AN ENDLESS SEARCH FOR BEAUTY. Axel Vervoordt is a Belgian designer, collector and curator with a global clientele. He has a deep respect for everything that is authentic. His two sons head five distinctive family businesses: Boris leads arts and antiques, the gallery, interior design and home collection activities, while Dick is at the helm of the real estate operations. Axel and his wife May inspire and mentor these activities with the non-profit activities of the Vervoordt Foundation, and foster musical and artistic patronage through Inspiratum.
How would you define yourself after so many years of successful achievements?
It’s not so much a definition, but more a feeling. I have the feeling that throughout my life and career, that I’ve always wanted to continue to achieve more. My work is not finished. As I get older, I realize that I can do more with less time. If you rely on the knowledge and experience you’ve gained, you can be more efficient with less time. I always want to do more.
What do you think has been the turning point of your success?
There have been so many turning points in my life. It started very early, when I was 21 or 22 years old, when I acquired the Vlaeykensgang, a medieval pedestrian street lined with small houses. My mother saw them first and she told me that I would love them, and she was right. My intuition told me to act quickly and that’s what I did. The process of restoring these houses gave me valuable lessons in my study of architecture and living with history. Following that, 1977 was a special anniversary year for Rubens in Antwerp and to celebrate this, my wife May and I hosted a Renaissance party that was a big turning point in our relationships with friends and clients. In 1982, I participated in my first big international fair in Paris for the Biennale des Antiquaires. I was one of the youngest dealers and I had a spontaneous concept to make a concept of a loft that was like nothing many people had ever seen before. It was a turning point in creating a bigger stage for international clients. In 1984, acquiring the castle of ‘s-Gravenwezel where we now live was a turning point and a way to embody the evolution of living with history and art that continues today. In 1997, with the help of my sons, Boris and Dick, we found and acquired the Kanaal site and as they joined the business, they helped to make our business diverse, larger, and more international. That’s been a major turning point. In 2004-2005, discovering the work of artists from the Gutai movement changed my life. This led to curating the exhibition, Artempo: Where Time Becomes Art, at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice in 2007, and then there were ten more years of exhibitions in Venice. It’s interesting to look back and see so many pivotal moments happened about every ten years or so.
“I’m searching for the timeless.”
A portrait of the Vervoordt family by Frederik Vercruysse.
Would you say that your taste is a European taste or a world taste?
Definitely a world taste, because I don’t even know what taste it is. My taste is always defined by a search for harmony. I try only to make things interesting. I’m searching for the timeless. Between East and West. Between time periods. I want to search for the answer of where it all connects.
Did your trips in Asia and other parts of the world change it?
A lot. When I’m in Japan or Korea, I’m looking for what can be inspiring to the Western world. In the Western world, I’m looking for what can be inspiring from the East. It’s always trying to find the common links. To create a future, we have to understand what we share, rather than our differences. This is what I’m busy with and what excites me. I feel a responsibility to help with the evolution of style and the evolution of taste.
How do you define your taste in contemporary art and how has it changed over the years?
I’m not sure if it has changed, necessarily. It’s an evolution. Since the beginning of my career, I’ve been interested in works by artists from the ZERO movement, and artists who explored concepts of the void. Through friendships with these artists, I came into contact with the work of Lucio Fontana, and the aspect of the third dimension, which he created. Together with Eastern art and artists from Asia, who explore empty space, meditation, and materiality. This was, for me, the missing link with my love for old pieces. These aspects of contemporary art were very complementary to what I saw in works from the past. This was an evolution and I began to understand more and more the links between artists and societies. A big step, as I’ve said, in my taste for art coincided with discovering artists in Japan from the Gutai Art Association. This happened in 2005-2006. I’m always keeping my eyes open to try, feel, and discover new things. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to present works by contemporary artists during the last ten years for exhibitions I co-curated at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice. Every exhibition had a strong theme and we prepared the exhibitions during a period of two years for each. One year of work was really developing the theme and creating think-tanks with scientists, artists, musicians in which we tried to go deeper into the themes to understand the key philosophical concepts behind them. The exhibitions, Artempo, Intuition, Proportio, TRA, and so on, became like knowledge that we possess and through art, we found the expression to share with the public.
If I am not wrong, you never really wanted to have a shop. Instead you preferred to furnish first apartments and then you bought your own famous castle, Kasteel van’s-Gravenwezel?
That’s true. I always wanted to live with things that I love and create spaces where I can invite friends and clients into a private world.
“I like good architecture, good art, and making a life comfortable.”
Can you tell us more about your experiences of living in and furnishing and creating spaces in your castle?
The castle of ‘s-Gravenwezel exists since the 11th century. So, it’s almost 1000 years old. As you walk through the spaces, you feel the different rooms and you sense the changes that have occurred over time. It’s an evolution in time. It’s important for me that every room has its own unique character. The feeling of each room is dependent upon the architecture and the light. I like to travel in a house. To move from one type of atmosphere to the next. We have a library full of art and objects that I’ve collected throughout my life. We have a blue-and-white dining room and an old cellar with a big table that is perfect for dining in both summer and winter. From the outside, our home looks very big, but we use every space. It depends on the mood and the purpose and the time of day and who we are with and what you plan to do there. That’s how we make decisions about where we want to go and spend time.
What is your idea of decoration today?
I have never liked the idea of decoration. Decoration for the sole purpose of decoration itself is too superficial. I like good architecture, good art, and making a life comfortable. I like trying to create something that’s timeless. At the same time, it should look very contemporary. It’s going much more profound. Decoration, as a word and concept, implies something superficial.
When you start designing a room what is the most important thing for you? Colour, light, furniture, fabrics?
I start with the volumes of architecture and getting to know the people who are going to live there. It’s very important for me to study their way of life and create spaces that will make them happy.
You create furniture in your workshops based on your own designs. Can you describe the design process?
It’s all about respect and my love for real, old things. I’m attracted to things that age, that have character. These can be things that I’ve found and sometimes, with old things, I don’t even want to touch them. Such as a piece of old wood that we’ll use to make a table or a cabinet. I first start with the material and then try to make something with a good proportion. It doesn’t only happen to be old wood, it can be new as well. But you have to approach it with the same feeling of respect. I want to make the best object possible with the new wood. I adapt my design to the wood. I never adapt the wood to my design.
How do you source furniture?
It comes from all over the world. There’s no limit to geography. Above all else, it should be timeless and universal. We are always looking for something different with a strength in whatever period it comes from. Each piece should still have a universal spirit, but not limited to its time. We are attracted to works that are either very architectural or very meditative, and definitely express a positive energy.
The castle library with a work by Fontana. © Laziz Hamani
Detail of a collector’s cabinet in the castle © Laziz Hamani
Exterior of the castle ‘s-Gravenwezel © Jan Liegeois
Artempo 2007 facade with El Anatsui © JP Gabriel
A general view of Kanaal ©Jan Liegeois
Oriental Saloon in the castle © Laziz Hamani
“I always wanted to live with things that I love and create spaces where I can invite friends and clients into a private world.”
You have created besides your famous castle a centre in the outskirts of Antwerp, the Kanaal project where you have rooms for visiting artists, exhibitions, showrooms, restaurants and for example the Anish Kapoor room. What is the idea of this concept?
It all happened very spontaneously in the process. But it was always connected to creating a center for art and life that offers a sense of peace and reflection. The site had a long history and has been used in the past as a distillery and malting complex. The existing buildings included brick warehouses and concrete grain silos. Over time, we developed a plan to create nearly one hundred apartments and a community that’s like a city in the country. But above all, we retained the unique character of the existing buildings. Industrial architecture is built to serve. We kept very strong rules in the process, but I don’t want to say ‘rules’, because in art you need to be free. We knew that, again, it was a lot of love and respect for the old buildings. Trying to touch them as little as possible. And then once we were thinking about how to utilize some of the spaces for our gallery and to expose artworks, as well as adding permanent installations from the works in our collection, it became much better than I ever thought it could be. We received more in return, than we asked.
Have you visited any projects/buildings/sites recently that impressed you and why?
I recently spent time on Mount Athos in Greece and it was a very inspiring trip. The architecture of the monasteries is very impressive, particularly the most famous one. From the outside, it’s magic. (Some interior parts are over-restored). I love Le Courbusier’s Monastery of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette. Another favorite in the world is the Sagawa Art Museum in Moriyama, Japan, just outside of Kyoto, particularly the Raku-Kichizaemon-kan pavilion. The dark, mysterious spaces are very inspiring.
You remained rooted to Antwerp because of family reasons or because it is for fashion, design and arts in general a very special and creative enclave?
My family is from Antwerp. I am proud to be from Antwerp. Why? Because, in my view, it’s free of chauvinism. I think sometimes people see the world as a way of saying: the French are very French, the Spanish are very Spanish, the English are very English. I can only say that Antwerp, as a port city, is very open-minded to the world. It’s the advantage of having a big harbor, it creates a sense of welcoming and an open-minded spirit.
It seems that even if rooted in Antwerp your life is a permanent sequence of meetings. Is this restlessness necessary to your inspiration or a necessity for today’s life and work?
It’s necessary. I find that I can be very focused on every job that I’m doing. My job gives me peace and love. And excitement and creativity. When I’m traveling and working hard, I can really focus on that particular job that I’m doing. These days, my clients are all over the world. But I don’t mind. I travel all the time, but I don’t want to have jet lag. I might have it, but I don’t want to have it. It’s all in the mind. But I am very grateful that I feel a sense of peace in every job that I do.
First your mother and then your wife seem to be very important in the evolution of your career and in your job. Am I right?
Yes, my mother’s love and encouragement helped me from the very beginning of my life. She supported my trips as a teenager when I went to England on buying trips, in search of treasures. She helped me discover the Vlaeykensgang and soon after that, I met my wife May.
Is May working with you? How do you work together? Now your sons are also involved with the business, what is your modus operandi as a family?
Yes, it is a family business and we are grateful to be working together. I think everyone in our family has their own speciality. We know from each other, who does what. In the creative arts, you need to have freedom. In my life, I like to be free in my creativity. In her work, May is looking after textiles, soft furnishings; she’s gifted in all aspects of the ephemeral qualities of beauty. Our eldest son Boris leads the art business and our son Dick leads the real estate projects. We feel strong as a family and I am extremely thankful to work closely with all of them. May and I are grateful that we have two fantastic, gifted sons.
If you have to describe in a few sentences your philosophy of aesthetics, how would you define it?
Searching for timelessness and harmony.
Respect for architecture and the purity of proportions.
Endless search for beauty, discovery, and quality.
Would you define yourself as satisfied with the corpus of your work?
Yes, I am very satisfied. I feel like I’ve had eight lives already. I’m extremely satisfied, but I have the feeling that I want to be for useful for a long time to come. For me, it’s important that I can feel useful to those around me.
Axel Vervoordt – portrait by Sebastian Schutyser
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