'Active furniture' with a Dutch twist
Designer Hugo de Ruiter's style boasts a contemporary wit and movement, but is also very classical. Jane Hardy reports
In one of the directional furniture arrangements on the ground floor of Beaufort Interiors on the Lisburn Road, there is a clean-lined dining room table.
Made of American walnut, with the grain running in different directions to add interest, it hides a secret.
You can reduce the table's capacity by simply dropping the centre leaf down into a kind of space age drawer in the middle, or increase your seating space by doing the opposite. The whole action moves smoothly because of the latest technology allied to high style.
According to its Dutch designer, Hugo de Ruiter, 48, this is something men at a dinner party will happily play with just for the hell of it - and to admire the engineering.
He says: "Push the table top and it's marvellous, like admiring an engine."
This piece, known as the Calbucco table, sums up de Ruiter's style - it has contemporary wit and movement, but also a kind of instant classicism.
He specialises in what he calls "active furniture". Seated opposite him on his Archipel Leolux sofas, two of which form a broken circle in black and white fabric and white leather, I ask about his inspiration. The answer is surprising to say the least.
"When I started work on the Archipel, I tried to think as a monkey might, saying how would a monkey create a nest or seating place. I chose a monkey because, like us, they have a social life and tend to sit around and just hang out."
As he says, they are our nearest animal cousins and can teach us something about relaxation and natural behaviour. "So the sofa has a semi-circular shape, something like a nest, but then the human being and engineer came into play."
And, with total grace, the sofa back moves up and down according to whether the patriarchal, middle-aged male is lounging about with his legs stretched out on the pouffe or whether the older female or grandmother of the tribe wants more support.
If so, the back rears up smoothly on its metallic spine. There's absolutely no monkeying about with the internal design and the impeccable movement is all thanks to state-of-the-art furniture engineering, courtesy of "gas springs with an innovation in that the end point is the sofa back itself" .
To add to the animal pleasure of the Archipel, there's a swirl of cosy, almost fluffy charcoal grey wool carpet at our feet.
Hugo knew what he wanted to be from the age of 14, unlike his elder daughter of 17 who is currently working out which course she wants to take.
"I did wonder whether I wanted to be an artist rather than a designer, but decided I wanted to find answers to everyday problems."
Then Hugo had to find the right route to get there, which he did via furniture technology evening classes at Rotterdam, then going to the well-known design academy of Eindhoven.
Leolux gave Hugo a day job and he ended up as head of product development. He said at interview that he wanted to be a designer who knew how to make the design a reality. He remains idealistic, however, and talks happily about being the "water carrier of design in the 80s, with a backpack full of experiences".
Dutch design is clearly at the forefront of European style and has nothing to do with miniature windmills.
Hugo cites Martin Baas as an example who made a famous smoke stool, a piece of furniture with a burnt-out frame - "set on fire with gas, then revarnished".
He sees Dutch design as being optimistic, a word he uses more than once, good at creating atmosphere.
Having experienced the two heights of sofa back, we looked at some other examples of his work. His Kikko sofa, showing in Beaufort in a vibrant red leather, is named after a turtle and has the trademark moving back (which I'm getting quite used to) to take you from chaise longue to armchair position.
"It has large feet and is easy to move around. You can lounge on it or sit up and watch TV or see what the children are doing."
There are also a lot of different upholstery combinations. Hugo mentions that some people have requested black and white in a chequerboard effect. " This piece of furniture can stop traffic," he admits.
Another chair with the quality is the Papageno, on humorous silvery feet, named after Mozart's comic character in the Magic Flute.
The names often tell a story and function "a little like a poem", according to Leolux CEO Jeroen Sanders who is sitting in on the interview.
The story of Paian means healing god and is puzzlingly to do with Isaac Newton. This is a trim leather sofa, showing in fashionable turquoise and lime green, which can accommodate people of different heights through adjustable feet.
"Everybody can have a small elegant sofa with comfort and adjustable positions to suit a couple where one is short, the other tall."
Artistic turns of phrase remain in this practical man's vocabulary. One of his dictums is "the space round the object is part of the design".
Ideas can come quickly - "sometimes it's there" says Hugo - but sometimes require a lot of sketching out. About 40% of most jobs involve computer work, but Hugo does not usually begin with the computer, even though he sees it as a useful tool for working things out.
Although perfection usually remains out of reach - "things are seldom as beautiful as you dreamed them" - Hugo will produce mock-ups to see what the problems are before getting as close as he can to the original, basic idea.
In the design world, he admires Philippe Starck, Jasper Morrison and Jane Worthington from England. He added: "English and Northern Irish designers are great, but the engineering has to catch up."
Working for Leolux, now as a freelance, suits de Ruiter's style. He takes ideas to the firm and contributes to its continued success in the competitive European market.
Hugo de Ruiter's seductive output sits somewhere between furniture as statement and the totally functional or utilitarian, since he is also a pragmatic person. "We don't build seating machines, but real furniture."