Studio GdB: breaking the mold with custom tiles

When Gilles de Brock and Jaap Giesen built a machine that could ‘print’ ceramic tiles, orders came flooding in from around the world. Here's how Studio GdB found its niche.
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Q. Hey, Gilles and Jaap, let's talk ceramic tiles. When did you two become obsessed with them?

G: ‘We met in school when we were 16 years old in the south of the Netherlands. We then had separate careers in design and found our own niches. Jaap went into the sales and refurbishment of mid-century furniture and I became more of an autonomous graphic designer, making things like silk-screen posters. We always remained friends. At some point, I went to Arita [a Japanese town known for its porcelain] for a residence and made tiles there. The tiles were super crap but, when Jaap visited and saw them, he looked at me and said: “This is it, let's do it.” Three or four years later, we have a tiles factory.’

J: ‘The first time I realized my fascination with ceramic tiles was in London, when I saw the London Underground stations with those deep-green glazed bricks. I thought: This is something really special, but is it possible to do something more than just plain colors?’

G: ‘For a while, the idea lived in the “let's start a band” phase. We believed in it, but it wasn't very convincing to anybody around us that it was actually going to happen. Then came Covid-19. The pandemic played a big role. I was working for retail-focused companies, so all my clients disappeared in the first week. I had all the time in the world to focus 100% on this project. When Jaap joined full-time half a year ago, that was the start of the company, more or less.’

Q. You've previously said that you couldn't find any machines that did what you needed to do, so you built one yourselves. That strikes me as extremely entrepreneurial…

J: ‘Yeah, it was a really long process, with a lot of ups and downs.’

G: ‘But a lot of fun, too. It took a long time because we both knew nothing – like, zero – about the basics of building such a machine. We'd never used a 3D printer. We just knew that we could learn, glue all the pieces together and, eventually, make it work.’

J: ‘There was a lot of gluing!’

G: ‘And lots of stress testing. It's still in development, because it's not a professionally built machine. It's built by two amateurs.’

Q. But it obviously functions well enough that you guys can take on some impressive clients and build beautiful things.

J: ‘It functions perfectly for us, at least.’

Q. Have you ever considered sharing or selling the technology to other studios or designers?

G: ‘In essence, it's just a CNC [computer numerical control] machine [which can automate the use of a physical tool through software] – probably the most common machine in manufacturing these days. But, instead of having a mill or laser, it has a nozzle and sprays glaze. The hard part is the software that translates the design [into] instructions for the machine. Essentially, it's just an inkjet printer. An engineer and glaze expert could do what took us three or four years in a month but, while an engineer might look at the results and say “This is really terrible”, we'd look at the crappy tiles that come out and see the potential. We like the results of those mistakes. But it's not very effective to take out a patent, as the parts are essentially just industrial LEGO. The way that we put it together might be different, but none of it is really, truly ours.’

Q. What's the state of the tile industry right now, and where do you sit within it?

J: ‘The tile industry is huge but, as far as we know, we're the only ones doing what we're doing.’

G: ‘There are other small-scale tiles companies, of course, but they're all producing using conventional techniques – think of the traditional crafts that have been around for hundreds of years. And we love those. But we didn't want to do that. Then you have other small companies that do, for example, digital print pictures of your dog on tiles that you can hang. We're on the digital print side, but we're also on the craft side. It feels like a new craft that we've invented.’

Q. Does this new craft come with logistical hurdles? There are so many for small businesses.

J: ‘Yes, shipping. Shipping tiles to the US is so difficult. Tiles are heavy and fragile, so the price of shipping could sometimes be almost half the price of the product. But the shipping industry is terrible in general at the moment. We've got about 50 parcels missing right now, which is quite frustrating.’

G: ‘Imagine an order that you ship to the US gets lost, so you send it again, and then it gets lost again…’

J: ‘It's tough explaining to customers that it's out of our hands. But we're trying different carriers so, hopefully, it'll work out better.’

Q. Since your studio is so new, I imagine it's hard to judge whether this is just the stress of business as usual or a special situation.

J: ‘I have a lot of experience with shipping furniture and fragile goods. There's always been some trouble, but the limits of failure right now [are] totally new to me.’

G: ‘It's interesting, because both of us have been self-employed for essentially our entire careers, but this is different. I feel more like a business owner now than I've ever felt before. And the struggles and risks of entrepreneurship are far more evident to me now than they were in all those other years.’

Q. What sort of clients are interested in ceramic tiles? Do you go after a specific type of client?

G: ‘We've been lucky enough not to have to target anybody.’

Q. So it's all from word of mouth?

G: ‘Yeah. When we started, we made a list of people we wanted to make tiles for, mostly interior architects. Of all the interior architects on that list, only a few haven't been in touch with us yet. Every day it's like, “Woo! Another one on the list!” Somehow, they find us. We're very blessed to be in this position. I always envisioned it going completely differently and making far more cold calls.’

Q. What are some big opportunities or gaps in the market that you've spotted doing this work?

J: ‘We have products that we still want to make, but that'd take far larger investments and more equipment.’

Q. Such as?

J: ‘Such as the exteriors of building cladding – putting ceramic elements on skyscrapers. We can make some very cool things with ceramics for the exteriors of buildings.’

G: ‘I never knew about the existence of modular design systems that could be placed on skyscrapers. Previously, we could have sat together and dreamed of making tiles, but we probably couldn't have dreamed of making ceramic exteriors for skyscrapers. We just didn't know the field existed. We've learned there's far more that we can potentially do and move into.’

Q. That's if you had more investment, bigger machines and more time, right? How do you determine what you work on week to week, month to month?

G: ‘It's all a big balance game. Do you get an investor to help you to do new things, or do you organically grow? Right now, our company is being led by people placing orders, then us trying to fulfill them as quickly as possible, and finding all the faults in the system and fixing them. But we need to get into a position where we can create more distance from the process and fix problems before they arise. But the company is still so young – we thought it'd be another half year before clients came. It's great they're here, but now they basically decide most things for us, and we're led by them.’

Q. What advice would you give to someone who's looking to make money and a career from their creativity?

G: ‘If you want to make something great, just find one good thing and keep doing that thing.’

J: ‘Try not to get too distracted. A lot of good designers are doing too many different things at the same time. Instead of focusing on one thing really well, they lose track and the good things disappear.’

G: ‘I'd always come up with an idea and, when it finally started working, I'd get bored and do the next thing. But now Jaap just keeps saying to me: “No, you can't do that. Let's keep making tiles and do the other stuff when we're 40.”’

The process

Studio GdB has clients around the world, from London coffee shop WatchHouse to Dutch eyewear brand Ace & Tate.

‘Some clients look at our direct order catalog and pick colors and patterns,’ says Gilles. ‘Other clients visit our studio to get much more involved – it can be an elaborate process. And, sometimes, a client simply goes on our Instagram and says: “I'll take that one!” If a client contacts us today, we could be printing as fast as next week and they could have their tiles two weeks from now. Well, maybe three weeks if it's the US…’

Six big lessons

1. Sometimes, an outsider's perspective is best. Gilles and Jaap didn't know anything about tile-printing before they jumped into the field.

2. Then again, some opportunities – such as ceramic cladding for skyscrapers – emerge only when you're knee-deep in a sector.

3. You don't need a state-of-the-art patented machine to do amazing work. Studio GdB's printing machine is a decidedly DIY setup.

4. In the early stages of a company, you're often led more by your customers than a big strategy – a cycle that takes time and energy to deliberately break.

5. If you start a project from a passion, normal rules don't apply. ‘We would have made these tiles [even] if they weren't profitable,’ Gilles says. ‘We probably would have made a lot fewer, but we'd have still made them.’

6. Just do one good thing really well.

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 49, September/October 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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