Rutger van der Zee is a highly respected movement coach and now, in addition, an aspiring woodworker. A philosopher inside an athlete’s body who’s also a great cook and builds his own furniture; I haven’t yet come across someone more closely embodying the concept of a uomo universale.
In June I visited Rutger in his temporary ‘workshop’ in Amsterdam, a somewhat cramped but high-ceilinged room in an old factory building. The walls were adorned with an impressive array of medieval looking axes, hand tools and saws, the rest of the shop filled with sawdust, wood and wooden products in various stages of production.
Rutger has this uncanny ability to get to the bottom of things, to dive deeper into whatever interests him in order to figure out how things really work; separating fact from fiction to a more thorough degree than hardly anyone else I’ve ever met.
Put plainly, he just doesn’t like being told that things are a certain way.
Evoking his inner Mark Twain - “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect,” he told me:
“I’m a contrarian by nature, I’ve learned recently. I’m highly suspicious of any conventional approach. If everybody starts saying A, I get very suspicious why nobody is saying B. Then I get really interested in B and see if I can find anyone who has written basically anything about B. And then usually I discover a C, because there’s usually more than an A and a B in the world. Black and white thinking is rarely applicable in the real world.”
This contrarian nature permeates his work as a movement coach but also in his approach to woodworking. Instead of using machines, he uses hand tools. Made himself, by hand. Instead of buying wood from a hardware store, he sources it from a local forest and dries it himself.
This isn’t just to be contrarian but because it gives him greater control over the production process. As a result, the end product will be of higher quality and more meaningful to the creator and user.
He does things the hard way not because it’s the hard way, but because it’s the right way.
But - in our world of the mass-production and lowered societal standards of what constitutes as ‘satisfactory quality’ - the right way is definitely not the most financially lucrative way.
Over the course of the 20th century craftsmanship has gradually lost its way to commercial mass production, the latter being cheaper and more efficient to produce. But in this decade there has been a comeuppance of craftsmanship, fueled by a zeitgeist filled with a renewed appreciation of things of quality, found both in today’s creators as well as their customers.
But even if you don’t have the ambition to become a craftsman, just getting your hands dirty and creating something tangible could cause your own personal little paradigm shift, Rutger posits.
“I had this realization that basically everything I’ve been doing has been an empowerment of the individual in a way.
Learning a craft is about empowering the individual and taking the mystery out of the world around us by engaging with it. Instead of just buying everything, you can make things yourself.
For instance, my girlfriend and I have lived together for ten years now and never had a dining table, bed or anything that we bought. It’s always something I’ve made.
It’s just the way it’s made that has become more and more refined.
Being a capable craftsman is a highly anarchistic, power undermining act. Because, compared to a factory worker where machines have replaced human skills, a craftsman is not interchangeable. Just like being healthy and strong, being capable is an empowering thing.
When I’m starting to think about it, being able to grow and cook food from scratch, being able to make furniture from trees that you cut down yourself, being able to maintain a good physical health… they’re all explorations of basically what it means to self-reliant.
And self-reliance or anything along that theme always has this, you know.. ‘weird guy in the woods with a sawn off shotgun’-undertones, that of an estranged person basically. And I don’t mean it in that way, I mean that if you are not completely dependent on large structures that you cannot control or understand for your existence, then that means you’re free.”
Artisanal mass production?
I asked Rutger if artisanship and mass production are mutually exclusive. Being a contrarian and all, of course he disagreed.
“That’s probably one of the issues we have with the world is that nowadays people consider making ten similar chairs boring. If anything, it should be considered a test of mastery. Because to be consistent over six weeks of work and to have ten chairs that actually end up being similar enough to each other, that means you have to acquire a certain level of skill. That’s deeply interesting.
It’s only to the untrained eye and the untrained person that that’s boring. If you think that's boring, you could say the same thing to almost any movement or sports practice. Most athletes do the same thing over and over again, but as you get more and more refined you realize that every repetition is different.
Every professional tennis player takes millions of serves over their career. But it doesn’t get boring. If it becomes boring they’re screwed as an athlete basically.
To most people, as they develop, they actually discover more and more depth within what they’re practicing. That’s one of the reasons why this becomes interesting, but making something with machines indeed, where you don’t need actual skills to apply, then of course it becomes mind numbing. And that’s the problem basically with modern production jobs, that they “innovated” [sarcastic quotation marks] all the excitement out of it."
That’ll actually be quite hard as he and his family have recently moved to Austria, where he will continue to explore the meaning and value of self-reliance as a means to connect to both your own body and the environment.
Plans include experimenting with different ways of permaculture-inspired food production, sustainable building practices and foraging from the alpine ecosystem.
You best bet would be to contact him on his website. Or scour the mountains of Tyrol, which would be a fun and rewarding adventure in and of itself.