For almost 20 years Dutch furniture and homewares designers have ranked among the most influential - and outlandish - in the world, turning out one quirky, conceptual hit after another and turning our visual language on its head in the process. "Dutch design", as we now know it, was probably born in 1991 when Tejo Remy made his now iconic chest of drawers, You Can't Lay Down Your Memory - a collection of mismatched drawers held together at sixes and sevens by a thick webbing strap. Then, among the most radical - and therefore attention-grabbing - pieces, came Piet Hein Eek's Scrapwood furniture, 85 Lamps by Rody Graumans (1993), Soft Urn by Hella Jongerius (1994) and Knotted Chair by Marcel Wanders (1996).
These pieces were launched by Droog, the design collective founded by Renny Ramakers, a design historian, and the industrial designer Gijs Bakker (who left the company this May). Droog - which means "dry", as in humour - demonstrated the exemplary resourcefulness of Dutch designers and Remy's chest of drawers and Milk Bottle lamp epitomised the approach: witty, radically unconventional and highly conceptual.
A certain amount of credit for the promotion and popularity of the contemporary Dutch design movement should go to Ramakers. Since launching Droog's first collection in 1993 she has been one of Holland's key talent scouts and promoters. Yet, she says, she had previously been bored by design. "It was all about form and function rather than ideas, but then I saw a totally new development in The Netherlands where designers were making conceptual things and I decided to bring it together and show it to the world."
Serving the public interest is a typically Dutch sentiment, which began in the first half of the 20th century influenced by the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements, which put design at the service of a more just society. Key characteristics were simplicity, function and affordability. This approach wasn't always successful: few people in the 1930s wanted to own the innovative, but not particularly comfortable, Gerrit Rietveld Z-chair, although this didn't stop it from becoming a design icon and, consequently, a status symbol (still produced today by Cassina).
In contrast to the earlier, functional school of design, the more recent Dutch design movement consists of a group of independently minded designers wowing the world with original, often iconoclastic and bizarre creations. Which is not to say elaborate or highly decorated. Indeed, the understatement so characteristic of northern Europe became a style in itself, as epitomised by the elegant refinement of the 85 naked light bulbs that Rody Graumans clustered into a chandelier. The work of these designers can be so visually spare as to look "poor" - an illusion reflected in neither the manufacturing process nor the price.
While several Droog pieces have been manufactured, many were made (necessarily in very limited numbers) by the designers themselves - another distinguishing characteristic of the movement: a reaction against manufacturers' power to decide on the basis of sales forecasts which objects would be put into production. Consequently, the designers' work was initially more at home in the cultural rather than the commercial domain, with pieces purchased mainly by private collectors or museums.
Since those early days of the mid-1990s most designers have developed in different ways, with Wanders being one of the most commercially successful, designing everything from lamps to electronics. He established his own label, Moooi, and has clients all over the world including Sheikh Majid Al Sabah, whose Villa Moda store in Bahrain he designed. Wanders's global success, together with his assertion that he doesn't consider himself a "Dutch designer", has not endeared him to everyone.
"The Dutch are such spoiled brats," says Paula Antonelli, who curated the Museum of Modern Art's 1996 exhibition, Thresholds: Contemporary Design from the Netherlands, "and Marcel is king of them all." Wanders counters this by saying that while he loves his country, he thinks of himself more as an Amsterdammer than a Dutchman, seeing the "Dutch design" tag more as a marketing tool than a design movement or aesthetic.
"People want to be part of the big story," he says, "but ... I don't want to be part of it ... I do what I do." In contrast, Jurgen Bey remains resolutely Dutch. "I don't believe in global design," he says. "I believe that where you are born, where your roots are, makes you." In many ways he is the father of the trend for appropriating objects and turning them into different things, making his name with his Tree Trunk Bench (1999).
Dressing and disguising objects is another prominent theme in his work - as with his PVC-covered Kokon furniture. "I like to look at things a little as if they were human," he explains. But how is it that such a small country as theirs punches so far above its weight, producing far more successful designers than countries such as the US or even Italy? The answer is due partly to the Dutch national character: self-confident, independent and adventurous. Add to that a liberal culture, excellent education system and generous government subsidies that help give designers time to grow technically and independently.
Some of the most prominent designers developed their talents at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, a hotbed of experimentation and arguably the world's most influential design school thanks to its former chairman, Li Edelkoort, who is also one of the world's leading trend forecasters. "Li un-Dutched the academy," says Jongerius. But her greatest coup was infusing the students with her own intellectual vigour. Edelkoort famously encouraged the student Maarten Baas to set fire to old wooden chairs until the wood charred. This launched Baas as a rising star of the "design-art" market and his charred chairs now sell for thousands of dollars.
Meanwhile, Edelkoort is spearheading plans for a network of "sister" design schools, with South Africa and Poland as possible locations. Dubai was also mooted - in collaboration with Sheikh Majed Al Sabah - although this is now on hold. Another project is a commission from the Dutch government for a mobile "field university", where scientists will study alongside creatives. "There's a growing need for designers to fuse design and science," says Edelkoort. "The world is developing very fast, but ... there is a lack of creative talent compared to the growing numbers of consumers and consuming countries. What we need right now is more fuel, more food and more fantasy."
Given the world's insatiable desire to move on to the Next Big Thing, perhaps it was inevitable to hear mutterings at this year's furniture fests in Milan and New York (Salone del Mobile and ICFF respectively) that Dutch design could be past its peak. And at the launch of Cite Goes Dutch, a recent exhibition that is part of New York's celebrations marking the 400-year relationship between The Netherlands and the US, Alissia Melka-Teichroew, the Dutch curator of the exhibition and a designer herself, lamented the fact that, with exceptions like Bey, native output isn't what it was.
This perhaps contradicts the message in the documentary Hella Jongerius: Contemporary Archetypes, which revealed that the designer had begun to work from a new studio in Berlin: "It's very good to leave a hot spot," Jongerius says in the film. "It was too hot." Cite Goes Dutch aimed to show how design is integrated into the fabric of daily life in the Netherlands, a union made necessary by its status as one of the world's most densely populated countries. "Design is something that's inherent to our culture," explains Melka-Teichroew. "We live in very small spaces, so if we have space we want it to be useful - and beautifully used." The exhibition presented works by mostly new talents who were united by subtlety as much as by their youth. "Nuance and craftsmanship hold these selections together," says Melka-Teichroew. "I wanted to get people to be intrigued by things ... which are intricate and pared-down, pragmatic and poetic." Highlights included Jorre van Ast's Jar Tops - polypropylene lids, some with handles, which can be screwed onto ordinary glass jars to create serving vessels such as a jug, sugar dispenser or oil-and-vinegar set, Habraken's Mirror Mirror - a wall-mounted disc with an integrated hand mirror, and Knitted Vase by Ilona Huvenaars and Willem Derks - which celebrated knitting's ability to expand and contract even when made out of 3D-printed coated nylon. Earlier this year Droog opened a gallery-store in New York's SoHo. Its current exhibition, Second Natures, is devoted to hidden meanings and the idea of teasing out the souls of things, which also encapsulates today's slower tempo for both manufacturer and consumer. This theme is likely to be further explored in an exhibition curated by Ramakers, Pioneers of Change, that will open later this year as part of the NY400 celebrations. Clearly, Dutch design is by no means over, it is simply evolving. The themes that made it so famous are still at play - designers continue to elevate mundane materials to preciousness, transforming everyday objects into luxurious items and adapting historical concepts to a contemporary context. But, it seems, they are no longer striving for cleverness for wit's sake or fast production for equally rapid accumulation. Less effervescence, more substance, you could say.