Interior Design

Salutary refinement

His exceptional eye for art and objects transforms interiors into intelligent spaces. Emma Crichton-Miller visits collector, designer and dealer Axel Vervoordt at his Antwerp castle.

December 16 2011
Emma Crichton-Miller

For visitors to the past three Venice Biennales, one of the unexpected pleasures has been the exhibition programme in the Palazzo Fortuny. This grand gothic palace, once the workshop, archive and home of the extraordinary inventor, scenographer and fashion designer Mariano Fortuny, and donated by his widow to the City of Venice in 1956, has since 2007 hosted a series of ground-breaking exhibitions to coincide with the Biennale. In radical contrast to the buzz about the new that sends the contemporary art mob scurrying hither and thither, first Arttempo (2007), then In-finitum (2009), and, this year, Tra – The Edge of Becoming, have offered visitors an alternative experience of art.

Through all three floors of the now dilapidated Fortuny home (with peeling walls distressed by time or hung and faded Fortuny silk hangings, marble floors on one floor matched by rough wooden boards on another), artworks from all eras, by artists both known and unknown, have been disposed in careful relationship to each other, alongside artefacts, found objects and remnants from Fortuny’s archive. Far more than the quality of each artwork, the strength of these exhibitions lies in this poetic display, generating unexpected conversations among pieces sometimes millennia apart in age, and all animated and sustained by the romantic surroundings.

This year, for instance, in the entrance hall an early Giacometti bronze sculpture L’Objet Invisible (1934) stands opposite the spooky Red Hand, Green Hand (2010), an oil painting by Belgian artist Michaël Borremans. As important as each work in its own right is the special tension generated between the two. Elsewhere in the building a large black-and-white drawing by the Italian Arte Povera artist Giuseppe Penone, Palpebra (1998) hangs against a Fortuny curtain, opposite a glass and iron table displaying Chen Zhen’s crystal installation Crystal Landscape of Inner Body (2000), alongside a cabinet containing a second-century BC Etruscan Janus head in clay. Anyone who has experienced the surge of thought such juxtapositions stimulate will recognise the meaning of the exhibition’s title: it is how you display objects, the gap between (tra is Italian for “between”), within a particular architectural and decorative context, that enables them to open the door to a new realm of thought and experience.

The personality behind this series of exhibitions is the renowned Belgian collector, art and antiques dealer, interior designer and curator Axel Vervoordt. Born in Antwerp in 1947 to a successful trader in horses, Vervoordt has become a master in this subtle craft of creating eloquent interiors. An early gift for identifying beautiful pieces, buying, selling and arranging them, has turned into a prosperous family business where every facet of interior design, from the sourcing of objects, complete renovation of buildings, and the manufacture of bespoke sofas is taken care of. Even luxury yachts have been designed and fitted out in the Vervoordt style.

The key to this style is art. He is a tenacious, idiosyncratic and knowledgeable collector, who deals in the art he loves. His eye moves from a Gainsborough painting to a contemporary Japanese ceramic sculpture, from an 18th-century Italian console table to a Mon Dvaravati Buddhist statue from sixth- to eighth-century Thailand. It is while you marvel at the sureness of his taste, however – in rooms as wildly different as an opulent regency drawing room, a spare Japanese meditation room or baroque dining room – that you sense, underpinning it all, a philosophical position about beauty and the role it plays in our lives.

As Vervoordt ushers me into the high-ceilinged hall of his own home, the fairy-tale, 1,000-year-old kasteel van ’s-Gravenwezel, outside Antwerp, he sums it up: “In our busy lives it is very important to be surrounded by art. It gives you extra vision; it gives you interior peace and serenity. Our collection is all about that, it is timeless, and it represents the search for universality.”

But living with art is not always easy. There are many great collectors in the world, whether of old masters or contemporary art, who keep the major part of their collections in secure vaults, or who turn their homes into museums, where the art is to be admired rather than loved, standing stiffly apart from its domestic setting. For Vervoordt, the work of integration begins even before you have walked through the door. It is, of course, easier to signal the depth of cultural pleasure a visitor is about to experience if you happen to live in a castle. But when Vervoordt and his wife, May, first saw their current home in 1984, it had been in the same aristocratic Belgian family since 1728.

The castle took two years to restore. They studied its history, its medieval towers and rococo façade, scraping back paint to reveal the layers underneath. Their intention was not to return it to its original condition, but to release its 1,000-year-old spirit, which had been compromised by successive redecorations, into the present. “Restoration is trying to put it back into its own period. It is what it is now,” says Vervoordt. “The 300 or 3,000 years of energy, of patination, are absolute, it is like a second skin it gets from time. If you undo the work of time, in a way you try to fake it. It is extremely important to live now, always.”

Part of the magic of the castle is the warmth of old walls scarred by ancient battles with weather, and of stonework allowed to mellow with moss and lichen. Even the cheerful yellow limewash, some of it peeling, is mixed with earth from the estate that stretches out beyond the moat. Inside, while some rooms are papered, in others Vervoordt follows the same recipe. “It is important not to use synthetic materials for the walls, but to work with lime,” he explains. “What I like to use is local earth. Mix it with glue, use it on the walls, and then the place really belongs to where it is. It is rooted.”

While Vervoordt pursues authenticity on the walls, the contents of each room are surprisingly diverse. In the hall, for instance, with its black-and-white marble floor, are Italian 18th-century sofas, a grandiloquent French chandelier, two dazzling blue paintings by Jef Verheyen (the late Belgian artist who was a teacher and friend to Vervoordt – the family owns more than 80 of his works), a Roman marble torso, an 18th-century neoclassical vase made of Egyptian porphyry, 18th-century Swedish silver, and two other modern artworks: a Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) slit canvas and a beautiful spare-white-painted canvas with white-painted nails by German artist Günther Uecker (born 1930), a leading member of the influential Zero movement.

For Vervoordt there is no difference between old and contemporary: “I don’t make a distinction. Some pieces of ancient Egyptian art feel as contemporary as anything made today.” The themes raised in this room, such as baroque grandeur and classical grace, married to the quest for the pure essentials in art represented by the German Zero Art and Italian Arte Povera movements, are consistent elements in Vervoordt’s interiors and exhibitions. “It looks eclectic, but I don’t think this is the right word,” he says. “Essentially it is a dialogue – like bringing different people together.”

Other rooms in this magnificent compendium of styles reflect threads in Vervoordt’s sensibility: the English treen, or turned wood, he has collected since a child; works by Japanese exponents of the 1950s Gutai, or concrete art, movement – Saburo Murakami, Kazuo Shiraga, Kimiko Ohara – whose violently expressive paintings lend a different energy to the space; late-Ming porcelain salvaged from a shipwreck by Michael Hatcher in the dining room; rough unadorned European tables, loved for their patina; the Venetian room hung with Fortuny fabrics and unfinished drawings; the archaeological pieces, such as an Indonesian spear and a ritual sceptre from the Margyan culture, south of Turkmenistan, between 2500BC and 2000BC; Jade Pi and African masks; and the 12th- century still head of a Japanese Lohan, or Buddhist monk.

The house is an important shop window, reflecting Vervoordt’s versatility. As the family happily admits, pieces come and go all the time, as they are bought and sold, and tried out in different combinations. Vervoordt keeps losing his desk. As I stand in my bedroom an employee removes the bedside table. But certain pieces express his deepest affiliations. These are what Vervoordt calls the skeleton of the house: “The [Antoni] Tapies in the room upstairs, the Fontana in the library, the Shiraga in the Wabi room. These are basic things for me, and if they were taken away I would think, ‘Oof, the house collapses.’ They express the meaning of the space.”

In the library, where the Fontana hangs above the fire, in the heart of the house, are not-for-sale works belonging to the Vervoordt Foundation, the permanent family collection. Lined with panelling from an 18th-century pharmacy, with 17th-century Cordoba leather on the walls, as Rubens would have had it in his house in Antwerp, the room is warm and richly coloured, with a large Agra carpet on the floor. A stuffed armadillo lies on top of the bookcase, a Moisan stone carving from the 13th or 14th century along a bookshelf. What prevents the room feeling like a museum are the classic armchairs and sofas, made by Vervoordt for his Home Collection. Commissioned pieces, they are covered in muted linens sourced by his wife.

But then, like his alter ego, we have a complete contrast in the Wabi room. Vervoordt was introduced to Eastern art and philosophy as a young man by Verheyen and other artists and philosophers. Drawn to Zen Buddhism, he has travelled many times to Japan, Thailand and Cambodia. In 2005 he discovered Gutai art, a movement of Japanese painting and performance art that had had a significant influence on Western painters as diverse as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Fontana and Yves Klein, and which gave another dimension to his interest in Eastern philosophy. The spare Wabi room is for meditation, reflecting the Wabi Sabi aesthetic of the beauty of the imperfect and the incomplete, the embrace of transience. The walls are painted a soft-brown mixture of chalk and earth from the property. Wood from the estate has been used for the shutters, and to create a tokonama or small platform, a space above emptiness, on top of which a huge bronze piece – a Natura – by Fontana resides.

Antique Japanese ceramic vases hold single branches vivid with autumn berries. At the centre of one wall is a huge black-and-white painting by Shiraga from 1989, explosive with energy. In this room we can appreciate Vervoordt’s view that “nothing is just decorative. It is very important that there are lots of hidden qualities, and even if you don’t understand all these things, they should be there.” Conventional ideas of beauty are less important: “I don’t mind if something I discover is ‘ugly’,” Vervoordt says in one of the art books he has published about his aesthetic. “The spirit of things is more important to me than the look.”

Another element – another part of the Vervoordt spirit – runs through the castle and rooms of the Kanaal, the late 19th-century former distillery on the outskirts of Antwerp, complete with grain silos, where a larger part of the antiques, artworks and Vervoordt Home Collection are on display. Every day, May Vervoordt ensures there are flowers from the garden, or berries, or single branches in vases, with an entirely Oriental delicacy of touch. Whether you are in the inspiring industrial spaces of the Kanaal, or the civilised circle of the castle, you never forget that you are in a space to be lived in, that is daily renewed.

To me, the sensibility that is so expressively on display both at Vervoort’s castle and in the vast Kanaal complex, seems a synthesis of East and West, but one that is still quintessentially European. Vervoordt acknowledges that his first influence was his warm, artistic and enterprising mother. She bought and renovated 16th-century buildings in Antwerp, almost entirely out of love, renting the finished apartments to artists and restaurants, and rescuing the remaining physical manifestations of the city’s golden age. With little money to lavish on renovation, the young Vervoordt absorbed an ethos and aesthetic where simplicity and being true to the original spirit of the houses were paramount. In turn, Vervoordt himself founded his company in 1968 by buying and restoring buildings in the Vlaeykensgang, Antwerp’s historic old quarter. Vervoordt’s 37-year-old son Boris, who runs the company’s art and antiques, Home Collection and interior-design operations, lives in one of these apartments, as does younger son Dick, 34, who is in charge of real estate; another apartment houses the Vervoordt Art Gallery.

Vervoordt also credits the influence of England. Aged 14, he borrowed money from his father, at interest, to travel and buy pieces from hard-up stately homes, which he then sold on. “It’s the mixture you find in English country houses. I loved the rubber boots under the William Kent console table, with the Gainsborough above. It is just one way of living. It is not a lack of respect, but still there is a casualness, and you forget what the art costs or what it represents.”

Inevitably, as an astute businessman, Vervoordt never forgets what things cost. His clients, too, know that the pieces he sources will prove wise investments. For the moment, however, they are happy to dwell with their exceptional artworks, all contributors to a heightened experience of living.