A Beautiful Disruptor

A waiting game

Since childhood, she has been a walking curiosity and confidence. She has highly sensitive senses that she can translate into images. As a designer, she probably takes the most difficult route by really inventing things rather than reinterpreting something that others have already designed. She‘s a rebel that dares to revisit tradition, capable of convincing the Japanese to use tatami … in colour gradient. Meet Mae Engelgeer, a Dutch textile designer with a Japanese soul. A beautiful and stylish woman, a wife, a mother, and a very open mind, the kind you rarely come across these days.

I’ve had her MOD collection on my smartphone wallpaper since 2015, but only now did I feel ready to talk to her. Mae Engelgeer, this talented Mae Engelgeer, a model example of a designer deeply inspired by Japan, both in her professional and private life.

I had to wait for this interview for several long months as Mae is an extremely busy person, but my intuition told me that I would succeed. And so here we finally meet face to face, even if virtually only.

How are you doing in these turbulent times? Does the macroeconomic situation somehow impacts your business situation?

I’m quite well, thank you. I produce at a small scale, almost on request, so feel quite safe. It’s so different from being in a big business where you run a lot of production and face challenges like getting the right materials. My studio is divided into different creative areas so to say. One of them is doing collaboration projects with big international brands, who are more stable in terms of financial situation.

Do people still crave and can afford good design?

Yes, even during the pandemic times it was quite okay because the demand for interior products has increased I think.

That’s good to hear. I would love handicrafts, good design become part of simple people's lives. Not a luxury product for the chosen ones.

Yeah, I fully agree. Some of my works are indeed part of a luxury segment, but in general I like to be diversified and provide good design to everyone. I like it when people can buy my products. So I try to balance this also with the brands I collaborate with. I did some cushions for a Dutch brand some years back which are really affordable. It's nice to buy something and really integrate it into your daily life. You respect it more, you take good care of it and you don’t feel this need to change it just because something else is trending at a given moment.

Couldn’t agree more. We’ve probably all gone through the ‘fast fashion’ phase in our lives and what I’ve noticed is that handmade items, that tell a personal story or evoke memories last so much longer. And it’s not even a matter of quality materials, but our caring and attentive attitude.

Actually, I think that's really something Japan has taught me, respect for materials. When I drink coffee – look at this mug (showing me her favorite mug – nito nito note) – it just feels so good. It also has something to do with getting older I think. That you appreciate things more. Although I think the young generation already gets this much earlier. And I’m trying to teach my daughter the same. Sometimes she shows me some items at one of the Chinese retail chains, and I’m quite clear that we WON’T buy anything there. The experience of buying, let’s say, a nice jacket that’s a bit more expensive makes you wear it and feel in it differently, in a special way.

I deeply believe it’s exactly the same with interior design. You just feel better when surrounded by good design. There’s so much that still needs to be done in this respect. In big cities, especially in places like Amsterdam imbued with aesthetics, art and design you just need to raise your head to see how beautifully people live. Outside of big cities, it’s so much different. Wish these people understood how the environment can change them internally. Literally, change their lives!

Exactly. You don’t have to change the cushions on your couch every season. Find something that makes you feel good and comfortable instead. Make it express who you are, make it tell the story of your life each time you look at it. That’s exactly what we’ve done in our house in Amsterdam. Moving back in after the renovation we have selected pieces that we like or that have a certain story behind them.

I think my daughter starts to get it. I’m very much into old furniture renovation, some things we buy, some we find at the dump. And I can see how she reacts when she sees for eg. a book that has been thrown away. She’s like “mom, let’s rescue it, please”.

Speaking about children, looking at myself today I can see that many character traits, interests, way of experiencing the world, were evident long time ago (for eg. I always smelled everything). Only, I fully understand their meaning now. I’m trying to look carefully at my daughter today to help her better understand herself. And this leads us to my first big question – have you shown any signs of your talent as a child?

It's interesting what you said about smelling everything because in my family, we all have a very good smell and are very sensitive to scents. And I always say that if I didn’t create textiles, I would work in the perfume industry. I remember from my childhood that I’ve always loved to touch things. Even if my mom told me not to touch them. I have this memory of being with my mom in Paris. We were at a metro station and I saw this big red shiny button ... My mom saw me looking at it and said please don't even think about touching it. I obviously did and you can only imagine what happened next. It activated the alarm, so a lot of police came through. A red shiny button. I just couldn't resist things like this. Always touching, but also collecting things. Also the ones someone got rid of. I also remember that together with my sister we would do a lot of coloring and even win art contests. My mom was very creative. She had sawn a lot of our clothing by herself. That’s when I first saw my ideas materialise. That’s also how I first emphasised my independence. Well, I knew what I wanted but wasn’t really allowed to wear it. My mother and sister said I wanted to mix summer and winter clothes and found that weird. Also because we were living in a small city they were more about fitting into the crowd. Also, looking back, I remember myself constantly changing my room, adding different colors and decorative elements. It all gave me a constant opportunity to draw and create. And last but not least, I was a very curious child. And it’s still there.

Was it your own decision to go to a textile school or someone encouraged you to do this?

I was introduced to textiles in my middle school, which was quite rare. I used to dedicate four hours a week to textiles. I liked it and wanted to do something with this. I grew up in a small city and we were thinking really hard about my future. A fashion school? An art school? My parents were simply not sure about some schools and thought “what would do you do with this kind of education afterwards?” It was also a tough decision for me, I think I was too young to really know if I wanted to go there. Then I was introduced to the Amsterdam fashion academy, where I could do textiles as a specialisation. And so I became a textile designer and moved my life to a big city.

I was one of the first in my whole family to go to Amsterdam. But looking back, I think I always felt like a bit of an outsider in a way. Just not totally fitting in. A black sheep, only in a positive way (laughs).

I find it wonderful that your family never questioned your choices, starting from clothes and ending with choosing your school and place to live. It’s very difficult for many of us to give such freedom to our children.

I must say, my parents are indeed very kind, super sweet, and very open. I'm lucky that they agreed to let me go to Amsterdam. Maybe they also saw that art studies would be something for me, even if it took few years to understand what exactly it is that I'm going to do with this education.

I’m glad you’ve made this choice!

I’ve read in many interviews with you that you never stick to one project, design, color combo or technique. You’re always on a mission to learn and try something new. You heard it a million times probably, but where do you actually source inspiration for your projects? Are there any artists or designers whose work you’re following (though I believe I know the answer to this question)?

That's a good one. The question might be the same, but the answer may differ (laugh).

I know it will sound a bit weird but I’m never able to provide any name or work that was inspiring to me. I do really appreciate a lot of works and artists but I find it difficult to point to one person or object. It’s exactly the same when someone asks me about my favorite movie or book. It’s because in most cases it is not the work that has an impact on me, but a certain feeling a given work/film/book gives me and I usually remember only this. I am more interested in other fields like ceramics or architecture. I think it is better to not look at other textile creations in order to walk my own path.

Travels, however, inspire me a lot, in particular, feelings that certain places evoke in me. Or even reflections on things that I’ve seen. I tend to get ideas easily, I see projects in my head before I even start to work on them.

Ok now, it’s the first time I hear someone can actually translate a feeling into an image, something material. This is amazing! Guess I’ve never gone that far. Tell me more.

Ah, it’s hard to explain, it's a mix of lots of things or a result of a process. Sometimes it's a result of a certain state I am in at the moment. It can reflect who I am at the moment, what I like at that moment, and what I’m into at a certain moment. My own works evolve one from another, so whether it’s visible or not, there's always some kind of connection between them.

I find texts very difficult to translate to projects because for me the inspiration lies in the feelings I have for material things or people.

Can you give an example of such a translation of a feeling into a project?

When you asked this question I immediately thought of my first collection for the CC Tapis (an Italian company producing contemporary hand-knotted rugs created in Nepal – nito nito note) called Bliss. This project was one big feeling, about a state of happiness, elegance, and tactility all translated into objects like rugs.

I started drawing it mostly in Adobe Illustrator. I also play around with shapes and colors that come to my mind and these grow and take shape, and become clear ideas. It is a very impulsive way of working, without a master plan, just constantly reacting to what happens in the play on the artboard, while having a specific feeling in mind. I compiled it all and presented my idea for a project to CC Tapis and they liked it. I feel it was the right moment and the right company. It's been my best collaboration so far. Also in a sense of how it was received by clients and that it has grown into a really big family of Bliss objects (laugh).

Have you felt understood?

Yeah, absolutely. Daniele Lora (CC Tapis’ art director and partner – nito nito note) saw my project and just said ‘yeah, we're going to do this’. And you need to know that the owners didn’t know me. We had been chatting on Instagram that maybe we could do something together and how we could do it. Finally, I sent them my proposal and I remember we were laughing a bit as normally they work with such well-known artists like Patricia Urquiola. Big names, you know. And suddenly there's a Mae Engelgeer from Amsterdam. They dared to give me the stage. It was - and still is - fantastic.

Well, I’m not surprised. With all my love for Patricia Urquiola’s projects, such a creative industry needs some fresh blood.

I’m glad we’re talking about the Bliss collection as it has been influenced by Japan. And it’s no secret that not only your designs but you yourself have a Japanese soul so to say. I know you’ve been to Japan, you have Japanese shōji installed at home, many projects of yours have Japanese names, and the way you style your pieces and have them photographed shouts: Japan! and - help me Lord - I have just seen you drinking the Japanese way. So tell me please how and when have you encountered Japan? How has it all started?

I think I should start by saying that I have always been very much into different cultures. My mother-in-law is from Indonesia and my father-in-law is from Germany, so I had a chance to see how families from other cultures function. I love the fact that the Asian ones are so attached to their tradition. It’s not that strong in Dutch families, though now I tend to appreciate the little traditions that we have more and more.

Japan had come to me quite late, actually just a year before I went to Japan for the first time. 2015 to be precise. Of course, there are Japanese shops in Amsterdam I would go to, but never really had much time to dive deep into Japan. Under my skin I felt that there was something special about this place, though. I felt inspired by Japan and at some point in time wanted to understand what exactly it is that influences me. I wanted to go there and see for myself, sense how it feels, and understand what it's like. And one day I just took a plane and visited Japan for the first time.

Japan proved to be so much more than just an inspiration for a project or two. When I’m looking at most of my latest projects on Instagram it became clear to me that Japan is here to stay. It’s my match, something I feel at home with. We are now working on getting a visa to move there for at least a year, starting next summer. There's so much to learn there, so many different weaving techniques that sometimes I feel a bit overwhelmed. I want to dive into Japanese textiles more when I'm there. And have time for it.

So what is it about Japan that once you feel it, you're lost forever?

Honestly, I don't know what it is. I do like their systems. I like that things are different. I like the sort of respect for the materials, for the fact that things are done in a certain way and it’s been like this for centuries. But anyone who knows me also knows that I like to shake things up. That's how I work with craftsmen from Colombia or Nepal. They always do things in one way, but then I look at them and think to myself ‘hey, if this is possible, then this should also be possible, let's try’. I try to get the artisans along, to be open and to try new things, even if at first we are not 100% sure it will be a success (laughs).

It's true also for Japan, isn’t it? I’ve even listed projects that in fact are a result of revisiting the Japanese tradition. For those who don’t know – Mae has actually created tatami mats in a colorful gradient. When I saw a photo of a traditional Japanese room filled with your tatamis, I was like ‘no way’ …

They actually like it. Sometimes it's easier for someone from abroad to shake the tradition up, but in general, the companies I work with are very open to it. I’ve been doing some Indigo workshops there once and the first thing I wanted to try was a bit complicated and I wasn’t sure about the result. And I met this young Japanese woman, one of the youngest indigo dyers in Japan who was like ‘oh, I’ve never tried this’, which really surprised me. We are all about experimenting, while in Japan it is more about doing things the way you have learned them. So it was nice to show her that new things can come out of trying.

My dream would be to spend a week in this workspace and experiment as much as possible. To learn by trying and seeing. Such things are on my Japanese to-do list for next year. Japan gives me a unique opportunity of learning from their tradition and translate it into my own version of it.

Japan touches my senses in a lot of ways. And I also feel, working with the craftsmen I've worked with so far, that they also value my work. So it's really a mutual respect.

There are lots of countries around the world and some of them resemble another. With Japan, it's like there's no other place like this.

It’s an island and that’s also the beauty of it. On the other hand I can imagine why people who grew up there want to leave, go to Europe, be freer. Sometimes they might feel a bit stuck in their own tradition. But for those coming from Europe like me, it works the other way around …

What strikes me about your Japanese collaborations is that it comes so easy for you to work with these designers. How on earth do you manage to build relations with them? Do you start with cold calls? Reach them through social media?

The first time I was there, an architect who worked with a Japanese architect, who had worked in the Netherlands, who knew about my passion for textiles, has showed me around and introduced to Hosoo Textiles (a Kyoto-based textile company specialised in superior quality fabrics for high-end interior design and fashion - nito nito note). The other thing is that I just can’t hide my true enthusiasm for their work. I also learned that you don’t need to speak the same language to work together. Even though they seem strict at the beginning I can feel underneath they can also be outgoing. To open people up sometimes becomes my mission.

I can easily believe this.

You have learned some Japanese textile techniques. Do you have any favorites or the ones that you would most like to discover?

Actually, there is one that I have never worked with, called ikat. It’s been on my list for a while now and I would really like to try it in Japan.

I have so far worked mostly with the Japanese from my generation, like Mitsuru Yokoyama, the tatami creator, and I have to admit they are really open to collaboration. They usually already have experience of traveling outside of Japan and so they understand a bit better where I come from or what a possible outcome of our cooperation would be. But still, of course, I would love to work with an older generation in order to understand what’s so intriguing about what they do that they spent their life doing. And how they got so precise in what they do.

You never know if a collaboration with a given designer turns out to work that easily. This is something in which I trust my gut feeling. Fortunately, it has always worked for me. I've been to India a few times and could feel that there's a mutual way of thinking between us craftsmen. There needs to be some kind of connection. For me, it’s mostly textiles or curiosity. And a sense of connection on a level of simple things, by showing mutual respect. That's what I'm looking for, always.

I'm glad that you mentioned ikat because it’s a great example of a textile technique in which the final product actually looks like a repeated error, at least in the case of the Japanese kasuri in which the edges of the patterns don’t exactly match. The truth is however that it’s the true nature of the material they are using and where the beauty of this textile lies in. It’s something that Soetsu Yanagi dedicated a lot of pages to, in his “The Beauty of Everyday Things”.

He said that “a pattern does not come first. It's followed by the carpet. That the carpet comes first, followed by the pattern. So it is precisely this inconvenient constraint of material and technique that has proved to be the beggar of beauty. So this is the essential nature of handicraft, that humans are not the controlling force, it's the nature that is controlling force”. He also cites a story of a carpet designer’s exhibition he went to see. The guy followed his draft projects to the smallest details to make the carpets as perfect as possible. But Yanagi found them so ugly he couldn’t look at them.

I’m curious to hear if you let nature play its role in your projects. Or you’re a control freak?

It’s a beautiful story and a super question. I think I'm sort of in between and I know exactly what he means. Probably all the soul was out of the final product. There was nothing left. Textile design is partly based on coincidence, sometimes even mistakes. That’s why I call my first project ‘a starting idea’. I’m always open to seeing what happens when I start trying and in most cases leaving the first idea behind, really acting on what I see happening. Even with big weaving machines, you can never be sure what the final object will look like. And that's the beauty of it.

I obviously know some techniques by heart, but sometimes I don't want to know too much and to control the machine, in order to leave space open for things to happen. I believe that’s how a piece of textile gets a soul.

This probably explains this trend for creating ‘wabi-sabi’ interiors. Only the terms is so much deeper and absolutely excludes human intention.

Annoying, right?

Totally, as it’s absolutely not about ceramics or walls made intentionally raw or old.

I would now like to ask you a question about tackling the challenge of mass production. Not everyone knows that you’ve actually never touched a loom and that you’re using machines to create objects, still your work is categorized as handicrafts. Do you think that it might be a solution for mass production and a chance for good sustainable design to become available to every Tom, Dick and Harry?

I think people are more and more open to this. What I can see people in love with handicrafts are stuck to, is their desire to own this one unique piece that no one else has. I think this is beautiful. But again we return to the problem of exclusivity, while handicrafts should be available to everyone. We should then be more open-minded I think. You can still be getting something unique and exclusive, only it’s produced in multiples.

If my designs are machine made, I still want them to give this feeling of being handmade. So that there's a poetry in it. But on the other hand I also want my designs to feel like finished products with a modern twist, if you know what I mean. I don’t want them to have this “goat wool socks” feeling (synonym of a dusty image of something – nito nito note), like we use to say in Dutch.

We’ve already touched a ‘wabi-sabi style’ problem. But there’s another one that annoys me even more, called japandi.

Yeah, I saw it.

I’m not sure if you’re aware but your home, which was featured on Elle Decoration Netherlands, has actually been categorised as a “japandi” one. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s odd, as I’ve encountered Japan a long time ago, I’ve incorporated some Japanese elements to my surroundings, even my lifestyle and now suddenly it becomes a trend. I was even asking myself like ‘is this only a trend to me?’ The answer is ‘no, it's not’. This is something that goes deeper than that. So I was also a bit annoyed to see that everyone is using this ‘japandi’ everywhere.

The other thing is that I never really connect my work with current trends. One year you are encouraged to buy all things ‘japandi’, next year you need to buy all the boho, chic things. Crazy.

Exactly. The only good thing about these two trends is that they promote objects made from natural materials, not plastic.

Speaking about your home how would you describe it? What was the idea behind it? For those who haven’t seen it here’s a link to Elle Decoration Netherlands video.

It’s very close to the city center, or maybe I should say this place has become a new city center. It used to be dark so we had to introduce some light inside. We have taken away the wall between the living room and our bedroom to get the daylight from the back. This is also why the walls and floors are light colored and why we introduced shōji (Japanese paper sliding doors – nito nito note) to our interior. They let the light in and the whole interior feels really light. In terms of home decoration, we’ve done this exercise with my husband asking ourselves what we really like, and which memories we want to bring back to the house. We’ve kept things that evoke memories, like some pottery we did in Uji, or a lamp I once bought in Japan as a gift for my husband. We also have these very thin tatami mats. Some people won't like their smell, but we're like ‘yeah, that’s the smell’ (laugh).

We have also downsized the kitchen as previously it was too big for the apartment size. In Japan, we used a small electric one so now decided to keep the additional small one in a cabinet.

My next question was supposed to be about your dream travel destinations, but guess I already know the answer: Japan.

Absolutely. We canceled twice for the summer due to the pandemic and now we booked it again for the coming summer, and if we get the visa we will stay.

My last question to you is really crucial: where can we buy Mae Engelgeer’s designs?

Well, all the collaborative things are available through the brands’ sales channels. Regarding my own designs I’ll soon be launching a small Instagram shop where a limited series of blankets will be available, so stay tuned! I’m also thinking about selling some workshop pieces, after coming back from Japan. In case of all other designs, I can make them on demand.

Can’t wait to shop on Instagram and to visit your studio. Mae, you can’t imagine what a pleasure it was for me to talk to you.

Likewise Marta, thank you very much for the interview, and see you soon in Amsterdam.

Mae Engelgeer, owner of Studio Mae Engelgeer, ©Jerome de Lint.