It smells like sawdust. I'm in the middle of a residential street just outside of Amsterdam, yet the nostalgic whiff of high-school woodshop is unmistakable. I'm looking for the factory that makes Miniot's expertly crafted wooden iPhone and iPad cases — but there isn't one. Instead, at my destination stands a large but otherwise unremarkable family home, indistinguishable from its neighbors. No signs, just the sweet earthy scent of freshly cut lumber.
I ring the bell. Woof. A dog?
Yes, a dog. And children and cookies, too. Miniot is a family business very unlike the Samsung chaebols and Apple corporations that dominate the technology news cycle. I'm standing at the home of Peter Kolkman and Greet van den Berg, owners of Miniot and papa and mama to Piet, Jet, and Berend. It's also the location where the company designs, cuts, and assembles the tens of thousands of products it ships to more than 70 countries. Here, family and profession blur into a uniquely modern balance of work and play.
Kolkman’s first to the door with his great shock of salted gray hair, which hints at both technical genius and artistry — Einstein and Robert Pollard poured liberally into a blue-flannel shirt. His hand, abraded into a coarse melange of callused digits, reaches out to welcome me. I push my lavender-scented palm into his and step through the door, emasculated.
"Coffee?" asks Van den Berg while the dog — Sean Connery — enthusiastically explores my crotch, then my ass, and then back to my crotch with his promiscuous snout. "Sure, black," I say as she smacks the dog and turns away in a well-rehearsed pirouette, flashing copper tresses forged into a loose pile at the base of her neck. The morning sun splinters through a transept of stained glass and strikes what looks like a car bumper in the other room. If this is Peter’s church that I'm standing inside, a place where man prostrates himself before the totems of design, craftsmanship, and family; then Greet, I will learn, is the rock upon which it is built.
"Like design and manufacturing is the same process, I think work and life are also the same process."
Miniot as a company is a direct expression of Kolkman's relentless need for creative expression. "I had a graphic design studio where I worked for customers," he reminisces. "But I wanted to make things of my own so I purchased a 3D milling machine and learned to master it in my free time." That was in 2007. "In the process, I thought it would be nice to make a wooden case milled out of one piece of wood for the iPod. I checked the internet and nobody else was making one. So I made prototypes and I went into the woodworking industry to see if it could be produced. It couldn't, nobody could make it. So we decided to do it ourselves."
Seven years later and that single machine has spawned a dozen more, many designed by Kolkman himself. It’s now so busy that the business has taken over the house, forcing Van den Berg, Kolkman, and the kids to take up residence in a smaller building attached at the back — a home Van den Berg and Kolkman largely designed, built, and furnished themselves. "We choose to do it this way and not from some industrial building because it integrates work and life," says Kolkman. "Like design and manufacturing is the same process, I think work and life are also the same process. I have one life and there I make my things. And my kids are around and a part of it all."
Miniot’s not exactly big, not compared to the company in Cupertino whose products it accessorizes. It currently employs just five or six people, depending upon demand, a number Kolkman and Van den Berg have arrived upon by choice as it gives them the ideal ratio of industry responsiveness to product control. "It’s also a good balance of size and fun," says Kolkman, a dynamic that's clear as both kinfolk and employees sit down at the oversized family table for a traditional lunch of hearty breads and smoked fish.
"There are a lot of plastic and rubber cases that are mass produced," says Kolkman, "but it's nice to have a craftsmanship approach." All Miniot products are made of the wood culled from FSC-certified forests: padouk, wenge, oak, walnut, maple, mahogany, and cherry are currently on the menu. "I work with wood because it's warm. It gives a glass and metal device a completely other feel and look. And when it's a year old and full of scratches it's even nicer."
But wood's a challenging material to manipulate within the extreme tolerances of Kolkman’s designs. "I'm not a furniture maker," says Kolkman, "I'm a designer and use solutions that are not normal to the woodworking industry." That means laser-equipped CNC machines driven by the CAD drawings plucked from the man’s imagination. The resulting precision allows magnets to be hidden so deftly inside the impossibly thin recesses of its cases that you'll swear they've somehow magnetized the wood. And one look at the milled volume buttons on a Miniot case is proof of the company's fastidiousness.
The MINIOT PROCESS
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1. Peter’s designs start on a computer where they're converted into instructions that drive a handful of CNC milling machines of varying dexterity. Many of the machines have been tweaked to match Miniot’s specialized manufacturing needs.
2. Each part is inspected for quality and beauty. Henk then sands, cleans, and applies a finish appropriate to each wood's surface. The drying racks and chambers are designed by Peter, like many of the tools used at Miniot.
3. The pneumatic assembly station for Miniot's iPad cases is, itself, a thing of beauty and skilled engineering. Greet releases and adds suction to assemble the roll-top iPad covers while Judith glues iPhone cases and tucks away the magnets.
4. Computer-controlled lasers etch the miniot logo onto finished iPad cases. Lasers also cut the paper stock that Sterre and Marian use to ship the final products to customers. Each case receives a final cleaning before the box is sealed.
While Miniot’s designs are very much Kolkman’s, he’s adamant that it’s not a one-man show. "I can't do this without Greet," he says, "Not just for the support but also for the challenge. I have to convince her that my design is good enough." Van den Berg is also a designer, just not a designer of Miniot cases. "I have to be really convincing to have it passed." And while Kolkman’s busy tightening radiuses and hunting down excess microns to shave, Van den Berg can be found shopping for lunch and tutoring the kids while simultaneously managing Miniot’s customer service and fulfillment needs.
Miniot’s cases and covers can cost upwards of $200 and take weeks to produce, not hours, because Kolkman and Van den Berg refuse to outsource production. "We make a relatively small series and use the most beautiful wood we can find," says Kolkman, "and when I can do it all myself I have much more control over the quality." The work pace is relaxed, yet purposeful — each person going about his or her business as Van den Berg whistles or sings old Beatles songs beneath her breath.
Greet van den Berg
"The work we do is what we are and we do what we feel like."
Naturally, stores are flooded with cheap Miniot rip-offs but most don't bother with any buttons at all, opting for simple cut-outs instead. "The copycats are annoying," says Kolkman, but they’ve had little impact on day-to-day business — Miniot already sells everything it can produce. Kolkman’s mostly irritated by their laziness. "The product should feel like a wooden iPhone, not an iPhone with a wooden thing around it." Regardless, he just keeps on inventing. "I do my own thing and think of my own solutions because that's much more fun."
Still, even at the prices that Miniot demands, the company hasn’t made Van den Berg and Kolkman wealthy, at least not in that absurdly modern Kimye sense of the word. "We are doing this for seven years and I discovered that this isn't a way to get rich," laughs Kolkman, bringing a rush of bemused joy to his face. "But it's a way to have a very rewarding life making beautiful products that are appreciated by a large audience across the world. And living from your own ideas is a very fulfilling thing to do."
"It's true, we don't go on holidays," adds Van den Berg, "And it's true that we, especially Peter, don't have a very social life. We're always working, but we don't call it 'working.’ The work we do is what we are and we do what we feel like. We're very lucky. We're able to think of something, make it, and then have a living from it. That's very special. How many people can say that?"
Very few, is the answer. Kolkman, especially, is that rare renaissance craftsman whose very existence is wildly incongruous with this epoch of hyper-specialization and plastic overconsumption.
As I prepare to leave, I ask Kolkman about the car bumper propped conspicuously in the corner of the workshop. "Oh that," he smiles. "That’s the bumper off my 1961 Jaguar Mk2," Kolkman’s bordeaux red daily-driver that he’s now restoring. "When I’m done, my dream is to make the Mark 2 electric."
I have no doubt that he will.