KNOTORYUS TALKS TO TOP INTERIOR DESIGNER GERT VOORJANS
‘A sight for sore eyes’, that would be one way to describe the universe of Belgian interior designer and architect Gert Voorjans. If Gucci’s recent renaissance under Alessandro Michele’s baroque-meets-70s aesthetic was an indication of how much people were ready for a dash of opulence and eclectic grandiosity in their lives again, Voorjans could have told you that 25 years ago. In a time when 90s minimalism reigned supreme, he had a vision and stuck to it. International success, celebrity clientele and a devoted following ensued. If you’ve ever stepped inside a Dries Van Noten flagship store, marvelled at the decor and wondered ‘why don’t I live like this, like, can I stay?’, you only have one name to jot down.
A career that impressive calls for a closer look at the homes he has transformed, which is exactly what Voorjans’s newly published book ‘Daily Life’ allows for. It’s not often you get to peer inside a truly extraordinary home and the vibrant and oversized book readily reveals ten previously unseen stunning feats of design he has created with his clients and for himself over the past two decades. It’s a coffee table staple in the making.
We meet Gert Voorjans as he is setting up an incoming art expo at his studio. Entering his inner sanctum in Antwerp is an exquisite sensory overload. A beautiful Nicolas Karakatsanis blow-up picture greets you upon entry and at a moment’s glance you take in huge fiddle leaf fig plants, wall-to-wall plush and peregrine furnishings, antique lacquered room dividers, a big convex mirror (reminiscent of the one Van Eyck would paint selfies in) and wafts of incense working in mesmeric harmony. To top it all off, the designer himself is clad in a sumptuous brocade blazer and dark bow tie paired with jolly jodhpurs. In this enrapturing setting, we talked about the power of collaboration, sticking to your guns and the beauty in taking a step back.
KNOTORYUS: Congratulations on the release of your new book, ‘Daily Life’. How did you select the projects you wanted to feature in the book?
GERT VOORJANS: “The books spans a time frame of twenty years of projects so I wanted to offer a wide range and variety of properties such as a townhouse, a more casual kind of house, a house by the seaside, a London penthouse etc. Those different kinds of atmospheres are what I wanted to tap into. The work I do is more of an assemblage in an artistic way, and that’s how I ended the book: by featuring my own house, which obviously takes it the furthest in terms of design approach.”
KNOTORYUS: Designing someone else’s home is a very intense form of collaboration, I can imagine.
GERT VOORJANS: “Yes, that’s absolutely the case for me. Everything you can see in these houses we take care of, from A to Z. Sometimes people already approach me before even buying a certain property or object, just to check if there’s potential there. After that, the property gets totally stripped: from heating to electricity, plumbing and utilities. We rebuild everything from the basement level up. As completion nears you get to deal with all the facets of interior design: from carpentry to paintwork. Special craftsmen are then called in, so obviously there’s an entire team involved when designing a house. It’s like putting together an opera or play or stage piece: that also only happens through a diverse collaboration of different disciplines.”
KNOTORYUS: How do you pick your collaborations with clients?
GERT VOORJANS: “Clients usually approach me so they obviously have to be able to identify with my work. If you’re all about ‘less is more’ and you want a totally minimal approach, then we won’t be able to do much for you, I’m afraid. (laughs) What I strive for is not to recreate the same as what’s featured in this book, because I absolutely do not want to dictate designs to anyone. I aim to start from a blank canvas and grow towards creating a home through dialogue. I state this at meeting number one: “You need to fully realise what you’re deciding on because I’m not going to be the one living here”. If they can identify with something I propose, that’s a different story because I’m constantly doing this. Nine out ten people design a home once, twice or three times in their lives at most. I do this every day. So for me it’s much easier to say: “We’re going to be painting this budgerigar green”, which might startle clients for a moment. They’ll go ‘Oh dear’. But it’s also my job to tease them a bit, draw them out of their shell to prevent ending up with the whole thing done up in beige and white. I want to shape interiors with a certain character. And that happens in collaboration with the client.”
KNOTORYUS: Hamish Bowles describes your work as ‘exciting rooms for thoughtful people’, what kind of connection do you need to establish with a client to get the best results?
GERT VOORJANS: “The main advantage in taking on bigger projects is that it means I’m working on them for two to three years. During the rough construction phase I have the opportunity to get to know people much better. Because during the first two or three meetings couples building a home won’t completely expose themselves yet, depending on who is the more communicative one or who has more outspoken ideas on interior design. Do they love beautiful mahogany or do they much prefer blonde pine? Do they prefer painted wood? I need to know these things. During the second phase I organise client meetings with different materials and fabrics and then I sort of unlock the ideas that are latently present in them. If you just head to a store and have to decide on what you want in one minute, those ideas don’t surface. I obviously don’t want to create superficial interiors, so clients should prepare to be committed to the process. Let’s face it, I’m not the only one doing this and there are other fun solutions out there but what I strive for is featuring the odd humorous nod or working in objects or artworks that are dear to the client’s heart. I aim to make individual spaces tailor-made for the client. Otherwise I don’t see what my job would be. You can go out now and buy anything. But in every case, I try to create a story. I think that that’s the power of an interior architect. If a person goes out on their own they will pick out the things they love: a beautiful floor, a nice door, a lovely kitchen. But five beautiful objects put together can also become one cacophony. The same goes for an orchestra: every now and then the flautists need to soften their tune because if every musician would just be playing full throttle the entire time, you’d get chaos. I think our main power lies in that, creating a storyline within a complete design.”
KNOTORYUS: Does that give you the most satisfaction, when you feel like the owner’s personality is reflected but there’s also a common thread?
GERT VOORJANS: “There’s no other way I can do it, to be honest. Otherwise you just have to open a store where everyone can come in and pick out what they like. Everything you see in my studio was never actually meant to be placed together. It’s like a painter’s paint or a sculptor’s stone. It’s about much more than ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like this’. That’s very subjective.”
KNOTORYUS: In the book you see this neoclassicist salon with bright green walls and a big Sterling Ruby in the middle…
GERT VOORJANS: (decidedly) “Yes, those kinds of combinations are important to me. We don’t live in a time machine or in history. We live for today and preferably for the future too. I definitely don’t want to create a historical room and I don’t like retro even though I work with historical properties a lot. I feel like a certain punch, sexiness and twist need to be present to make the rest more fascinating. The art in this specific room is made even more interesting because of the green damask on the wall and the damask is made more interesting because of the Sterling. If I would have stuck an 18th-century engraving on that wall, then to me that would have been boring as hell. Or that’s just an entirely different choice you’re making, but then it needs to become a museum interior. I’m not looking to make museums, unless I’m working for one. That interior with the Sterling Ruby is 300% ‘me’: creating a clash by having the qualities of the past meet something extreme from today. I want to make interiors for people who are very much a part of today’s life and not just create a window into how tastefully they can pick and choose things. I think this interior with the Sterling Ruby also says a lot about the person living here. That is what I’m looking for, these kinds of contrasts.”
KNOTORYUS: Does making these choices come instinctively to you?
GERT VOORJANS: “I don’t have to think all of this through. It just happens to be the thing I’m able to do.” (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: Your parents used to own a furniture store, were you encouraged by them to get into the same trade?
GERT VOORJANS: “They always let me do my own thing and they didn’t try to stop me either, even though the general idea was for me to take over the store. They were very liberal and forward-thinking people. They thought every generation should determine what they want to do and should fully commit to that. In the end, I’m doing what they were doing but in my own way.”
KNOTORYUS: Was it an inspiring environment to grow up in?
GERT VOORJANS: “Well at age six I was already hauling around sofas, turning chairs about the room and hanging paintings up on the walls backwards.” (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: You’ll be unveiling a window display for the Rizzoli bookstore in New York on November 29th. What can you already tell us about this ?
GERT VOORJANS: “I did an expo with Architectural Digest France at La Monnaie in Paris in September and I featured a beautiful piece of Italian mahogany furniture there, a Gustavo Pulitzer cabinet. It was made in 1930 for the Argentinian consul to Paris for him to display his silverware collection in. That piece of furniture we’ll be splitting up in a sort of ‘dummy’ for the window. It’ll become a kind of library, sometimes open and sometimes closed. There will be books displayed and we’ll recreate my world with fossils and materials and shag carpets and children’s drawings. Sort of like the cover of the book, but in a library. It plays into the theme of collecting, because we’re all collectors in the end.”
KNOTORYUS: Why do you feel like it’s important to take this project on?
“This is a unique opportunity, of course. Getting offered a window during that time of the year, the Santa Claus window, that’s like letting a singer perform an aria at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime so I have to grab it with both hands. I’m very excited.”
Gert Voorjans at AD France expo La Monnaie 2016 – image: Claire Israel
KNOTORYUS: The great Paul Boudens designed the book, how did this collaboration come to be?
GERT VOORJANS: “Yes, he absolutely is great. I published my first book ‘Interior Life’ in 2012 and we already worked together on that. In order to complement this first book, I wanted the new one to be the same size so they would match. The first book is more about all of my sources of inspirations and all of the facets you need to consider to make a house an interesting home, and to look beyond whether you think something is beautiful or not. That book was more of a presentation of who I am; in this new book you can see the results. Since there are a lot of books who just focus on certain rooms, I specifically wanted to go beyond that and publish them in a certain order.”
KNOTORYUS: How did you work together on this new book, did you suggest painting the paper’s edges green?
GERT VOORJANS: “It had be something special. The first book had Japanese double-bound paper but I didn’t feel like repeating that technique for this book. What we absolutely wanted was to make the second book bright, fresh and very clear. The book spans a period of about two decades, so the book’s lining is peppered with my Christmas cards throughout the years to convey that sense of time. And of course we wanted to make a statement by combining bright blue and a block of green. The design grew naturally.”
KNOTORYUS: Releasing a book is something almost analogue nowadays, but you’re also on Instagram.
GERT VOORJANS: “I think it goes together, holding a physical object is still a totally different story. A book is a certain statement. Maybe in ten years all of this will be obsolete, but everyone has been saying it would become a thing of the past and there have never been this many books being published as today.”
KNOTORYUS: Do you find yourself spending a lot of time online or on social media, looking for inspiration perhaps?
GERT VOORJANS: “I’m not necessarily looking for inspiration, but I sometimes bump into it. My entire life I’ve been working on this job, so it’s not every day that I will see something new. Between the ages of 30 and 40 for instance, you’re much greedier and on the lookout for all things new. The older you get or the more you evolve, the less there are things that you haven’t seen yet. Everything’s almost always a revival of something or the other. But, the more you work, the more creative you can become. You can’t just sit there and wait for the inspiration to come. Only by keeping yourself occupied and by travelling you get these flashes of organic inspiration.”
KNOTORYUS: Do you have a big archive that you pick certain pieces out of or do you always go on a new hunt for every client?
GERT VOORJANS: “There are a few storage units out there, filled to the brim. (laughs) It would be impossible otherwise; you can’t go out on the trail for everything. What’s also very fun is to create a room around a certain piece of furniture like a room divider, a carpet, a couch, a sculpture or a painting. Starting from those things and then coordinating the entire atmosphere and colour palette around that is one of the most fun ways to start. If you have a historical property there often already are architectural elements that you can build on, but often you don’t have that. Working like that prevents making non-committal choices and just picking random things.”
KNOTORYUS: You’ve been working with Dries Van Noten for many years now, how did that collaboration start and are there any new projects in the pipeline?
GERT VOORJANS: “We both live in Antwerp and sort of speak the same ‘language’, I think we were a bit predestined to end up working together one day. (laughs) When I met him I was working for Axel Vervoordt. Dries would come over to Vervoordt’s ’s-Gravenwezel castle a lot because it was a very unique setting then. The way Axel Vervoordt handled design and luxurious items was particularly trailblazing 25 to 30 years ago. For instance putting a silver platter on a sanded table, we all think that’s a normal thing to do nowadays but that didn’t use to be the case. Axel Vervoordt pioneered this and set this all in motion in Belgium. In the old days, people would bring out the silver for special occasions and put it on mahogany or on a tablecloth. The generation before came from the Formica days and American kitchens after World War II, you see. So after meeting Dries there, I ended up working for him full-time and after working for him in Japan for two years, I suggested contributing freelance and to make him a priority whenever there are flagship stores to be designed. This year, in April, we opened his new flagship in Hong Kong. There are some new projects on the horizon but he’ll have to inform me first. So that needs to stay under wraps for now. (laughs) It’s like with new fashion collections, you can only talk about them when the clothes are actually there.”
Dries Van Noten Hong Kong – image: Landmark
KNOTORYUS: In the past you’ve held expos at the gallery, one by Nicolas Karakatsanis for instance. Why is it important for you to do these kinds of exhibitions?
GERT VOORJANS: “I do these things because I don’t organise visitor’s days to talk about my business. Most people would just be interested in the price tags or what they like or dislike. I have my own specific audience and that’s why the windows of my studio have been covered for 25 years, as not everyone is likely to ‘get’ what I do. However, I enjoy inviting someone into my framework and have them hang their work here. To me that’s an interesting interaction. Galleries are often these big white boxes but art is seldom made to be put up in a white box. To me, art still has to be a ‘coup de cœur’, an instant crush. You need to fall in love with something and then integrate it into the world you live in. So I occasionally have exhibitions without it being all about established artists. If I’d call galleries in London, Paris or New York, I’d be able to get big-name pieces over here but I don’t want to beat people about the head with huge names. I’ve always sort of been against doing that. Nine out of ten pieces that I have here are not signed because I don’t believe in signatures. If a signature is too important, you end up in an investment-focused atmosphere. It’s a choice to make, but I didn’t want to get involved in that. That’s why Karakatsanis is so fantastic; he’s a multidisciplinary artist. He’s as fantastically big in directing as he is in photography, and the fact that he approaches his photography like paintwork makes him the ideal artist to have on display here. I’m currently gearing up to do an expo with works by Nils Verkaeren.”
KNOTORYUS: Are there any young designers that you think are doing a good job and do you have any advice for them? A young British interior designer that I’ve been following for a while, Luke Edward Hall, often cites you as a big inspiration.
GERT VOORJANS: “You really have to be yourself. Looking back at my education, nothing of what I do today in my interior design really corresponds with that. Think of education like luggage. Everything I’m doing today was taboo in the past. You really have to believe in the things you want to be working on. That’s what I also recognise in Luke Edward Hall, because he knows how to totally be himself. I don’t know enough young people who do that; Luke stands out the most to me. You need to have a certain naiveté, because there’s so much out there. There will probably be more people like you out there, but to absolutely be yourself is the most important thing to me. You also have to grow in that sense, because let’s face it: what I do today has also grown from what I did in the past. With every big project you take on and are really committed to, you become a different person. It’s like with a conductor: when you’ve gone through a certain era you come out differently on the other side. When I’ve finished a long project with someone who’s really into colours for instance, I’ll come out on the other side with a different vision. And the fun thing about what we do is that we’re not like football players who have to retire at age 35. We can keep going. You can’t expect to be working on your biggest and most important projects when you’re only 28 or 32. You simply shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes every now and then; it means you’re evolving.”
KNOTORYUS: It’s like the Bukowski quote you shared on Instagram a while back: “Drink from the well of yourself and begin again”.
GERT VOORJANS: “I think you don’t need to overwhelm and bulldoze yourself too much, even though that’s very appealing. I’ve had the opportunity to launch a commercial collection and make glassware and carafes and footstools or a lamp – and I’m not saying I never will – but you don’t need to be focused on that too much. If you go to these big fairs like Maison et Objet in Paris, you’ll see that before your stuff even hits the markets it’s already been copied in cheaper or more expensive versions. Having a lot of work doesn’t automatically mean you’re successful financially. And sometimes when you’re in an economic slump, you can experience the most interesting reinvigoration in order to push on. You need to allow there to be some space to reinvigorate yourself and to investigate why you changed course and what your initial drive was all about. That’s what I mean by ‘drink from the well of yourself’; sometimes you need to take a step back. The biggest example of that is Karl Lagerfeld, who started at Chanel age 50 and has had Louis XV art and furniture collections as well as Memphis furniture and art collections. I don’t mind if, like a snake, you shed your skin every once and a while and take all of your knowledge and apply it to a different discipline. It’s not good to cling onto certain things against better judgment. You just end up repeating yourself. You know, if we’d send everyone into the mountains for a month without multimedia to just go for walks, we’d come back more like the way we were initially. We’re brainwashed by our environment and sometimes you need to get away from that.”
KNOTORYUS: Is that something you do sometimes, take that step back?
GERT VOORJANS: “At the moment I’m too restless to do that. (laughs)”
Images: Oberto Gili & Jacques Schumacher
KNOTORYUS: It’s also often said that empty interiors are the most relaxing, would that be different for you?
GERT VOORJANS: “As far as I’m concerned I could get rid of everything here tomorrow. In the 90s there was an article in The World of Interiors featuring my space upstairs, and it’s just one big white bench with a gothic chest in light wood. And in the evenings, when the light shone through my art deco windows on the big empty white wall, it would look like a Mondrian painting. But I can’t build a business on that. I can’t tell my clients: “Why don’t you just a let some beautiful shadows fall on that white wall and then you’ll have a gorgeous Mondrian?” (laughs) It’s like Yves Saint Laurent saying he was able to make the most beautiful clothes, but the actual most beautiful clothes on a woman were her lover’s arms. I definitely believe in that concept of emptiness, I’m also a huge fan of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. But you have to take into account in which context you’re operating. Everything you see in the book is definitely not the only truth, it’s not a bible, but it’s one solution.”
KNOTORYUS: Are there any projects you’re still looking forward to?
GERT VOORJANS: “I’m currently working on a secret project for a new museum coming to town and then I’ll be out on the trail in New York and Asia until the end of the year. So that’s all very exciting. And next year is already full of new projects too.”
KNOTORYUS: And are there any Holy Grail objects left that you’re still on the hunt for?
GERT VOORJANS: “To be honest, I can’t say that that there are.”
KNOTORYUS: That’s the ideal situation, though.
GERT VOORJANS: “Well of course I could always name some things I’d still like to have but I don’t think it makes much sense to say: “I still want to have a Rembrandt here and a Brueghel there and a Zadkine over there.” In terms of aesthetic experience, I’m not in need of anything right now. So maybe I should start from scratch again and do something completely different.” (laughs)