Brussels is frequently written off as a grey and stuffy city. But for interior designer Michel Penneman, who rose to international fame after designing the Hotel Pantone in his hometown, the Belgian capital's appeal lies in the fact that it eludes classification.
'Brussels is interesting because it's a very eclectic city,' he says. While Paris is magnificent and coherent, Brussels is uneven, he admits, but it's a city of small jewels that pop up where you least expect them.
Penneman has also designed the interiors of the Vintage Hotel, Tenbosch House and the White Hotel there, and is working on several more. Among them are a 50-room guesthouse for the owner of the White Hotel, a playful hotel for children (actual children and 'children who are 95') and a hostel for young people in a multicultural neighbourhood.
For the White Hotel, a limited budget led Penneman to fill it with furniture and pieces by young, emerging local designers. When it came to designing L'Antichambre, a perfumery on the sophisticated Place Brugmann, he wanted to create an atmosphere of timelessness using traditional materials - parquet floors, leather and copper - and designing pieces of furniture that didn't touch the ground. The piece de resistance is a copper cloud suspended in the centre of the room near a seat where customers can go to feel quiet and cocooned.
Just like his hometown, Penneman's approach to design is eclectic and he doesn't favour a particular style or period. He loves the greats - Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Danish mid-century design - but is not a vintage groupie.
Penneman says Belgians are very modest. And so is he, crediting architectural collaborators such as Sebastien Moreno and Olivier Hannaert as being indispensable to the success of his projects. He also speaks highly of Belgium's up-and-coming designers, including Nathalie Dewez in lighting and Diane Steverlynck in textiles.
Other Belgian interior and product designers he mentions are Xavier Lust, Alain Berteau and Sylvain Willenz. He particularly admires Elric Petit, one-third of the design trio Big Game, creators of 'very poetic objects'.
He is full of praise for hotels in Brussels that he didn't design, such as the stylish Dominican Hotel, in a converted medieval monastery ('it has a warm ambience and is so chic') and the flamboyant belle-epoque Metropole ('it's old-fashioned and I love the interior architecture').
When looking for new ideas, Penneman visits Daniel Perahia in the trendy Place St Catherine quarter. Perahia sells classic pieces by Knoll and Vitra but stocks a lot of contemporary design, too. 'He tells me about the latest pieces by Sylvain Willenz; he introduced me to [Italian furniture company] YDF and to Living Divani.'
If he is looking for vintage pieces, Penneman heads to the Galerie Jean Claude Jacquemart. He also recommends Ampersand House, an elegant town house transformed into a living art gallery by two Anglo-Australian art lovers and collectors.
For exciting vintage finds, he advises avoiding the over-hyped daily flea market held on Place du Jeu de Balle: 'It's very expensive and impossible to find anything good.'
Instead, he suggests, head to the smaller antiques market held every Sunday in Auderghem, just southeast of the centre. 'There might be 95 pieces of crap, but then you will find an amazing piece for Euro50 (HK$480) or Euro100,' he says.
For fashion and home goods he recommends Smets, a concept store in the unlikely location of Schaerbeek, an area northeast of the city centre that has been run-down for decades but which is slowly making a comeback. (His hotel for children is also located there.)
Brussels may be the birthplace of the art nouveau architectural style, containing several masterpieces by the period's premier architect Victor Horta, but in Penneman's opinion, the city's most iconic building is the atomium, a steel clad structure in the shape of an iron molecule that was built for the World's Fair in 1958. 'It's an incredible building, very special. It's typically Belgian.'
Then there's Villa Empain, an art deco masterpiece with a sparkling outdoor pool that now houses the Boghossian Foundation - a centre for dialogue between East and West - and the Stoclet Palace, a mansion completed in 1911 that has a three-part mosaic frieze by Austrian master Gustav Klimt.
The ocean-liner-like 1930s Broadcasting House in the Place Flagey has 'amazing forms' (it is now a buzzing concert venue and cinema called Flagey), and at night Penneman can see the 137-metre Dexia Tower (now called the Rogier Tower) and its sloping glass roofs from his apartment in the tree-lined Avenue Moliere. Designed by architect Philippe Samyn, it is dramatically illuminated with thousands of LED strips.
The tower would be more elegant if it were even taller, Penneman says, but proposals to make it higher were rejected. To him, Brussels is not open-minded when it comes to contemporary architecture.
'In Antwerp, they will ask someone like Richard Rogers or Renzo Piano to do something; in Brussels, no,' he says, pulling a face. Just putting some colour on the facade of the Hotel Pantone was a battle.
One of Penneman's favourite restaurants in Brussels is Selecto, a cosy space that has pioneered a slow-food bistronomie concept - brasserie-style food using seasonal produce. 'The quality of the food is the best and the prices are very good.'
Another place he recommends for the cuisine and the interiors is Canterbury, a brasserie overlooking the beautiful Ixelles ponds.
'I love it, I love it,' he says. 'The design is by Christophe Gevers, who died last year, and is in the style of the '70s. He designed everything; the lighting, the chairs and even the menu and napkins.'
Penneman's office, just around the corner from the Canterbury, is a building dating from 1916 that features beautiful stucco detailing, parquet floors and a huge stained glass window. He has converted the space simply, with Xavier Lust lights and an 18-metre-long white table against one wall so that there is room to host regular events with photographers, artists and designers.
'I am very lucky,' he admits. 'Just a little too busy, but otherwise really, really lucky.'
And he really does live a rather charmed life, in what is - once you dig a little deeper - an eclectic and really rather charming city.
If you're Brussels bound
Where to sleep
Rue Dejoncker 45
Rue Washington 131
Place Loix 1
The White Hotel
Avenue Louise 212
Rue Leopold 9
Place de Brouckere 31
Where to eat
Rue de Flandre 95-97
Avenue de l'Hippodrome 2
Where to shop
Quai au Bois a Bruler 63
Galerie Jean-Claude Jacquemart
Rue Darwin 50
+32 (4) 75 30 18 05
Place George Brugmann 13
Chausee de Louvain 650-652
Rue Tasson Snel 30
What to see
Square de l'Atomium
Avenue Franklin Roosevelt 67
Avenue de Tervuren 279-281
Place Sainte Croix
How to get there
Jet Airways flies to Brussels via New Delhi for about HK$7,100 return. Other airlines include British Airways, KLM and Air France.
For more information visitbrussels.be or visitflanders.co.uk