I'm reading
Marije Vogelzang is an eating designer
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Marije Vogelzang is an eating designer
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Marije Vogelzang is an eating designer
Pass it on
Pass it on
"I want to see if we can connect people from different backgrounds through food."
Conversations
1 October 2009

Marije Vogelzang is an eating designer

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Marije Vogelzang

Kate Bezar on Marije Vogelzang

We all eat, but very few of us really stop to think about why or how. Marije Vogelzang does. She is an ‘eating designer’ and you’re forgiven for not knowing exactly what that might be, because you see, she practically invented the term herself, or at least it was invented for her. During the course of Marije’s design training in The Netherlands she began asking questions like; Why don’t we like blue tomatoes? Can you actually taste it if food is made with love? How big is the maximum size of a spoon? When was the last time someone fed you?

Despite numerous challenges she has gone on to open a restaurant in Rotterdam and another restaurant/studio in Amsterdam, both called Proef. Marije is now one of the most exciting and sought-after designers in Europe today with museums, galleries, public and private companies and individuals all wanting to experience first-hand one of her meals, workshops or installations.

This story originally ran in issue #21 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

MARIJE VOGELZANG:
I’m sorry I couldn’t talk earlier, but I had to take my daughter to school. She goes to school in a different city so I have to bring her by train every morning and sometimes the trains don’t go, so it’s not really ideal.

KATE BEZAR:
You have a daughter? I didn’t know that. How on earth do you fit it all in? I imagined you as this single, unfettered woman working really, really hard flying all round the world on a whim doing these projects.

Actually she was born right after I opened up the restaurant. So straight after it opened I went on pregnancy leave.

Oh my goodness. So that was the first restaurant, the one in Rotterdam?

Yes, she’s four now. I graduated in 2000 and then always worked on my own. I was a one-woman show which was already quite a lot of work and then I started the restaurant and suddenly I had all these people working for me. I really had to learn how to deal with all these people and tell them what to do. It was hard to have a baby and do that at the same time, but I wanted her to grow with me. I know a lot of people who graduated from the Design Academy are very ambitious and don’t want to get babies because they don’t think it will fit in. I think that you should just grow with your baby and grow with your career.

Did she spend a lot of time in the restaurant with you?

No, I can’t work when she’s around. When she’s around I’m a mother. I can’t combine them. I switch off my phone sometimes when I’m with her.

Did you have someone else to look after her?

Her father did sometimes and we had a nice nanny. I also took days off work to look after her. After a year we moved to Amsterdam and I expanded my studio so then I had a place in Rotterdam and a place in Amsterdam, but then we split up as well, her father and I.

What made you start the Rotterdam restaurant? How did that come about?

I worked on my own for four years before that, doing everything myself.

This story originally ran in issue #21 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #21 of Dumbo Feather

I was the designer, the product developer, cook, cleaner, book-keeper …

so I was looking for someone to be my caterer to produce my food. I found this wonderful guy, actually he’s 62 so you can’t really call him a guy, who has some bakery shops in Holland and he said to me, “Don’t you want to have your own shop?” I said, “Why would I want to have my own shop, I’m a designer?” He said, “Well if you had your own shop you could have your design studio and since you are working with food you could also have your guinea pigs, your test rabbits, in the same space, you can test all of your food on these people.” So I agreed to that and that’s when Proef in Rotterdam started. Proef means testing but it also means tasting. It was a design studio and a restaurant for lunch and for breakfast – a day kind of thing. People used to go there and eat and I was in a little mezzanine on top of them so I could hear them really well. That was nice because you could get feedback on your work and it was very helpful especially if you’ve just graduated and you think your ideas are reality, but then you find out that sometimes they don’t match reality or don’t match financial possibilities. So that was very learnful, but it was also very horrible because I would sit there and hear everything people were saying. I couldn’t concentrate on my work and it was very overwhelming … It got to a big explosion of tension; people wanted things and we were trying to run a business, so that was quite a strange period of time. That’s also why I left the restaurant behind, which kept going, and started a studio in Amsterdam.

When you were designing the restaurant and deciding what you wanted it to be, I imagine, being an ‘eating designer’, you approached the idea of a restaurant quite differently to most.

Actually, I wanted to show that eating design is not about eating very strange food; I wanted it to be really good quality food. In Rotterdam they have a very poor food quality, especially when it comes to lunch, so I just gathered the very best products together. We had a lot of organic things, homemade things and regional things. In Holland back then it was still a very new thing to do, to only use things from your region. Then I wanted the interior to be a very personal, very homely place so there was an open kitchen where you could sit at the kitchen table and see your food being prepared. You could see that we don’t mess around with our food; we don’t put any additives or things in there. I also had the ceramics made. There were only bowls; we didn’t have any plates, and because we only had bowls I wanted the cutlery to match. The cutlery was knives, forks and spoons, but all made from spoons so it was all rounded like the bowls. What else? I wanted people to come in and feel comfortable to have a cup of coffee and then also engage with my workers. I didn’t want it to be a scary thing, I wanted it to be a very comfortable thing.

What were some of the experiments you carried out on people, the ‘guinea pigs’, while they were there?

There was an exhibition in the Historical Museum of Rotterdam about the Second World War and I served little bites that were made from original wartime recipes. There were a lot of people there who had survived the war and it brought back memories for them to be eating this food. That was a very, very intense project and all these foods I tried out in the restaurant first. All the projects that I do are much more extreme than the things I do in the restaurant.

So is the restaurant more somewhere for people to be comfortable and to enjoy eating, rather than being challenged about eating and how they eat, which, from what I can gather, is what a lot of your work is about?

When I started the Rotterdam restaurant I wanted it to be more extreme, but I was just there for one year so I couldn’t really develop it so much, whereas the place I’m in now in Amsterdam has a much more conceptual approach to things. It is also a restaurant, but we only use it for groups and only if and when we want to, so not every day. In the summer we do these special dinners that individuals can make a reservation for and go to themselves. Amsterdam is more extreme.

Has it been popular? Are people excited by the idea of going to somewhere like that?

Yeah, very much. These summer dinners go really well and we have lots of groups that want to come. Like tonight, we have this girl who did her thesis on the value of blood. I don’t know, she’s becoming a doctor and she wants to have a dinner because she … how do you say it? … her teachers approved of her thesis so she has this party tonight. We’re going to serve lots of things that have something to do with your blood value.

Your blood type?

No, it’s … She did this whole thesis about blood in general.

There is that theory isn’t there that you should eat according to your blood type?

Yes, I was thinking about doing something like that. I did do an ‘element’ dinner once and everybody got different food depending on the element of their star sign. So there was water food, earth food, air food and fire food.

Did you find that people naturally gravitated to the food that was associated with their sign’s element?

Well they were served food according to their element. As people entered we asked them for their date of birth and then tied a coloured ribbon around their wrist according to their element. We didn’t tell them that’s what we were doing, but that way the waiters knew what food to serve to which people. The funny thing was that in the first two hours we only served earth food and air food, only brown and white food. I was getting a bit nervous because I thought we were going to run out of those foods and have so many leftovers of the others. Then after the first two hours the water and fire people arrived and later I read in my big book of astrology that water and fire people do tend to be late!

What have been some of the most entertaining projects you’ve done? Which have you found most fascinating?

Well, I think it’d be the project with the tablecloths. It was a Christmas dinner and the tablecloths extended to the ceiling rather than the ground. There were holes in the tablecloths for people to put their head and hands through. I wanted to leave behind all the things associated with Christmas, I didn’t want to do turkeys, or Christmas decorations, or crackers, or anything. I think Christmas should be about being together and sharing food together so that’s why I made this tablecloth with people sitting inside it. Physically they were connected to the tablecloth – you could feel it if someone pulled it – and everybody sitting at the dinner shed their identity in a way because all you could see were their heads.

Is one of the fundamental things that drives you, without putting words in your mouth, helping people to become more conscious of eating?

Yeah, but also to enjoy eating. Yes, I want to make them more aware, but if you want to make people more aware of something, if you want to tell them a story, it should be a joyful or playful story, something that people will remember.

Yet you don’t always work with positive emotions. It doesn’t seem to always be about having fun with food. You often work with quite challenging emotions.

And I like that. In Beirut I did a project about memories and war, and the funeral dinner I did wasn’t about positive emotions either, but still people … The way I do it, people feel it’s a positive thing. It’s about the power of food.

Which we so often underestimate. Why do you think we take food for granted so much?

Well there are many reasons and one is that now, in the Western world at least, this generation has plenty of food. We don’t have to starve and we can go into the shop and buy everything we want, even if it’s out of season. And it’s super-cheap, food is so cheap now. We can have a meal that our ancestors would have loved to eat, and would only have eaten at a wedding, every day if we want.

So I think that we don’t have respect for food, for eating together, for sharing food at a table and the rituals around that anymore, or it’s getting lost.

Also, a lot of people don’t know how to cook any more.

You were saying that the standard of food in Rotterdam in particular is pretty low. Why is that?

It’s the whole of Holland and the reason is Calvinism. In the 1700s, Holland used to be very rich and wealthy and there was plenty of food, really exotic kinds of food, but then there was this guy called John Calvin. He had a hard Christian background and he taught everybody that it was sinful to enjoy and you shouldn’t eat too much, you should only eat a little bit and it shouldn’t be tasty [laughs].

And people followed this man?

Yeah, yeah, he was a big hit. In northern European countries the food is very bad, also in Britain; Germany is not so great either. What’s interesting is that northern European countries have a bad food culture, but they have a very high design culture, and southern European countries have a very high food culture, but a very low design culture. Italy does not agree with me, but I think so. I think that because we have this very low food culture and a high design culture, there is a big open space for us to discover eating design. We don’t have the tradition that we have to stick to.

Did you invent ‘eating design’?

I don’t know.

Do you know of anyone else who was doing it before you?

No. When I was a student, using food for designing was really something that wasn’t happening before. Back then if you saw designers working with food it would be like Philippe Stark making another shape out of pasta, it was never really about the real meaning of food. I wasn’t really considering that so much when I started, but later on I just thought, oh that’d be fun to do, let’s do something with food. It wasn’t really a conscious choice. There’s another girl that graduated around the same time, Katja Gruijters, who is also working on food. For some reason, ten years ago, people started to get interested. When I started, people were still saying to me, “You’re just a caterer” and I didn’t really mind because I was having fun. People think that if you combine food and design it will only be about styling the food and they think that the taste is submissive to the looks. For me it’s really important that the food tastes good and that there’s a story behind the food; that there’s a reason for doing these things.

So originally you were studying design, was it industrial design?

Yeah, I was at the Design Academy Eindhoven which is quite a famous academy now, but when I started it was just the Industrial Design academy, Eindhoven.

Did you just start experimenting with food there and it seemed to work for you?

Actually, my first project when I was a student was the funeral dinner where everything was white. It wasn’t my graduation project, but it was a big success and got featured in lots of magazines. We took it to Milan and showed it at the furniture fair and everything. I was really shocked because I never thought I would make something that would stir something up.

Then I had to graduate and everybody was telling me I should do something with food for my project, but I didn’t want to because I was afraid to specialise and eventually be the person that was only about food. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to design tables, or clothes, or chairs any more. Now I make tables because the food needs tables, and I make cutlery because the food needs things to help it go in, and I make clothes because we need aprons; it actually gives me everything I need. For me food is the very best material. I think it’s so interesting that what I make you put inside your body – I think that’s amazing.

I think there’s no material a designer could choose that is so personal and so important for all of us as food.

I just don’t understand why so few people use it, but it’s getting more and more popular.

Food is something we ‘use’ every day and it’s an imperative that we eat otherwise we’ll die. Yet we don’t think a lot about the act of eating, or gathering food, or where it comes from, nearly as much as we should. I take it you still see plenty of potential for what you do?

Oh yeah. Actually I made this eight-point philosophy to show people the potential because what I’ve done is just a few tiny pin points of what you could do with food. I think there’s a lifetime of work for me to do and I think there’s also so much to do for other people, especially when it comes to food and emotions and psychology.

Food doesn’t happen in our bellies, it happens in our brains.

A lot of times you eat when you’re not even hungry, but you eat because you’re taught to eat at six o’clock maybe, or you eat because you’re in a social situation and everyone is eating and you want to be polite, or you eat because you’re sad. I’m really surprised that people don’t understand that if you have a child and you comfort it with candy when the child is hurt, then it’s no surprise that when you grow up and you feel lonely or you feel sad, that you want to be comforted with candy again, and you eat a lot of candy.

That’s so true. I’d never even thought of that. There’s a reason you reach for the tub of ice cream when you break up with a boyfriend.

Definitely. That’s just us being human; that’s no surprise. Food affects our psychology so much more than we think.

What you do crosses psychology, biology, even technology, to a certain extent.

Also, cultural studies and that’s an important thing to me. You can see food all around the world in people. I am really happy that I get to travel, mostly for lectures. Everywhere you travel you just ask people, “What do you eat?” and then you get invited to eat.

And it’s so different; the rituals around food, the etiquette, the way people prepare food, the kind of ingredients they use. For instance, if you look at the Jews and their cuisine. I have this Jewish cooking book and when I look at the recipes I think, look, here they came from Russia and they went to Poland because I see all this beetroot and schmaltz, which is melted chicken fat, being used. Then I see that they use this little pasta kind of stuff with yoghurt which is very Polish/Eastern European. Then I can see them going to the Middle East because they’re using a lot of coriander, hummus, flatbread and stuff. Then you can see them going to America where they invented bagels. All of their history and travels you can see in their cuisine.

What interesting things have you got coming up?

I’m just finishing a book about lunch boxes for children because in Holland it’s just the saddest thing; children eat bread for breakfast with cheese and then for lunch they also have bread with cheese in it or bread with peanut butter or something, and then maybe some candy. It’s always really horrible I think. When my daughter started to go to school, I started to do the same thing. I started to give her these stupid things, so then I thought of making this lunchbox book with all nice ideas to make different kinds of lunches. But that’s a Dutch book, so it’s not very useful for you. I’m also working for a hospital doing a project because a lot of people in hospitals in Holland are malnourished.

Were you invited to do that, or did you put your hand up?

I was invited to do it.

What will that entail? Will you go into hospitals and work one on one with patients or will it be more about redesigning their menus?

I still have to think about it. We were only asked to redesign a snack menu which they could use beside the normal menu to help patients to gain weight, so I only really have that as a tool. I can’t change all the food in the hospital, but it’s a start. I have done hospital food for obese children in America before. Maybe you know about this colour food project? It was in the Broncs in New York and I was invited to make a healthy snack corner in a paediatrics clinic because the children were very much overweight. They were eating lots of fast food and their parents were not really cooking for them, so they didn’t really know how to appreciate healthy foods. They don’t like it because it doesn’t give them the sugar rush that they get with fast foods. They also know that fast food’s not good for them either. It’s a really negative circle that they’re in. I think the hospital thought I was going to make a kind of salad bar for them, but I thought it was such a shame that these children have negative feelings towards food. Food can be so much more than just giving you calories. I tried to think of a way to make them appreciate food again and enjoy food, so I arranged snacks in all the colours of the rainbow according to the colour philosophy of Leonardo Da Vinci.

That colour philosophy says that red gives you energy, blue makes you relax – that’s quite common knowledge – but it also says that green makes you rich, yellow makes you have a lot of friends, and black gives you discipline for example. I colour-coded and labelled all the snacks. For example, the yellow snacks had a label on them saying, ‘Yellow makes you happy’ so that the kids would choose their food in a new way. They wouldn’t choose based on good or bad, or negative or positive, or fat or non-fat, now they could choose, ‘I want to be rich’ so they will eat the green food. Of course all this food is healthy food.

What a novel idea. Hearing you talk, it sounds like you’re absolutely passionate about what you do. Can you imagine doing anything else or have you found your thing?

Sometimes I want to be a cash register lady because sometimes it’s so hard to have to deal with your staff and you have all the troubles of money and stuff. Sometimes I think, I just want to have a simple life of going there and doing my job, but actually that’s not really true because I’m super-happy … I have had this great team for a short while which is really good because I was getting a bit burnt out in the last year. They’re really helping me and it’s really fun again. We have this place in Amsterdam where I work and we have the vegetable garden there and we have some chickens. We have interns who come from all places in the world so it’s a very international team and I can travel a lot. I’ve never been to Australia though.

Well, let’s get you out here then.

I would love to.

We’ll see what we can do. That’d be fun.

I am going to Israel soon to do a project.

What’s that about?

I’m not sure yet. I want to go there first and see and smell and talk to the people and eat the food. I’m going to do a lecture there in November and then I’m going to travel around and do research. Then we want to do a kind of social project because it’s this strange country where there are so many differences but also a really great food culture.

I want to see if we can connect people from different backgrounds through food, like the project I did in Lebanon. I also have two other US projects. One is a performance art project in Manhattan. I’m going to make this performance inspired by a futurist cookbook, written in the ‘30s. We’re probably going to do a meringue installation or a pasta installation which people can go to and eat from. The other project is with Droog Design and we’re going to do this kind of pop-up cafe on Governor’s Island just outside of New York. It’s a celebration of 400 years of history between Holland and New York since the Dutch found New York before it was called New York – it was called New Amsterdam before. Anyway, we’re going to do this little cafe where you get your food served by elderly people in a very ‘slow’ way. All the food that is served has to have been made by them by hand so that makes it even more slow. It’s called the Slow Cafe. We’ll also mention the miles the food has travelled to get to your plate so you know where it comes from.

If it comes from very far away you only get a really little portion, and if it comes from nearby then you get a big portion.

What else are some of your big dreams? What kind of world do you dream of?

For me or in general?

Both.

Actually I’m already living my dream workwise. I just have a few practical things … These practical issues are really not so important. Very boring but I’m just really happy and in love.

How has your work evolved over the years? Has it matured or changed in any ways?

Yes. I have the possibility now to focus on the really interesting projects and also I have learnt that perfectionism is only helpful to a certain extent. Also, foodwise I’m learning more and more. I really appreciate root vegetables. A project I’m really excited about is in South Africa, Cape Town. It’s for an art biennale. Because all our roots, of everybody on earth, are in Africa, I want to use root vegetables. Also, did you know that all the colours of clay that you can find in the world are the colours of human skin; white, yellow, brown, red and black? South Africa is called the rainbow nation because there are so many different colours and varieties of people living there. There is this ancient method of cooking food in clay. You wrap the clay around food – it can also be an animal – put it in the oven or the fire and then take it out. When you break the clay the food is super-tasty because all the flavours stay inside. I want to do a workshop/performance where people can come and put root vegetables in clay and sculpt a human figure out of them like a gollum. They can use all clay colours they like. We photograph everybody with their piece and bake the pieces. Then they can choose someone else’s piece to slash open and eat the root inside. What is interesting is that normally you are not used to breaking sculptures, but in this case you have to. It also represents the idea that the inside is more important than the outside skin. You have to break the clay to get to the good part, the tasty root, and that’s what it’s all about.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Marije Vogelzang

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.