The Wood Life
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Love at first sight is a powerful thing. Wiet Hekking had worked as a buyer in the Dutch textile industry for almost two decades when, in 1988, he first spotted the chair that changed his life—Grete Jalk’s iconic GJ, a 1963 marvel made out of almost impossibly bent plywood. The design potential of this industrial process was a revelation to Hekking; his infatuation with the seat provided the foundation for a personal collection of like pieces that eventually outgrew both his home and the storage space he rented to accommodate it.

In 1999, he opened a small storefront called, appropriately, WonderWood. “I put aside a few items that I wanted to save,” Hekking says, “and began to sell the rest of my finds.” He has since moved locations to a site in Amsterdam’s old city center (formerly occupied by the design store Droog). The canalside building’s ground floor boasts one of the city’s oldest painted ceilings—dating from 1565—and a basement ideal for storing and showcasing a trove of chairs from throughout the ages. WonderWood has expanded its repertoire to include classic and reissued furniture, books, vintage toys, and rotating art shows, all the while promoting the prowess of bent plywood—the only shop in the world to do so, he says.

Amsterdam’s fertile and relatively tight-knit design community provides the ideal setting for Wiet Hekking’s longtime passion project, WonderWood.

Amsterdam’s fertile and relatively tight-knit design community provides the ideal setting for Wiet Hekking’s longtime passion project, WonderWood.

It’s been almost 25 years since you first laid eyes on the GJ. Are you still entranced?
Wonderwood's Wiet Hekking.

Wonderwood's Wiet Hekking.

The shape is fantastic, and it was so technically advanced for its time. It’s a masterpiece and still one of the most exciting plywood chairs there is.Do originals always stand the test of time?The patina of an older piece is often ten times nicer than the look of a re-edition. Early Alvar Aalto furniture has this beautiful unfinished aesthetic; the new ones look almost ugly in comparison.But you also sell reissues.I do—from certain designers. In fact, I like to show the differences between the vintage piece and the new one.Has your definition of good design changed since you started WonderWood? My own taste has certainly developed. For example, Cees Braakman is a Dutch mid-century designer who is quite well known in the Netherlands, and he more or less copied the Eameses in the 1940s and ’50s. I used to carry a lot of his work, but it’s not my favorite anymore. Meanwhile, there are other designers I’ve grown to respect more and more. How do you choose what to stock?I have to know exactly where I want to put something before I buy it. Space is limited and unfortunately I can’t have everything, so I try to guide myself in this way. It’s a good rule to use in the home as well.
Though chairs are Hekking’s pride and joy, WonderWood’s proximity to a handful of hotels in the area makes other wares popular with touring shoppers as well. The smaller items on offer provide opportunities for more portable purchases, while still aligning perfectly with the store’s sentiment of a smart and engaging collection.

Though chairs are Hekking’s pride and joy, WonderWood’s proximity to a handful of hotels in the area makes other wares popular with touring shoppers as well. The smaller items on offer provide opportunities for more portable purchases, while still aligning perfectly with the store’s sentiment of a smart and engaging collection.

The shop does have a comfortable, lived-in feel, like a well-curated—but not precious—home. It can be nice to see something fantastic against a big white wall in a gallery, but I like to show how it can be presented in a domestic setting. I’ll put it on a table, then position different chairs around that table, and maybe include a standing drawing by Jeroen Henneman, who is a famous artist here. I’m dealing with pieces that are rare and special, but they should be used and enjoyed. Who are your customers?I’m covering a niche market, so I meet a lot of collectors and dealers, but people of all ages pass by, drop in, and have a look. I recently received a phone call from a man in Portugal who had bought a sidechair by [Italian designer] Vittorio Nobili here. He was so happy with it that he phoned just to say hello. Those kinds of reactions are very nice.Any trends we should watch?Rattan is becoming very important. But, to be honest, it’s always changing.What’s next for WonderWood?I will continue giving lectures to students here, and I’m busy developing more art exhibitions that fit well in the shop. People really like those, and I like them myself.
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