‘Design means creative thinking,’ says Marije Vogelzang, artist, product designer, sculptor, party organiser and chef. ‘It doesn’t mean material, or even giving shape to something. Giving shape is the next step in communicating an idea. It’s a tool.’
‘I call myself an eating designer,’ the 31-year-old tells me from her Amsterdam studio/restaurant, explaining why she wants to explore new ways to experience food, from food printed with messages in edible ink, to marshmallow installations and crockery made out of sugar. ‘There are lots of designers who make clothes to wear, cars to drive, houses to live in,’ she says. ‘What is the closest you can get to human beings?’ she asks. ‘Food. I work with food in its purest form. I work from the verb ‘eat’. Harvesting, cooking, sharing, transporting – all these things are more interesting than merely shaping the food.’
Vogelzang doesn’t just design food: she creates narratives to explain why a dish tastes the way it does, where it comes from, who made it, how it was made and why you a re eating it.
‘Every design eventually gets thrown away, but when people eat my food it becomes part of their body,’ she says of her projects, which could be seen as the end result of the evolutionary response of design to the disposable culture of the 21st century. ‘My designs walk around everywhere inside people,’ she reveals. ‘Even when it leaves the body, the design remains in the brain as a memory. I like the idea that my designs are being consumed, and therefore do not add to consumer society in the sense that they’re ephemeral.’
The mix of intelligent design, surreal storytelling and delicious food, matched to Vogelzang’s lively, slightly elfin personality, means that she’s become much sought after. Her clients range from the city of Rotterdam and Hella Jongerius, to the Dutch embassies in Rome and Dakar. BMW and fashion brand Hermès are queueing up, too. Vogelzang has lectured in places from Tokyo to Beirut. In 2009, she published her first book Eat Love (Book Industry Services), lifting the lid on her highly individual, idiosyncratic philosophy. Publication coincided with a series of Eat Love dinners, with dishes such as her ‘edible leaves from the photosynthesis tree’, ‘white dinner’ and ‘desserts in baked clay’.
‘In 2010 we opened Proef, the restaurant, and I travelled a lot for work, which is great, to get inspiration, speak to people from other cultures about food and taste new and exciting flavours,’ she says. ‘And in 2010 I got married!’
This year sees Vogelzang shoot a series of television shows. Twenty-four hours ago she was in Taiwan, where she is holding an exhibition in September. There is her consultancy work, too, but Vogelzang’s biggest project in 2011 is her second child, which she is expecting in April. There is an upcoming exhibition about milk in Paris, and she is thinking about adding a breast-feeding performance. ‘Being pregnant is interesting for an eating designer,’ she reflects. ‘Being a part of the essence of life, and having the experience of my own body feeding my child is both inspiring and alienating at the same time.’
Food does not just communicate Vogelzang’s ideas; she also likes to turn perceptions about eating inside out. For a Droog design collective dinner, she built an abstract edible moonscape of yeast-free pizza dough stretching across a series of bowls on an enormous table. As the meal progressed, the dough was softened with servings of stew, so the two could be eaten together. An installation for the launch of a lingerie label involved her placing beribboned hors d’oeuvres on swaying rods to mimic a swarm of butterflies, to tempt the guests.
Performance is key to the way Vogelzang works. In 2007, she used an empty reservoir basin to host a tasting of the Netherlands’ twelve different tap waters. The National Tapwater Tasting of 2007 was a spectacle. Holland’s tap water, rated as some of the purest in the world, was revered like a fine wine right down to its terroir. They even decided on which water suited which dish: ‘Amsterdam tap water goes very well with sprouting greens, but if you want to eat fish fingers, try the Rotterdam.’ The winner was Tilburg, a southern city in Noord-Brabant. ‘I think a lot of visitors came from Tilburg just to vote for the water,’ she says, laughing. ‘It’s not fair, really.’ Noord-Brabant might have been famous for its water, but the point about people taking it for granted was made in Proef’s own idiosyncratic way.
Eating as art
The first Proef restaurant opened in Rotterdam in 2004. It serves food with a conceptual approach. Vogelzang moved to Amsterdam in 2006 and opened a second Proef, a studio where she works on her projects and which she occasionally rents out as a banqueting space. She currently has twenty-five people working for her, including a cook and a business manager. If you visit Proef, you can get involved in her eccentric creations and eat salads whose ingredients are grown in the dark.
Born in Enschede in the eastern Netherlands, Vogelzang was not brought up to be a foodie, but she became interested in food as a material while studying industrial design at the Design Academy Eindhoven in 1995. She was taught by Dutch design guru Li Edelkoort, who regularly uses food in her work and who has been a big influence on the eating-designer scene. ‘I was doing experiments with lots of materials and new ways of thinking and designing and conceptualising,’ Vogelzang says of her time at Eindhoven. ‘While I was working with ceramics, or hair, or plants, I was also spending a lot of my time in my kitchen because I love cooking, so food just came naturally.’
For her final-year project at the Academy, Vogelzang designed a funeral. Everything was white – the food, which was fish, rice, potatoes and almonds, and even the clothing. ‘I just did it because I thought it was fun, actually,’ she says. ‘I think that food has healing qualities, and sharing food brings people together.’
The white funeral was intended to be an anti-traditional experience that still retained the ritual. Vogelzang created a serene environment, where mourners were encouraged to interact and celebrate a life. ‘In Holland the colour of a funeral is black,’ she explains. ‘You go to a funeral and you dress in black, and you put your sad face on and get a cup of coffee and a slice of sponge cake or a Dutch white bun. It’s a sad story, especially if you look at other parts of the world where funerals are big feasts. Food is a very important factor in mourning, so I made this alternative celebration for people who want something more than just sponge cake.’ Vogelzang finds that difficult emotional situations create the most interesting results when combined with food, although ‘we also do weddings’, she says.
After her graduation, Vogelzang created food concepts including a meal comprising ‘forgotten vegetables’ for a Droog exhibition in Lille. She designed a buffet of ‘emotion food’ – strongly flavoured dishes tattooed with evocative words to provoke particular feelings – for the opening of Jongerius Lab’s Ideal House at the Cologne Furniture Fair. ‘I just did what I intuitively thought I had to do,’ she says, but admits that initially she was sure she would become pigeonholed. ‘Now I see that I can still make the tables because I need the tables for the food, and I can make the crockery, and anything else,’ she says. ‘It has actually made me richer.’
The emotional associations that food evokes make it an ideal tool for therapy. ‘Food memories are so strong,’ she says. ‘I am really fascinated by what food does to a person not only physically but also emotionally.’ In a joint project with the Rotterdam Historical Museum, Vogelzang recreated a meal for Second World War veterans that consisted of foods many of the soldiers hadn’t eaten since then, complete with ration cards. The emotional attachment to the food was matched by reanimated 1940s attitudes to eating.
‘It brought back memories from the time when they ate the food,’ she explains. ‘It was very painful, of course, but also really important for me to understand that this is the one material that is the closest to people, much closer than a dead material such as wood.’
Humour is another great way to bring people together around a table. At one dinner Vogelzang organised, she cut the plates in half. On some plates she placed two servings of Parma ham, on others, two servings of melon. Without instruction, she let the guests discover that if they wanted a full meal, they would have to share half-plates. This achieved what Vogelzang wanted – everyone eating and interacting together.
Other food concepts reveal intriguing dualities. In order to dispel the negative associations that children might have with healthy food, Vogelzang devised an entirely new way for them to relate to eating based around Leonardo da Vinci’s colour wheel. Each colour is given a different emotional association. For example, orange is happy. Children would pick a food in a colour that expressed how they felt at the time. Vogelzang is currently working with a Dutch hospital to address issues of malnutrition.
‘When we try something new, I like to be there with the people that eat the food to see how they react, hear what they say and analyse the way people are eating and communicating with each other,’ she says. ‘Once we had a group of people eating from one big tray that was filled with lots of curries, all different colours, but on top we spread a layer of white rice so that it looked really innocent. But when people started eating, the colours would mix and they would react very differently.’ The responses from her dinner guests to having their perceptions of food deconstructed have been overwhelmingly positive, despite the often strange situations Vogelzang puts them in.
‘Proef serves really well-prepared, fine-quality food, but I try to find where the edge is.’