30 Years of Kikkerland: "Everything is an Opportunity"
By: Nick Pappas
"Everything is an Opportunity"
Jan van der Lande
Everywhere you go, you’ll find Kikkerland. The company’s products combine form, function, and delight in equal parts. You’ll find them in gift shops during airport layovers, in museums at the end of your tour, or on the shelves of independent specialty stores.
But it all began with a vase and a boat.
Founder Jan van der Lande, unsatisfied with his engineering job working for the city, was looking for a new opportunity. Rob Dashorst, a friend from Holland since kindergarten, was making elegant glass vases and selling them throughout the five boroughs.
The “V Vase” was stunning in its simplicity – essentially four pieces of plate glass glued together to make a V-shape. Dashorst sent the plans over, but it ended up being a bit more complicated than van der Lande expected. The problem was that he was living on a houseboat on the Hudson River, an environment not conducive to meticulous design.
“I had this glue gun and I was trying to create the beautiful shape of the vases, but the boat would move in the waves so much I would keep messing it up. There was glue everywhere.”
If van der Lande lived on more stable ground, perhaps there would never have been a Kikkerland. Instead, Dashorst proposed sending the vases. He referred van der Lande to other designers and the new company was born.
Van der Lande went to school for seven years and worked for the city for three. Ten years later, he quit to delivery vases by bike throughout Manhattan. From the beginning, Kikkerland has always been about design.
Through Kikkerland, van der Lande designed himself a life.
What started as just him and a few friends has become a team of 45 in New York City, 28 in the Netherlands, and six in Hong Kong.
Three Decades of Design
The last thirty years in New York City haven’t always been easy, but Kikkerland has persevered. Van der Lande credits his designers, some who have been with him for decades.
“For Kikkerland, the designers are the horses that pull the cart,” van der Lande said. “They give us direction and move us forward.”
The goal of Kikkerland’s designers is simple. They solve problems.
“The design profession is a problem-solving profession,” van der Lande said. “You have a certain problem in your home or office, and you need a solution for it. You need design thinking. That’s why there’s always a market for our products.”
Even during tough times, people need presents for birthdays. They need surprising gifts for special occasions. Kikkerland stands out with simplicity and silliness. We all need magnets for our fridges, so why settle for anything less than six little cat butts? Through Kikkerland’s Make Your Own Music Box Kit, the internet has been flooded with heartfelt stories of wedding proposals accompanied by paper strip compositions. By remaining committed to innovation and new designs, Kikkerland has found new customers that transcend generations, from Baby Boomers to Gen-Z. The company still designs over 150 new products every year.
“Our newness is why we’re successful,” said van der Lande. “People always come back to visit us to see what’s new. Life can feel the same. People need new ideas in their lives.”
A Changing World
With each new design, Kikkerland tries to tell a story. And the story of the last two years has been about finding a way to overcome a global pandemic that changed the lives of everyone.
“Sometimes the story is simple, and sometimes the story is very serious,” van der Lande said.
Kikkerland has been telling serious stories long before COVID. After speaking with a friend overseas, van der Lande learned that young children in the UK spend more time indoors than the average inmate in the country. That story created Huckleberry, a line of products that invite kids to play outside. The toys are simple tools, from fishing kits (find your own stick for a rod!) to magnifying glasses and playing cards shaped like leaves.
“Some of the kids have never seen a magnifier, binoculars, just ordinary things,” van der Lande said. “Kids nowadays, you can’t imagine that they don’t know about these things, but they really don’t know about them.”
Van der Lande’s world is changing, too. His houseboat, Alicia, has had to sail away from the 79th Street Boat Basin after 35 years as the city begins restoration of the marina. Though he and the other residents have priority to return, construction won’t begin until 2023 at the earliest.
The move has been an adjustment. Now on dry land in Riverdale, van der Lande’s wife, Kazumi, drives him into the city, just far enough that he can take his bike off the rack and ride the rest of the way to the office. The restoration isn’t just about losing a home – it’s about saying goodbye to a community.
“I miss it. Living in a boat, you’re connected to nature, you’re connected to the people around you,” van der Lande said. “Everything moves. The boat rocks constantly. It’s kind of romantic to live on a boat. We raised three kids there. They grew up on the boat.”
“It’s a beautiful thing.”
Still, his thirty years with Kikkerland has taught him that all problems have a solution. There is nothing in this world that is unsolvable. What matters is how you respond.
“It’s a changing world,” van der Lande said. “The Chinese character for ‘crisis’ is the same as ‘opportunity.’ Everything is an opportunity. I see every new idea the designers come up with and look at it through that lens. There is potential in everything.”
Though van der Lande knows that the future can be uncertain, one thing that is clear is that he isn’t ready to retire anytime soon. He still loves his work. He loves the people he works with at Kikkerland, and he still has plans to design a better world for a new generation.
“It’s still a lot of fun to work with creative people,” van der Lande said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”