Belgium has been on the cutting edge of the fashion industry for decades, led by designers like Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten and Martin Margiela. But it's only in the last few years that Belgian interior design has become a recognizable and popular idiom in America. Today, from trade shows like High Point Market to the Restoration Hardware near you, Belgian design is sweeping the nation. What, then, are the characteristics of Belgian Modern, and where did it come from?
Belgian Modern can be seen as an updated version of classic 17th-century Flemish and Dutch interiors (image 2), but trend watchers agree that the modern Belgian interior was defined by Axel Vervoordt, the antique dealer (images 3-6). In 1970, when he was 21, Vervoordt bought a small street in Antwerp and began to refurbish and re-furnish the sixteen medieval houses there. From this project, he quickly developed a following as a designer, and at the 1982 Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris, he gained international acclaim, and several high-profile clients. Vervoordt's style has since become synonymous, in many ways, with the Belgian Modern style.
The prevailing mood of Belgian design is of luxurious simplicity. Belgian Modern interiors tend to have little furniture and no clutter, but the spaces still feel rich. The materials of the interior architecture are paramount, with an emphasis on natural materials: often, the focus is on warmly-toned woods left unpainted and unstained on the walls, and even the ceilings (image 1). Stone floors and soft greige plaster walls help reflect pale Northern light (image 7) — natural light is important in these spaces. These materials, whether wood, plaster, marble or stone, suggest the patina of age while still somehow feeling clean and fresh.
Belgian Modern interiors often evoke an ancient manorial setting that is inhabited by members of an old aristocratic family. These interiors are rich, but they feel lived-in, with generously-proportioned (okay, sometimes enormous) modern sofas and armchairs covered in casual but tailored linen.
Indeed, the material that is most associated with Belgian Modern is neutral-colored linen. Linen has long been one of the key natural resources in Belgium, so that is an obvious reason for its use, but its refined subtlety makes it the perfect furnishing fabric for the Belgian Modern style. In the interior, it is used as upholstery fabric on an antique (or antique-inspired) frame, or, very often, as a slipcover. The slipcovers contribute to the sense of a living interior, suggesting that the furniture beneath it has been around for generations.
Belgian Modern interiors occasionally contain a touch of the Exotic, perhaps in part because of the region's history of Far Eastern trade, of its former status as part of a pan-European Habsburg Empire, or because of Belgium's more recent colonial history. Either way, the emphasis is on patina and a sense of history and of use — which is one reason why industrial elements look at home in Belgian Modern, as well.
The style has taken a tenacious hold on American aesthetics (images 8-10), and it's an appropriate look for where we collectively are today: it combines the fashionable European-inflected Baroque and the timeless Gustavian Swedish simplicity to produce a setting that feels warm, rich, comfortable and lived-in.
Sources: I recommend Axel Vervoordt's beautiful website, where you can see his projects, his showhouses and his homes. You can also buy his beautiful and seminal book, Axel Vervoordt: Timeless Interiors. I also love the blog Belgian Pearls by Belgian interior decorator Greet Lefèvre. The idea to write about Belgian design came from the Dwell Studio blog, where Christiane Lemieux recently predicted that Hollywood Regency will be supplanted by the Belgian style this year.
Images: 1 Belgian-style dining room decorated by Kay Douglass, photo by Simon Upton for a 2007 issue of House Beautiful; 2 Detail of Johannes Vermeer's painting, A Maid Asleep (1656-7) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 3 The Hall in Vervoordt's castle near Antwerp, via axel-vervoordt.com; 4 The Reception Room in an outer building of Axel Vervoordt's castle; 5 The Library in Vervoordt's castle, axel-vervoordt.com; 6 The White Bedroom in Vervoordt's castle axel-vervoordt.com; 7 Interior design by the Belgian decorator Karin Draaijer; 8 Belgian-style living room inspired by Vervoordt, designed by Kay Douglass, photo by Simon Upton for House Beautiful; 9 Greyson Sofa by Bobo; 10 The Belgian Look at Restoration Hardware.