I WANT TO GIVE A DIFFERENT DIMENSION TO WHAT I DO. I DON’T LIKE THAT WORD, DECORATING. Axel VervoordT
If there is a single, definitive Axel Vervoordt style, it is one of almost insouciant luxury. The 67-year-old Belgian designer and curator is famous, first, for his collection of singularly opulent objects. His breadth and depth of interest as a buyer and dealer—in rare and beautiful antiques, in modern art, and sumptuous furnishings and pottery—is staggering. But the way he brings it all together and assembles an environment, creating a pleasing frisson through contrast, or diffusing an object by setting it in a complementary context, is what makes him unique. After he’s done with it, a room, a house, or a work of art can often seem as though it has reached some ultimate, elemental completion, as if it could be no other way than how he has made it—perfect, effortless.
But beyond being just your favorite designer’s favorite designer—which, trust, he is—he is also among the most esteemed art dealers and curators working today. And although he has gathered together several monographs of his work (including Timeless Interiors in 2007, and in 2013, Living With Light) and, with the architect Tatsuro Miki, created the aesthetic treatise Wabi Inspirations (2011), the variety of his talents allow Vervoordt a holistic approach to his work that few others can even imitate, let alone match. He is a world builder, so perhaps it is unsurprising that he should want to build his own world—which indeed he is doing, reconstructing an entire village on the outskirts of his native Antwerp.
Rick Owens, whose interiors in his Paris home are also the stuff of design legend, has long been an admirer of Vervoordt’s work. This past June, shortly after Vervoordt’s completion of a magnificent penthouse apartment for Robert De Niro and Ira Drukier’s Greenwich Hotel, Owens spoke with the designer about living in the light and what it takes to make a village.
AXEL VERVOORDT: Hello, Rick. It’s Axel. We haven’t met yet, but we know each other, which is nice. [laughs]
RICK OWENS: Hello. I’m delighted.
VERVOORDT: I would love to meet.
OWENS: Well, I understand that you have a place in Venice. You can invite me over.
VERVOORDT: Are you coming to Venice?
OWENS: I’m in Venice all the time. When I’m not in Paris, I’m at the Lido. Actually, I’m on a construction site in Milan now, because I’m opening a store here. You know, I’ve been following you for so long that the first time I was able to completely immerse myself in your work was at the Palazzo Fortuny show in Venice—I was there for the opening. Was it Artempo, with the Anish Kapoor mirrored thing on the bottom floor?
VERVOORDT: It was. Artempo was the first, in 2007, when we had the big work of El Anatsui on the façade outside. In 2009 was In-Finitum. The city of Venice gives me the palace for almost unlimited time to do an exhibition every two years. We’ve done it four times. I’m going to do the fifth now.
OWENS: That was brilliant of Venice to invite you to do that. How did you pull that off?
VERVOORDT: I wanted to do an exhibit with all my concepts, all my life—mixing old and new, trying to meet East and West, and my fascination with all the world and materials. Because I love things where time shows in the material—especially now, in a period where everybody hates time. Everyone wants to avoid time and wants to stay young. There are no traces of the time. I wanted to do something where the time itself is the big artist. And that’s why we called it Artempo, where time becomes art.
VERVOORDT: And they are compared, like an elephant’s ear next to an Oxidation Painting of Warhol’s. I thought I would only do it once and a few people might like it, but it was a big success—much more than I ever thought. Then I went to Japan with a client, and one of my architect friends said we have to go see the Noguchi workshops. And all the unfinished Noguchi sculptures are the most beautiful, so I decided I have to do In-Finitum, where infinity is in the unfinished. The city of Venice and the mayor all liked what I did, and we helped them restore the palace. Daniela Ferrutti, who’s the director there, is like my sister. Our next exhibition is Proportio, which I’m now preparing.
OWENS: So the idea of mixing it in with the pieces that are already in the Fortuny museum, that was pretty radical.
VERVOORDT: Radical because I wanted to have a real palace, which still felt like someone’s home, with peeling walls, which you find, especially on the second floor. The director said, “You can’t show it, it’s not restored.” I said, “I love it because it’s not restored. That’s what I want, to combine that with contemporary art.” I don’t like the barrier between old and new. I like the continuation. So I wanted to start with the juxtaposition of something that has been for 300 years, and something that was made yesterday.
OWENS: Where are you going right now? I know you’re in a car.
VERVOORDT: I was going to the opera to see Beethoven’s Fidelio. But I just cancelled; I gave the tickets to my driver because I’m so busy. I’m now home, sitting on the terrace outside with the roses. It’s beautiful weather and I didn’t feel like I wanted to go to the opera. [laughs]
OWENS: One of my favorite’s, Elektra, was here at La Scala last night and I missed it.
VERVOORDT: I love Elektra. Who was conducting?
OWENS: I don’t know. There was one on DVD with Leonie Rysanek that is the most fantastic performance I’ve ever seen.
VERVOORDT: Yes, that’s fantastic.
OWENS: The DVD came out 10 years ago or so. I’m going to send it to you because the décor and the spirit is … I think there’s something in it that would work for you. I would never presume to know what you would like, but I would love to share it with you.
VERVOORDT: Thank you.
OWENS: You’re in Belgium now. But you did that beautiful penthouse on top of the Greenwich Hotel in New York.
VERVOORDT: Did you see it?
OWENS: I’ve seen pictures of it. I haven’t been there. It will be a long time before I go to New York.
VERVOORDT: Oh, you have to see the real thing. It’s almost impossible to capture in the picture. Once you enter, you come in a different world. There’s so much peace that comes over you, even in the middle of the noise of New York. I think it really works. The rooms all have a different level of silence; it’s something you really miss in New York.
OWENS: You’re going to have a waiting list.
VERVOORDT: It was done with very humble objects, things from New York that we don’t throw away, like old wood or old stones on the pier. The idea was to give humble things a very noble place. We left some concrete walls as they are, with inscriptions that, to me, look like a Cy Twombly. Nothing is décor, which makes it very special.
I LOVE THINGS WHERE TIME SHOWS IN THE MATERIAL—ESPECIALLY NOW, IN A PERIOD WHERE EVERYBODY HATES TIME. Axel Vervoordt
OWENS: Have you always been this gentle?
VERVOORDT: [laughs] I don’t know. I think my task is to make people happy and let them recognize themselves in their homes. It’s not like I make my own thing for them. But for the Greenwich Hotel project, for the penthouse, we could make a real wabi atmosphere, and it’s almost like a work of art. Did you see the Wabi Inspirations book?
OWENS: No, I just got the last one, though: Living With Light.
VERVOORDT: This penthouse apartment is more based on the wabi philosophy, like Wabi Inspirations, which for me is the book of shadow. It’s not the book of light.
OWENS: I’m not sure which books of yours I have because you have a bunch of them and I have a bunch of your books. [Vervoordt laughs] But the book of light, I was noticing, has more hints of glamour.
VERVOORDT: More glamour, and the book of wabi is very serene and very silenced. It’s the opposite, but complementary. One day you have to come see where I live. We live in this big house and there are rooms, which are quite glamorous, but we also have these very serene wabi rooms, and sometimes I would rather go sit there, you see? More of that when you come.
OWENS: The reason I asked if you’ve always been this gentle is because I know that we’ve both talked about patina, in what you do and what I do. But I wonder—because yours comes from such a gentle place—if mine comes from being more destructive.
VERVOORDT: I see.
OWENS: I know that in my past there’s been a certain amount of rage that propels me to move forward and there’s a certain amount of aggression that probably has seeped into my work. But I don’t see that in yours.
VERVOORDT: I think that’s true. In fact, it’s like an act of love for me; it’s definitely not destruction. It’s more like saving things and giving it a new life and giving them an extra dimension.
OWENS: So, your background—maybe you never had to escape anything.
OWENS: Maybe your development has always been about exploration. Would you say that’s true?
VERVOORDT: That’s true. I had a lot of support from my mother. My father did not believe I could ever be an art dealer. He said I could be a collector as a hobby. But he trusted me, he loaned me money, he said I could buy good things. But I had to pay interest. [Owens laughs] And my mother pushed me to do better and believe my own intuition. She respected that a lot. As a child, you think that because you’re different than others and your teachers at school don’t understand you, they make you unhappy and it’s not always easy going. Everything arrives in a fight.
OWENS: So you did have resistance that you need to overcome?
VERVOORDT: Yes. I had to prove myself. I had to grow what I wanted to do. Definitely.
OWENS: Right. I wonder about that in myself. Like, what is that aggression or ego that makes you insist on having a say—because people are not listening. Sometimes it embarrasses me. And sometimes I think, “Well, that’s the way life is, guys are aggressive.”
VERVOORDT: It’s true. My colleagues understand me a lot better. Because, before, my colleagues in art dealing—I’ve always been an art dealer; that’s my main thing—they would say, “You’re a decorator and not a good art dealer.” And now they wouldn’t say that anymore. That was really disturbing for me. I hated that they called me a decorator.
VERVOORDT: I want to give a different dimension to what I do. I don’t like that word, decorating. I have a problem with it.
OWENS: That’s super interesting. So what is your next project?
VERVOORDT: Oh, so many.
OWENS: What’s on your deadline?
VERVOORDT: What I’m working on today is rebuilding a village next to the castle where I live. It’s a project I’ve wanted to do for 27 years and we have never been able to get permission. But we just did and we want to make something very special. And also the next exhibition in Venice, Proportio. And then some very interesting houses. Too many things. But I still love it. I would love to do a big list, but I don’t know how.
OWENS: What are you going to do in Paris?
VERVOORDT: In Paris, we have several houses we’re doing—for Kanye West and for some other people.
OWENS: I wish we had something by you in Paris.
VERVOORDT: We have many clients in Paris.
OWENS: I know. But I can’t invite myself over to their
house and order coffee. I wish there was something
in Paris that I could go to. Your two sons are a big part of what you do, too. Was there ever any point where they did not want to involve themselves in the family business?
VERVOORDT: They both have their own personality. Boris, my eldest son, from when he was very young—like 7—he was very interested to study this. But he studied economics in university, and he’s a very good businessman; he did go to art school and has great feeling and great taste. My second son went to Canada to get away from me. But he came back 20 years ago, and he’s doing real estate in the family, which he’s doing really well.
OWENS: Sons and fathers—that can be difficult when your father is very special.
VERVOORDT: It’s not easy. First of all, I’m quite, uh, how would I say? I know what I want. The solution was that there are the departments. Finance, insurance, organization: it’s totally Boris; he’s the boss there. And in real estate, that’s my other son. I can do the creative part and the philosophical part and all the think tanks and meet people. So it’s fantastic—I don’t have to deal with the organization.
OWENS: Isn’t that amazing that it worked out like that—that your sons would be supportive like that?
VERVOORDT: It’s the best present. That’s why our business was able to grow as fast as it has in the last 10 years.
OWENS: I wish I could have done that for my father, but I didn’t.
VERVOORDT: [laughs] I didn’t for my father either.
OWENS: I guess there’s poetic justice there somewhere. And your sons have their own families.
VERVOORDT: Dick is married and he has three wonderful children we love very much. And Boris is going to marry next week—the 21st of June—with his boyfriend. He’s homosexual.
OWENS: Are your sons going to populate the village that you’re building?
VERVOORDT: [laughs] I don’t know. We want a mixed society in the village, with older people who can have a luxurious life and also very young people. But we’re still working on the concept. We’re not designing architecture yet. We’re really working with what people want today. How can we make them happy? That’s a real question we deal with today.
OWENS: I used to love the old Interviews where Andy Warhol would ask the most mundane questions because sometimes they’re so illuminating. So what I want to ask you is: What toothpaste do you use?
VERVOORDT: I don’t even know. I change. It’s what my wife buys, whatever is in the cupboard.
OWENS: Personally, I’m kind of obsessed with the most mundane things. I use everyday things that are the most special I can find. For instance, right now, I’m having a rock crystal toilet made—it’s taken years to develop this. [Vervoordt laughs] It’s a rock crystal toilet in this little marble room. It makes me crazy that we concentrate on these beautiful things but then we use the most mundane appliances. I want my electric switch plates to be customized. I want the toilet paper to be the right toilet paper. And I feel you’re that kind of guy.
VERVOORDT: I love a good lifestyle. I get up at 7:30 in the morning, walk the dog, have my ride on my horse. And then I like to have a nice breakfast with nice silver and beautiful china, the best bowls and the best morning light. I work very hard but I always like to have a cooked lunch and a cooked dinner. I like to use my silver and my china or beautiful pottery or make it very rustic. It depends where I eat and how it looks. I like to drink a good wine.
OWENS: Do you have someone who cooks for you?
VERVOORDT: Yes, because I wouldn’t have time. My wife can cook well, but because we entertain so much, we have a very good cook always here.
OWENS: And then when you travel—
VERVOORDT: I like to go to the best places. But to me, the best place is not always two, three stars. I like the best brasseries, the best Japanese restaurant, the best Italian restaurant from a family. I don’t like the three-star Michelin anymore—not for a long time now. When I’m in Belgium, I almost never go to restaurants. When I’m in Madrid, I like El Qüenco de Pepa. In Paris there’s a bistro … I forgot the name again. Pêche is not bad in Paris. Where do you like to go in Paris?
OWENS: I go to this café on the corner of my block almost every single night. But for restaurants, there’s this new restaurant on Place République.
VERVOORDT: Oh, I’ve got it now, the one I like. It’s Semilla. Do you know it? On the rue de Seine.
OWENS: Oh, I could just walk. I’m going to write that down. Rue de Seine, Semilla. And where did you like to go in New York?
VERVOORDT: I like Locanda Verde in the Greenwich Hotel of De Niro.
OWENS: Right. I used to stay at that hotel when I was opening a store. I have a store not too far away, on Hudson. While we were putting it together, I used to stay at the Greenwich because I loved how it was out of the way and quiet. It was a very tranquil, nice place.
VERVOORDT: It would be so much nicer if we could sit together with a nice glass of wine.
OWENS: And we will. I want to thank you for the beautiful things you’ve been doing.
VERVOORDT: Thank you. That’s so nice of you. I would really love to meet you as soon as possible.
RICK OWENS IS A CFDA AWARD–WINNING FASHION DESIGNER. HE IS BASED IN PARIS.