Meet Maurice & Liesbeth – more commonly known by their surnames, as artist duo Scheltens & Abbenes. Partners in life, love, parenthood, and a lengthy list of co-authored creative projects, their longstanding association with Amsterdam now spans a number of decades. In that time, Maurice & Liesbeth have seen the city change dramatically – and they’ve evolved with it. But a recent move to a converted warehouse in Amsterdam-Noord – a quieter, less-developed part of town, just a short ride from the bustle of the city centre – has turned up fresh perspective on the place they call home.
Away from Amsterdam’s commercial heart, and backdropped by a quintessentially Dutch landscape of open fields, dykes and rivers, Maurice Scheltens & Liesbeth Abbenes’ new home is both a retreat from – and a bridge to – all that city life offers.
Having lived throughout town over the years, the couple originally relocated to Amsterdam-Noord after the birth of their first child: a period when the city’s post-industrial fringes had begun to attract a wave of creatives seeking more space, calm and greenery. After an initial stint living across the Ij, where they set up a studio in a converted potato storage, the opportunity arose to repurpose a defunct warehouse into the bespoke living and working space of their dreams, with the help of a trusted architect: Liesbeth’s nephew.
“I remember when I arrived, I cycled around with this giant map, and I had to stop on street corners to figure out where I was. It was a different era! But soon enough, it starts to become your city – your home.”
But Amsterdam wasn’t always home. The journey began when Liesbeth first moved there in 1987, which she remembers as a daunting but exhilarating experience. “I was very young – just 17 – so it was a big leap to be living on my own, getting adapted to the city. It all felt like one big adventure.” In an analogue age – long before the days of smartphones and GPS – wandering the city by bike was a natural way to discover its hidden gems, but not without challenges: “I remember when I arrived, I cycled around with this giant map, and I had to stop on street corners to figure out where I was. It was a different era! But soon enough, it starts to become your city – your home.”
By 1995, Maurice had also landed in the Dutch capital. Looking back, he remembers a landscape of fewer flashy development projects, more raw edges, loose rules, and a heightened sense of freedom. “I guess there’s a kind of character we miss from that time,” he reflects. Today, Maurice is often found seeking inspiration in the places that evoke memories of what Amsterdam once was: “Of course, our favourite spots tend to change, but overall I’m drawn to anything rough, unfinished or unpolished – pop-up cafés, restaurants or independent working places.”
Having initially settled in Amsterdam to pursue their own creative practices, the pair met for the first time at an art world event – appropriately named ‘Lost & Found’. As their relationship blossomed, they quickly assumed separate studios in the same building, before taking over a shared working space soon after. “We found that a lot of the drive behind our work felt similar. We both had pretty meticulous processes, so it felt natural to have a partner there… to question each other about the steps we were taking. I guess we don’t like to work alone like a lot of artists do!”
The blend of their distinct skills – Maurice’s background in still-life photography, and Liesbeth’s grounding in handicraft-based art – has established both a unique visual style and a signature methodology, the starting point for which involves studying objects closely through the eye of a camera. These objects, however ordinary, become abstract building blocks for their vibrant photographic compositions. The pair also work across industries: parallel to an impressive schedule of exhibitions, they collaborate regularly with leading designers, editors and creative brands the world over (think Adidas, The Gentlewoman, Hermes, New York Times Magazine, or Maison Martin Margiela).
“The difference is that people still see each other here. People look at each other in the street. There’s space for everyone, and a feeling of togetherness – or maybe there’s less anonymity if that makes sense? It’s a city, but also a small village.”
Given the international appetite for their work, Maurice & Liesbeth have at times considered moving to another creative metropole. But Amsterdam’s laid-back lifestyle coupled with its high living standards have always remained too good to leave behind. “We often work with clients based in Paris, or London, or New York, and we thought about moving to one of these cities, but I’m actually very happy we didn’t,” says Maurice. “There’s something special about working with creatives from all these other places, but doing it from behind a dyke here in Amsterdam. There’s a kind of healthy distance from the fashion and advertising worlds we work with.”
“I think Amsterdam is a city of enjoyment – of free time, and entertainment,” adds Liesbeth. “Dutch people often say Rotterdam is the hard-working city, and Amsterdam is where people spend the money. I’m sure there’s a better way of putting it, but I guess there’s some truth to it.” In Liesbeth’s eyes, the feeling of community and coexistence is what sets Amsterdam apart from bigger cultural hubs: “The difference is that people still see each other here. People look at each other in the street. There’s space for everyone, and a feeling of togetherness – or maybe there’s less anonymity if that makes sense? It’s a city, but also a small village.”
For Maurice, moving to the city’s periphery has also generated some surprises. “What I like about living and working just outside the city, and cycling back and forth from the centre, is that you look at things in a different way,” he explains. “It’s not unlike when we first came here, when we only had a few reference points. You don’t take it all for granted anymore. Moving out helped me start looking around again – a bit like being a tourist in my own city.”
The thrill of riding through the city on two wheels hasn’t subsided for Liesbeth, either. Noting the gloomy beauty of Amsterdam’s streets during recent lockdowns, she also finds joy in the fleeting connections that Amsterdammers make throughout their daily journeys: “When I’m biking through the city, I’m really in the moment. I’m not dreaming away, but I’m looking around. I see odd things which I then wonder about: new faces and strange situations. Amsterdammers love responding to each other, all of the time, and I’m part of that system I guess. Things just happen and you’re there…living in the moment.”
Despite their nostalgia for elements of the past, Maurice & Liesbeth’s ongoing love affair with Amsterdam is undeniable – and they remain hopeful for the future of city life elsewhere, too. On their travels, they’ve observed other places following Amsterdam’s lead in creating better infrastructures for safer cycling, something Maurice describes as “quite a revolution”. But in the local context, Liesbeth reminds us that everyone has a role to play in shaping our future horizons, as well as in recovering authenticity. “Because in the end, the inhabitants of a city are the ones that make its atmosphere."
See their work here: Scheltens & Abbenes
In the series Rider Stories, we explore perspectives on living and working in cities and beyond through the eyes of our riders.
Words by George H. King
GEORGE H. KING is an Amsterdam-based writer and editor with a focus on art, culture and society. A previous Editor-in-Chief of Unseen Magazine, his writing has appeared in the likes of Yet Magazine, Foam Magazine and The British Journal of Photography.