Earlier this fall, our cofounders Amanda and Merrill led a small troupe of the Food52 team to Belgium and France to see two factories: Demeyere, outside of Antwerp, Belgium, where their unparalleled stainless steel cookware is made, and Staub, in Normandy, France, where molten cast iron is molded and enameled into iconic cocottes. It was a design-lover's dream trip, and not just because we all completely geeked out donning hard hats and steel-toed boots.
Over the course of the week, our hosts took us on a whirlwind design tour of their cities, and we all fell a little bit in love with Belgian design (and French butter, cheese, and bread). Here's why it inspired us so, and what you should know about it.
1. Axel Vervoordt is the name to know.
The Belgian interior designer and antiques expert Alex Vervoordt (pronounced vare-vordt) isn't yet a household name in all orbits—due, perhaps, to the ultra high-end world that he inhabits. While famously discreet about his clientele, we do know Vervoordt recently designed the penthouse at Robert DeNiro’s Greenwich Hotel, with other recent projects for Kanye West, Bill Gates, Sting, and the Kardashians.
His look is a grand but inviting mix of sloping, slip-covered couches, weathered natural materials, and grand spaces sparsely bedecked with storied antiques. And it's been so influential in recent years that it's come to define—and spur a worldwide obsession with—modern Belgian design.
We were lucky enough to visit Vervoordt's Kanaal while on our trip, a 16th-century distillery that he and his design team have turned into a residential village outside of Antwerp.
The apartment we saw was unsurprisingly impeccable, styled with his custom furniture and antiques, but it was the showroom that made our jaws drop (photos above and below).
2. And his influence is everywhere.
Vervoordt's look is perhaps best fit for sweeping châteaux in the countryside, but we saw it in Antwerp's restaurants, the residences and showrooms at Kanaal, and even back stateside: Storied-looking Plaster of Paris walls are suddenly back in vogue, as are farmhouse tables, mismatched chairs, and moody neutral palettes.
Walk into any Restoration Hardware and you'll be bombarded with faux-weathered woods, low-slung linen couches, and ultra-matte, plaster-like painted walls. (Word on the street in Antwerp is that the whole look is Vervoordt-inspired.)
Our home in Antwerp, Hotel Julien, featured a similar style. (We loved it so much.) I read a Julianne Moore interview with the hotel's architect, Vincent Van Duysen, Moore's "absolute favorite designer."
Right off the bat, she asks him why he thinks the "Belgian look" has taken off so dramatically. His answer: Axel Vervoordt.
We also at at a restuarant of Van Duysen's design, Graanmarkt13, which has a boutique shop above the dining room and an apartment, available for rent, above that. It had the same rich, cozy feel as what we'd seen at Kanaal, farmhouse-inspired with pooling linen curtains and all.
3. "Belgian linen" isn't just a made-up marketing term.
From this obsession with Belgian design, perhaps no material has been as warmly received as Belgian linen—on slipcovers, curtains, and clothes in all parts of the design world. It's textural and thick, like something from a century bygone.
And while not all the "Belgian linen" you'll find on the market is high-quality or even legitimate, the tradition is real.
Known as a place of great prosperity in the Renaissance, Flanders was famous for its linen made from the local flax—an industry that flourished until more modern production methods outpaced the city’s devotion to hand-weaving. The local climate and local geography make it perfect for growing this natural material, so while the industry hasn't always prospered, its newfound popularity is exciting to see.
4. The style has roots in a local reverence for the arts.
Like so many old European cities, the architecture and urban design of Antwerp hint at a longtime respect for the arts. Our team stayed a few streets away from Grote Markt, a grand pedestrian town square lined by gothic-inspired guild houses all a little bit varied in symmetry and personality.
Nearby, the Cathedral of Our Lady features four works by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who spent a decade in Antwerp establishing his early career and teaching. (One of his most famous pupils during that time was the Baroque artist Anthony Van Dyck.)
But it's more than painting and architecture. The sixteenth century saw printers like Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus turn heads: They made their Antwerp residence into a printing press that would be one of the most important in the world in its time. And the Ruckers, a longtime Antwerp family, were so innovative in harpsichord design that their influence is said to have spanned centuries.
Fast forward to modern times: In the 80s, the Antwerp Six, a group of local radical designers that included Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester, sent a wave of intrigue through the design world. They all graduated together from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which is still a hotbed for young designers in Antwerp today.
All to say, we were smitten with what we saw, and excited that the popularity of Belgian design is spreading. Styles come into vogue and go, and who knows how long the zeitgeist around this look will last, but we felt fortunate to get a glimpse at the forefront of the movement (and sit on many incredibly comfy linen couches).
P.S.A. Go visit Antwerp! And check out our Belgian Demeyere cookware, new in the Shop.