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Spitsberg studio visit

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Spitsberg is a product design studio recently founded by Jeroen van Leur and Thijmen van der Steen.

The name is reminiscent of Spitsbergen, an Arctic island named by its discoverer, the Dutch explorer Willem Barentz. In Dutch it means ‘pointed mountains’.

After weathering the first real cold of the season, my colleague and me are welcomed into a corner studio on the first floor of a creative village built inside an old shipyard in Amsterdam. Looking out of the window, we see an industrial landscape of scraps, old rails and a Nissan old-timer (with the Spitsberg logo on it).

Standing there, it’s as if you’re on top of a mountain but with a roof over your head. The elevated view from this small hilltop, this ‘spitse berg’, is intimate and spacious all in one. Is it a coincidence these qualities are easily discerned in Spitsberg designs? We would certainly think not.

A good way to go about it

This studio is where the idea for Spitsberg first arose. Jeroen and Thijmen started out sharing the office space, working on individual projects alongside each other. But as time progressed the designers couldn’t help but bouncing ideas off of one another. ‘At a certain point we realised we were constantly asking each other for advice.’

Thijmen remarks how this turned out to be an ideal turn of events: ‘You really get to know each other’s working habits and that is a good way to go about it.’

Our differences are complementary

When asked about differences and similarities in designing processes, it seems Jeroen and Thijmen found a unique equilibrium of conceptual and technical expertise. They have very different starting points, informed by distinctive backgrounds. ‘We end up with the same product, but approach it differently.’

Jeroen: Design originates from a certain lack in my own life, from a direct encounter that makes me want to change something in my environment. That’s also how the Woodstock Wardrobe came to be. And I feel comfortable around products that have a solid technical component. That is where I come from; from industrial design.

Thijmen: I think I start from a different perspective. I don’t start from a need, but from what I see. My background required me to strip down form and material, bringing the elegance of elementary ideas to the fore. Our differences are complementary. Take for instance an appliance I used for the creation of the Floating Light and Resting Light. I ended up gluing the gauze onto a thin wooden circle. That is an application Jeroen sees as a challenge, a problem begging for an elegant solution. Jeroen’s idea of simplicity sharpens my conceptual way of working.

Talk about killing your darlings

After deciding to merge practices under the name Spitsberg, both designers had to evaluate their individual projects. A process of assembling and disassembling of collections occurred. To put it bluntly: Ships were burned, darlings were killed. Jeroen: ‘Talk about killing your darlings…if there’s something I’ve learned from Thijmen it’s that nothing I’ve designed is safe. Every model, every former product is under scrutiny and up for debate. But that’s really good though!’

It’s something Thijmen adapted from his education at Design Academy Eindhoven, it informs the aesthetic of Spitsberg as well. What remains is an aesthetic signature that you could call minimalist, but words such as simplicity, balance and clarity are more appropriate in this case. Thijmen: ‘I like to work ‘light’. For instance, I think it’s important to minimalise the use of a variety of materials within one design. It’s satisfying when something feels light to the touch somehow, aerated. It’s about working out something in a lightweight silhouette and still getting the same, functional result.’

We both feel attracted to the word archetype

Jeroen notes how they are attracted to the word archetype. Both because of its meaning and the way it sounds. The word expresses a desire to strip something down, but not necessarily to the bone. Instead, the word gives voice to a search for the baseline, the original form of a product.

It’s true, whether it concerns a lamp, wardrobe, a display for vinyl, or a chair, they are all thought through from beginning to end. They are paired down, but not stark or stern. Made in close collaboration with Dutch manufacturers and suppliers, assembled in their own studio, their work is genuinely inviting. There is an inherent proximity, an intimate atmosphere to it.

We strive to offer a space where you can slow down.

It’s just as refreshing to see their work as to hear them talk about it. The clarity apparent in their design shines through when I ask whether they have an agenda, whether they aim for a certain effect. The answer was an unequivocal yes. Thijmen: Tranquility. That is what speaks in our designs, at least that’s what people tell us. They have a calming effect. We’re after creating well balanced, composed environments where people can slow down.

Jeroen: I imagine you come home after a hectic working day in an environment that’s comfortable. Where there’s no TV but where you put on a record, read a good book in a comfortable chair with good lighting. A place where you can live. Without screens preferably. I think our products can add to that.

Spitsberg is a brand new collective that already feels familiar and well rounded. The products they create make us (re)consider the relation we have to the things that surround us. We enjoyed sharing in their elevated, clear mood.

Text: Suzanne Knip-Mooij
Photography: Spitsberg & Jet Sennema

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