The best of Belgian contemporary design

A love of sleekly minimal Belgian design unites an Hermès scion and an Antwerp gallerist, says Victoria Woodcock. Photography by Bart Kiggen

Veerle Wenes and collector Pascale Mussard at Antwerp gallery Valerie Traan, with Muller Van Severen Alu chairs, €529
Veerle Wenes and collector Pascale Mussard at Antwerp gallery Valerie Traan, with Muller Van Severen Alu chairs, €529 | Image: Bart Kiggen

For two grandmothers, Pascale Mussard and Veerle Wenes are impressively girly. They chatter excitedly, often whisper conspiratorially and finish each other’s sentences at speed. But this is no gossip about schoolyard crushes. Instead, the objects of their affection are designs – and rather serious-minded ones at that – showcased in Wenes’ gallery, Valerie Traan.

Muller Van Severen wool and silk-cashmere carpet (on wall), €11,500, from Valerie Traan Gallery
Muller Van Severen wool and silk-cashmere carpet (on wall), €11,500, from Valerie Traan Gallery | Image: Bart Kiggen

“I love coming here, but it is dangerous for me,” says Mussard, the great-great-great-granddaughter of saddle-maker Thierry Hermès, of the beautifully light Antwerp space that is part modernist structure, part former 19th-century nunnery. “There’s always something I want to buy.” This time it’s “les fourchettes”: a brushed stainless-steel cutlery set with subtly coloured handles designed for Wenes’ offshoot store, Valerie Objects, by artist-designer duo Muller Van Severen – one of both Mussard and Wenes’ foremost design crushes. “The cutlery can go in the dishwasher. It’s important,” says Wenes, highlighting a practical approach to design that is shared by Muller Van Severen. “Their work is so designer, so poetic, so stripped back,” says Mussard, who first sought out Valerie Traan Gallery to see a Muller Van Severen show six years ago. She now owns several of their chairs, sculptural sets of cutting boards and trivets and two round tables -– one a high-gloss confection of enamel and brass, which graces her dining room; the other a slab of yellow polyethylene upon thin rusted steel legs, just like the one in the peaceful tree-dappled courtyard of Valerie Traan. “I copied,” says Mussard, who appreciates Wenes’ eye and the way she combines pieces. “I really like this one because of the rust. I love the idea that it’s going to evolve.”

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Wenes, a trained architect who ran her own communications agency before opening Valerie Traan in 2010, says that her own age is crucial to her choices. “It means I’m not looking first at the commercial side of things. I’ve arrived at a moment when, financially, I don’t care if something will sell or not. Fortunately, things are selling, but maybe not the first time; maybe at the second or third exhibition. Like this,” she says, hurriedly removing coats and bags from a chair that appears cobbled together from an assortment of odds and ends. And that’s exactly what it is: an assemblage of foraged furniture by Utrecht-based designer Rikkert Paauw. 

Muller Van Severen cutlery set, €140, from Valerie Objects
Muller Van Severen cutlery set, €140, from Valerie Objects | Image: Bart Kiggen

“I can’t explain why, but for me Rikkert is always right,” say Mussard, who would love to buy one of his pieces. Already in her collection is a series of wall-mounted semiprecious stones by artist-jeweller Octave Vandeweghe, each cut to resemble prehistoric tools, their faceted surfaces catching the light prettily. These objects jostle for space in Mussard’s art nouveau Brussels home alongside “18th-century pieces and a collection of Russian icons. I like the confrontation of different forms.” She has also recently added to the mix a rippled curtain by Antwerp-based Clarisse Bruynbroeck, which is in fact a sculpted sheet of aluminium, as well as minimal yet functional sculptures by Pierric De Coster, whose reflective surfaces play with optical illusions.

Mussard and Wenes with Muller Van Severen hanging lamp, €700; enamel and brass tables, €5,300 and €4,600; and Clarisse Bruynbroeck aluminium The Curtain, €3,800. All from Valerie Traan Gallery
Mussard and Wenes with Muller Van Severen hanging lamp, €700; enamel and brass tables, €5,300 and €4,600; and Clarisse Bruynbroeck aluminium The Curtain, €3,800. All from Valerie Traan Gallery | Image: Bart Kiggen

“My taste is for elegance without arrogance. I think this is your taste too,” says Wenes to her friend. Mussard agrees: “I think it goes back to my Protestant upbringing, but also my years at Hermès. The most beautiful pieces are always so simple.” Now vice-president of the Hermès Foundation and a board member of the family holding, she cites working with Martin Margiela as hugely inspiring. “But my family history has more to do with craft than design,” she says, stressing that her move to Belgium from Paris has had a greater influence on her collecting than her place within the Hermès dynasty.

Pierric De Coster aluminium and stainless-steel PDC 4 and 5 drawers and cupboard, €7,500, from Valerie Traan Gallery
Pierric De Coster aluminium and stainless-steel PDC 4 and 5 drawers and cupboard, €7,500, from Valerie Traan Gallery | Image: Bart Kiggen

“In France, we are the best at cooking, the best in fashion, the best in art… So, being French, the less-is-more Belgian approach speaks to me,” says Mussard. “In Belgium, design is serious but they don’t take it too seriously. It makes me look at things in a different way.” She gives the example of Gijs Van Vaerenbergh, a collaboration between young Belgian architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh. Mussard owns a steel scale model of a large church-like sculpture they installed in the countryside near the Belgian town of Borgloon. “My piece is an edition of seven that I keep in my garden as I want it to rust. It’s always enchanting. A bit like a mobile.”

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Next month, Valerie Traan is launching a series of Gijs Van Vaerenbergh cupboards at Brussels’ Collectible fair, alongside new works by Muller Van Severen. It’s an annual event that Mussard relishes, but it also presents a potential problem: “I only have so much space. Plus the Flemish names of the designers are, to me, unpronounceable.”

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