Henk de Vries

Henk de Vries (born in 1939) accomplished a lot while working as a graphic designer. But he also designed office and store interiors and worked as a product designer. He walked all the walks of design. He was an extraordinary creator, who always kept in mind that the design should express the client’s mentality and quality. “As was once the case with IBM and Citroën.”

Dedato Europe staff at Keizersgracht 22, Amsterdam, 1992

Two studies at the same time 
Henk de Vries studied from 1956 to 1960 at the graphic school in Amsterdam and was sent to the Stadsdrukkerij, the city’s printing house, for his internship. He designed an invitation to a dance party, which won him a Gerrit Jan Thieme award. The design attracted the attention of Charles Jongejans, teacher at IvKNO (currently Gerrit Rietveld Academy), and Willem Sandberg, former director of Stedelijk Museum. “Meeting these two grand old designers was what had me decide to make design my profession.” He was advised to attend IvKNO’s evening classes (graphic design), which he did, from 1958 to 1964. He attended the graphic school during the day and IvKNO in the evenings and managed to handle the heavy load. 

His scope widened. Anything he noticed, and anything he thought that was important enough to be aware of, was allowed to enrich his life: the show windows Benno Premsela designed for De Bijenkorf department stores; the creative work from Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Lion Cachet, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Bauhaus. He understood that when 3D and graphic design meet, they enforce each other. He understood that he had to be true to these two fields of design and continue to show, and prove, how connected they are. Still a student, his teacher Wim Crouwel asked him to participate in the creation of a project for Pflieger Sanitair in Amsterdam. Crouwel had worked with Kho Liang Ie and designed a showroom, offices and trade fair presentations for Pflieger – another proof that graphic and 3D design were embracing each other. He got a job for one full year and worked on the design of an extensive product catalog. After the year had ended, company director Boy Pflieger asked him to stay on as their in-house designer. Henk eagerly accepted the offer. 

Product catalog for Pflieger, 1971

Invitation for 25 Years of Leeser Fashions, 1974

Freelance 
Six years, scores of showrooms, and “five-hundred bathroom designs” later, Henk had reached his limit. In 1966, he started as a freelance designer. It didn’t take long before he had seven people working for him: graphic designers and interior designers, although most commissions had still to do with graphics. Boy Pflieger asked him to continue freelance as his company’s designer and they agreed on a monthly fee for his services. Other clients accepted a similar arrangement and Henk was able to guarantee payments to his staff. His clients kept him busy. One of his first clients was Van Beek Art Supplies in Amsterdam. Henk was asked to design their presentation at a trade fair; his fee would be paid in kind – he’d get a special desk and drawing table.   

Packaging for Van Beek Art Supplies, 1980

Cosmetics bottles for Marianna David Euro Fashions, 1983

In the 1970s, Henk was commissioned to design ceramics factory De Koninklijke Sphinx’s corporate identity program. As usual, their existing logo was considered sacred, as was their official name: NV Koninklijke Spinx v/h Petrus Ragout, not easy to modernize. The Sphinx board hated to see their ‘symbol’, which they saw as a long-term investment, being thrown into the trashcan. Henk showed them the logo Tel Design had designed for NS (Dutch railways). “Anyone who remembers what their old logo looked like?” he asked the board members. No one. Henk had won his case; the new design was accepted.

Logo for Sphinx, 1973

Logo for Key, 1969 

Design team Henk de Vries, studio Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, 1985

Design group Henk de Vries
Henk remained forever fascinated by the symbiosis of graphic design and 3D design. Both were imbedded in him – one could say he had risen from the 2D space and walked into a 3D environment yet without surrendering his graphic professionalism. Later, he would even add industrial design to his explorations. Fashion house Leeser asked Henk to design the facade and interior of their Denis Deux store; his team collaborated with a former fellow-student, Hans Niemeyer, who had just left Kho Liang Ie’s studio; they created a unique aluminum facade and had it produced by a company specialized in touring car exteriors; the display window’s glass was fastened, just like windows in cars, with rubber strips. 

Logo and typography, fashion store Denis Deux, 1980

ANWB (the Dutch AAA) asked Studio Dumbar and Henk de Vries to submit proposals for their annual report. Henk was walking toward the entrance of ANWB’s headquarters in The Hague at the precise moment Gert Dumbar came out. Henk said: “The winner pays for a bottle of wine.” He sincerely hoped Dumbar would win: he felt that the one who had designed the identity program should also design the annual report. Indeed, Dumbar got the job; the two designers emptied more than one bottle of wine to celebrate. “Competitors were friends in those days – there was more than enough work and… there was mutual respect.”

Gamma (Intergamma), corporate identity program and interior design of building supplies stores, 1980

In 1980, his studio was commissioned to design Gamma’s corporate identity program (Gamma building supplies is comparable to Home Depot in the US). Henk let it be known that he wasn’t really interested in doing the job. Gamma’s owner and CEO, Hans Steenman showed Henk a few proposals he had received from advertising agencies. “What do you think?” asked Steenman. “Of what?” Henk responded. Steenman understood immediately and concluded: “Those who want the job cannot do it and the one who can doesn’t want it!” Henk’s game was: take it or leave it. The proposals he was able to present after a weekend of hard work were accepted. Shortly after this, he and his staff, the receptionist included, were building the first of many Gamma interiors and installing the signage system. Henk de Vries and Gamma can look back to a collaboration lasting twenty-five years. Together, they also created Karwei and Bouwmaat, other subsidiaries of Intergamma. The interior of the group’s headquarters (architect: Inbo) was also a De Vries design.

Trade fair stand for Synthese/Sikkens, New York, 1984

Packaging of Cetabever paints, for Sikkens/AkzoNobel, 1984  

Redox, for Sikkens/AkzoNobel (with: Anton Vos), 1986

Always moving  
Henk de Vries didn’t want to have anything to do with sous-chefs, managers or marketing gurus; he didn’t even want to give quotes. His ways of doing business may have astonished many, but the ones who accepted them became clients ‘forever’. When he renovated Patisserie Kuyt in Amsterdam, he could do what he wanted because they trusted him and was paid in pastry for years to come.

Left: McGregor fashion stores, interior design (with Gwen MacLain Pont), 1984

Right: Interior Patisserie Kuyt, Amsterdam, 1998 and chocolate box, 2014

Henk de Vries design group’s domicile was Prinsengracht 1107, Amsterdam. A huge loft where all staff members had their desks. To handle the growth of the company they also added the neighboring location, but soon they had to look elsewhere for much larger premises. On a Sunday morning Henk met the writer of this story, Guus Ros, whose BRS studio was for sale because they, too, were outgrowing their space. After some negotiating they agreed on a price and Henk de Vries came to own Keizersgracht 610. “I don’t carry that kind of money in my back pocket,” said Henk. “But doing business with a bank is just making some calculations on the back of a cigar box.”   

Henk de Vries at Keizersgracht 610, Amsterdam, 1990

Dedato
Being the sole proprietor and responsible for the whole group including their real estate became a little too heavy a load. Henk started looking for partners. He found them. It became clear that the group needed a new name; his own name had been sufficiently used. In 1992, ‘Dedato’ was founded and ready to enter a whole new future. But, alas, the worldwide economic recession put a spanner in Dedato’s wheels: fewer commissions, smaller budgets and as a consequence, a smaller staff. Henk de Vries decided to sell the building and find a cheaper location. Not that he had suddenly become more prudent: he bought ‘De Zayer’, a former church, also on Keizersgracht, at number 22. He was able to see through its deplorable state and was aware of what the building could offer after he’d been done with an extensive renovation.

Yet, the times were not right: real estate loans did 12% interest, the economic crisis was continuing, trusted old clients went bankrupt. He needed his partners’ full support, but they were growing scared and left De Vries holding the baby. He took a new mortgage on his own home and managed to keep the company afloat. “Either you go for it or you don’t,” he said. He was his own man again.

Karwei (Intergamma), corporate identity program and interior design, from 1983

Amsterdam – Jakarta – Santiago
In the 1960s, Omnimark’s manager Ingkie invited his friend Henk to join him on a trip to Java, Indonesia’s main island. Ingkie wanted Henk to see, smell, hear and taste the country where he was born. Henk experienced a terrific culture shock; he couldn’t not notice the poverty, but what left a lasting impression was the creativity of the Indonesian people. He observed how banana skins would serve as a plate or an umbrella, or became a box. The ingenuity of the poor Indonesians hit him deeply enough to make him question his own profession. A Sikkens project in New York brought him back to his senses, but, fascinated as he was with the country, its culture and the people, he returned to Indonesia many times to find new inspiration.       

As a guest teacher, Bandung, Indonesia, 1973

In Bandung, Henk met Mochtar Apin and Pirous, teachers at the Institute of Technology Bandung where Henk had taught a few times as a visiting professor. He suggested an exchange program for Indonesian teachers and students, and Dutch designers: ‘East Meets West’. He was willing to put up a sum of his own money on the condition that the Dutch government doubled the amount. He practically forced Ruud Bos of Bilateral Affairs to become an accomplice; back in the Netherlands, he kept pushing his program and, thanks to Matty Veldkamp of the ministry of cultural affairs, he even managed to get a second grant. Indonesian teachers were invited to come to the Netherlands: Taufiq, Indarsya, Alfonso and Pribadi. They would intern with Studio Dumbar or Henk’s own team. Among the Dutch designers who went to Bandung to teach were Jan van Toorn, Gijs Bakker and Will van Sambeek.

Indonesian design teachers in the Netherlands. From left: Indarsya, Alfonso, Pribadi, with Henk de Vries, 1995

Design of a villa on Java, Indonesia, 1995

Dedato Indonesia studio, Jakarta, 1999

Eventually Henk de Vries and the Indonesian industrial designer Taufik decided to start a joint venture in Jakarta after Taufik had overcome the fear of losing his steady income from teaching. They found a suitable studio space. Henk wanted a five-year lease but (West meeting East) soon learned that things were not as easy as he had expected: the lease would only be signed if they paid the lessor the total rent for five years in advance. “For that amount of money I can afford to buy a place,” Henk said. It was 1988 when the two designers/entrepreneurs became owners of suitable real estate. The growth of their business forced them to move a few times. Dedato designers and architects now have a staff of ninety and are wellknown in Indonesia.    

Dedato Indonesia staff, with Taufik third row from below, left 

Three-wheel vehicle Bajaj, Dedato Indonesia (design: Taufik), 1984

On one of his many travels, to Chile in 1996, Henk met with the artist/designer Francisco Morello. Henk noticed the differences between Dutch and Chilean culture and mentality but found similarities, too. Morello and Henk de Vries decided to start a studio. Henk met the same problem he’d had to deal with in Jakarta: he had to pay the rent up front. Again, he decided it was more convenient to buy than to lease; a bank provided the money to acquire a space in Santiago’s embassy district. One of their first clients was Davis Watches, for whom they designed store interiors (working with the Dedato design team in Amsterdam). The three Dedato studios together – Amsterdam, Jakarta and Santiago – provided a 24-hour service thanks to being in different time zones. They were successful until the Santiago office started to mess up their financial affairs; after five years, Henk decided to withdraw.

To sit is a verb
Henk de Vries has a love affair with chairs. It is not because he is sitting down all the time – on the contrary, Henk is always on the move. “To sit is a verb” might have been Henk’s saying if Gerrit Rietveld hadn’t claimed the maxim. Many of his chair designs were influenced by the culture of the country that was hosting him as well the culture of the country of his birth. Sound and shatterproof Dutch constructions received refined Eastern touches. 

Wooden chairs, Japara, Indonesia, 1990

Conference table for board of directors, AkzoNobel (with: Peter van Dijk), 1993

Display table for Galery Novantanova, 1990

Dedato had taken Foundation ‘De Zayer’ under its umbrella, a Henk de Vries initiative to show the world selected graduation projects by students at Dutch art academies. Each year, the final projects were exhibited of excelling students like Marcel Waanders and Henk Stallinga. Jury members were Marjan Unger, Mart van Schijndel, Nel Verschuren and Gabrielle Metz. Henk’s drive was hard to when he was a guest teacher at the Academie van Bouwkunst (architecture) in Amsterdam. He invited the students to visit Dedato to make them understand that the different design disciplines – graphic design, industrial design, interior design and architectural design – are strongly connected and can, and should, work together. One of the students, Dick Venneman, yelled: “What a fantastic studio this is! I’d love to work here.” Henk responded immediately and said: “You can start tomorrow.” Dick Venneman is one of the four Dedato owners/partners of today.

More projects came to Dedato. Henk had a team with leaders like Jaap Bruynen (financial director), Peter van Dijk (creative director), Dick Venneman (architect) and Anton Vos (graphic designer) who were experienced and enthusiastic; they could run a busy multidisciplinary studio and deliver the quality that made him and the clients happy. They built an office and distribution center of 60,000 m2 for Fetim in Amsterdam. Robert van Rixtel, working for Henk at the time, had designed Fetim’s corporate identity program. Henk’s mission statement: “With 2D into 3D space” was becoming a reality.

Freestanding kitchen with exchangeable panel doors, for Tulp Kitchens, 1995

Mock-up of a garden home design, 2012

Office and distribution center for Fetim, Amsterdam (with: Dick Venneman), 1996

Dedato studio, Amsterdam (design: Dick Venneman), 2015

Dedato acquired a variety of interesting commissions: Theater Amsterdam (‘A theater for Anne Frank’); the Stedelijk Museum’s Depot; and Diesel headquarters also in Amsterdam. At the Danziger quay they built their own new studio as well as an arrangement of other buildings one could call a city-planning project. It has been suggested to rename Danzigerkade and call it Dedatokade. The other Dedato departments were not staying behind: they worked hard to improve Karwei’s image (and designed their fourth campaign); and they designed new identity programs for cities such as Breda, Goeree-Overflakkee and Krimpenerwaard.          

Henk de Vries sold his stake in Dedato to the leading staff members mentioned above. The Tuschinsky Theater in Amsterdam was the stage for his farewell party. A song was performed that had a line to reassure him that “his chair would always be available and ready for him to use at Dedato.” The morning after the party, Henk visited the studio. “My chair was gone but they still make me feel very welcome.” His connection with Indonesia wasn’t severed either. Henk de Vries designed products especially for Java’s local, small-scale furniture producers. Because the adventure must go on.

Garden steps, Château de Tavigny, Belgium, 2008

Award for 24 hours bicycle races, Tavigny, Belgium, 2009

Author of the original text: Guus Ros, September 2015 
Translation and editing in English: Ton Haak   
Final editing: Sybrand Zijlstra
Portrait photo: Aatjan Renders