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  • Issue 43

Vincent
VAN DUYSEN

At home with the cult architect.
Words by Anna Winston. Photography by Lasse Fløde.

At home with the cult architect.
Words by Anna Winston. Photography by Lasse Fløde.

Vincent Van Duysen is not a man who cares for labels. One, in particular, sparks his ire. “It’s the way the term is used,” he begins. “First of all minimalism is something very radical and I’m not a radical at all in heart and soul. I’m here to create warmth and comfort for my clients and myself.”

We are meeting for the first time at the Belgian architect and designer’s Antwerp home. It’s a line of inquiry Van Duysen has been down before. “Of course, I’m a big fan of American minimalist artists,” he continues. “But the idea of minimalism that is really going to the bone and stripping away everything, where you cannot have an object or an art piece or books around because it might disturb the minimal environment is not the way I perceive minimalism. When people think that I’m a minimalist, I say Guys, you don’t know me. You don’t know me.

For those very familiar with his work, this passionate rant should come as no surprise. There is nothing cold and clinical about Van Duysen: A devotion to natural materials and colors means that almost every surface has a texture that invites you to touch it. His color palette might look monochromatic, but it is rich in tone and variation. Fellow designer and former design journalist Ilse Crawford once described his work as “sensual,” which seems a much better fit. Van Duysen’s approach is also that of a completist: He says that architecture, interiors, furniture and product design are combined to create “my world.” 

To understand this total approach, you could look to a hospitality project such as the recently completed August Hotel in Antwerp, where everything, down to the cutlery in the restaurant, is designed by Van Duysen and his team. Or consider the design of his home. Much of the functional “mess”—food storage, bathrooms, electronics, the stack of nearly identical designer black baseball caps in his bedroom—is hidden behind cupboard or wardrobe walls, but there are still clear traces of real life everywhere. Almost every room has at least three piles of books and magazines, many well-thumbed, including Flemish and English novels, philosophy books and copies of National Geographic. He describes the books and objects as the “protagonists” of each space. 

Van Duysen moved to Antwerp in the late 1980s. Culturally, he was rebelling, having previously spent eight years at a Catholic boarding school. “I was not a bad boy, but I was exploring everything,” he says. He went to Antwerp’s fashion academy to take the entrance exam without telling his parents, and was accepted. But at the same time, his parents hired a tutor to get him through his more technical architecture exams—the part of the discipline he struggled with most—and he passed. 

When Van Duysen designed his first house in 1985, Antwerp was cementing its reputation as a unique cultural and design center with a profoundly idiosyncratic character. More than 35 years on, the living room of that first home still regularly appears on Pinterest boards, blogs and roundups for home interior inspiration, often mixed in with images of his current home, which sits an easy walk from his studio in the city center. The 19th-century neoclassical building stands out from the more narrow, brick 17th-century houses that are more typical of Belgium’s Flemish-speaking northern region. 

The similarity between the two houses indicates Van Duysen’s striking consistency over the decades: They share the same textured wall finishes in muted shades, the same almost-black details in functional elements like windows and counters, the same hidden fixtures and refined detailing. His architecture retains a sense of sparse, stylized domesticity, even in the showrooms, shops, hotels and offices his team now works on, which include stores in Italy for Loro Piana and La Rinescent and a winery in Belgium. 

From the outside, his buildings often appear more severe and regimented, more overtly modernist, in contrast with the tactility of his interiors. He describes his approach to design as intuitive. Math is still not his strong suit: “I have other talents,” he says. “My team knows this. And I’m very verbal, very narrative, I talk with imagery.” He is personally involved in every single project that passes through the practice on a day-to-day basis. 

Although Van Duysen’s name is associated with the Belgian scene, he is quick to tell people that he has Mediterranean roots. This comes partly through heritage—there is Mediterranean ancestry on his mother’s side of the family—and also through scholarship.

As a young designer, Van Duysen was heavily influenced by his relationship with Italy and its design industry. In his 20s, he worked with the postmodernist designer and architect Aldo Cibic, who was a partner in the Milan studio of Memphis movement founder Ettore Sottsass. 

On the surface, this experience seems strikingly at odds with his reserved, quiet aesthetic, but he says it influenced him on a cerebral level. “I was a young kid, 22 or 23 years old, and I was arriving in that craziness—the end of postmodernism—with all these intellectual people, these crazy, Pasolini-ish people. They were teaching architecture in a completely out-of-the-box way,” he recalls. “What appealed to me at that time about Sottsass and Aldo Cibic was the interest in primary forms. One of the first collections I worked on was called Standards, a series of furniture really going to the basics but with a fun twist.” 

When he returned to Belgium and started his own practice in 1989, it was an Italian who first spotted his potential as a furniture designer. Giulio Cappellini, head of the iconic furniture brand Cappellini, “considered my interiors and my furniture as domestic architecture,” says Van Duysen. His commissions for Cappellini were the first of many collaborations with Italian furniture brands. In 2016 he was appointed creative director of Molteni&C—the furniture institution founded by a family involved in creating the Salone del Mobile, the world’s most important furniture fair. Van Duysen was the first non-Italian to take the helm and now considers himself part of the family. 

“When people think I’m a minimalist, I say ‘Guys, you don’t know me.’”

Sitting at the long wooden table that runs along the side of his living room, overlooked by a cardboard work by the artist Sterling Ruby, Van Duysen is not the severe individual that he seems in photographs. He is energetic and warm. Wearing his signature head-to-toe black—a casual version of the standard architect’s uniform—he is disarmingly open. He tells me, for example, that his standard-issue baseball cap is the result of a doctor’s warning that he should never go bareheaded in cold weather with a shaved head. 

But he is blunt, too. He lays bare his irritation at how an anemic version of his style is now wheeled out to sell “luxury apartments” carved out of old buildings across Antwerp and other European cities. These cynical displays of façadism are built by developers keen to cash in on the aesthetics of so-called “Belgian minimalism,” the term coined in the early 2010s to describe an aesthetic exemplified by Van Duysen and his fellow Antwerper Axel Vervoordt. They tend to miss the point of Van Duysen’s approach and lack the subtlety of his best work. The surfaces are too smooth, the whites too brilliant, the blacks too flat, the storage—which is so abundant in his own home and key to keeping the spaces open—completely absent. “I know my work is very inspirational, and in Belgium, we see a lot of look-a-likes. It’s sometimes very irritating,” he says. “It’s good that I inspire others. But there is huge complexity in my approach and the richness of materials, this tactile world that is omnipresent in my work. It reflects who I am.” 

Still, he doesn’t register the competition as anything other than a minor annoyance. “My work is more profound. My work has more layers,” Van Duysen says dismissively. “It’s something you cannot copy. Luckily I have this gift, that I’m very blessed with, that within this style, this tactile world, I can still surprise myself, surprise my clients.” In Van Duysen’s home, there is little true black or white. The colors are muddied with blues, greens and browns. “Most of the color comes from the material, from the use of wood, of blue stone, but also the objects we live with, the plants,” he says. “I’m a big admirer of [Mexican modernist architect] Luis Barragán—I visited most of his projects in Mexico—but his use of color reflects Mexican culture and their color reinforces his architecture within that context. Our use of color in Belgium is different.” 

Although his home could easily accommodate large dinner parties and house-guests galore, he claims to rarely entertain, and when he does it’s generally no more than a handful of friends. He describes his home as his safe haven, an island of calm, that he has little desire to leave when he isn’t at work. Many of his peers—the generation of creatives including Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten who cemented Antwerp’s reputation as a center for fashion and architecture in the 1980s and 1990s—have moved out to bigger houses in what passes for the countryside in heavily developed Flanders. But Van Duysen sees no need to leave the city, especially when his home already feels like a country house. 

Next year, Van Duysen will turn 60. An only child, he lost his mother last summer. His father is growing older, although still heavily involved in the business side of his son’s work. Van Duysen has no children. Does he want them? Usually, the architect talks a mile a minute about his work, about art, about books, about meditation, about his houses, about his work again. But this question elicits a strikingly long pause. “I think I believe in destiny. It was not meant to be,” he says, cradling Pablo—one of three dachshunds that are clearly devoted to him, hovering around protectively and barking when they don’t feel his attention for a while. The tone of the conversation flips between light and heavy quickly. “It’s not that my dogs are a surrogate for not having children,” he laughs, “but they are my little babies, even if they are dogs.”

“Also, I am gay, which doesn’t matter now. And I am conservative—you can see this twisted kind of conservatism in my work. I think I would have had a lot of problems in terms of being able to educate my kids. If I had kids, I would want to be with them every day, and that’s not possible. . . . But if I am not in a relationship, who is going to take care of me as I did my parents? I will have my friends, and my cousins and my nieces. I will make my own family in a different way.”

There is a sense, in the way that he talks about his relationship with some of his clients, that they might also be his family, inhabiting his spaces, owning pieces of his world. Kanye West is perhaps the most famous and the most intriguing.1 West is enamored with everything Antwerp and is rumored to be buying a house in one of the city’s residential neighborhoods, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he commissioned Van Duysen to collaborate on the house he shared with his former wife, Kim Kardashian, in California. When he comes to Antwerp now, West often stays in Van Duysen’s wood-lined attic space, which he once described as the sexiest room he’d ever seen.

“Kanye is a genius, you know,” says Van Duysen. “He’s an artist. He’s inspiring, a very emotional person. He has these extremes, and we talk about that. But more important is the chemistry. We’re friends. We like each other. It’s not always easy to follow him, but he gets me out of my comfort zone.” Two weeks ago, West was here in Van Duysen’s living room and asked for all the furniture to be moved out. “He’s really into the essence of space, into sacred architecture, monasteries. He was standing in the pureness of the space with all of the windows open,” he recalls.

“I’m grateful. Being surrounded by people I can learn from, great conversations. That’s what I like the most. This is what I am.”

( 1 ) Axel Vervoordt led the design of Kim and Kanye’s Los Angeles home. Van Duysen, who helped furnish the living room as well as the children’s bedrooms, was one of a group of designers who contributed to the project, which also included Claudio Silvestrin and Peter Wirtz.

( 1 ) Axel Vervoordt led the design of Kim and Kanye’s Los Angeles home. Van Duysen, who helped furnish the living room as well as the children’s bedrooms, was one of a group of designers who contributed to the project, which also included Claudio Silvestrin and Peter Wirtz.

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This story is from Kinfolk Issue Forty-Three

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