The Welsh Embassy is currently situated in Amsterdam, with Dylan Griffith as its unofficial ambassador. He lives and travels around the globe, mostly for work as a designer and creative director. Trained in typography and graphic design, he started his career in television directing. He’s since combined his passion for travel and work while engaging in a range of different areas of design through his co-founded studio, Smörgåsbord; a multidisciplinary design studio that offers ‘a selection of good things’.
Having grown up in the natural surrounds of Wales, he likes to frequently break out from city life. Moving away from working politics to quieter places, Dylan finds an outlet in a variety of active undertakings, such as hiking, biking, building furniture and sourcing missing items for his home. He is like a bird that spreads its wings when migrating to a warmer place, however, one that will eventually always return. By dividing his time in multiple cities, changing sceneries has taught him to resist his innate desire to gather and collect things. This minimal approach is evident in his home and spartan lifestyle. Dylan’s apartment in Amsterdam West is strategically embellished with surprising details and items with fascinating stories sourced often by accident that have been kept intact throughout his journeys. His life is a chain of unplanned events made up of rich thought out details.
This portrait is part of a series with Vitra. Visit Vitra Magazine to delve deeper into specific design pieces and individual interior concepts.
How did you find this place?
I started looking for an apartment just over two years ago. A friend suggested that I should write a ‘wish-list’ in terms of the kind of property that I was looking for. I thought is was somewhat of a strange tactic at the time, but it helped focus the search – so much that this was the first and last place that I viewed.
What was the wish list?
Top two floors, West facing balcony, three bedrooms, roof terrace, overlooking a canal with boat, and so on. I mean, a wish list is just that right? I struck upon this place whilst cycling to work one morning and immediately arranged a viewing. I saw it the next day and thought ‘this is the one, but surely I can’t put in an offer on the first place I see!?’ Then I found out that I indirectly knew the guy, a photographer, who had previously rented it. He and his partner had viewed 35 places before they found this one. They regrettably had to leave as they found out that they were expecting a child and the place isn’t really child friendly due to the stairs. So I thought – he knows what’s out there, as he’d done all the ‘donkey work’, and he’s a man of taste, so I’ll take it. The job was done in three days.
Please tell us something more about your background.
I was born and bred in Wales and I went to the University of Reading, near London, to study Typography & Graphic Communication. It was a pretty intense four year course that involved a lot of hand rendering 8pt type and all that. But I’m glad that I stuck with it.
How did you get from typography to film?
After graduating I was dead set on traveling around the world for a year. I think this was a reaction to doing something so precise and anal for so long. So together with two friends I approached a television production company and suggested that we’d document the whole trip on film. To our amazement they agreed and gave us a Hi8 camera and a £5,000 ‘development budget’. This allowed us to buy our tickets, a tent, rucksacks and a load of tape. Then off we went. On our return we cut a pilot episode and we were subsequently commissioned to produce a ‘Rough Guide’ travel series. That’s how I ended up in television directing.
If Cardiff is the capital of Wales, you must be the ambassador of Wales in Amsterdam right?
Well there’s nobody else here to do it, so yes I guess that I could be considered as an unofficial Welsh Embassy in the Netherlands. Cardiff is indeed the Welsh capital. Wales has a similar landmass to the Netherlands but only one fifth of the population.
How did you come to relocate to Amsterdam?
I received a phone call five years ago from a recruiter in Amsterdam asking me if I would be interested in working for MTV Network as their Head of Promotion and Design. At that time I had just finished re-branding S4C – the national broadcaster of Wales – and was hungry for a fresh challenge. They say that life is all about timing and this was a case in point. I finished on a Friday in Cardiff and started on the following Monday in Amsterdam.
So, you then decided to start your own studio?
I worked for MTV here in Amsterdam for around 15 months but then took a transfer to work for the MTV World Design Studio in Milan. This is where I consulted on MTV’s first international rebrand that launched in 2009. During this time I also co-founded Smörgåsbord, a multidisciplinary design studio that ran in parallel with my ‘day job’. This provided an opportunity to work in print as well as motion. It was also a means to work with smaller, personable and more specialized brands and individuals. When I left MTV after four years, Smörgåsbord was firing on all cylinders so I stepped over to work with the studio full-time.
What does Smörgåsbord mean?
That’s a terrible pronunciation, but if you get into character, it gets a lot easier. It’s a Swedish word typically used to describe a spread of nice food dishes. In the English language it has an extended sense, and here I quote Wikipedia: “Smörgåsbord is used to refer to any situation which invites patrons to select whatever they wish among lots of pleasant things.” It means that we can’t get ‘pigeon holed’ in terms of our activities and areas of design work. Moreover it often intrigues and I like the look of the Scandinavian characters.
What is the most ideal assignment?
Needless to say one needs to be pushed creatively on every project. If it’s not a challenge then there’s no satisfaction when you crack the nut. As well as offering such a challenge the ideal project for me is one where I am entrusted to get on with the job and deliver. Most projects are more political than creative. Once you’ve sold the idea to the client you need to ‘guard the flame’, as I call it – and that’s when the politics, the people skills and one’s powers of persuasion kick in.
I make it my mission to protect the purity of an idea all the way through execution to delivery. I’m not saying that I always manage to pull this dark art off but I’m like a dog with a bone in that sense. I get pretty frustrated and depressed when an idea isn’t allowed to fulfill its potential because of some misguided comments or poor judgement along the way. People often think that the ideal brief is an open one but I don’t necessarily agree. I remember once setting an open brief to a host of agencies when I was at MTV, and many seasoned, experienced designers and agencies seemed to suffer creative paralysis. To be fair I can see why, as we’re just conditioned to solve problems, and if there’s no problem in the first place we’re a bit lost! If I were given an open brief I’d go off and build a table.
Have you considered exploring other areas of design?
In terms of exploring other areas of design beyond graphic design and branding, Smörgåsbord are currently collaborating with an architectural studio on projects that involve a civic and architectural slant that will ultimately lead to city and country branding.
What’s the project you’re most proud of and what drives you most?
I’m as proud of the smaller projects that we’ve created for the Otley Brewing Company and Harvest & Company as I am of the more far reaching work for the likes of Nike, Hyundai and MTV. That said I’m still very proud of the S4C rebrand that I worked on back in 2007. In many ways it was a breakthrough job – a big challenge yet hugely invigorating. I led a small team of designers alongside a CEO who entrusted us to deliver. We created everything from the core logo, right through to the interiors, signage, vehicle livery and on-air idents.
In terms of what drives me, I drive myself. I just continue to try and better my knowledge and skills with every job. That and being shit scared of producing crap, mediocre work. If you manage to continually work on interesting projects at a decent standard you get to collaborate with a lot of great people. That’s a driver too. I firmly believe that nobody’s more than a phone call away. If someone would say ‘let’s work with Mario Testino’ I’d track his contact details down and give him a ring. If you don’t ask you don’t get. In my experience if a project is interesting enough people will generally jump onboard regardless of budget.
To draw that parallel, in addition to client politics, convincing and fighting to make ideas happen, your home has also been a carte blanche project.
I never thought of it like that but I guess you’re right. Nobody told me what to do with this place and it was literally a bare white box when I bought it. If you look around, there is a lot of detail and everything is in position. Sometimes I go with the flow, picking up various trinkets on my travels. Other times I’ll source specific items, and I think that this flat reflects that. There are some people who walk into a shop and buy everything without thinking where they’re going to put it. I like to live in fairly minimal, simple spaces so when I see something I need to know that I have the space for it, not just space but the perfect spot. That Jieldé lamp in the corner is a good example. I knew where it was going to ‘live’ the moment that I saw it. Same as the log box, I measured its depth and sussed out that it would fit perfectly next to the fireplace. Quality over quantity always.
What’s the story with the axe?
I’ve been a fan of the brand Best Made since it was launched. When I was in NYC a few weeks ago I visited their shop as it had just opened a few days earlier. I saw this axe, and sadly, it was love at first sight. The bloke at the shop assured me that it was ok to check it onto the flight and so that was that. When I arrived at Schiphol I was pulled over by security for the first time ever, and the guy asked me what was in the box, to which I replied: “Well, this is going to sound weird but it’s an axe…” To my amazement he shrugged his shoulders and waved me through. Imagine trying to take an axe back into the States.
How did you get a hand on those pipes?
I sourced the galvanized pipes from Spain. They’re normally used in public toilets where the plumbing has a tendency to get kicked-in and trashed. I refer to them as my plumbing sculpture.
Your office space is amazing.
I sourced the flooring from an old gym in Amsterdam East. They were ripping up the basketball court and throwing it away. I laid out the planks and rearranged them way too many times, and then glued them to sheets of birch plywood to give them stiffness. I also styled the flooring into cupboards and wall cladding. I actually over waxed them and they didn’t dry for six months – a classic schoolboy error. Weirdly, I don’t often work in the office. I prefer to sit and work at the kitchen table.
Those arrows in the wall are very artistic.
A Spanish friend of mine made them for a show he had in Amsterdam. Hey, this is starting to sound weird. I have arrows and an axe on my wall, and an industrial hammer drill standing in the corner. Maybe we shouldn’t be publishing this? Well, to offset this I bought flowers especially for you guys. That’s pretty rare in itself as I’m not often here.
Since you travel a lot, would you like to spend more time in Amsterdam?
Yes and no. I love the city when I’m here but there are so many other places to see and experience. Also, being Welsh, I need to get into the mountains now and then. It’s a great city, perfectly situated in terms of traveling and I’m lucky to know a good bunch of people here so it’s spot on for me, for now.
Does the Welsh link and your love of nature explain your fascination for birds?
My grandfather bought me this book when I was three months old. I was a bit young to read. He wrote a message in Welsh inside: ‘Dylan, dipyn o dderyn!’ which roughly translates to ‘Dylan you cheeky little kid!’ This must have triggered something because soon after I cajoled my grandparents into building me a bird table outside the kitchen window. I’d sit there for hours bird spotting and tick them off against my book. My grandmother would teach me all the bird names in Welsh. The bird names in Welsh are epic, really descriptive and poetic.
So that book is almost as old as you are. Are you someone who stands on the balcony looking at birds?
I’m definitely not a twitcher. Actually I wish I was, that would be so anti-hipster. But you’re right, there are a few bird references around the apartment. Those prints are by an English photographer called Luke Stephenson. They are very nice and graphic.
What’s next, you see yourself living here in Amsterdam for a while?
At least for the next five years, and then who knows. I like it here and I can get to London door-to-door in two hours so it’s good for work too. It also allows me to get over to my place in North Wales without too much hassle. It’s the polar opposite to this place; a 300 year old farmhouse on top of a mountain, in the middle of nowhere. I get to it in my Land Rover, chop some wood, light a fire, eat food, drink some wine and play the music as loud as I like.
Dylan thank you very much for allowing us to spend some time in your home and discuss your career and Welsh upbringing. To find out more about Dylan’s company Smörgåsbord see the website here.
This portrait is the first part of an ongoing collaboration with Citinerary. Have a look at part two of this portrait in their Journal ‘A City Made By People’.
Photography: Kevin Rijnders
Interview & Text: Robin Cox