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Magically Real: The Verhoeven Twins Tell Stories by Design

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Magically Real: The Verhoeven Twins Tell Stories by Design

Based in Amsterdam, where they share a home and a workspace, designers Joep and Jeroen Verhoeven see themselves as storytellers. Known as the Verhoeven Twins, they view every element they encounter – from the light that enters the house to the people who come to their exhibits – as components in their stories. Their final products always have tales to tell. If you listen closely, you will be able to hear them. If they've done their job well enough, their work will inspire you to hand those stories down for generations to come.


Learning the Craft

Underscored by a traditional education – they graduated in 2004 from the renowned Eindhoven Design Academy – their style flirts heavily with the experimental. The Verhoeven Twins state, “We embrace history and heritage, and we try to fuse that with the most high-end, modern processes and machines and tools”. "[Then we] make a new story with new materials".

They were already mining this particular muse while in school. Joep's graduate project, for instance, was a fence woven with plastic-coated copper wires. It borrowed both motif and technique from the Dutch lace-making community. The twins would later see the Lace Fence, a mix of industrial barrier and decorative craftwork, show in Milan and go into production in India. This story is one of surprise success. After all, not everyone's thesis gets picked up for circulation.

We embrace history and heritage, and we try to fuse that with the most high-end, modern processes and machines and tools… Then we make a new story with new materials.

Refining Influences

Another of those tales is actually a retelling: the Cinderella Table (see image below). A lovely swirl of a side table carved from light birch, it appears like a solid piece until you peek at the other side. Hollow and footed, the table is actually 741 layers of machine-cut plywood that's been hand-glued together. The final product speaks intensely to 21st century transformation, given that it was first sculpted using a 3D computer. This coupling of classic material with evolving technology is a Verhoeven signature. The fairytale reference is there to remind us that we all initially come from a dreamlike place. You might be a CEO or billionaire, they say, with all the real-life choices in the world. But with this art in front of you, you can get back to fantasy, if only for a few moments.

The Cinderella Table, and the Lectori Salutem Desk, an aerodynamic ripple of steel that followed in 2011, draw on the same characteristics that define magical realism. Think of the novels of Gabriel García Márquez. Every time you pick one up, there's something new to discover in it. The same is true of the Verhoeven Twins' designs. Each time you come across one, you see another story in it or connect differently to it. For instance, you might not notice at first that the desk has two portraits – one of Joep and another of his former partner Judith de Graauw – inscribed in it. These etchings tell another story all their own.
 

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The table and desk exemplify how the Verhoevens started to harness, then refine both genre and tone. They also demonstrate who the twins desire for an audience: those who want quality so undeniable that they can pass it down to their offspring, but also something so unexpected that it triggers their emotions. "If you take the audience seriously, but not trick them, they will open themselves up", they feel.


Channelling Emotional Content

Of course, they understand that not everyone will appreciate their forms, or understand their intentions. "You're either falling in love with our work or you're not", is simply their view. But they are innately optimistic, especially about the playfulness of their designs. "To find joy in the beauty in life is to find the meaning in life".

They are innately optimistic, especially about the playfulness of their designs. "To find joy in the beauty in life is to find the meaning in life."

Increasingly through the years, they have been honing in on positivity. “You can easily focus on negative things in your life, what you don't like. But to point out what actually you love, or what gives you a goosebump, or what you cherish, it's hard. What if you could capture a moment of innocence, what is normally very fast and disappearing like love or happiness? What if you could capture a moment? What would it be? Would it look like?", said Joep/Jeroen. These are some of the questions they now ask themselves with every design or product, each piece of art.


Examining the Methodology

Like many accomplished creatives of our time, the twins don't limit themselves to one medium or method. They don't just work in wood, metal, and glass, but in plywood, marine steel, and lab-grade borosilicate glass – whatever presents itself as the most intriguing way to capture attention. They also relish a technical challenge, such as cutting that glass with a robot. “We all have in our nature to want to discover that which has never been discovered before, to want to go further. Where most people stop, if they stop, that's where we get triggered to continue. When people say it's not possible, that's where we get energy", they declared.

Where most people stop, if they stop, that's where we get triggered to continue. When people say it's not possible, that's where we get energy.

The emphasis on raising the bar sometimes results in frustration. When a project becomes stymied, as it sometimes does when they're searching for the ideal material or technology, they might fight. They also have a wide web of colleagues. In order to produce their more complex designs, they collaborate with other artists, writers, designers, scientists, and engineers whose individual tasks, at times, are difficult to juggle. But out of the chaos, they say, ultimately comes cohesion.
 

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Formatting the Illusion

They also realise that, like gymnasts or magicians, they must make what's difficult to achieve look effortless and easy. For that they rely on a certain level of perfection that can only come from the technical side. Engineering, with its twin tenets of maths and science, underpins their designs. And finagling that part of the process takes extensive planning, testing, and trial and error. Their latest installation, which unveils in Venice, took nine years to perfect. “We spend many years in research and development before we get to any result. We never think of easy things. We don't know why that is", said Joep/Jeroen. “The end result we hope is fluid and light. But in the back there's a lot of science. It's all about technique".

“We spend many years in research and development before we get to any result… “The end result we hope is fluid and light. But in the back there's a lot of science. It's all about technique".

When all the fundamentals are in sync, the designs speak to creativity rather than mechanics. Their goal is for the familiar to become strange, and for viewers to see with fresh eyes. “That means you can recognise everything around you but also everything can be different", said Joep/Jeroen. "And that sparks the imagination".

And when the elements don't gel? When the plot has a hole, or the characterisation is flat, or the imagery is clichéd? “Our job is a lot about failure", they revealed.

In the end, like any dedicated storytellers, the Verhoevens are beholden to their audience as much as they are to their work ethic. “It's hard in this world to mesmerise people, to give them a genuine smile, to get them to exit the old world and say, 'Come into our world',"said Joep/Jeroen. "And that's the only goal we try for. We embrace it".