it, we just wanted to help them to sell their work and get exposure. We want to continue with this next year, install galleries in store and show work with a new artist every few months.’
Looking to deepen the relationship between the artists, the stores and their customers, in an approach that’s moving further towards one characteristic of the heyday of applied arts, de Bijenkorf is developing plans to produce multiples with their artists-in-residence, as well as thinking about how to build more of a connection between their customers and their product. ‘Everything can be understood as a form of art, part of that, with garments for example, is understanding the value of how things are made. It’s not just about the final product, but demystifying the process. It’s interesting, and it helps people understand the complex processes and networks involved, from the fabric through to the point when a piece is on sale.’
Collaboration is also key to de Bijenkorf’s relationship with contemporary art. For its first two years, Room on the Roof partnered with Rijksmuseum, Julius Vermeulen, Art & Design Consultant at TNT, and Jane Withers, a design consultant and curator, as external consultants. It now works with a multidisciplinary group, including M-ODE, Frame and Kunsthal Rotterdam. As Inge explains, ‘by collaborating you enhance each other in every single way, through knowledge, through your communities. We’re currently working on an ambitious plan to collaborate with art schools, there are great schools in every city where we have a store, so we’re trying to set up local projects.’ Collaborations such as these are a great way for de Bijenkorf to support graduate talent, and to deepen the company’s understanding of the practices, themes, and material concerns of young designers, staying ahead of the curve. Working with schools close to each of their stores evidences a communal, locally-focused perspective, supportive of the people and institutions in their direct surroundings. A focus on the local, and on community, has proven key to our response to Covid-19, and what will likely be the thing to carry us through — both on a personal level, and in terms of business strategy. Students and graduates within the arts are already feeling the impact of the pandemic on commissions and exhibition opportunities; institutions like de Bijenkorf offering space, free of charge, to show and sell their work is a great example of how retail can provide meaningful support, and build deeper connections between maker and buyer.
Room on the Roof remains more focused on experimentation and innovation than outcome, works have been exhibited purposefully unfinished, and are meant to push the form, rather than sit comfortably within recognisable practices. In 2021, the focus will be on showing the essence of how things are made: ‘At the beginning of the year we’ll have a huge exhibition involving all windows, starting in Amsterdam and travelling to all stores. Ten young, local practitioners will create new works that react to our archives, to principles of sustainability and the different ways we shape and mould our bodies. Later in the year, we’ll show works that collaborate with or are made by nature, there will be mushrooms growing out of garments, and works made by bees.’
The intended purpose of the tower remains unknown, but maybe that’s precisely it — it was meant to be a curiosity, an ornament, something to spark imagination and inspire creative thinking. With Room on the Roof, that energy now trickles down through the store and out into the world via de Bijenkorkf’s windows. The tower represents creative innovation, and rather than invite people in with a fixed impression of what the outcome should be, or how it will be marketed, artists and designers are offered space, time, flexibility, and the freedom to create work that reflects both the context of the residency and their larger practice. In this approach, de Bijenkorf diverts from the common trope of strict project briefs and corporate motives. It’s the residents’ process that dictates the outcome, the intended purpose can remain unknown.