Spinning Plates

Sean O’Toole, World of Interiors, 3 Oct 2023

Collector, painter, ceramicist, printer… accustomed to juggling different media, Ruan Hoffmann adapted easily enough to splitting his life between two apartments in Amsterdam’s museum district – except, he reports, where it compelled him to cut down on the clutter. But, though the set-up may have put paid to his more maximalist excesses, the dish-designer’s art-filled apartments are nonetheless still liable to hypnotise.


A little over a decade ago, artist Ruan Hoffmann, then living in Johannesburg, filled a container with things dear to him – chiefly his library of books and collection of art – and dispatched it to Amsterdam. Now firmly established in the Dutch port city, where for the past eight years he has lived and worked at the same address, Hoffmann is yet to unpack his container. His South African life, its physical traces at least, remain mostly in storage. ‘I don’t have much space,’ says Hoffmann, who is best known for his wonky, press-moulded ceramic plates adorned with a repertoire of patterns and tart messages. ‘If I had my way I would have wallpapered everything and it would be full of clutter.’


In Hoffmann’s telling, his idiosyncratic living circumstances – he rents two wholly separate living units that require exiting onto the street to access one another – have restrained his natural urge towards owning and showing more. ‘This is very sparse for me, because I can clutter things up,’ he insists while leading a tour of his 1920 brick townhouse opposite Boerenwetering canal in Amsterdam’s upmarket Oud-Zuid (Old South) museum district. ‘The books you see were all bought here and they are stacking up.’ Hoffmann is also an art collector and has amassed well over a thousand drawings, prints and watercolours.


Storage being a major theme in his life, Hoffmann commissioned a local bookbinder to produce solander boxes to store his drawings and collection of erotica. Hints of his naughty tastes decorate the main bedroom, notably a trio of flagrant pictures displayed adjacent to his wardrobe. Two are by a Polish artist and the other a gift from Ina van Zyl, an expatriate South African painter living in Amsterdam. Other South Africans on display include Conrad Botes, Anton Kannemeyer, Anton Karstel and Theresa-Anne Mackintosh. There are also artworks by Robert Indiana, Joan Miró and Ben Nicolson; all of these pieces were inherited by Hoffmann’s partner, a designer.


Displayed throughout the various rooms of the artist’s up-down-and-next-door living arrangement, the art summons Hoffman’s interests and ancestry, as well as his friendships and creative associations. In the main, though, the home is largely devoted to one artist: Hoffmann. In the bedroom there is a large tapestry woven in Aubusson, the French heartland of the artform, its interlocking pattern based on one of Hoffman’s drawings. Elsewhere, in the bathroom, a flavour of his painting output flanks a display of his ceramic works.


Hoffmann, an art school dropout, trained himself in ceramics and initially came to prominence with his vases. Possessing only a small test kiln to fire works made in his fourth-floor attic studio, these tall pieces are now only a sporadic feature of his widely admired corpus. ‘I don’t know if a vase is such a satisfying thing to do,’ ventures Hoffmann. ‘It is more an experiment with the shape, for me, than it being a shape to project my drama onto. It feels like a territory that has been cornered by Grayson Perry. It would be passé for me to slap my images on a vase. I feel the plate has stood the test of time.’


Hoffmann’s bedroom showcases a constellation of his plates above a headboard covered with an embroidered textile from Uzbekistan. One skims the various bon mots with a smile. ‘Not you again,’ quips one plate. ‘I tolerate myself,’ admits another. Hoffmann is deliciously droll. The art critic Alexandra Dodd has rightly praised him as ‘a master of the Dorothy Parker-style aphorism’ – though his designs exceed mere one-liners. Hoffman is a genius with pattern and design, which accounts for his 2014 collaboration Anthropologie. He is demure about projects like his ‘Jardin Des Plantes’ collection for the American retailer: Hoffmann is an artist first, and a pragmatic one at that.


The extensive plate displays – in the bedroom and neighbouring kitchen that services his studio and partner’s office, as well as downstairs in the separate living space linked to a private garden – all serve a utilitarian function. Hoffman is a self-confessed klutz. ‘I break and damage so many of the plates when they are stacked up in storage in the front studio,’ he says. ‘The display is just to protect them from me. They are rotated as pieces sell and as clients are received. It is the ideal way to view them, in natural light, displayed properly on a wall.’ Notwithstanding his own proclivities for frou-frou wallpaper, Hoffmann says his plates are best viewed against neutral wall tones.


The view from Hoffmann’s bedroom looks out upon where painter and colour magician Piet Mondrian lived for five years during his studies at Rijksakademie; and, upstairs, Hoffman’s attic studio balcony overlooks the academy itself. Having grown up in a city, Pretoria, which has an impoverished municipal art museum with a sprinkling of Dutch Golden Age paintings, the largest art museum in the Netherlands remains a guilty pleasure. ‘The true luxury of staying so close by,’ elaborates Hoffmann, ‘is that I can revisit specific artworks in the various permanent collections. I tend to do this on the way to the park after my morning cycle when the museum has just opened and there are no queues.’


For all the novelties, some aspects of Hoffman’s metropolitan life in Amsterdam are not entirely divorced from his Pretoria upbringing. Period European wood furniture remains a treasured luxury to a patrician class of white South African; Hoffmann acquired all his in the Netherlands. Vintage dealer Piet Jonker, who is based in Abcoude (near Amsterdam), was the source of the French mirrors and large Pastoorskas, which dates back to the 18th century.


Bringing these and other heavy pieces like the bed, kiln and clay into the house has been an education in planning. Entry is through the street-facing attic, and necessitates renting a hoist. ‘It is a logistical exercise that took some getting used to,’ says Hoffmann.


This prompts a larger question about his integration into Amsterdam after so many years in South Africa, more pointedly Pretoria, a city famed for its ideology, rugby, bureaucratic manners and outburst of purple jacaranda blooms every October. The sight of these imported trees in bloom prompted entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Canadian grandfather, Joshua Haldeman, to announce to his wife, ‘This is where we’ll stay.’ In Walter Isaacson’s new biography of him, Pretoria is identified as a source of anxiety for Musk, who attended a chummy all-boys institution that neighboured the far poorer art school where Hoffmann got his first grounding in the subject. In contrast to the world’s occasionally richest man, Hoffmann, who was also born in 1971, carries no wounds.


The artist loved school and Pretoria, which made the eventual move to Amsterdam easy. ‘I was really unbothered by the move,’ he says. ‘It was not that big a change, really. I grew up in Pretoria, a terribly provincial town. Amsterdam is a provincial city in Europe. That’s what I like about it. It is very small and contained. You can still cycle. It is not Paris or London. It is a small, manageable city to navigate your way.’ As an afterthought, he adds: ‘It hasn’t changed my work.

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