Belgium – a drawcard for great design
London, Paris and Copenhagen are usually identified as design centres of the world. However, many in the know, single out Belgium as one of the leading design destinations. From the Art Nouveau buildings designed by architect Victor Horta at the turn of the 20th century, to the rise of the ‘Antwerp Six’ fashion designers almost a century later, this relatively under-the-radar country punches ‘well above its weight’ given its population.
Architecture and design writer Stephen Crafti recently returned from leading a tour to Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp with cultural tour company Australians Studying Abroad. Here’s a sample of what those attending next year’s tour to Belgium can expect to see!
How do you introduce Brussels to a group of Australians who have never stepped foot in this great design city? Why not start by visiting the boutique of fashion house Maison Margiela, founded by Martin Margiela in 1988. As with a private home, visitors ring a doorbell. A shop assistant arrives in a white apron and ushers you in. The trompe l’oeil interior, complete with carpets appearing as floorboards, brings customers into Margiela’s world, one that was founded on deconstructed garments for both men and women.
After orientating travellers to Brussels, including a welcoming dinner at La Manufacture, a sleek industrial restaurant housed in a former leather factory, the following day begins in earnest. Victor Horta, whose remaining homes are listed by UNESCO as ‘world heritage’, is an obvious starting point. His own home and atelier exemplifies the strong change in architecture. Innovation interior spaces, flooded with natural light, are as innovative as his use of steel in both the facades and the interiors. Iron balconies with images of flora and fauna depicted in both painted murals and leadlight windows from 1893, signalled an end to the heavy masonry architectural approach that preceded it. Horta’s lavish homes, including his Hotel Solway, Hotel Tassel and his Hotel van Eetvelde, draw gasps from my group of Aussie architecture and design aficionados. With the resurgence of interest in art nouveau worldwide, there’s both awe and appreciation for the skills required for these masterful homes. And what a treat to see one of Horta’s homes guided by a present owner who only occasionally opens his front door to the public.
Art nouveau in Belgium, particularly in Brussels, is known for its stunning ‘sgraffito’ embellished facades. Artist Paul Hankar used this technique as his ‘shingle’ to attract clients in decorating both their homes and facades. One of the highlights for this writer was seeing the home of David and Alice van Buuren, two arts patrons from the early 20th century, also in Brussels. The art deco interior must be one of the most intact, with rare furniture, carpets and stained glass windows. As well as the sumptuous customised interior, the expansive gardens can be appreciated from the home’s many large picture windows, designed in the late 1920s.
However, Belgium Architecture and Design also celebrates the finest of the present, as well as the past. My group was transfixed when seeing an apartment complex designed by Bob 361 Architects in Brussels. Rather than ‘cookie cutter’ designed apartments, this award-winning project showed that great design can be achieved in apartment living, not only in free-standing top-end homes. One of the directors lives in an extraordinary warehouse-style home with a dramatic void that includes a retractable roof. Another apartment features a number of levels leading to terraces and a roof garden. Yet another shows that modest doesn’t need to take the form of a ‘box’. Although all apartments are different, all celebrate a wonderful use of concrete, from floors to situ benches and tables.
My Design Belgium tour wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Ghent, a relatively small city founded in medieval times. Here we met up with one of Belgium’s leading architects Marie-Jose Van Hee, who explained the city’s market hall, a contemporary pavilion surrounded by cathedrals. While respecting the past, Van Hee has created a delightful timber shelter that acts as a beacon in the centre of town. Young emerging designers also feature on my tour, with a number of innovative and small budget renovations by up-and-coming architects Dries Ven and Maarten Vanbelle, founders of Atelier Vens Vanbelle. Architects used to large budgets would be in awe of the designs of this young duo whose clients have ‘shoestring’ budgets. In one of their modest renovations, a tree trunk features as the main structural support, while in another, tiles are randomly placed on a kitchen floor to suggest falling autumn leaves. Their own office includes an automatic garage door lined in tree trunks. And rather than being ‘organic’, their renovations show a crisp contemporary feel.
But Antwerp is ‘calling’. This writer’s favourite city in the world, Antwerp seems to literally ‘have it all’. From the grand central station, designed by the legendary architect Josef Hoffman, to the work of lesser-known architect, Renaat Braem, Antwerp must be considered as one of the finest and most sophisticated design cities. Renaat Braem’s own home, designed in 1958, is well ahead of its time. Braem, a former pupil of le Corbusier, is largely open plan with many Bauhaus-style colour accents. There are no dark corners, with many translucent polycarbonate walls (popular with architects today) allowing the indoors and outdoors to appear blurred. At the other end of the scale is a visit to the late Zaha Hadid’s Port Authority ‘diamond-like’ masterpiece. Conceived as a sparkling diamond, a stone closely associated with Antwerp, the multi-faceted glazed office building ripples like a wave and reflects the changing tones of the city’s sky.
My architecture and design tour reaches its ‘zenith’ by visiting a home designed by world-renowned practice Piet Boon and enjoying gastronomic farewell lunch at The Jane, also designed by Piet Boon. Once a chapel, the domed building houses the culinary skills of three-star chefs Sergio Herman and Nick Bril. Fifteen courses later over a five-hour lunch (a first for this writer), it’s extremely difficult to select highlights of my Belgium tour. Every day was not only a feast for the palette, but as important, a feast for my eyes. Design Belgium with ASA in September 2018; bring it on!
For more information on Design Belgium with Australians Studying Abroad contact www.asatours.com.au or on 03 9822 6899
About the Author: Stephen Crafti
Stephen Crafti has been writing about design and architecture since the early 1990s and is a regular contributor to DesignBUILD. Inspired by the architecture around him in Melbourne, Australia, he was keen to share the things he saw, whether buildings, furniture, fashion or other stunning pieces of contemporary design. After many years of writing about his favourite things, and with numerous books and articles behind him, Crafti still delights in discovering and promoting exhilarating design. He is a regular contributor to several Australian newspapers and local and international design magazines.