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Behind the endless rows of identical houses, somewhere in the west of Amsterdam, there’s a door that is hidden in plain sight. And it’s just by chance that I notice the small piece of tape on which someone has marked with a blue ballpoint “X+L”. It has been a couple of weeks since I first contacted the Amsterdam-based Xander Vervoort and Leon van Boxtel, the duo behind design studio X+L. My initial request for an interview was met with caution; “We don’t usually do interviews.” – which made me even more curious to find out more about them.
Xander and Leon have remained largely out of the public eye, although they have been working together since 1996. Their initial focus was on architecture and interior design through commissioned work. Later on, they have included small editions of unique, handmade products to their work.
I ring the doorbell and am soon greeted by Xander, barefoot, who welcomes me to walk in. Outside it’s scorching, but as soon as I set foot in the corridor I am enveloped by a cool and quiet atmosphere. My eyes adjust to the initial darkness and I see there’s a crowd of dried flowers to my left, jutting up from a flock of vases. Behind them, a giant shelve system rises, built from retro mid-century cabinets piled on top of each other all the way to the ceiling. To my right I see the shimmer of brass strips, bent and moulded to create nesting tables. I follow Xander towards a big table adorned by Jeanneret chairs. At the table waits Leon who explains the studio has become more of their home than their actual house. In here, their work and daily life blends together effortlessly. And it shows, each corner of the open space feels like it could be part of a fully-furnished apartment, but it also shows heaps of work, tests and finished products.
I know there’s a list of mandatory questions to get through, but I gladly forget about them as soon as Leon and Xander start talking, completely captured by the stories they spin relentlessly. For X+L it all started with a Venetian villa:
“When we met we didn’t intend to start our own architecture studio. It’s actually a funny story how we started: a friend of us had a beautiful old Venetian villa, and she asked us to help with the renovation. It was a huge project, but also one that gave us a lot of creative freedom. We could experiment with colour, with volumes. In the end the villa was divided and sold, but we continued to work together. A lot of times we would make objects specially for an interior project and then people would actually be interested in buying them, that’s how we started to develop our own interior line.”
From the Venetian villa the story moves on to their travels across India, where they source many of their most precious materials. Like silks for their tapestries. But also absolutes and oils which they home-brew into obscure perfumes. We try some out and the scent lingers on for hours in the background, while Leon and Xander immerse me more and more into their storyline.
“India for us is a place we keep coming back to and which is close to our heart. A lot of our pieces are made with materials that we source there, but it’s also where we find so much inspiration. There’s still a big world of artisans and crafts, you feel it everywhere you go. Even in a relatively small and modern city like Chandigarh, you can see the human hand in everything, even in the concrete, wood and glass used in the buildings. It‘s such an interesting place to experience. The architecture is very modern but also decaying. Our work is also a lot about tactility, materials, so we find it to be very charming.”
Leon explains they have remained quite off-the-grid on social media and publicity, because it didn’t feel right for them. “Most of our projects come from word of mouth. We enjoy being able to do what we like without having to compromise or compare ourselves. After all these years, we do see a recognizable signature, but it’s not what we set out to do intentionally. And it’s interesting how people still manage to find us with so little information available, it spreads like an ink stain.”
For the future, they are keeping it small but moving eastwards: “We just got asked by a Japanese gallery to exhibit in Tokyo, a whole new part of the world for us to discover. We have a great feeling about this new chapter. ”
In a world where branding and online presence are so important, Xander and Leon’s personal and uncompromising approach is very refreshing to discover. I leave the studio into the harsh light of the street filled with identical houses, enveloped in a warm cloud of Indian spices.