Droog's Unique Designs Hit the Shelves

The hip Dutch collective is moving its ironic home furnishings toward mainstream consumers. Now, there's even a museum show

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"Droog" (pronounced "drogue") is Dutch for "dry," as in direct. Think "dry wit"; or, in the context of design, straightforward, simple style and function. Fittingly, it's also the name of a hip, 13-year-old collective, Droog Design, which is the subject of a new survey exhibition now touring internationally. Simply Droog, 10 + 3 Years of Creating Innovation and Discussion will be on view from Sept. 21 through Jan. 14, 2007, at New York's Museum of Arts & Design, its only U.S. venue.

It's safe to say that Droog is no ordinary design company. Founded in 1993 by journalist Renny Ramakers and designer Gijs Bakker, the initial idea was to put on an independently curated show of 16 products during the Salone del Mobile in Milan. With no plans to turn the event into a business, the duo nonetheless realized they had tapped into something interesting.

Now Droog concentrates on researching and marketing furniture and other home-decorating objects, often by up-and-coming designers; their collection numbers some 200 products, 60 of which are produced commercially. Chosen pieces endorsed by Droog often display an added characteristic of subtle yet thought-provoking playfulness, such as a patio umbrella that casts realistic shadows of tree branches and leaves.


  "Droog offers an ironic version of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," says Dorothy Globus, curator at the Museum of Art and Design, referring to the collective's choices of what types of goods to label and present publicly as Droog. Formerly unknown designers such as Hella Jongerius, who has recently created a line of vases for stylish—yet affordably priced—Swedish furniture retailer IKEA, were noticed and promoted by Droog early in their careers.

And companies have taken notice, hiring the collective as a consultant, largely based on its chic sensibility rather than experience. Italian luggage-maker Mandarina Duck, for example, tapped Droog to design a Paris boutique, although Droog had never designed a retail space. The stunning space opened in 2001. (Unfortunately, it has since closed.)

The pieces on view in the New York show, many being shown for the first time in the U.S., illustrate the qualities that Ramakers and Bakker look for when they choose furnishings to be considered as a Droog design. Such pieces comment on design itself, and often are made with low-cost materials that suggest practicality or sustainability.


  "A lot of what they're doing is prototyping. The prototype is the most interesting thing for them. They ask, what is a chair and why is it necessary to remake it?" Globus says. "And they often present provocative, gestural things that aren't comfortable. But people pay attention. And more than 10 years since Droog started, it's become a launchpad for young designers like Jongerius."

Take, for example, the Rag Chair (1991) by designer Tejo Remy. You guessed it, the Rag Chair is a seat made of discarded textiles and clothing, which have been piled in neat layers in the silhouette of a chair, strapped together, and designed to function as recycled upholstery.

Part sculpture and part sustainable design, the Rag Chair is as much a thought-provoking conversation piece as a radical proposition for eco-friendly design. A more contemporary example is Shady Lace (2004) by designer Chris Kable. It's a shade umbrella made from material cut to cast shadows of realistic-looking tree foliage, so anyone seated underneath will be reminded of the natural environment that inspired its design.


  Both of these designs are not only museum-worthy sculptures, but also produced for consumer sales. Droog first started manufacturing ultra-chic consumer products two years ago, at the same time as it opened a permanent, stand-alone store in Amsterdam. Its pop-up boutiques surface at trade shows and museums around the world—they were back in at the Salone del Mobile Milan again this year, hosting an exhibition of designs at the Trussardi Foundation.

Droog's growing identity as a consumer brand is well timed for business growth. In the U.S. alone furniture manufacturing is currently a $65 billion industry, according to an April, 2006, report from analysts at Research and Markets. That includes both high-end makers, such as Herman Miller (MLHR), and those with more mass-market appeal such as La-Z-Boy (LZB). Clearly, Droog is excellently placed both to cash in on and offer a sophisticated alternative to Target's (TGT) design-for-the-masses housewares by big names such as Philippe Starck and Cynthia Rowley.

Although Ramakers won't disclose figures, she says that early sales of Droog's products "are really boosting" and that she has "big expectations" for the U.S. market. She credits Target and Apple (AAPL) for being responsible for introducing U.S. buyers to the emotional, aesthetic, and practical power of design—power that can also lead to effective brand building and brand loyalty.


  "Target and Apple have made Americans become conscious of design. It's a part of the same process that we have been using, too," Ramakers says, although she adds that many of Droog's products aren't made in large enough quantities to fill shelves at big-box stores.

Droog's own storefront in Amsterdam exemplifies the brand. It's located in one of the charming brick buildings that dot the Dutch city's landscape and date back to Rembrandt's era. The interior is ultra-modern, though, with clean, white walls, floors, and shelves. In other words, more Apple than Old Master. The familiar, iconic Droog designs such as the Shadylace umbrella and Rag Chair are on display as if in a museum—but they're also for sale.

The context for Droog certainly remains a high-brow one, removed from the mass-market mentality of IKEA or Target. But it will no doubt cultivate a wider U.S. fan base after the New York show opens this month. And Droog's sharp eye for presenting, and now manufacturing, fresh design will most likely keep such retail giants, and their customers, informed and inspired.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.