Interview Frank de Ruwe / Natwerk
"There's nothing special about being like everyone else."
A big creative kid or a one-of-a-kind ideas factory overflowing with uplifting enthusiasm? Whatever you make of him, there’s no denying the richness of his creative universe. Daring guerrilla campaigns via his company Natwerk, street art, industrial design … And yet, says Frank: "I am an uncertain optimist.”
Interview by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Does creativity run in the family? Absolutely, especially on my father’s side, which includes a few artists.
Where did you grow up and how would people have described you as a child? I was born in Nijmegen. People would probably have described me as a little curly-haired kid who was forever tinkering with something or the other. One or two neighbours might remember that I owned a blowgun. We moved to Nuenen when I was 11; it’s a small village near Eindhoven. There people would definitely have described me as a bit different. For instance, to my dad’s horror, I customised my moped by painting the chrome rims purple and the rest orange. I also stuck a beach ball to my helmet with the valve pointing forward.
What remains of that kid today? The desire to do my own thing.
What were your parents like and how did they influence you? My dad was a mechanical engineer and designer, and my mum was a teacher. I sketched a lot as a kid and made my own toys, and they encouraged this. I typically received tools for Christmas and birthdays. But these activities faded into the background as I got older, overshadowed by an emphasis on getting a solid education that would land me a good job.
What significant memories do you have from your childhood that contributed to who you are today? I remember that soon after ET [the film] came out, pretty much everyone had a BMX. I was dying to have one too. So I dropped countless hints for my parents as Christmas approached, and was fairly certain they’d got the message. The day finally rolled around and I was indeed told to go and take a look in the shed. And there it was … not. Before me stood what appeared to be a kids’ bike with grey insulation tubing around the frame. Instead of a BMX shield it had something fashioned from the lid of a plastic detergent container. I was so disappointed that I burst into tears. But I had to ride it eventually. Thing is though, I was the only one with something unique; all my friends had exactly the same thing, and there’s nothing cool or special about being like everyone else.
What was your first ever job? Odd jobs in the neighbourhood: washing cars, collecting bottles for recycling, sweeping up leaves … anything to earn money for sweets. Summer jobs, as I got older; everything from picking leeks and strawberries to steel plating, delivering newspapers, and selling ice cream from one of those ice cream bikes.
You studied industrial design at TU in Delft. Why industrial design? It wasn’t my first choice, to be honest. I had my heart set on becoming a pilot after seeing the film Top Gun; I wanted to fly a fighter jet like the character Maverick. But to my huge disappointment I was turned down by the air force training school. My father was teaching industrial design at the time, and suggested I give it a try.
How successful were you as an industrial designer? I'm not really a great industrial designer, but I know how to make things that grab people’s attention.
"I was completely broke, so I took every job I could find to save for one: clearing up after breakfast at an hotel, then catching up on sleep in the afternoon before bar work in the evening."
You presented your 2002 graduation collection at Milan Design Week, but it wasn’t a great success. What happened exactly? I presented it in this tiny, nondescript gallery that attracted almost no one. A huge disappointment. Fortunately, I also had an ongoing deejaying gig with a friend, and we decided to tour Europe at the end of the year. Throughout the tour, I couldn’t shake the disappointment of Milan; I’d done nothing to make myself stand out.
You tried again, but in a very unorthodox manner. Can you tell us about that? I conceived the idea of taking my work back once more, but this time as an exhibition on wheels; that way I could pull up wherever there was a crowd, taking my work to people rather than waiting for them to find me. A customized truck would do the trick, but I was completely broke, so I took every job I could find to save for one: clearing up after breakfast at an hotel, then catching up on sleep in the afternoon before bar work in the evening. I bought and began customizing a secondhand milk truck in mid-2004 and was back in Milan by April 2005. I simply drove from one venue to the next, setting up shop outside every major exhibition, gallery and party. Huge success – every single report about Design Week mentioned Natwerk.
Was this the genesis of your transition into advertising? Yes, that was Natwerk’s first effective advertising campaign. I'd drawn a lot of attention, which in my opinion is what advertising is supposed to do: get everyone talking.
You opened Natwerk as a creative studio in 2005. What was the plan? The original idea was to focus exclusively on my own products and projects, and earn money doing just that. But lots of brands came calling after that second Milan trip, so Natwerk gradually fell into working for other brands.
The leap into self-employment can be daunting, and you were only in your late twenties when you did it. How did you find it? I was barely halfway through studying to become an industrial designer when I began to understand that I could never work for anyone else. This became even clearer during the deejaying tour, but it caused no end of grief with my parents. Things certainly got a bit strained during the transition from Milan to Natwerk. So while I wasn’t particularly worried about trying to make it on my own, I did feel some pressure on account of my parents’ disappointment that I hadn’t settled for a proper job.
What were those first few years like, as start-up agency and as an entrepreneur? Precarious. You’re dying to work on some epic project but have to spend lots of time promoting yourself, assembling your stand at design fairs, for instance. And making ends meet was difficult. While Milan had been a success, the loan I’d taken out to put the collection on sale was like a noose around my neck. So yes, the first couple of years were a struggle.
How did you develop the business skills you need to have to run a business? I don’t really have a head for business. Advertising is about selling things by creative means, and that’s where my strength lies: creativity. I’m just not comfortable talking about money. My business skills have improved a bit over the years, but others are much better at this, and I’m lucky to have some of them as colleagues.
"I still find myself wondering if I’m making what I really want to make."
Do you recall Natwerk’s first ever official job and how it made you feel? It was a commission to design the VIP rooms at Sensation White, the electronic dance music event. Amazingly cool assignment. A production company was making a documentary about ID&T that year. So there I was presenting my ideas to the head of ID&T and his wife with an entire camera crew filming the whole thing. Check out God is my DJ if you’re ever in the mood for a good laugh. You’ll catch a glimpse of me as a rookie.
You’re essentially an ideas factory. Who does quality control? I have some truly great people around me to keep me on my toes. Of course I also believe I have to keep myself focussed, but that’s not been easy. I still find myself wondering if I’m making what I really want to make.
Natwerk is known for creating guerrilla marketing campaigns. Was this a deliberate move? It was, although I prefer to think of Natwerk as a creative studio rather than a guerrilla marketing agency. I guess it’s hard to avoid that label when you’ve organised so many stunts and happenings at festivals.
Do you wonder, though, if the guerrilla marketing approach has its limitations? The guerrilla stuff gained us lots of publicity, but it’s also true that it limited the opportunities available to us. So we decided three years ago to start laying the groundwork for larger campaigns, and it’s starting to pay off. We’ve since put out some really good stuff and the bigger companies are starting to take notice.
You once said you’d like to keep Natwerk small; it now has 21 employees. Have you found growth difficult in any way? I was Natwerk for quite a long time, and all my creative work was tied to the agency. But as your company evolves, you have to give up some of that direct control, and that’s been difficult.
You appear/act in many of the campaigns you create for clients. Is acting a hidden desire? Haha, yes maybe. Those campaigns are already a thing of the past, but you could be right. The problem is that whenever I think of something cool, I often think, ‘hold on, I’d like to do that myself.’ It’s great to be in front of the camera. I presented two seasons of a TV show, and it was inspiring and a lot of fun to be on the road with a crew.
You’re quite outgoing, but what kind of a person is Frank when no one’s watching? An uncertain optimist. At the same time I do believe in the notion of infinite possibilities, and I hope my work reflects some of that.
You’ve voiced admiration for the Danish fashion designer Henrik Vibskov and the Dutch architect John Körmeling. What do they have in common? They’re both insanely creative, productive and optimistic. And their ideas are ridiculously outstanding. They fill me with envy.
You once said your ideas have to have meaning but don’t necessarily have to make sense. What did you mean? “Meaning” is such a serious word; it implies I know it all. A smile is the most beautiful thing in the world, and if something I produce raises a smile, I’m happy.
Many people go into business for themselves because they want to create an ideal that truly reflects who they are. What does Natwerk say about you? That optimism and hard work can take you a long way.
You run an ad agency and a supermarket loyalty programme (Woohoo Park). You design original products and manage a collective that includes two of your own liqueur brands. Which of these gives you the most pleasure? They all give me something different. Natwerk has allowed me to realize some crazy dreams: water-skiing behind a jet ski along one of Amsterdam’s canals; setting a world record for gliding down a set of stairs on a mattress; leaping through a flaming hoop in an old Fiat 500 filled with 400 kilos of grapes; a sponsored trip to La Tomatina festival with all my friends in an old tour bus; 3 days in Australia to film an ad with Jamie Oliver – my mother was really proud to see a picture of me with Jamie; writing history with FEBO [a family-owned chain of Dutch walk-up fast food restaurants]; too many to mention and I’m proud of every one of them.
"Uncertainty is actually one of your best friends. Embrace it."
Woohoo park is an exciting new adventure; designing sustainable things for mass production is a big deal for an industrial designer. Creating our own products is of course wonderful. Ordering a glass of Bello Limoncello in a pub still gives me a buzz, and it’s fun to know that 10,000 people could have bacon sprinkles because I had an idea.
What about your street art? Street art, which by the way I consider an ugly word, for me is all about creating works for a smile, and that’s what my heart truly desires. Donning an official-looking jumpsuit to put up something without permission is so much fun. And watching from a discreet distance as people react to the work is not a bad way to pass the time. It’s important to do something that’s free from commercial interests and intent. I find it relaxing to sit at my kitchen table in the evening, tinkering with some crazy idea before heading out. And if I may promote my work, readers can find me on instagram at streetartfrankey.
What do you think stops most people from following their own path? And what advice would you give anyone considering the leap into the uncertainty of self-employment? Uncertainty. But uncertainty is actually one of your best friends. Embrace it. I'm quite good at this, but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you’re considering it, I’d say just strap on your gear and go hell for leather.
Finally, if Frank were a brand, describe what you’d like that brand to be. Epic.