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by James Zemaitis
|Brussels and Antwerp. Not the usual destinations on an American's Grand Tour of Europe. But for the connoisseur of 20th-century modern design, with a special interest in things plastic, nothing rivals the Belgian cities.
Each city has its own distinctive attractions. Brussels boasts a spectacular private design collection as well as the world's foremost museum devoted to plastic. In Antwerp, a glorious collision of vintage furniture and contemporary fashion spills out of the galleries and onto the streets of the Andries and Het Zuid districts.
I traveled to Brussels to see the collections I had discovered while researching plastic design of the 1960s, and I quickly fell in love with the chocolate and beer, the sinuous art nouveau curves of stairway handrails and balustrades, the fish mongers and the flea market. I was also floored by the hospitality of my hosts that first evening, Patrick and Alix Everaert, who run the highly regarded non-profit design site, Design Addict. It's the only online portal I've encountered for the design world, and it's also an inventory of the Everaert's labor of love, the P&A Collection -- an impressive assortment of 20th-century modern collectibles, from ashtrays and appliances to tableware and shelving, which they keep in their apartment in the Saint-Gilles district.
The P&A Collection includes 550 plastic objects -- 95 percent of their collection -- with a healthy complement of Finnish glassware, Danish teak tableware and postmodern metalwork. Everything is modular, stackable and portable, from the orange and white storage containers by Anna Castelli Ferrieri for Kartell, or the sets of brightly colored dinnerware by Lella and Massimo Vignelli for Heller. The best part of all is that every item is photographed, catalogued and on view on their website. In short, Design Addict delivers the goods, and serious junkies like myself mainline their content on a regular basis.
When I was finally able to tear myself away from the P&A Collection, I strolled the streets of Brussels to find the legendary Plasticarium hidden behind the Art Deco façade of a converted Morman church on rue Locquenghien. Home to a collection of haute plastic objects, the museum is run by curator Phillipe Decelle, who was recently anointed in Beaux Arts as "Plasticman." He assembled the entire collection, which he discusses in an interview on artnet.com.
If you can't get to Brussels, you'll be glad to know that the Plasticarium also has a website. Even better though is a comprehensive catalogue called L'Utopie du Tout Plastique, which Decelle put together for a traveling exhibition at the Fondation pour l'architecture in Brussels in 1994.
The rest of the design scene in Brussels is intimate and old-fashioned, hidden behind small storefronts in the antiques district that surrounds the place du Grand-Sablon. Perhaps the most intriguing gallery featuring plastic objects is Michelle Feiner's Les Annees 50. Just off the place du Petit-Sablon is her absurdly tiny triangular duplex cornershop, where Feiner displays a minimalist selection of Eames, Nelson and other imported American modernists along with small plastic objects manufactured by Kartell and Scandinavian ceramics. Because of the severe lack of space, clients often dangle from the ladder that connects the two floors while chatting with Feiner. But strike up a conversation with her and she'll tell you about her other space containing Belgian architectural design from the 1940s-50s, the missing link in Belgian 20th-century decorative arts that starts with Horta and Van de Velde and concludes with the couture of the Antwerp Six -- a group of fashion designers in the '90s.
Several days after my arrival I took the 45-minute train ride to Antwerp, a stroller's delight known for its port and diamond district. As I sat in a tavern old enough to have hosted Bruegel's peasant bacchanals, I looked up from my all-consuming bucket of briny Zeeland mussels and the steaming bowl of waterzooi, only to see a burgundy-haired woman walk by in a plastic bustier by Lieve Van Gorp. Such earthy delights gave me pause every three blocks or so, as did the stunning medieval guilds of the Grote Markt, and the whiplash art nouveau ornament festooning the corner building known as Het Modepaleis.
Just south of the medieval city center is a retail district reminiscent of New York's Orchard Street, with a dizzying array of butchers, bakers and ambient music makers mingling with some of the fashion world's most futuristic clothing boutiques. Any tour should begin by pressing the button that opens the garage door to Walter, a space created 18 months ago by two members of the original Antwerp Six, Walter Van Beirendonck and Dirk Van Saene. A floating fiberglass counter by Marc Newson is the anchor of the space -- try signing your credit card bill as it sways to your every movement -- which features a selection of mostly plastic couture, from European truck walls recycled into messenger bags, to polyurethane pouches containing kids' tee shirts decorated with holograms. It is not really so much about Antwerp couture as it is about Antwerp taste, with items by designers from Japan, Switzerland and England among the rotating inventory.
Farther south on the Kloosterstraat is the St. Andries district, which is known for its wall-to-wall antiques dealers. Some nifty little shops cram modern furniture into shoebox-sized spaces here, but the serious design is further south, near the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in the Het Zuid neighborhood. The city's most legendary dealer of design, Michael Marcy, is currently renovating his namesake gallery on Arsenaelstraat . Marcy was one of the original dealers of Pop plastic furniture and Italian design in the1980s, and like Michelle Feiner, is dedicating himself to introducing collectors to Belgian architects and designers of the 1940s and 1950s, a group and a genre rarely exhibited or discussed outside of Belgium. But if you're looking for a rare early edition of the "MAgriTTA" chair by Roberto Sebastian Matta, or a polyurethene hatstand in the form of a cactus by Gufram, Marcy is still the one to ask. If he's not in his gallery, ask for him at his wife's café, Take 5 Minutes Paris, around the corner.
Back on Kloosterstraat are several storefronts housing Bill Kuijpers' design empire Fiftie-Fiftie. Chances are you're more likely to see Kuijpers strolling the aisles of New York's Triple Pier show than at his Antwerp headquarters, but his place is not to be missed if you've made the journey. Everything from American mid-century design to Italian plastics are on display, but unlike most of his counterparts, Kuijpers displays his inventory online.
Finally, I can't talk about Antwerp design without mentioning Ann Demeulemeester, whose boutique is located just across the street from the Royal Museum. Deumeuelemeester is based in Paris and is perhaps the most internationally recognized of the Antwerp Six, but her only boutique is in her hometown. The first floor was decorated with witchy, feathery mobiles plastered with photographs of crows by Jim Dine, who supervised this "Spring Installation." What's it got to do with plastic you ask? A fine pair of shoes…all the better to tour the plastic cities.
JAMES ZEMAITIS is artnet.com's decorative arts specialist.