“Creating your own work is the ultimate satisfaction.” Moving almost effortlessly with the changing times, creative entrepreneur Pjotr de Jong founded Vandejong, the creative agency that asks the greater questions. He was integral in the development of Foam, the magazine that pushes the boundaries of not only the medium but the photography industry as well, and Unseen, the international photography fair and festival that is unlike any other. It’s not surprising, then, that when stumbling across a run-down former girl’s school in Haarlem’s city center, just 20 kilometers from his office in the country’s capital, Pjotr couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to turn the trashed remains into an architectural treasure.
With the help of their friend, German architect Thomas Durner, Pjotr and his wife transformed two of the school’s classrooms into a space for their family of four that is sophisticated yet playful, radiating an optimism that is characteristic of Pjotr both in his private and work life. Far from your average two-story home, the residence is almost tree-like, with staircases that branch out into rooms that are light and airy. Complete with quirky accents and carefully executed details, the home awakens an almost child-like curiosity as every corner offers up a new surprise. Even the bird portraits of British photographer Luke Stephenson have found their place amongst the heights, nestled comfortably in the children’s room beneath the floating bed construction of Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek. The higher we go, the lighter it gets and the view from the top is – not surprisingly – spectacular.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who presents a special curation of our pictures on Zeit Magazin.
As someone who is involved in so many projects and initiatives in Amsterdam, does it surprise people when you tell them you live in Haarlem?
It does. Before moving here eight years ago, I had lived in Amsterdam for almost my entire life; I was a “real Amsterdammer.”
Do you think that by moving further away you have been able to separate your personal life from your work?
Not consciously but I think I have. A few years ago my office was located on the Dapperstraat and I lived around the corner. At that time (before I met my wife), I didn’t make a clear distinction between my work and my personal life. It wasn’t healthy. But we didn’t move to Haarlem for that reason. It’s just a coincidence that the distance between my home and my office has become greater. I’ve been driving back and forth for the past eight years but it’s the time I need to digest the day’s work. And Haarlem is great – it’s quiet but it still gives you the feeling that you’re in a real city. We’re also close to nature, to the coastal dunes and the North Sea, something we really love.
Let’s go back to Amsterdam for a minute. You founded the design agency Gebr. de Jong (or ‘brothers de Jong’) in 1989. How did this happen?
It happened quite naturally. During our studies – I was studying graphic design at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and my brother Mark was studying architecture in Delft – we started working together on projects and when we graduated, we continued doing so. It was never our plan to start our own agency but the work was there and we just went for it. That’s kind of how things have gone since then: organically.
This year marks 25 years of Vandejong. How has the agency changed over the years?
The transitions of the agency have been defined by changes I’ve experienced personally and changes within the agency – the people, the work, etc. For the first ten years, Mark focused primarily on graphic design. It was during those years that I stopped designing and began to hire talented young designers to take over. I had always been interested in the role of design in communications, and this fascination was fueled when Mark left and communications strategist Menno Liauw joined Vandejong. The agency has continued to progress over the years, from a focus on brand communications to what is today, a creative agency.
Would you say that this flexibility has been the key to your success?
I think you have to be flexible, especially in today’s world. I consider the changes we are facing right now to be very exciting. It might have to do with the knowledge I’ve gained over the years – or maybe it’s my age!– but by being flexible, more interesting work has come our way and we have been challenged to initiate our own projects. This entrepreneurial drive has always played an important role within the agency and even though it started with smaller projects, like the innovative water brand Neau in 2003, we have progressed to larger-scale initiatives like the international photography fair and festival Unseen. Creating your own work is the ultimate satisfaction.
Do you consider yourself to be more an entrepreneur or a creative director?
You could say creative entrepreneur but I’m not so concerned with titles. On paper, I’m the Creative Director of Vandejong, Unseen, and the international photography magazine Foam Magazine. And I really enjoy my work; I love defining in what direction we should proceed and shaping creative output. But creative entrepreneurship really defines what I do in a greater sense. Together with others, I create businesses from groundbreaking ideas. An idea isn’t actually something until you define what it’s going to be and how it’s going to work. The idea for Unseen was conceived in 2011 and it was really all the work we did before the first opening of the fair in September 2012 that shaped what Unseen is today.
What inspired the idea for Unseen?
At Vandejong we have been working with Amsterdam’s photography museum Foam for the past 12 years. We created the first issue of Foam Magazine just six weeks after we started working together; it was a catalogue of the first exhibition, “Dutch Delight,” in 2001. There’s just one copy left today, here it is. (carefully takes the magazine out of its protective sleeve) For the next three years, an editorial team decided the content of each issue of the magazine. At some point we wanted to turn things around and we asked people to send in their work for us to publish. This first call for talent resulted in 700 submissions, and now, after seven years, we count more than 1,600 submissions annually. From these submissions we select promising young talent and publish their work in the annual Talent issue. It’s really become a brand on its own, Talent. We tapped into a rich area with great potential.
And with Unseen you wanted to explore this concept of “talent” even more?
When talking about starting our own photography fair, we asked ourselves how we could be different than the existing fairs around the world. The answer: focus on a younger generation of photographers. Unseen would become a platform for emerging artists, related more to the art market.
Not necessarily the easiest way to go.
It was definitely a gamble. Some people prefer known work as it gives them a sense of security but after just two editions we noticed that people are warming up to the idea. The participating galleries, for example, increasingly embrace the “Unseen” concept. This year we’ve challenged them even more by introducing “Premieres,” or work that has never been seen before on the Internet or in an institution or gallery. It’s not easy – what haven’t we seen in this Internet-driven world? But it’s already proven to be quite successful and we’re counting more than 60 premieres to date. The idea of “Premiere” really triggers something – people know what they can expect and if you want to be one of the first to see the work, you have to be there.
But at Unseen, “new” doesn’t only refer to the photography presented at the fair.
Art fairs are not the most welcoming or pleasant places and when we decided to initiate our own fair, we were determined to create a radically different experience for our visitors, one that is inviting, interesting, and with a lot to discover. We expanded the fair to include a festival, appealing to both professionals and a larger audience. We’ve put a lot of effort into the design and communications surrounding the fair and festival, and continually push ourselves to question how we can do things differently. This year, for example, we created a content-driven magazine as opposed to the standard fair catalogue. For us, the artist is leading and this is reflected in the magazine, which includes in-depth interviews and articles with many of the artists represented at the fair. Unseen is not just about pinpointing and facilitating emerging talent but also making sure that a market is created for these young photographers and their work, and providing information and knowledge when it’s necessary to stimulate this.
With this recurring focus on photography, you must have a personal interest in the art form.
At some point during my studies at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy I wanted to switch from graphic design to photography but eventually decided not to. Instead, I have had the great opportunity to work with so many talented artists over the year to create memorable work, some of which is collected in this publication. (he flips through a large brown-covered book called Metafiction, created to celebrate the agency’s 25th anniversary) The collaboration with Foam was a dream come true in that sense, which has been extended even further with Unseen. Personally, I became interested in purchasing works of photography when I met these great people and would be so enthusiastic about their work that I couldn’t help but support them. Photography has really become a great passion of mine.
Would you call yourself a collector?
Collector is another one of those titles… But I do have a modest collection, works that have been collected based on intuition. The works are mostly by Dutch photographers and friends of mine, like Jaap Scheeren, but also former Foam Talents, like Luke Stephenson and Chris Engman.
Is there a theme that bridges the works in your collection?
You could say that all of the works push the boundaries of what photography is. They contain a certain abstraction. They depict reality with a certain twist yet they are optimistic in their approach. Take the work of Elspeth Diederix, for example. I purchased this work of hers at the first edition of Unseen. (points to a large photograph of a slim red container on the wall behind the stairs) It looks like a painting but it’s really a photograph, and although she uses photography as a medium, I really consider her to be a visual artist.
You mentioned optimism so let’s talk about what lies ahead. What does the future have in store for you? The world is changing. As an agency we’re looking to redefine ourselves. We purchased a new building on Amsterdam’s waterfront. We hope to inspire a movement that celebrates those who are working to radically change this world in a positive way, and the building is the first step. We will bring together the great change makers and visionaries of today, share new ways of thinking and working, and in doing so, visualize this “new world.” It’s also the third edition of Unseen. We’ve always thought in terms of year one, year two and year three of Unseen, but now we’re going to look towards the long-term and discover the opportunities that lie ahead. Let’s see what comes our way. But, we’re ambitious. It’s really only the beginning.
Thank you Pjotr for sharing your home and insights with us.
Photographer: Jordi Huisman
Interview & Text: Margot van der Krogt
For more stories in Amsterdam you can look here.