"Menhir bench"

Romanticizing plastic

When (self-)limitation gives birth to a passionate wealth of ideas then great things are sure to come about. Dutch interior designer Dirk van der Kooij is a prime example of this phenomenon. His passion is for plastic that would otherwise end up on the rubbish dump.
by Silke Bücker | 5/7/2021

Discarded refrigerators, plastics and other production waste, CDs and DVDs that nobody wants to listen to or watch, and a self-made 3D printer: He revives and recycles things or ingredients that have long become useless and makes new items from them with a unique design language and bright colors. Dirk van der Kooij belongs to a new generation of interior designers who have dedicated themselves to a mode of furniture design that is environmentally sound and goes easy on resources. And he makes a virtue of the limitation of sourcing because he believes it is actually a driver and motivation for boundless creativity. He always interweaves design with technology and lends the process itself a special meaning, the way is the destination and en route many things come about quite by chance. The Dutchman graduated in Eindhoven in 2010 and has bagged several trophies since then including the YNG TLNT Pin der Woonbeurs and the Dutch Design Award. His creations feature in the permanent exhibitions of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the MoMA in New York and San Francisco, the Vitra Design Museum in Weil/Rhein, London Design Museum and the National Museum in London. Since 2009 Dirk van der Kooij has had his own design studio in Eindhoven.

Silke Bücker: Dirk, where does your affinity for technology, as a basis for the creative process, come from?

Dirk van der Kooij: I’m not really interested in technology per se but with technology as something that enables the process. I visualized the textures then needed the tool to make it happen.

What do you find so appealing about 3D printing?

Dirk van der Kooij: I saw 3D printing as a way for me to work with plastic, giving it more identity. It had not been done before, therefore it was very interesting to me. My challenge was to create strong, durable, logical chairs. It was also the way for me to avoid using expensive molds, which as a student I could not afford.

What made you adapt the functionality of a robotic arm to your production requirements?

Dirk van der Kooij: It was really out of necessity. I was wanting to make an extremely low-resolution 3D printer and the robotic arm was the easiest solution for my student budget. A nearby dealer was willing to lend me a robotic arm and I was given an old extruder from an injection molding machine so the whole printer was built with old borrowed or gifted parts.


You use the interiors of old, defunct refrigerators as raw materials for your work – how did you come up with that idea? What else do you recycle and repurpose?

Dirk van der Kooij: I was always interested in recycled plastic because it has more history but again it came down to budget. Material is expensive, so I found a company in the Netherlands that recycled refrigerators and ground them up. One outcome of this process was 99 percent pure plastic from the inside of the fridges, so it was a good place to start. Our discography tables are made of up to 20,000 discarded CDs and DVDs. Our Meltingpot tables can be made entirely from our internal production waste, though have come to include a wider range of waste sources of late, our favorite being old transparent CD cases, which provide a window into the tables.

What color pigments do you use?

Dirk van der Kooij: We use high color plastic pigments but we are trying now to use more iron oxides. We only use the most environmentally-friendly pigments.

What are the advantages that your production methods have over classic product design?

Dirk van der Kooij: Efficiency-wise, none. Possibility wise, we focus on honesty and how each piece is built. It’s an illogical production process but we love the fact that the relationship between us and the robot is evident in the work. We see this as the advantage.

Due to their differences generated during the manufacturing process, your pieces are all unique and one-of-a-kind – do you think that it’s this organic, handmade touch that makes them so appealing?

Dirk van der Kooij: Some products, such as the Fresnel lights and Chubby Chairs are not necessarily individually unique but the evidence of liquidity in the pieces and the path the robot made, lends them an organic feel. Each of our Meltingpot tables is one of a kind because they are impossible to replicate, though there are times we wish we could!

"Snow Men"

So far you have focused on designing chairs, vases, lamps and tables – what’s next?

Dirk van der Kooij: I like the scale of the interior products, so despite once having fantasies about larger scale work, I have come back to furniture. We continue optimizing our designs so our products evolve. This idea never becomes outdated and I will continue experimenting with new designs. I am a happy furniture builder!

How do you create the gorgeous color patchworks and mélange effects on your tables?

Dirk van der Kooij: The patterning inside the Meltingpot tables is a direct outcome of the pressing of our studio waste; chopped-up chairs, vases, lights and anything that can’t be used elsewhere in production. The composition process is done entirely by hand, our two, colorists intuitively make a collage from these discarded pieces. The colors are very much in response to what we have at the time, so is not something that can be prescribed and this makes each table an interaction between material and the person who’s making it.

How are you developing your style and what inspires you?

Dirk van der Kooij: I love the fact that my capabilities are limited by the material and by the machine. I love to solve puzzles of which the outcome may seem logical but can be really surprising and sometimes strange. This is a really nice way to work and that inspires me.

You are completely self-taught. How much time and effort did you have to invest until your first chair was complete?

Dirk van der Kooij: My first chair took 18 months to complete. I basically spent all that time somewhat unsuccessfully building my robot. In the end, as graduation was looming, my teachers advised me that I wouldn’t be able to use my robot project for graduation, as I’d not yet printed anything. As failure seemed imminent, I resorted to printing my Endless Chair with a rudimentary handheld extruder, taking 24 hours non-stop, without any mechanical or computer guidance but I did not stop working on my robot! That chair sits proudly in my apartment and we continue to make the Endless Chair today, with much more success.

For me, the production process of your chairs and tables has a meditative and poetic quality – what is it about it that inspires you?

Dirk van der Kooij: Looking at the process it is extremely meditative but that is not what inspires me. 3D- printing on this scale is such an illogical process to work with and has limited outcomes. With every object I try to project a new or different feature of either the material or the machine.

Do you think that designers these days are obliged to consistently produce in a sustainable/resource-efficient way? Will conventional approaches even be able to survive in the mid-term?

Dirk van der Kooij: I can’t definitively say that we are doing it the right way or even if it is sustainable, but we try our best to reduce producer guilt by avoiding things that we know are bad. We’re crazy about the material and not throwing it away so we strive to make it desirable and hope that it is loved for a really long time, no matter where it is.

To what extent will the pandemic and, in particular the time after the pandemic, have a lasting impact on design/creative processes?

Dirk van der Kooij: The realization that audiences can fall away without notice has highlighted the importance of making work grounded in passion, rather than the needs of others. We have observed a shift in perspective in the studio whereby we are taking as long as is needed to design pieces that are worth making rather than observing trends. This will not change for us going forward and has served as a reminder as to why I became a designer.

Dirk van der Kooij