Tommy Kleerekoper / Designer: "I'm not afraid to make mistakes."
Self-taught designer Tommy Kleerekoper went from making flyers and logos to becoming one of the most in-demand interior designers in the Netherlands. The journey to running architectural and interior design agency TANK with his business partner Sanne Schenk and Menno Kooistra, has been educational. His advice to others who aren’t sure which way to turn: "Ask everyone for advice, but listen to no one."
Interview by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Were you were born a designer? I’ve long wondered that myself. It took a while for me to dare acknowledge it, but I can now. In hindsight, the signs were everywhere, but I didn’t notice them. In my teens, I used to rearrange the furniture in my room every other month, and found it remarkable that doing so could have such an immediate effect on a room's character. I was also always curious about how things worked, and tried to think of ways to improve how they did. And I remember scraping together 600 Guilders when I was 16. Any other kid would probably have upgraded the engine and exhaust system on his scooter or something; I bought a designer coffee table.
You've been described as a bit of a rebel. Are you, and were you as a child? I don’t think I am. I was actually quite a sweet kid, a bit shy even. I grew up bored in a little village just south of Amsterdam, so I daydreamed a lot. My "real" life doesn't seem to have begun until I got myself a moped in high school; that’s when I became a bit more rebellious. But I had no interests besides girls and partying. I had my own car by 17, and realised one day that I’d been in and out of six schools and universities in three years.
Tell us about your parents. What did they do for a living and what were they like as people? My parents were really nice people, but very different in character. My dad was quite rational and risk averse, whereas my mum was extremely social and cosmopolitan. I used to worry that she’d divorce him because he wasn’t like her. It’s possible I inherited this insatiable hunger for city life from her. In hindsight, I think my mum realised that my creativity needed an outlet. But I was oblivious to this and, probably emulating my father, studied something safe – economics – only to realise later that I couldn’t have chosen a more unsuitable course if I’d tried.
What significant memories from your childhood played a role in making you who you are today? My formative years were crucial. I needed time to figure out who I was and what made me tick. It was only after 8 years of partying, studying, travelling, doing bar work and trying out a bunch of entrepreneurial possibilities that it slowly began to dawn on me that I might actually have a creative mind worth doing something with. So, while studying, I set up a graphic design agency with Sanne [Sanne Schenk, Tommy’s business partner and close friend], whom I’d then only recently met, and things took off surprisingly quickly.
Then my mum succumbed to cancer after fighting it for a year. I took that quite hard. But it also made me realise I had to stop messing about and focus on what made me happy. So I quit uni. Best decision I ever made. It exemplified the shift that had occurred within. The decision proved to be so sound that I’ve trusted my intuition ever since.
Do you remember your very first graphic design project? Of course I do. It was a flyer for a bar in Amsterdam. I’d bluffed my way onto the assignment because I craved a creative outlet, though I had no idea what exactly that should be. Back then, design-related software was far from user-friendly, and I’d never done anything like this before, so it took ages. But I finally made something quite cool. We’re talking about the late 90s here, when bars and clubs depended on flyers, and I was so proud to see my flyers all over town. I also realised how much fun it was to make things that people looked at, and that perhaps triggered something and made them pick it up. I was hooked.
When did you first begin to visualise interiors? How long did it take after that to realise this was something you could actually do? It took quite a while, actually, to figure out just where exactly I could fit in the creative industry. But I began to get an inkling of where this might be while working on graphic design assignments with Sanne. She studied design and is very good at it; a born designer. I had to learn by doing, which made me insecure at first; I felt like a guest in a not-entirely-comfortable world.
You founded IDing with Sanne Schenk in 1999, and went from designing flyers and corporate identities to interior design. How did that evolve? Well, the graphic design bit had taken off pretty quickly. We basically had a profitable agency within six months; our clients were getting more and more substantial, and we were getting better and more professional. Yet I couldn’t ignore my creative limitations. I saw what other agencies were producing, and the ease with which Sanne designed, and it wasn’t a great feeling. Then an interior design job landed unexpectedly in our laps. We’d once again bluffed our way onto something that left us in way over our heads. So I was absolutely stunned at how easy it was to sketch the floor plan, design the bar, etc. And that’s when I finally understood what I was good at, and what I wanted to do with my life. I experienced no creative limitation then, and, luckily, haven’t ever since. In fact, I honestly feel I’m a long way from discovering the limits of my potential.
In what ways weren’t you ready for that first interior design project? In every way imaginable. It involved the complete transformation of Hotel Arena, a nightclub housed in a former chapel. At roughly 1,000m2, it was much larger than anything we’d taken on up till then. DJ booth, dancefloor, lounge, three bars, toilets, cloakroom... . And, of course, we knew nothing about architecture, let alone fixtures, people flow, bar efficiency, lighting, fire safety regulations, and so on. But it was amazing.
Launching IDing meant becoming self-employed, which can be daunting. How did you feel about this? We didn’t know any different, so that was never an issue. Neither of us had ever had a “real” job. In hindsight, it might have been useful for us to learn the ropes at an established agency before setting up shop; we learned by trial and error, which isn’t easy. Fun though. I’ve never really considered entrepreneurship a goal in itself, but more a way to choose what we want to do. I don’t think I could work for anyone.
Did you have any doubts? Doubts? Lots. Often. You have no choice though but to dive in and figure things out. In any case, not knowing something doesn’t stop us. I'm also not afraid to make mistakes, nor to admit what I don’t know. If something isn’t clear to me, I ask questions.
You’re an autodidact. What do you consider the benefits and downsides of that? The disadvantages are, of course, that I’ve had to learn everything relevant to each job while trying to actually do the job. But being self-taught has been largely beneficial. It made me very open-minded, especially in the beginning. We were more radical in our designs for our first residential commission than we would otherwise have dared had I taken it on straight after design school. Being an autodidact has kept us free.
Why did you rebrand IDing, which you did in 2013, renaming it TANK Architecture and Interior design? An interior should both engage its surroundings and make a coherent statement. At least that’s what we believe. The same goes for your brand name. Furthermore, after working on more than a hundred projects in Amsterdam, we needed to change direction, and make that direction clearer to ourselves and everyone else. On account of our enthusiasm for design, and because the practice had been our training ground up until that point, we’d been involved in so many “half jobs”, such as sprucing up a restaurant’s bar area, or helping a night shop draw attention to its new lunchtime area. We learned a lot from these experiences, but there’s a downside. Do wonders on a few such assignments and before you know it you’ve earned yourself a reputation, but they’re for things you can’t put in your portfolio. We had to draw a line. So TANK was our new proposition: all or nothing. Aim for the moon.
How are the challenges of running TANK different, personally and professionally? It felt like a cosy club in the beginning, just a few people sat around a table with no need for managerial stuff. It’s quite different now. I know someone who runs a large ad agency, and he had a good laugh about this when I talked to him a short while ago. I’ve apparently fallen into the classic trap: I’ve become the manager of my own business! I didn’t think managing would be so difficult, but I’m a terrible manager. I’m all over the place, and goal-driven rather than process-driven.
TANK has been a success. It’s been responsible for substantial projects like the A'DAM Tower. What aspects of the design can be traced to the way you think? I don’t really like talking about what I personally contributed. Regardless of the publicity, I’m driven by the same things: creativity, enthusiasm and energy. In addition, I can usually grasp what the client wants. Rather than take what they say literally, I tend to imagine the most extreme possibilities realisable within the budget and deadline.
What does it feel like to take on and execute a project on the scale of A'DAM Tower? At first, we pitched successfully for four floors in the tower, and that was already awesome. But as we worked on these, the other floors also started coming our way. I think I’d have been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project if we’d won the entire thing in one go.
Has TANK’s success made you pickier about the projects you take on? We had to become more selective; so much was coming our way. A creative fit is obviously important, but so are the level of ambition that comes with a project and the sort of people behind it. It’s not easy for me to turn people down, but if a project isn’t right for you, you’re better off passing on it.
You inevitably have to make compromises as a designer. How do you feel about that? You have to know where you personally draw the line. You’re of no use to anyone if you’re inflexible. The best part is when you find a way to let a setback work to your advantage. It’s sometimes upsetting of course, at least initially, but then you find yourself coming up with wonderful solutions that you wouldn’t otherwise have imagined.
Which projects did other designers win that really hurt, and do you think you could have done a better job? In some cases, yes. But I’m not telling you which ones. You can never know what happened along the way to lead to that particular design. We, too, have delivered designs we weren’t entirely thrilled with. We once carried on working on a project only because we didn’t want to let the client down, but we made it clear that we no longer believed in the design.
It’s important to have the right people around you. Who do you turn to for advice, help or inspiration? I once coined a slogan for myself: Tommy – specialist in getting you halfway there! It’s a joke, obviously, but not entirely. I do need people around me to get the job done, and, fortunately, I don’t have to do things on my own. I’ve got my partners Sanne Schenk and Menno Kooistra. Sanne and I have known each other for 20 years and we’re now practically telepathic. We haven’t known Menno as long, but the relationship already feels solid and familiar. And although we’re quite different in character, we often find common ground quite easily. They always inspire me, and one of us always has new ideas about how to solve any creative problem.
Has success changed you? My work gives me so much, and I know that’s a privilege. But I don’t think it’s changed me in any fundamental way. It has made me feel more professionally self-assured. There are no single right answers in my field, just differing opinions for discussion, you see. And when you’re producing something visible and tangible, everyone has an opinion about what that thing should look like, especially on large assignments involving many parties. So you need to have enough confidence in your ability as a designer to deal with the criticisms and suggestions that can’t help but be somewhat biased, or else you’ll be shot down. Therefore, it does help to have some confirmation of your ability.
You’re known for working hard and playing just as hard. But you’re also now a dad and a family man. How has this changed how you think about yourself? If I didn’t have kids, I’d probably work till I dropped every day. Iris [Tommy’s wife] and the kids keep me grounded and aware of what really matters. My entire focus in life changed the very moment I held my daughter, Loïs Love, for the first time. I was suddenly no longer the most important person in my life, and it was a liberating experience.
You recently took on a life coach. What prompted this, what would you like to get out of it? It occurred to me one day that if I wanted to keep working hard, I needed to give as much consideration to my wellbeing. That doesn’t come easily to me; I’d rather party hard than go to the gym. But my coach has shown me that it doesn’t have to be either/or. He also taught me to meditate. I don’t do it often enough, but I can definitely recommend it, especially for anyone who finds it hard to follow their intuition.
What skill or talent do you wish you possessed but don’t? I wish I were more eloquent. I often feel I have more going on than I can express. I also wish I could fly.
You’ve come a long way. What do you think is the biggest open secret that separates those who follow a conventional path from those that don’t? Obviously, we all need to set our sights on something we can work towards. But I think it’s also important to realise that there’s nothing wrong with changing our goals. After all, most of us have no idea what we want to do with our lives at the start of our careers. We tend to confuse ourselves with a lot of stuff about why we can’t possibly do something, what we like or don’t like right now, and, consequently, who or what we want to be. But we can stay true to ourselves and map our own journey if we keep re-examining that point on the horizon to see if the destination still feels right.
What advice would you give anyone considering self-employment? Ask everyone for advice, but listen to no one.
And what advice would you give your younger self? Trust your intuition rather than your more rational side. Fortunately, I ended up where I needed to be, but I took a considerable detour to get there.
Let’s end with a blue-sky question: given complete freedom, what’s the most unexpected thing you’d like to design or redesign? I’d love it if we one day got the chance to design a floating building. I’d build it from concrete filled with anti-gravitons, or something. ☺