Ten years ago the fashionable destination for design-minded travelers was the Guggenheim at Bilbao, where Frank Gehry's titanium acrobatics famously cast their spell. When design tourists pack their black clothing this month they will more likely head to Barcelona or Stockholm. Next year it may be Belgium. That's right, Belgium may be the next the design destination. The country prides itself on maintaining a discrete, lowlands profile, but it has quietly gained influence. Here are six reasons to keep your eye on the Belgian design scene.
1. Where fashion goes, design follows. Thanks in part to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp is home to a lively community of fashion designers, including Martin Margiela, Dries van Noten, and Ann Demeulemeester. The cross pollination with design can be seen in the many boutiques, like FCS, located in a warren of industrial riverside buildings, which sells both clothes and home furnishings.
2. A distinct Belgian style of interior design is emerging. Unlike its neighbor, the Netherlands, Belgium has a great disparity between rich and poor. The wealthy serve as patrons of a national design style that is suited to the mood of the moment: large in scale but simple, with untreated woods and other quiet materials with muted color. The mood is Scandinavian minimal, but with a hint of grandeur. The example above is by Axel Vervoordt, an antiques dealer and designer.
3. Belgian architecture is poised for its moment. Their work may have been too subdued to get above the white noise of the go-go years, but Belgian architecture seems just right for a post-crash culture. It tends to be respectful of tradition and sensitive to its surroundings, like this converted barn by Rita Huys of Buro2.
4. Interieur may be the best small design show in Europe. People are starting to pass on the gargantuan Milan Furniture Fair in favor of smaller shows where they can get noticed and do business in a more relaxed manner. The Interieur Biennale in the small city of Kortrijk is gaining a reputation. It is no doubt helped by Belgium's proximity to a cluster of other countries.
5. Belgium has the greatest landscape architect you've never heard of. Jacques Wirtz, a master of European landscaping, is particularly known for sculpting evergreens to create undulating waves of foliage, like those shown above. Like the Flemish painters, Wirtz and his two sons evoke space with light and shadow. With a portfolio of high-profile projects nearing completion, they're about to get a spate of attention.
6. Brussels has the world's coolest landmark. Every great city needs a defining landmark. For Brussels that centerpiece is the Atomium, a 335-foot high cluster of metal spheres built for the 1958 World's Fair. The fair ended after six months, but the Atomium lived on as symbol of the country's faith in a nuclear future. Today it has enormous retro appeal, all the more since its interiors now include lighting by Ingo Mauer and furnishings by Vitra. It's as is Design Within Reach redid the Eiffel Tower.
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