— Drawn from Clay, Noordoostpolder

Atelier NL began their journey by exploring a wide variety of local clays formed over centuries by glaciers, oceans, rivers and wind. In 2007, at the invitation of Jurgen Bey and Rianne Makkink, Nadine and Lonny travelled to the Noordoostpolder region of the Netherlands, where they began digging and processing earth into usable clay. This established what has become their foundational working methodology. During this time, they immersed themselves in the lives and stories of over 80 farmers who worked the soil, capturing their portraits and collecting buckets of earth from each plot to process into ceramic tiles. As a collection, these tiles grew into an earth map of the entire region that showcases the variations in ceramic colour, size, and texture — a result of the material characteristics that comprise the specific terrain of the region. As a whole, the map corresponds to the unique clay deposits from each farm plot and acts as a visual translation of the material content of the land. Nadine and Lonny worked with Noordoostpolder farmers for a full year, digging on their land, participating in their work, and gathering material. The search for clay bonded them with the material itself and with the owners of the land in this unique region reclaimed from the sea. 

Atelier NL Tilewall

Tiles laid out in the shape of the Noordoostpolder reflect the great diversity of the soil within the region and the differences in mineral composition– with colours ranging from pale cream to a deep oxblood brown.

Lonny and Nadine used to buy their clay in a shop like everyone else. They didn't think much about its origin. Then one day, when Lonny was volunteering at the Allpa artisans' collective in Peru, an epiphany occurred. In her own words, "There, artists don't buy their clay, they dig it out of the ground, prepare it, dance on it to remove the air bubbles. This is the first time I saw where clay actually comes from – and it was life-changing." On a later trip to Brazil, Lonny and Nadine discovered a self-sustaining Japanese community that was making their own pots and growing their own vegetables. Originally, the two were determined to return for their graduation project. But a professor at the Design Academy in Eindhoven encouraged them to continue their explorations closer to home: in the Netherlands. "So we travelled around the country, collecting dirt, with no idea what we'd find," remembers Lonny. "It was like digging for gold." During their initial explorations within the Netherlands, Lonny and Nadine identified 14 distinct geological regions and fashioned cups and saucers from each. Each time, opening the kiln was like opening a present, revealing colours and textures from all over Holland. The quality of each piece varied depending on the mineral composition of the soil. Soon after graduation and the completion of the project, Lonny and Nadine set up their own studio in Eindhoven. They were soon approached by designers Jurgen Bey and Rianne Makkink with an invitation to expand their soil project. Bey and Makkink had just established an artist-in-residency program at their farm in the Noordoostpolder. Thus they provided the perfect space and opportunity for Atelier NL to hone its research and methodology on Dutch soil.

"We travelled around the country, collecting dirt, with no idea what we'd find. It was like digging for gold."

Noordoostpolder Plots

1,800 carefully chosen agricultural businesses were given land leases to 24-acre rectangular plots, arranged according to the map above.

The Noordoostpolder is an extraordinary area in the center of Holland. With its first plots given to farmers in 1947, it was originally designed as an agricultural utopia. Before the area was drained during World War II, it was entirely covered by the sea. To realize a new vision of agriculture, a design was developed to systematically fill the reclaimed area with farming businesses. Thus the land was meticulously divided into plots measuring 24 acres each, or 300 by 800 meters — all neatly cataloged and numbered. This was the perfect place for Atelier NL to continue its research into regional soils and the links between crops, earth and clay. When only five farmers responded to their original newspaper ad requesting a packet of dirt in exchange for a tile made from clay, they came up with a new strategy. The duo started driving around with buckets and shovels, approaching farmhouses with their graduation project in hand. 

Atelier NL - Photography Paul Scala

Armed with a bucket and shovel, Lonny strides through the sandier fields where the tulips are grown and collects the soil.

Lonny and Nadine quickly learned that crops were matched carefully with the soil composition. Fruit - pears, apples, strawberries, tomatoes – is typically grown in the southeastern part of the polder. The sandy, chalk-rich earth in the northeast and northwest is better for grazing cattle and growing tulips and onions. The heavier middle soil, endowed with iron oxide, supports potatoes, carrots, beets and other root vegetables - and turns a deep orange when fired. Trees grow well in clay-dense soil, which yields a deep red. Using a map of the plots along with a geological soil map, the duo selected some 80 farms. "It took us a whole summer to collect the dirt," recalls Lonny. "Friends would ask, 'Didn't you do this dirt thing already?' But we were really happy. Before, I was not too aware of the seasons, but they helped to shape our work. Summer was for going through the fields, collecting samples, learning the history. Winter was for working indoors with the clay and shaping the project. It's given us a different perspective on time."

"Summer was for going through the field, collecting samples, and learning the history. Winter was for working indoors with the clay and shaping the project. It's given us a different perspective on time."

Bucket after bucket of soil was collected from each parcel of land visited. After an initial sifting into a coarse powder, they dried and sifted it several more times more, removing any roots, twigs, or shells that could cause cracking. After cleaning and remixing each unique soil, a tile was created to represent each farm. The clay machine aided this process, somewhat automating the transformation. As a collection, these tiles form a map of the entire region, based on the earth itself. The arrangement of otherwise identical tiles brings the unique qualities of earth from each plot into colourful contrast.

"The more one zooms in on a small part of a small country, the more one becomes aware of just how richly varied the earth is in both its historical and geological traces."