Postcard from Maastricht

Beyond Milan and Eindhoven, the author discovers an emerging design center in Europe.

Maastricht, Netherlands, a city of 120,000 people nestled between Belgium and Germany, refutes the norms of Dutch identity. The oldest city in the Netherlands, its postcard scenery is more Middle Ages than Vermeer. And while Holland is flat, waterlogged, and canal-lined, Maastricht boasts hills and tunnels.

As for the arts, Maastricht has a less enlightened relationship with cultural production than its sister cities. Here, culture is commodity. Every March, for example, gallerists and well-heeled collectors descend on the MECC convention center for Tefaf, the world’s largest fair for Old Master paintings. Last fall’s design-themed Woonevent, also held at MECC with an accompanying “Designroute” running through the city, treated design as another luxury good. Whereas Dutch Design Week, held in Eindhoven in October, sprouted a temporary restaurant in which chefs and designers could perform experimental collaborations, launched a new design museum and business center, and celebrated the talents of students from its famous namesake design academy, MECC was largely dotted with lifestyle novelties like artificial turf, hot tubs, and outdoor seating resembling giant wicker picnic baskets, and most stops on the Designroute feted shoppers with discounts.

Tellingly, both Eindhoven’s and Maastricht’s design events are six years old. And those two cities are competing with Amsterdam and Rotterdam to claim the title of design capital of the Netherlands. But in light of the global love affair with a Dutch design tinted by Droog—equal parts academic, ironic, and delightful—Maastricht’s consumerist spin on the subject doesn’t bode well for its capital-city prospects.

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There are signs of change, however, thanks to a heavy dose of intellect that corresponded with last year’s fall installment of Woonevent. A third happening unveiled The Great Indoors, a new series of design awards for interior architecture, which attracted high design from the likes of Zaha Hadid and Thomas Heatherwick. A corresponding series of conferences and workshops offered an additional convergence of design-world stars. While funded by the Maastricht municipality and its home province Limburg, The Great Indoors is the brainchild of Guus Beumer. Beumer, 48, is director of both Marres, a local contemporary art center, and of the year-old Maastricht branch of the Netherlands Architecture Institute. Beumer also seems to have earned the distinction of fixing Maastricht’s attitude toward art and design.

Two years ago the board of Marres asked Beumer to breathe new life into the institution, which had been floundering. Seduced by the intact 18th-century house that contains the center, and noting, “perhaps I have a bit of the provinces in me,” Beumer said yes and began weekly commutes from Amsterdam. His approach to Marres’s resurrection has been bifurcated. Architectural interventions—bookstore cabinetry that evokes a tree’s cellular structure designed by Herman Verkerk, and a cafe by architect Christoph Seyferth that’s under construction—and exhibition material is contemporary in spirit, but Beumer presents works using 19th-century rubrics like dandyism, dilletantism, and even wunderkammer. “For years our audience had been confronted with the best possible talent and simply ignored it,” he explains. “It was evident that I had to present the new not through yet another author, nor that I had to come up with the latest theme, but that I simply had to take the bourgeois mentality of this area seriously and use it, preferably as a critical context for my program.”

Beumer has taken an equally realistic approach to the Netherlands Architecture Institute position, mixing the contemporary (a visit from Bjarke Ingels, for example) and the not-so (a Jean Prouvé exhibition) with issues that go beyond architectural bounds, like exploring cities’ food networks. “We should stay away from a formal approach toward architecture, or be satisfied with a very small audience,” he says.

A careful look at Beumer’s cv may suggest a certain inevitability to his current status as Maastricht’s culture doctor. Trained as a social scientist and philosopher, Beumer jumped from academia into a kind of polemical journalism that, alongside pushes from Pauline Terreehorst and Ramakers, helped establish the principles of the Dutch design so popular today. More recently, he and designer Alexander van Slobbe founded the men’s label SO, a concept-fashion equivalent to Droog, relaunched the women’s label Orson + Bodil, and helped set up the Co-Lab business incubator for fashion designers. Although Beumer admits that he prefers to hatch ideas rather than see them to fruition, one gets the impression that now, he is closing his own circle: art-directing how Maastricht will embrace a movement that he in part created.

The Great Indoors was another task that found Beumer’s shoulders, but its execution hints of a master plan in progress. Six months before the event, Limburg came calling, worried about the brain drain striking the province’s creative talent. “Do not make this issue into another branding exercise,” Beumer recalls thinking, “but focus your attention on a vital area, come up with a seductive proposal, get the best partnerships available, and use this network to develop knowledge and experience for a variety of players.” Indeed, Beumer succeeded at seduction. Almost 300 submissions were entered to The Great Indoors competition, and students from Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands flocked to the conference. As Beumer’s purview expands to encompass both local consumption and production of design, the perception of Maastricht as a well-off backwater promises to change.

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