AMSTERDAM -- The "Marble Bench" isn't what the name suggests. It's not made of something that came from a quarry, and it has psycho-sociological aspects lacking in your ordinary park bench. On its top are hundreds of marbles -- the kind children play with -- and on top of them are five large circles, each big enough to accommodate the average derriere. When you sit, you slide, thanks to the slipperiness of the little glass orbs. It takes a few moments to anchor yourself, during which time you think about how close you want to be to another person sitting on another circle. You might bump into a stranger, or struggle to roll toward someone you want to hug. If all five circles are occupied, you might feel a bit claustrophobic.
Why should a seat just sit there when it can also prompt thoughts about urban congestion or lack of human contact in an increasingly impersonal world? That was Israeli designer Nina Farkache's thinking when coming up with this stimulating seating. You can try it out at droog & Co., an exciting 11-year-old emporium for the experimental design that keeps Amsterdam ever young.
Also at droog: Maartye Steenkamp's dress made entirely out of designer labels from other dresses -- a comment on status-seeking through expensive attire; a very tall high chair designed to have the legs sawn off in stages as the child grows; a "Pain Relief T-Shirt" with a panel of cherrystones sewn into the cotton at tummy level. You can microwave the shirt so the cherry pits get warm, for extra comfort. Then there are "Window Drops," little odd shaped bits of translucent rubber you stick on windows to create a watery effect.
Like that "Marble Bench," some of Hans Appenzeller's gold and silver jewelry refuses to stay still. It moves, becoming an extension of the wearer's body. He uses tiny springs to facilitate the motion of his sculptural necklaces and bracelets, some of which are also multi-part, so you can wear them in various combinations.
Appenzeller has been in the same Amsterdam locale -- a quiet little street -- for 34 years. He's part of an adventurous design scene, a slice of this cosmopolitan city that has nothing to do with windmills or wooden shoes, composed of shops and studios almost all within walking distance of one another. Just steps from Appenzeller's eponymous boutique, for instance, is a tiny store called Tike Design, specializing in footstools -- but hardly of the cozy fireside needlepoint kind. Here they're covered in intentionally loud, retro patterns -- and proudly swathed in shiny vinyl.
It's but a short walk to Galerie Binnen, where a collection of chic designs by an international array of artists occupies the front room, while a temporary exhibition is in back. Binnen has been here since 1989. "The idea of contemporary design then was very new and surprising," says owner Hellen van Ruiten, "not like now."
Now can surprise too. While a few things at Binnen may be familiar -- Frank Gehry's now-classic corrugated cardboard chair for one -- most of what the gallery carries will be a discovery for foreign visitors.
Textile artist Marian Bijlenga is represented near Binnen's entrance with wallworks made of horsehair woven into shimmering little shapes and joined together in a delicate web. Maria Johansson's eggshell-thin cups wobble, intentionally and enticingly. They dance on the table but their range of movement is calculated. If anything spills, it's your fault.
The young Dutch furniture designer Richard Hutten was the featured artist in Binnen's back room recently. Some of Hutten's chairs extend into tables that sprout more chairs down the line. A table in the form of a Latin cross with built-in benches covered in white foam can, like that "Marble Bench," redefine human relationships by dictating whom you speak to and at what angle. In addition to an innovative approach to furniture forms, Hutten has a practical side: He made plates out of shredded Dutch guilders that were useless once the euro came along. Holland's Queen Beatrix owns Hutten's work, which says something about the taste for innovation that pervades all sectors of this relaxed, egalitarian society.
Cora Kemperman is to women's clothing what Hutten is to furniture. Kemperman, who opened her first shop in 1995, now has six boutiques in the Netherlands and another three in Belgium. Her designs assume nothing except that a human body has to wear them. She loves asymmetrical hems and sleeves; ragged seams that leave a rough little line; cobwebby effects; and designs so out there that you could wear them to the grocery store or a gala because they are beyond classification. They're also flexible. I bought a dress that was way too long, made of a knit material that couldn't be cut. No problem. A savvy friend tied big knots in the hem that shortened it by 6 inches and looked as if Kemperman had designed it that way.
New institutions in Amsterdam bolster the contemporary scene. FOAM is the city's year-old photography museum, built in an old canal house now fitted out with blue glass floors and anodized aluminum walls in the lobby. Contemporary photography is especially strong in Holland. Witness FOAM's current show, "Forever Young," part of a series called "Document the Netherlands." Janine Schrijver, a young Dutch photographer, spent a year trailing people 55 and older, who were engaged in activities from delivering meals on wheels to zooming around town on a Harley Davidson. Their view is that "60 is the new 30." In fact, when Schrijver asked them about being old, they bristled -- that's not the way they think of themselves.
For the photography fan, FOAM also publishes a thick quarterly magazine called "Access," available in English and including a list of international photo shows.
Amsterdam is expanding -- by extending into the sea that allowed the trade that first made the country prosper centuries ago. New islands are being built for housing that is much needed by a city bursting at the seams. New cultural organizations are springing up too. One waterside newcomer is the three-month-old Center for Architecture -- ARCAM. The design, by the young Dutch architect Rene van Zuuk, resembles a huge wave of metal, as if the sea had risen and frozen into a curvaceous building.
ARCAM is a great first stop for gathering literature and planning a tour with the help of the eager young staff. Pick up a copy of the architectural map of "The New Eastern Docklands," which will guide you to, among other things, Ton Venhoeven's elegant bridge that links the recently developed Java Island with the main docklands -- passing right through an old warehouse on the way.
From ARCAM's glass wall overlooking the water, you can see historic schooners, the Netherlands Maritime Museum, and NEMO, the science center designed in the shape of a giant ship by star architect Renzo Piano. The docklands are also home to the 1918 Lloyd Hotel, an erstwhile shelter for Eastern European immigrants, currently being converted into a hostelrie on an arts theme, where guests will gather for discussions or pick up tickets to concerts and other events around town. Each guest room is being designed by a young Dutch architect; the rooms will come in categories from one to four stars, so artists themselves can afford to stay there.
Near the Lloyd is a string of 42 new versions of the traditional canal house -- with untraditional tweaks. One has corrugated iron facades, another has windows that project like binoculars, a third boasts cars on the first and second floors, which you can see because this house, like many of the others, has no curtains. Then there's the house that, rather perversely, has a solid wall facing that cherished "water view" -- which no one inside the house can see.
If you would rather sit back and let a specialist tell you about the new waterfront area instead of making discoveries on your own, consider an afternoon on a Paradis Private Boat Tour. The luxuriously restored 1920 "saloon boat" holds just 12, is nimble enough to navigate narrow canals, and comes with catering and a full bar. The nattily dressed skipper can tell you about the area's recent blossoming. Or, if you want an in-depth art and architecture guide, to the docklands or anywhere else in the Netherlands, sign on with Artifex Travel, founded by the art historian Rene Dessing. His team can craft a custom tour on old kitchens, the history of the snuffbox, almost anything you can dream up. Once you've seen the basic sites, Artifex is a way to dig deeper into Dutch culture. A lot of it is hidden. Dessing likes to point out that his countrymen are an intensely private lot, using as illustration the wealthy 17th-century burghers who habitually wore somber black clothing -- lined with costly fur.
While the Netherlands has remained relatively rich in some areas, one of those is not land. There's a sense here that if you have a little country already bursting at the seams, you must make the most of your space -- in real terms, yes, hence those newly created islands -- but also through art.
For instance: Space, traffic, and moving around in an overcrowded world are the issues in Marc Bijl's surreptitiously-made video of a supermarket, part of the inaugural show at Amsterdam's two-month-old Upstream Gallery. While the content is serious, Bijl's approach is not, and that's what keeps you looking -- and laughing. He hired actors to push long rows of shopping carts in a carefully choreographed ballet. They created elaborate patterns -- think synchronized swimming -- without ever getting anywhere. Their formations, though, dictated the paths of the innocent shoppers, most of them oblivious to what was going on, as surely as Amsterdam's system of canals dictates the way you navigate the city.