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For furniture designers, interiors aficionados, and architects, design hubs like Paris, Milan, New York, and Tokyo represent everything—including a chance to make it big. But with the destabilizing political and economic events of the 2010s, a trend toward the decentralization of influence has led to a group of previously overlooked medium-size cities giving established megalopolises a run for their money.
These hubs offer more advantages than you might think. Case in point? Brussels, the so-called bureaucratic backwater stigmatized as disjointed, dull, and dreary, has discovered its own creative excellence in the past five years—and has its share of beautiful homes to boot.
As more and more young talents flock to the Belgian capital for its inexpensive rents, quick connections to neighboring capitals, and culture of free experimentation, a new swell of design galleries including Victor Hunt, Maniera, Atelier Jesper, Spazio Nobile, and Pierre Marie Giraud have followed suit. Piggybacking on the city’s well-entrenched art scene, these new platforms have carved out their own niche and are making waves not only in continental Europe, but on the global scene as well.
Events like the annual Collectible fair (launched in 2018), new museums like the ADAM (opened in 2015), and an emerging crop of designers are all factors in this recent burst of activity. Here are the dedicated gallerists and culturemakers at the center of this movement.
Jean-François Declercq, Gallerist
As one of the more adventurous and knowledgeable proponents of the Brussels design scene, gallerist Jean-François Declercq has launched numerous spaces, programs, and fair presentations. His gallery, Atelier Jespers, occupies a striking Victor Bourgeois–designed modernist house in the Woluwe-Saint-Lambert municipality.
Inside Atelier Jespers, design enthusiasts encounter shows by a rotating roster of thought-provoking and craft-minded talents from Brussels and the surrounding region, including Destroyers/Builders, Conrad Willems, and others. In late May, Johan Viladrich’s solo show at Atelier Jespers during Collectible Week 21—a citywide festival held in lieu of the regularly scheduled Collectible Fair—pushed the concept of minimalism to new heights. Incorporating streamlined aluminum and bolt components, his pared-back modular furnishings play on the nuances of proportion, scale, and industrial systemization.
“The Bruxellois have always been a connoisseur of enlightened design,” he says. “Not unlike the Nordic countries, we take particular care and consideration for our interiors. From medieval guilds in Bruges and Mechelen to textile production in Kortrijk, Belgium has had an important impact on furniture production.” According to Declercq, local company De Coene still manufactures products for many of the world’s top furniture brands.
“In the past five years, Brussels has become a veritable creative hub once again with an energy similar to that of Berlin in the early 2000s,” he elaborates. “Thanks to certain platforms being able to capture this new activity, we can now count on the fact that a new groundbreaking talent will emerge in or move to Brussels almost every month.”
The young experimental designer Arnaud Eubelen is his latest discovery. The up-and-comer makes striking use of discarded construction materials sourced on the streets of the capital. He’s currently showing at Declercq’s latest venture, La Bocca della Verità Gallery in central Brussels.
That recently opened space, which occupies a postmodernist town house, features an endless array of young unconventional talents catering to the tastes of the local collector base. “Contrary to the formality of French design and Italian design that lost its audacity in the 1960s, Belgian design is completely uninhibited, perhaps in part due to the influence of the nearby Design Academy Eindhoven,” he says. “Truly innovative and honest objects will always delight a public in search of new propositions.”
Lise Coirier, Multihyphenate Tastemaker
Lise Coirier has been putting Belgian design on the map for two decades through her work, producing magazines, books, exhibitions, and programming focused on reviving lost craft traditions. Her most recent undertaking? Founding Spazio Nobile Gallery with her husband and business partner Gian Giuseppe Simeone. Over the last six years, this incubator has grown in prominence, hosting exhibitions of talents including Tomáš Libertíny, the renowned Flemish ceramicist Pieter Stockmans, and Lionel Jadot, the bad boy of Belgian design. Throughout, Coirier’s focus has been on the contemporary applied arts.
“Brussels is at the crossover of many cultures,” she says. “It hosts major international political institutions, like the European Commission, European Parliament, and NATO, which brings an international sensibility to our daily lives, but also to art and design.” In addition, she elaborates, the city is rich in culture and is home to revered museums and opera houses. This quality of life is reflected in the discretion of Brussels buyers, as well as in the relative informality of the city’s art and design scene. “A growing number of private foundations, contemporary art centers, and a high level of excellence in art and architecture schools form the basis for a positive evolution in attaining more quality and diversity,” she says.