Belgian designer Vincent Van Duysen’s architecture, interiors and products are rigorous in their attention to detail and luxurious in their use of natural materials, light and space, breathing new life and soul into minimalism.
Don’t call Vincent Van Duysen a Minimalist. Van Duysen prefers the term “traditional modernist.” Unlike many other contemporary architects, Van Duysen is equally passionate about creating the interior “atmosphere” for a client as he is about designing the exterior building.
In all of his work, Van Duysen is committed to a defining principle and what he calls “a reduction to the essence.” He delights in distilling the space to the elemental and also in the essential sincerity of objects, authentic materials and primary forms.
Van Duysen’s architecture is characterized by spare and simple geometries of form, natural materials and strong lines, while his interiors use a seductive play of light, volumes and textures that together create an intuitive flow to the public and private spaces and form intimate relationships between the exterior and interior spaces. Not unlike Van Duysen’s demeanor himself, his work is deliberate and controlled, but also calm and peaceful.
The elegant, yet comfortable interiors are assembled with a certain precision and create interior points of view that are almost painterly in their balanced compositions. The flow of spaces is revealed with a rhythmic cadence and the rooms are almost intuitively mindful of how people live in them. As Van Duysen says: “What I love about minimalism is the idea that the space is a stage for the parade of daily life - the colors, textures and ambiguity in the open spaces.“
This talentfor creating “warm minimalism” with un-cluttered, contemplative, livable interiors is evident in Van Duysen’s own home in Antwerp, where he used natural materials - including poplar wood floors, rough Belgium linen curtains, marble bathtubs, handmade rugs, and a neutral color palette using vegetable paints and plasters on the walls with Modernist furnishings by Jeaneret.
Van Duysen attributes his passion for interior design to the years he spent collaborating with formidable Belgium interior designer, Jean de Meulder, who Van Duysen fondly calls “the Andree Putman of Flanders” and who gave him a classical training and taught him about the importance of “L’ art de vivre”.
For Van Duysen it is all about character and context. “Each project is tailor made for each client whether it is a new build, or a conversion, I always try to express the uniqueness of the context of the project itself and I never reinvent a new way of living.”
Van Duysen studied architecture at the Higher Institute of Architecture Saint-Lucas in Ghent and then went to Milan in 1985 at the height of Post Modernism and collaborated with fashion designer Cinzia Ruggeri and with studio Aldo Cibic-Sottsass Associati. At the young age of 28, Van Duysen established his eponymous architecture firm in Antwerp in 1990.
Today, the multidisciplinary studio and team of 15 are busy working with clients all over the world (70% of the work is outside Belgium) in London, Milan, Paris, New York, Saudi Arabia, and Beirut on new buildings and conversions for residential and commercial projects including: private houses, interiors, retail shops, and office and apartment complexes. Van Duysen is the subject of three monographs and has been awarded numerous design awards including Designer of the Year at Paris’s Maison & Objet Fair in 2009.
Some recent projects include a youth hostel in Antwerp and a recently opened Calvin Klein jeans store in Hong Kong, the first of the new global CKJ concept design.
In addition to his architecture Van Duysen also works with leading international manufacturers, designing everything from chandeliers, jewelry, bathroom fixtures, ceramics, and furniture for brands such as: B&B Italia, Pastoe, Herman Miller, Swarovski, Paola Lenti, De Padova, Valli & Valli, Poliform, When Objects Work, Toscoquattro and Bulo among others. I personally challenge anyone to find an umbrella whose design is worthy of putting in Van Duysen’s sublime Window Umbrella Stand for Viccarbe.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Van Duysen by telephone from his home in Antwerp about a range of subjects. At the end of our conversation, I could hear his beloved dachshunds, Lou Lou and Gaston, barking in the background and I pictured him in his serene sanctuary, happily tucked away behind the privacy of the shiny lacquer front door. Sifting between all three periods, Van Duysen delves into the circumstances of his definitive years, and the prospects of those yet to come.
What is your design process?
I am working 24-hours-a-day, a continual process of thinking and reflecting on projects. I work with my team and we exchange ideas, sometimes just verbally, or we begin to sketch some stuff then they put it into the computer. It is a back-and-forth process where I am directing each project individually. My team is very controlled and very passionate about what we are doing.
What inspires you?
My entire life and world inspire me. It is about everyday life. I travel to work in cities like New York, London, Paris, London, Milan, Beirut and I am an observer, I am a very visual person. I gather images in my memory and they are stuck there, then I use them as a source of inspiration in my work. I am also inspired by encounters with people and artists from all over the world.
How do you start an architectural project? What is the point of departure?
To me, it is very important that the individual is comfortable in the space. It is more about understanding who the client is and identifying myself with the client and why they came to me. I am always trying to create a home that is about light, space, materiality, texture, and timelessness
How do you use light in your work?
Light is architecture and architecture is light. I like the essence of bathing a space in light. Sometimes I will make a zone a bit darker if it is more intimate.
What role do natural elements like water, play in your work?
Water is essential to life; its purity provides moments of silence, moments of reflection and contemplation. I have a reflection pool at my place in the garden and it reflects the back of the house and the garden. It is essential.
Describe the pool house for the residence in Antwerp that you designed?
I designed an open living space in the back of a garden around a pool with Belgium blue stone that has sliding glass doors and an open-air pool. The space is like a lounge, with u shaped benches, pieces from Jeanneret. It is a very unconventional approach to some pool houses that are all about the physical activity of swimming, this one is a very domestic environment and space. It is very sexy and unique.
What kind of furniture pieces do you have in your own home?
I like to use furnishings that are authentic in form. I am a traditional modernist in my work. I use a lot of textured Belgium linens, washed-out colors, muted tones, down-to-earth palettes with a few vintage pieces as accents by my favorite modernist designers. In my house, I have chairs from Jeanneret, made of exotic woods with rough textured seats of woven fibers. They are understated, no-non sense, beautifully crafted pieces without entering into a specific style.
What was the experience like of designing your own home? Did you try any experiments in your own space?
I am not an experimentalist, I am modernist who loves tradition. The big challenge for me was to transform a number of cramped rooms into one space where I could be me in the house, a place of no stress, a sanctuary, a way to live with friends, my dogs, my garden, my books and art collection. In my home the quality of light is very serene and calming.
Tell me about the dramatic, glossy front entrance door to your home?
The façade and entrance door has a gloss lacquer finish made of multiple layers of plaster sanded to make it super smooth and end up with multiple layers painted on with a brush that took about 5 painters all working a the same time to achieve the finish. It is a black color. It is a traditional technique common in the Netherlands.
What informs your choice of materials in your work?
I am drawn to natural materials and am attracted to stone and wood. I never use artificial materials as the authenticity of material is important to me. Also, natural materials are more durable, they age better, and they have a nice patina over time.
How do you discover new techniques?
I spend a lot of time researching materials. Together with the support of my team and the ateliers, that we work with, we are very involved in the material research.
Tell me about texture?
Sometimes I like to use a range of textures in the same material, from the very smooth, to rough in the same space.
Tell me about your use of glass in your work?
For me, glass is a kind of immateriality. It reflects light and it allows the exterior to interact with the interior.
What role does craftsmanship play in your work?
I think it is beautiful to feel the making of something. I like furniture pieces where you can feel the craftsmanship and how it is made with honest forms.
Tell me about the experience of creating the lounge collection for Herman Miller?
I was very excited about working with Geiger, as it is the first American company I have worked for. The process of designing the collection took one year from first sketches to prototypes, to the finished products. The heritage of the company is wonderful. I looked to the world of Ward Bennett and the Herman Miller archives and specifically his use of metal and wood - very direct, sexy, and elegant with American spirit. The design for the Brabo lounge collection is my interpretation of the work of Ward Bennett who used wrapped leather around exposed wood frame, bronze, nickel, and chrome. It is a true honor that my designs were immediately part of the Herman Miller collection.
What are some recent projects that you launched?
This past year in Milan at the Salon Di Mobile I launched the Portofino collection of outdoor furniture for Paola Lenti. It is a new typology for outdoor folding chairs, low easy loungers using beautiful woods in essential forms, inspired by the traditional director chairs.
What are some upcoming projects that you are currently working on?
I am working on a new jewelry line for Swarovski Atelier, it is, in a way, architecture for the body. We are also building a summer residence in the Hamptons and designing the interior of a motor yacht.
Brooke Stoddard is an international contemporary design expert and principal of Brooke Stoddard Inc., an innovation consulting practice in New York City working with corporate and designer clients. Stoddard was formerly the Style Editor at Condé Nast House & Garden and a Design Editor at Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Stoddard speaks regularly at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair presenting designers including Marc Newson, Konstantin Grcic and Ross Lovegrove and is a founding jury member of ICFF Studio.