10 Aug A Visit with Axel Vervoordt
While in Belgium I had an opportunity to visit the internationally renowned interior designer and entrepreneur Axel Vervoordt’s eponymous company outside Antwerp. We toured the Kanaal, the company’s sprawling showroom/gallery complex reclaimed from an old brewery, and Vervoordt’s family home, the Castle. The sites are not mere places, they encapsulate his vision; spending time in them is like entering a completely self-contained world.
Vervoordt has placed little on public record concerning his personal background, education and upbringing one gets the impression he has come from modest beginnings, yet now he moves in a rarified circle of royalty, artists, musicians and renowned art collectors. His clients are rumoured to range from Sting to Bill Gates, the pianist Labeque sisters, and Bill Blass.
At the heart of Axel Vervoordt Ltd. – a thriving concern that employs 80 people and has interests in interior design, architecture, art collecting and curating, home and furniture collections, and real estate development – lies the strong personal value system of Vervoordt himself, best summed up in his recent book, Wabi Inspirations, on the 12th century Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which encompasses asymmetry, aspirity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and the suggestion of natural processes.
Our first stop was to the Kanaal, a vast abandoned brewery set on a canal in a rural district that comprises silos, warehouses, office space, studios, furniture showrooms, art galleries and as-yet undeveloped space and grounds. The space is a perfect backdrop for the Vervoordt collection, creating dramatic vignettes for their custom furniture collection, antiques, and art. According to Vervoordt’s son Boris (who is also an executive in the company), the new development complex was such a radical departure for architecturally conservative Belgium that in order to get the permits they needed, new laws had to be created governing developments that combine residential, commercial and retail space.
Among its attractions is a casual dining room that is very “Vervoordt” in its approach: the food is made to very exacting requirements, and many of the vegetables are grown organically onsite. We sat down to a wonderful lunch that felt almost like Sunday dinner: long tables, shared conversation – all healthy, hearty and abundant.
Following lunch at the Kanaal, I was particularly privleged to get a private tour of the Castle, the Vervoordt family’s private residence. Simply put, it was spectacular – the setting was beautifully and thoughtfully restored. While it is, architecturally a castle, it is very definitely a home, designed in unmistakable Vervoordt style. Many of the rooms’ more recent designs feature a pristine, almost meditative quality, in keeping with wabi-sabi principles. But by contrast, some of the most active spaces in the home, such as his office, meeting room and living rooms, are much more intimate: filled with personal collections, well-used furniture, photographs, and shelf after shelf of books and artifacts.
One part of the former stables and out buildings have been converted into offices and these were the company offices prior to their move to the Kanaal; the original stables themselves have been restored, right next to the very large board room-cum-dining room you see above. The design of these spaces perfectly demonstrate the balance in Vervoordt’s design between old and new, rough and smooth, light and dark, fine and raw, precious and humble.
Both the Kanaal complex and the Castle are a living monument to Vervoordt’s abiding passion for designs that resolve the question of how to create living spaces that achieve harmony among the architecture, furniture, art and antiques placed in them, with the human spirit that inhabits the space. These sites are more than merely well designed built environments they are a reflection of his deceptively simple philosophy. By the end of the visit, I was thoroughly inspired.