In Belgium, a Home That Celebrates the Elegance of Utility

A designer and an artist have dedicated their lives to producing spaces, objects and furnishings that say only what they need to — and nothing more.

Article by Michael Snyder

BELGIUM HOUSE_1Michaël Verheyden and Saartje Vereecke designed nearly all of the furnishings in their home in Genk, Belgium, including the Trebord dining table in Douglas fir, the Ciub chair in oak and saddle leather and the Curb low table in Italian sandstone. The vintage dining chairs are by Vico Magistretti. Photography by Martin Morrell.

Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s in the Belgian city of Genk, the industrial designer Michaël Verheyden had little interest in art, fashion or design — the fields that would later shape his career as a creator of austere, luxurious housewares and furniture. He did, however, enjoy making things, working with his father to lash together a child-size crossbow from spare pieces of wood or sewing a pair of fingerless gloves in homage to “Bad”-era Michael Jackson. After completing his degree in industrial design at the Media and Design Academy in Genk and following a stint as a runway model for the designer Raf Simons (who had also studied in Genk), Verheyden, now in his mid-40s, began making handbags from a studio in his home town. In 2007, he moved into a 150-square-metre townhouse in the centre of the city with his wife, Saartje Vereecke; together, they established a firm under his name that sells objects like precisely tailored leather placemats and minimalist furnishings such as solid oak stools. Craft, Verheyden says, has always been central to Flemish identity: “For us it comes naturally. Often people see the difficulties that come with making things. We see opportunities.”

In the entry hall, Verheyden’s Ghia Busk vase in Murano glass and Medi leather-covered bowl on a Profilo table in steel and Crema Valencia marble. The painting is by Vereecke, and the vintage chair is by Christophe Gevers. Photography by Martin Morrell.
Verheyden’s Komm bowl in Nero Antico on the dining table and Soli cast brass vases, partly polished, on the windowsill. Photography by Martin Morrell.

Though Verheyden knew his town as a minor industrial burg, its shifting population and fortunes shaped by coal mining and auto manufacturing, Genk had once been a thriving creative hub. From the 1840s, it drew painters and naturalists from cities like Brussels and Antwerp who came to study the surrounding heather fields and juniper-filled moorlands. Part of a newly minted leisure class, they saw Genk’s rural landscape as a respite from the steel and smog that had overtaken other parts of the country. The opening of the area’s first coal mine near the end of World War I marred those idylls, but local artists (among them Verheyden’s maternal grandfather, a teacher) continued to conjure pastoral romances of church towers and shepherds ranging over open country.

Genk likewise offered Verheyden and Vereecke a sense of tranquillity — not to mention an affordable place to live. Twelve years after launching their collection of furnishings, they now sell their work to shops and galleries around the world; they also take on the occasional hotel or restaurant commission, after giving up handbags a decade ago. “Our focus is to make beautiful things,” Verheyden says, “but we only develop objects that you can really use.” In Genk, they collaborate with a workshop on brass hardware that Verheyden hammers and patinas himself, applying the pieces as bases for light fixtures and side tables. Another local artisan carves the wooden trays that he covers with leathers in jewel and earth tones sourced from two of the last small tanneries in Belgium. 

By 2012, Verheyden and Vereecke had outgrown their original home and studio. “It was painful because we’d only just finished the house,” he says, but as Vereecke adds, “We just needed more space.” The 450-square-metre house they found that year, built in the early 1950s, matched their aesthetic, its rationality — all straight lines and expansive windows — tempered with flourishes like restrained crown mouldings and fluted wainscoting. 

Named Ten Berken, or “At the Birches”, after the forests that had once surrounded it, the house stands on a corner lot in a suburban neighbourhood across the train tracks from the Bokrijk museum. Three times the size of their previous home, it allowed them to experiment with designing larger furnishings and new light fixtures — made at their studio, now located inside a second home they own down the street — that punctuate the sun-washed rooms with reflective and matte surfaces of aluminium and brass. “Most of our designs begin with our needs and our space,” Verheyden says. “For us, the house is also a tool.”

A 2012 leather-covered mirror over a prototype of a custom Perlato Royal sink. In the foreground, a Tabou stool in Calacatta Viola marble. Photography by Martin Morrell.
Alabaster tea lights on an aluminium table. Photography by Martin Morrell.

On their first visit to Ten Berken, Verheyden and Vereecke were surprised to meet not only a real estate agent but also the youngest daughter of the original owner, who’d grown up on the property. She’d already turned down several potential buyers who’d talked openly of ripping out the finishes that she’d so lovingly preserved: a flamboyant wrought-iron banister on the main stair — “like a ribbon tied around a gift”, Vereecke says — or the arched thresholds that pass under the main stairwell from the airy south-facing foyer to an office space in the back. Others had hoped to capitalise on the house’s proximity to the Bokrijk train station by turning the place into a restaurant. The couple only got the house, Verheyden says, because “the owner could see that we loved it as it was.” 

After a quick-fix renovation, they’ve spent the past decade gradually updating it. Worn carpets were torn out for polished concrete floors, and the kitchen was relocated from a cramped corner off the back entrance into a larger 18-square-metre space adjacent to the dining room. Working with a fourth-generation carpenter, the pair built custom cabinets to form a corridor that hides the kitchen from view — Vereecke, an avid cook, hates when guests can see an untidy sink — and installed shelves throughout the house with a veneer that mimics the red oak surfaces of some interior doors. 

In the library, the aluminium-and-saddle leather Edo chair, and a Panser table lamp in Calacatta Viola marble on a Volta table with a resin finish. Photography by Martin Morrell.
In the living room, a sofa upholstered in bouclé wool, an aluminium coffee table and another version of the Ciub chair. In the foreground, a Holt Tre chair in chiseled tulip wood. Photography by Martin Morrell.

Upstairs, sconces inspired by Donald Judd’s wall boxes illuminate the gallery that overlooks the foyer and connects the house’s six original bedrooms. What was once the primary bedroom has been refashioned into a 25-square-metre dressing area and bathroom with a marble pedestal sink of Verheyden’s design and a deep shower booth washed from floor to ceiling in impermeable Mortex, whose concretelike finish is similar to Moroccan tadelakt. They turned the other modestly sized bedrooms into their own sleeping area, a guest room, a second dressing space, a music room for Verheyden and a studio for Vereecke, who creates large colour-field paintings that hang on some of the walls.

It’s the downstairs living area that best represents the couple’s shared vision: it’s both warm and spare, defined by muted tones enlivened by the flash of canary yellow in a contemporary Iranian rug and by the luminous shine of an ivory epoxy table — like “spilled yoghurt”, Vereecke says. “A little bit alive.” On warm summer afternoons, the sun filters through curtains of raw, flax-coloured linen hung throughout the house with deep Flemish pleats, a detail that “reflects the way people used to live”, Verheyden says. “Just a few things, not too glamorous, nothing that screams for attention.” These words sound like a mantra, as clear and direct as the objects with which he surrounds himself. For him and his wife, tradition and craft are less an aesthetic than an ethic — sobriety its own kind of luxury, utility the ultimate source of pleasure. The goal, as Verheyden sees it, is to be “very serious about the most ordinary things”. 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our twelfth edition, Page 90 of T Australia with the headline: “The House is Also a Tool”