The five movers and shakers that gave Belgian designers a voice

Scenes don’t just magically take shape. Certain key factors – government support, local craftsmanship, educational infrastructure – play a crucial role in creating what often become microcosms of excellence. That, and people of course. Here, we talk to five individuals instrumental in instigating, supporting and promoting design in Belgium.

01. Jan Boelen

Artistic director at Kunstcentrum Z33 in Hasselt and Head of the Masters Department Social Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven. Based in Kessel-Lo.

Pictured with a porcelain milk can, designed by Dutch designer Aldo Bakker in 2005.

I was raised in a small house together with four brothers, so my parents chose every new piece they would put in the house very carefully. They put the right things in the right places and even today it is still appropriate. I think it was this attitude, the way they dealt with what is around us, that steered my interest in design. I do not really have a favorite item because actually I am not that interested in certain objects. What fascinates me much more is the question of why we use certain things and how we respond to certain circumstances: What do we produce and why? I like design that addresses societal developments, is critical, reflective, tactile and sensorial. Design that widens the field and opens up new perspectives. Nowadays we need to ask ourselves: Is there a need for more things? This regards all levels: Design is not only functional. Some of my favorite designers, who take all this into account, are for example Dunne & Raby, Thomas Lommée, Joost Grootens or Unfold, to name a few. Is there a Belgian design scene? I don’t think so. Most interesting Belgian designers are being educated abroad. At the moment I am following the work of young Belgian designer Tuur Van Balen who graduated from NCA only two years ago. Together with his partner he does some really interesting stuff and uses design in a new way: As a tool, a means, and not as a goal. But what we lack in Belgium is not only a good, but an excellent design education, that engages people with a vision, creates networks and goes beyond the traditional education. We have that when it comes to fashion, but not for product design. Only then you can achieve surprising or unexpected results. We need a critical debate on design in Belgium and see ourselves as a part of a global design world.

02. Moniek Bucquoye

Ceo Designcentrum Vlaanderen and Stategic Advisor Interieur vzw. Based in Ghent.

Pictured with a Panton chair, special edition in green, designed by Verner Panton in 1959.

The item that first got me hooked on design is Le Corbusier’s LC4 which my parents had in the lobby of our family home. My father treated it as a sacrosanct object and although it was always covered with things, I have never seen anyone sitting or lying in it. My father liked everything that was modern and innovative and broke with traditional thinking. My personal design icon is the Panton chair from 1960, the first one-shot chair made from one single material, a real classic and a great idea in terms of mass production. Verner Panton was the first one to create, through abstract thinking, a chair without four legs. But I am also a fan of Charles and Ray Eames’ lounge chair, which launched a completely new typology in furniture design. Ross Lovegrove’s sensual and organic creations are also something I like very much. Because of my engineering background I feel that the choice of material and the choice of technology are the two keys to good design. I think the day when the term “Design from Belgium” impresses people will come, but right now I do not think it is right to talk about a Belgian design scene just yet. I mean, can you name seven international Belgian design brands? Or can you name seven designers who made it on the cover of the Intramuros magazine and were interviewed in publications like Domus or Monocle? When I think of Italian design, it creates an image in my head – which is not the case when it comes to Belgian design. I think the one thing that it is lacking the most is courage. The designers that I really appreciate and follow closely at the moment are Lowie Vermeersch from Gran Studio Torino, the watch designers Benoit Mintiens (Ressence) and Jean-Pierre Lutgen (Ice Watch), Raf Simons at Dior, Jean-Paul Lespagnard at JPE, the girls from Black Balloon, the Big Game trio, the underestimated work of Clemtone and last but not least Alain Berteau.

03. Giovanna Massoni

Brussels-based art and design journalist.

Pictured with an Alessi shaker designed by her father, Luigi Massoni.

I got hooked on design not through a certain item but through an experience: My parents are divorced and one of the few times my father visited us (he was heavily involved in the design world as an art director for several companies), he took us to the Triennale of design in Milan. I must have been only five years old. I was fascinated by all these colourful, weird furniture pieces that felt very strangeto my eyes and met famous designers such as Joe Colombo. In my memory my relationship to my father and my relationship to design are closely connected. My favorite designers are those who go beyond the obvious and capture the essence of design, as Ray and Charles Eames for example or the Bauhaus movement. They were visionary, had a holistic approach and penetrated all domains of creativity. I’m also convinced that creativity should be closely linked with ethics. Good design takes this connection into account. And good design combines creativity with economical and social aspects. It sees design in relation to other domains of life or human culture, keeps the collective community in mind and contributes to social innovation. Design can be applied to social problems, it is a way of thinking. I really like what the young Belgian designer Thomas Lommée does, for example. I am quite intrigued by his open source design which proposes a very new and collective approach. Is there a Belgian design scene? I don’t think so. Belgian design is very varied and its scope, its range of influence is just not far enough. Plus a common Belgian style doesn’t exist. What we desperately need in Belgium is more dynamism and more support for the industry. There is a lack of direct contact between the designers and the production companies. Belgian design can be very creative, but that is not always a positive thing. You need a link to mass production. I hope I can help to create these kinds of links and connect people, overall by giving more visibility to Belgian design.

04. Marie Pok

Artistic director at Grand-hornu. Based in Brussels.

Pictured with Christmas ornaments designed by Jasper Morrison.

I discovered design rather late in my life, not through a certain object but through an experience. When I went to the very first Biennale of St Etienne, an exhibition that showed many classics and design icons, I didn’t know much about design at all. But I was there in the company of Barbara Coulon, an important design journalist, who explained everything to me, all the stories behind the objects. I think it took us five hours to see the whole exhibition. Until then I had not been aware at all of the whole design discourse, the culture behind design, its reflections on society and its relation to the historical, political and social context. I was hooked! My favorite designer of all time is Jasper Morrison, because of the simplicity and implicitness of his work. Good design is self-explanatory, responsible, and it engages. It takes into account the consequences of each step of production and has an added value, also in an emotional sense. One piece that I would love to have in my house is a desk lamp from Nathalie Dewez, just because mine just broke. Many designers don’t like it when there is talk of Belgian design, because they are all individuals who follow their own projects and in the end there is no direct link between them. Also, there are not really any famous design schools in Belgium. But there is a Belgian industry and a market for design, and a population with a sensitivity for design. When I look at young, emerging Belgian talents I find that Sylvain Willenz stands out. His works have the same qualities as those of Jasper Morrison: They are implicit, honest, and simple. The Unfold collective does some great things too, especially when it comes to finding new ways to produce and distribute. Belgium is missing a lot of things in the design sector, not least a common policy. There are just too many different initiatives (some in Flanders, others in Brussels and in Wallonia) without a common direction. For the long term it is very important for Belgium’s designers that the industry is being supported, because without the industry they cannot survive.

05. Dieter Van Den Storm

Brussels-based design journalist, creative director at Biennale Interieur kortrijk and project manager at Bozar.

Pictured with “Multicoloured Elements” designed by Louise Campbell for Royal Copenhagen.

I grew up surrounded by beautiful things and objects because my father is an interior designer. It helped me to develop a sense for design at an early age. It took a while though until I learned about the meanings and the historical value of the objects in our house. I have a little weakness for Ray and Charles Eames and classics in general, French designer Jean Prouvé for example. My definition of good design is when someone manages to bring industrial production and a sense of beauty together. It needs to be well-made, offer a solution to a social problem and be produced as a series, no matter if it’s just a few hand-crafted pieces or on a large scale. It’s completely natural to talk about Scandinavian or Dutch design. It’s a label and everyone knows what it means. For Belgian design that’s not the case. We don’t have a certain school, a certain style. And our designers are strugglers, they’re very specialised, all looking for a certain niche. On the other hand quite a few Belgian designers are very successful on an international scale and get publicity in magazines. So maybe we are just not aware of it ourselves, but the outside world does have a notion of Belgian design. There are a few emerging designers in Belgium that I really like: The Unfold collective for example or Studio Woot Woot because they have a new approach and find creative solutions in view of the current crisis. Unfold creates dialogues and doesn’t just focus on a new product, but also on finding solutions to problems in a changing world. We need more dialogue in Belgium, more discussion, especially about theory. Which role can design play? In which direction should we go? And the political initiatives are too shattered, for a small country like ours there are too many different platforms offering help. The Dutch and French are very proud when it comes to their design and Belgium should be proud too, we have a lot of great talent. But success also means being sold, something that comes very natural to the Scandinavians for example whilst in Belgium it’s still quite a rarity.