Calming SpaceA visit to Vincent Van Duysen's home
"architecture is about the elimination of excess, and creating serenity in essential forms and spaces."
Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen is a talker. Far from seeking to construct an aura of mystery around his work, Van Duysen is an open book, verbose on even the smallest details. Case in point: when I ask how long it took to establish the ivy-esque climber that covers an enormous wall in his back garden, he won’t rest until he’s tracked down the plant’s Latin name (Parthenocissus quinquefolia, or Virginia creeper) and detailed its seasonal trimming requirements. But for all this verbal abundance, Van Duysen’s work is an ode to simplicity. He funnels his broad knowledge of these tiny details into creating spaces and designs that are stripped back to the basics, yet still imbued with a warmth, elegance, and sensuality that’s become his signature — and which has clients flocking to him.
“For me,” he says, “architecture is about the elimination of excess, and creating serenity in essential forms and spaces.” We’re sitting in the living room of his Antwerp home, where his dachshunds Gaston and Lulu alternate between snoozing and scuttling to the front door to bark. “When I meet new clients, I want to understand who they are and how they live. I try and get under their skin, and read their minds. When I know exactly what I want, I transmit it verbally to my team, and from then, it’s a very interactive process.”
Though Van Duysen’s body of work is extraordinarily diverse, his ethos hasn’t changed since he completed his first residential project 25 years ago: to create serene spaces that calm the senses. The aesthetic sensibilities that define his designs today — balanced spaces, layers of rooms, interactions between the indoors and outdoors, hidden gardens, sophisticated interiors — have, he says, been there all along. Nowhere is his approach more evident than in the house where Van Duysen has lived for more than a decade. Despite its stately size of 10 by 11 m, and with ceilings nearly five metres high, the living room manages to feel intimate and warm thanks to bone coloured, textured walls, and furniture that’s strategically placed off centre. In the warmer months, he opens the back doors to reveal a quintessential Van Duysen secret garden, replete with a square pool and towering green wall. The curved cream staircase, perhaps the house’s pièce de résistence, leads to multiple floors and bedrooms, living spaces, a library, and finally up to the attic. This tactile space has exposed timber beams and a hidden stone bathtub. “I like hidden details,” Van Duysen explains, “not in-your-face details.”
This attention to detail is just as evident across all his high profile projects: Alexander Wang’s London flagship; the Aesop store in Hamburg; and Antwerp’s sublime Graanmarkt 13. Van Duysen has also created interiors, furniture, ceramics, and lighting. He was recently appointed creative director of furniture brand Molteni&C.
Van Duysen studied architecture in Belgium, but spent the early years of his career immersed in the furniture and interior design worlds. At 55, he is in serious demand. In 2016, he won the Designer of the Year prize at Belgium’s Biennale Interieur, and today, he manages a team of 25, and constantly juggles commercial, residential, and furniture design projects. “People are recognising my work now,” he says of his popularity. “I’m at the peak of my career.”
Van Duysen is less concerned with fashion than instilling a sense of emotion into all of his projects: “I’m very persistent and consistent with subtle variations. I don’t think in terms of trends, and I never have. I don’t even know what’s trendy! Even though now I have this incredible crossover in many different areas of my work, my main focus is still residential. It allows me to transmit a sense of domesticity into my other work. I think people like that it enables me to bring an extra layer of softness, emotion, and poetry to other spaces.”
For him, architecture is less about erecting buildings and structures, and more about the art of living well, something he cites as especially important in our busy, digital age. “Everything these days is about fast tracking and immediacy and instant gratification. I’m totally against that,” he says. “I think it’s more important to be aware of who we are.” His life away from work mirrors this focus on quieting the senses. He spends his spare time at the gym (“I need endorphins”), meditating, reading, and unwinding at home with the dogs. “This house is a sanctuary for me, where I disconnect. It’s about calming down and creating silence, and being in a space that doesn’t overstimulate the senses.”
“I admire Axel [Vervoordt],” he says, when asked about the holistic approach to architecture that he and his fellow Belgians seem to do very well. “He has a sense of beauty, and uses pure materials in a unique way. He did this from the beginning of his career, then he mixed it up with his knowledge of art and antiques, and his focus on Zen and wabi sabi.” But when it comes to the notion of a specific Belgian style, he scrunches up his nose. “As an outsider, you might see Flemish design as being all about raw materials; tone on tone, and very calm. But I think that’s quite artificial,” he says, frowning. “I want to stand outside of that. I find it mediocre.”
“I will always follow my intuition and emotion, and I don’t want to be in a group of people,” he says with a shrug. And certainly, with such a rich and diverse body of work, Van Duysen does seem beyond categorisation. “Some people say I’m not an architect. They say I’m a decorator or a product designer. But I don’t care. It’s easy to create architecture where it’s all about the outside. That’s immediate, it has no meaning. I will always rebel against that. My task and mission as an architect is to contribute to the quality of life.”