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Flanders: Europe's best-kept design secret

By Heather Smith MacIsaac, Travel+Leisure
September 20, 2012 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
In Flanders, Belgium, cities have contemporary style steeped in centuries-old artistic tradition.
In Flanders, Belgium, cities have contemporary style steeped in centuries-old artistic tradition.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Small spaces within 19th-century buildings boast minimalist, modern decor
  • Flanders natives like Jacques Wirtz and Axel Vervoordt are influential designers
  • Jan van Eyck paintings come to life in local museums

(Travel+Leisure) -- Unless you are a diamond dealer on business flying from New York, you are likely to arrive in Antwerp, as I did, by rail. Likely, you, too, will be traveling via a larger city, because Antwerp—as opposed to Paris or Amsterdam or London, from which it's an easy train hop—is considered a second-string destination on the European hit list. Antwerp Central is step one in setting you straight.

From the high-speed-train tracks, escalators lifted me past a bold new gridded superstructure by architect Jacques Voncke into the glorious cathedral of the original turn-of-the-20th-century station. The contrast was revelatory. Here in a palatial nutshell was the palette and soft light, the practicality and brio, the deep tradition and smart modernity that I would see again and again over the next few days as I made my own accelerated loop through the trinity of cities—Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges—that anchor the northern region of Belgium known as Flanders.

On trips to Paris, I know what I'll find: elegance, beauty, a certain feminine delicacy. Belgium, on the other hand, is a mongrel stimulant. I had sampled its wonderful oddness in Brussels four years ago, my first dig into Belgian design and decoration. But Brussels, the seat of the European Union, is a peculiar hybrid of international bland and haute guildhall, its avant-garde stylishness tucked into corners. Could it be that I would discover a purer form of Belgian interior style in an area half the size of Maryland—the golden triangle of Flanders?

What I was seeing out the taxi window was not promising. Bland postwar buildings, in-fill for wide swaths of Antwerp that had been leveled by bombs during World War II, supplanted the spectacle of the train station. My surly driver did not help, screaming down narrow streets that were relentless tunnels of gray. I caught sight of the sign for Hotel Julien up ahead, and a dialogue of doubt began to spin. The hotel had looked so stylish on its website; could this really be the street? How hard would it be to rebook?

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But the hotel itself was all-redeeming. Only good things could lie behind double doors of such chic taupe and perfect gloss. In the white foyer, an antique settee upholstered in natural linen and a simple domed light fixture were the only adornments. Modern sectionals in pale gray wool cozied up to the twin black-marble fireplaces of the parlor. A sleek bar at the back bridged the two 19th-century buildings. Even on this dim afternoon, natural light penetrated deep into the interior.

The Flemish have a gift for taking a space not much larger than an air shaft and transforming it into a sanctuary. At Hotel Julien, the public rooms had no views to speak of, but sitting in them was a pleasure thanks to walls of gridded glass opening onto small courtyards. At breakfast one morning, it was not the passing trolleys outside that drew my attention but the scene opposite: a tiny courtyard, white-walled and gravel-floored, with the elegant skeleton of a single bare tree emerging from asymmetrical waves of evergreen hedges. Such a painterly hand with plant material could only be credited to the influence of landscape designer (and hometown boy) Jacques Wirtz.

What Wirtz is to landscape design—a game changer with far-reaching influence—another Flanders native son, Axel Vervoordt, is to interiors, only tenfold. For 30 years, Vervoordt has defined Belgian style. Fourteen years ago, he bought a former distillery a short drive from Antwerp's center, which he turned into showrooms, offices, and exhibition spaces and renamed Kanaal. The large, spare rooms of the brick warehouses and concrete silos, where contemporary art and unusual antiques mix with farm tables and oversize slipcovered sofas, encapsulate his vision in its most elevated form.

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Vervoordt's work can also be experienced right in the center of town at a trio of places tucked into and under Vlaeykensgang, a narrow, easily missed alley just off the pedestrian Oude Koornmarkt. At his namesake gallery, the cool black stone floors and whitewashed walls form a monastic setting for works by the likes of Anish Kapoor. Serene in a softer way was Sir Anthony Van Dijck, a restaurant designed by Vervoordt in the 1980's. That the look—roughly plastered walls; worn stone floors; scrubbed pine tables—still seemed current was testament to the designer's trust in simplicity and natural materials.

Beautiful as Van Dijck was, I opted instead to dine at the French-Japanese Restaurant Roji around the corner. Secreted in a vaulted stone cellar, Roji represents Vervoordt's evolution to a more seamless environment aligned with the principles of wabi-sabi. Roji is the Japanese term for a path leading to a tea garden, a symbolic moving away from the outside world into a contemplative place. On this damp and cold night, the restaurant was a transformative ticket to warmth on every level. Stone, ceramics, soft-shell crab, and sake were united in a family of subtle hues and distinct textures. The fire in the hearth felt almost medieval. Well after leaving, the fragrance of woodsmoke lingered on my clothes and hair.

Even though Vervoordt has moved ahead, not all of his countrymen are with him. Belgian style as represented by his earlier Van Dijck restaurant suits the Flemish, whose interiors reflect a fundamentally conservative and private nature—stylish but never flamboyant. It's a sensibility embodied by Flamant, the Flemish equivalent of Restoration Hardware. The Flamant brothers, sons of an antiques dealer, opened their first shop in Antwerp 30 years ago, bringing well-made, well-priced, modern interpretations of antique pieces to the bourgeoisie. I bought candles in a soft taupe that recalled the shades of beige and gray dominating contemporary Flemish interiors. An echo of the pallid light captured by painters, or an extension of the linen Flanders was famous for producing, the palette is calm and elegant—though to some it's simply dull.

"I'm so tired of the Flanders style. I feel like I'm looking at rooms through panty hose." This comment was made to Cristina Van Steenbergen-di Resta by a friend, but it could have been the decorator's own lament. Her shop, International 14, was a bright star among the emporiums I explored along Kloosterstraat, the spine of Antwerp's antiques district. A rare straw hat, circa 1820, was treated as sculpture; brilliantly colored taxidermy parrots were sprinkled amid handsome Swedish cupboards and a sofa of di Resta's own design. "In 16th- and 17th-century Flanders, it was all the rage to collect odd items from around the world and display them in ornate verzamel cabinets," Van Steenbergen-di Resta said. "I think of the room as a cabinet, and the decoration and people who live there as the collections that bring the story to life."

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Arrayed on a wood table were contemporary samples of traditional Flemish leather wall coverings, much like what I had just seen at the nearby Plantin-Moretus Museum. Although the holdings of what was once the most significant printer and publisher in 16th-century Europe were exceptional, it was the museum's deeply atmospheric rooms, side-lit through stacked leaded glass windows shielded by dark shutters, that I had come to see. I wanted to know if it was possible to occupy a Jan van Eyck painting in real life. The answer is yes; caught in the light by a window, the lone museum guard seemed poised for a session with the master.

Knowing what to enhance and when to leave well enough alone is a hallmark of Flemish style, as I discovered anew at the four-room Chambres d'Hôtes Hôtel Verhaegen, a 50-minute train ride away in Ghent. To their listed 18th-century hôtel particulier, Jan Rosseel and Marc Vergauwe (who met in design school in Ghent) brought their own high intelligence, treating the architectural shell as the treasure it is while adding wit, comfort, and appropriately invisible technology. Shapely modern lamps offset boiserie and paintings by 18th-century Flemish artist Pierre Norbert van Reysschoot. Striped carpets on the stairs and in the bedrooms complement the original herringbone-wood and black-and-white marble floors. If it is possible to be both taut and lush in decoration, then Rosseell and Vergauwe are masters. Rare are the places where one can experience the art in l'art de vivre. Rarer still are the times that I arrive at a hotel and want to abandon the rest of my itinerary. So I stepped away from Hôtel Verhaegen only long enough to gather excitement about my return.

Once the most important center for wool and cloth in medieval Europe, Ghent wears its historical significance lightly. A few blocks from the guesthouse, I came across a contemporary design store, Surplus Interieur; Ghent's best art and architecture bookshop, Copyright; and Dille & Kamille, a Belgian-Dutch chain of orderly, open-shelf, tin-bin bazaars of kitchen and bathwares. At the Design Museum Ghent, I took in Belgian masterpieces such as an 18th-century wooden chandelier by J. F. Allaert and the 1930's tubular furniture of Gaston Eysselinck. I stood in rapture before the panels of the van Eyck brothers' Ghent Altarpiece in St. Bavo Cathedral, and in dismay at the ugly (if necessary) climate-controlled glass box that encases it. I stopped in at Yves Tierenteyn-Verlent—not so much for the tangy traditional mustard made fresh several times a week, but for the original 1860 interior. At Pakhuis, tucking in to oven-roasted Bresse chicken beneath industrial trusses felt like picnicking in the machine room of the Eiffel Tower.

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Half an hour away by train and less than half the size, Bruges felt more packed than Ghent and far more touristy, the streets leading off the Markt choked with lace and chocolate shops. To meet the need of so many visitors, Bruges has exploded with small guesthouses where you can dial into any period look. I chose to stay at St. Jacob, a 19th-century building transformed into a contemporary B&B with four smart white rooms and a spectacular kitchen. Emmanuel Vanhaecke and his sister, Lyne, second-generation hoteliers, run two charming others that step further back in time: Maison Le Dragon and Bonifacius Private Guesthouse. Stay at the latter and you are practically on the Groeninge Museum's campus; the high-breasted hearth and leaded-glass bay windows of Bonifacius's breakfast room, overlooking the canal, are just a courtyard away. The schizophrenia of Bruges was what held my interest. One moment I could be immersed in the shadows of low-ceilinged rooms and the rich textures of brick walls and cobblestoned courts. The next I would be admiring Frederiek van Pamel's way with mixing Asian artifacts, blooming branches, leather, and zinc in his interiors and floral shop.

At tiny, rocking Rock-fort I nabbed a counter stool and watched the chefs turn out young Anjou pigeon and fried liver with jam. My head was filled with images of the trip, so many of them beautiful, unexpected, even contradictory. Sifting and sorting, I came to an understanding rather than a conclusion. What made Flanders such a satisfying place to visit was not the ease of train travel (though that helped) or the accommodations, which were some of the chicest I have ever encountered, but its identity. Flemish style is stealth style, Flanders the land of under-promise and over-delivery. Flanders is only small if you're not looking.

Heather Smith MacIsaac is a regular T+L contributor who writes frequently about design.

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