What happens when the food on the plate in front of you starts to have something to say? According to Marije Vogelzang, all of it has something to say. There are stories upon stories behind every facet of that plate in front of you, where the food came from, who made it, how they made it, where they learned it, why they do it, where you’re eating it, and what all of it means. All of that context not only creates the meaning behind what you’re eating, she wants you to know that it creates how it all tastes. One way to talk about what Marije Vogelzang does is through those stories. At her restaurant and laboratory in Rotterdam and Amsterdam respectively, Proef, meaning both to taste and to test in Dutch, it seems that’s where the design is seated. From there it’s about the food, all the way from originating in nature to the moment you return it.
I prefer (to be called) ‘eatingdesigner’ because I work from the verb of eating. So I like to be inspired by harvesting, cooking, sharing food, digesting, and pooing.
She has been asked a certain question for some time now and people have been given a few different answers. The question is, “What do you do?” To clear it up for a moment, she’s an eating designer, both for heavy hitters like BMW and L’Oreal, but mainly for people. Some of the other titles that could be ascribed are food designer, product designer, and though less formal amidst the everything attached to these titles, chef, cook, caterer, party oraganizer, and occasional wedding host. But the best way to sum all of that up is an eating designer, meaning what, she will design how you eat? Yes.
Among a long list of projects that span the way food is made and consumed to what it means to those who eat it and make it, she has taken some of the simplest concepts that revolve around eating and turned them on their head. Somehow, that simple switch always speaks of innovation because the transparent and rooted concepts, the ones that get very little thought as we engage in them, end up profound when we finally take a moment to investigate them. Marije is in the business of investigating exactly that.
Her projects cross a wide strata through science and culture but nature seems to take a head over all of it. All ingredients are natural and health is a heavy focus, including cooking little pancakes on light bulbs to talk about photosynthesis. She covers the eight main categories she uses to devise her projects later in this interview, but it suffices to say they have everything to do with everything about food. In a joint project with the Historical Museum of Rotterdam, she recreated a meal for World War II veterans that consisted of food that many of the soldiers hadn’t had since then. The emotional attachment to the food was matched by the emotional attachment to that entire way of eating.
But she’s quick to note that all of this comes from a communal experience of eating, one that is inherently non-separatist and full of humor. She has had plates cut in half by a jewelery designer and loaded some plates with two servings of Parma ham and another with two servings of melon. Without instructions she lets the eaters logically figure out that they will have to pass one half of their plate if everyone is going to have a full meal. In this moment, Vogelzang has made everyone eat together.
Humor mixed with what is implied plays a large role in the design. Sausages fitted with hand-knitted coverings point towards a slow food take on an otherwise mass produced product. Edible bowls made out of a sort of hardtack bread were big success. Twenty five people from very different backgrounds were brought together to make the bowls at the first farmers market in Beirut. Notes from stories about food and life were inscribed on the bowls and were then baked, playing with the lasting connection brought by food inside the temporal nature of the material. It’s layered, and that seems to be how Vogelzang likes it.
Other projects have included entirely black and white meals that she intended to look like a black and white photo. Grey risotto made with squid ink, sea salt covering a table, and words written like “dull” and “boring” written in the salt lead to an aesthetically pleasing, thought provoking, and playful eating experience. When Eating a Wolf caught up with Marije Voglezang to talk about the how and why of what she does.
To begin with your background, where are you from? How did the landscape and lifestyle where you grew up shape your work today? Would you care to give any information on where you went to school, etc?
I grew up in Enschede a city in the East of Holland. My mother is not the greatest chef. I did like to help in the kitchen but wasn’t allowed to do too much. I did always want to serve food at family parties and I was interested to see how things grow. Still I was more interested in being creative. I was busy painting or drawing and wanted to choose an art related career. I started at the Design academy in Eindhoven in 1995 and graduated in 2000.
How long have you been designing food?
The first food related project I did was when I was still studying at the academy. I made an all white funeral meal as an alternative for the poor dutch way of funeral rituals. (The colour is black, just cup of coffee and a slice of sponge cake.)
That project was an immediate success. I didn’t graduate on food though. I started my own business right after graduation but it was not only for food and design. I did notice though that the food designs were more fun and I got more and more work. I worked part time as a junior designer for Hella Jongerius a year and in 2004 I found a business partner and founded Proef in Rotterdam. In 2006 I expanded the business to Amsterdam.
What got you interested in design, and food design in particular?
What got me interested in design in the first place is not what interests me in design nowadays. I think most design is very boring, a waste of materials and useless for society. I think most food design is boring too and only about styling. I don’t like to be called a food designer. I think food is already designed by nature. I prefer ‘eatingdesigner’ because I work from the Verb of eating. So I like to be inspired by harvesting, cooking, sharing food, digesting and pooing.
What is Proef and what do you do there?
Proef in Rotterdam is a shop for breakfast, lunch and high tea in a different way. We use local, organic produce and home made products.
Proef in Amsterdam is an eating design stdio. It is my playground where I work on new designs. It is also available on appointments for special occasions like dinners and meetings and it is even an official wedding location!
What’s the philosophy behind Proef?
I have made a philosophy of 8 points that can inspire me as a designer to work with food.
Smell / Why don’t we smell our food anymore?
Taste / Do you taste different when the food has another temperature?
See / Why don’t we like blue tomatoes?
Sound / Are potato-crisps still enjoyable when they sound like jelly?
Feeling / Is an unglazed mug comfortable to drink from?
Dietary Science / What happens when the food goes inside your body?
Cooking-processes / How was mayonnaise discovered and by whom?
Kweekvlees??? (In a simple explanation, kweekvlees is a gentically created meat, not modified, created. It is also know as Invitro Meat, or meat made from the stem cells of animals. For photos and information, please visit here, here, and here.)
Physical and emotional reaction to food.
Vitamins / What do vitamins look like?
Communication / Can food bring people together?
Culinairy History / Why did emperor Nero eat so many leeks?
Extinct Tastes / Who knows how to prepare pigs-head?
Rituals / Why do we eat a slice of sponge-cake after a funeral?
Religious Food-Laws / How do I know whether my food is halal?
Taste-Flattening / Why do children prefer Heinz tomato ketchup?
IV. Techique and Material
There are an uncountable number of ingredients.
Likewise, there are so many techiques / bake, steam, grill, smoke, fry, pressurize, de-hydrate, drill, sew, cut, print, knit, micro-cuisine, macro-cuisine, workshop-cuisine.
Origins, Seasons, and Cycles / Where do ingredients come from? Can you blame people that have survived a war for want strawberries in winter? What changes when we eat the seeds, the sprouts, the leaves, the flowers, the fruits of the same plant, what are the differences in taste?
Education / Teaching our children that milk doesn’t come trees.
Memory through Eating / Food does not only go down to your stomach but also up to your head.
Seduction / Why do we eat when we are not hungry?
Food as a Healer.
Rewarding with Food / Children make mental connections between good behaviour and sweets.
Food made with love gives the eater love through food.
VII. The Action of Food
Feeding someone is a very intimate action.
Surrounding and Environment / Eating in a freezing cold room will be a very different sensation than eating in a comfortable temperate room.
Body-Position / Are you lying down, sitting up, walking while you eat?
Cutlery / Is there any used? What happens to eating when using chopsticks or banana-leaves?
Energy use for production.
Fishing in an empty sea.
World Hunger and Starvation.
Excess milk production.
That is a serious list to think about. Likewise, is that your personal philosophy concerning food?
If I have to put it in one line you can say that food is nurturing for the body but also for the soul.
What is difficult when bridging the gap between food and art? What is simple if anything? Is that something that comes up within Proef?
What is difficult is when my fellow designers and colleagues attend an exhibition, they can just send their chair, vase, or toothbrush. On the other hand, I always have to deal with hygiene, freshness, refrigeration, cooking equipment, etc.
What is simple is that food is a thing that relates to everybody. Everybody eats. So with my projects I can address everybody.
Where do you look for inspiration when working?
Mostly in simple daily things like a tree that uses it’s leaves to produce energy or like tapwater that tastes different in different cities in Holland. Or I wonder about the things that you find in supermarkets like vegetarian alternatives looking like real meat. I try to look at simple things
What projects over time have stand out for you?
I have been very impressed by a project that I did for the Historical Museum of Rotterdam, making original World War II recipes for guests that have actually survived the war. It was a very emotional day where they got back memories from the war by tasting the food. There is no other material a designer can work with that is so close to the human body and soul as the material of food. Furthermore the project that I did in Lebanon meant a lot to me plus the tap water tasting and the white funeral meal.
Could you speak a little on the projects you are involved in that concern using food for community purposes?
I think that it is very important to use creativity for a social purpose. Especially because food design is merely considered as styling. I just started a new project with a Dutch hospital to look at food for undernourished people, (40 % of the people that go in hospital are undernourished and 60 percent that leave hospital are undernourished.) These projects excite me the most. I also think that food can help people to have more understanding for eachother. To share food and have the same food in your body connects.
What are you looking to achieve with those projects?
I don’t think I can change the world but I think these projects might be inspirational for other people.
What are some of the unexpected outcomes that have come up from people engaged in the projects?
Many times unexpected things happen. You never know how guests react to everything. That’s why my company is called Proef. Proef means tasting and testing.
Some unexpected outcomes were a woman crying when we did a dinner that every bite had to be taken on the beat of the drum. When doing an ‘element-lunch’ (with the use of astrological signs) guests with earth and air elements arrived earlier than the ones with fire and water.
Actually, there are always unexpected things.
Do you see a design of food as a finished product or something that begins a dialogue, perhaps both?
It is never the food alone. It is the person eating the food. It is about the harvesting and it is about the story that I want to tell with the food. When the food is not eaten the project is not done.
What are you interested in achieving with each dining experience, does anything remain constant from project to project, and what changes with each individual project?
There are a few layers. There is a story that I want to tell, but there is also nice food to eat. If you don’t pick up on the story you can still have a pleasant experience eating the food. Food is also just food and just needs to be eaten.
It seems there is a strong reference to family and personal history in your work. I am thinking mainly of the bread bowls, how does that inform the creation of a cooking and dining experience?
If you would do an inquiry around the world asking people what they would like as their last meal then most of them will answer my mothers soup, chili, pasta, etc. That or their grandmothers. But anyway the mother is very important. The mother is the first one that fed you and that decides on your first flavours. Food stands for comfort and many times comfort stands for mother or family. I think this idea can be very inspiring in food.
What other cultural concepts inform your work, and subsequently inform the food itself?
Where does the food come from? In which ground did it grow? Did it have to travel far to reach your plate?
Do you find any friction between food design and designer food?
I don’t like designer food and I don’t like food design. Haha!
Where do you see food design as a whole now, and where do you see it going?
I think the design world starts to realise that there is a thing that they have been overlooking in the past. Designers have always made everything for humans. They made cars for humans to drive in. Houses for people to live in. Pens for people to write with. But the closest you can get to a human is with food. Ther are so many issues going on nowadays with food. We don’t know what we are eating anymore. We fly food around the world and never see our meat being slaughtered. Vegetable varieties are going extinct and children in Africa are malnourished while children in America are overweight and malnourished as well.
I think creativity can be used to take a new look at these new issues.
Can you speak on any upcoming projects that we can look out for? Where would you like to see Proef going in the future?
I’m working on a book with Frame Publishers. It will be out in December. You can find us at 100% Design this september in London at Mint Shop. I will have an exhibition at Axis gallery at 100% design in Tokyo this October.
Furthermore we have dinners that are open to the public this summer at the Proef Studio. (There are still some dates available for August reservations.)
We’ve got some weddings coming up at Proef and I will do a lecture in Bangkok at the creative and design centre in October and in Berlin for the design hotels forum in October as well.
Then there are some unconfirmed things.
And finally, what do you normally eat when you work?
At Proef we have great lunches. When the weather is good we sit outside in the park surrounding us. Sometimes we eat leftover from dinners we did or we use things from our vegetable garden or fresh eggs from our chickens. My 3 year old daughter is a very minimalistic eater so for her I cook very clean and pure. She doesn’t like sauces or things mixed up!
When she is not there I love to eat Asian (Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai) and very spicy food!
End of Interview
When Eating a Wolf would like to thank Marije Vogelzang for her time and conversation.