Interior designer Axel Vervoordt wants to throw dirt at our walls

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 November, 2014, 10:43am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 November, 2014, 10:43am

It's hard to imagine anyone scooping up handfuls of Hong Kong soil and flinging them at the walls of their city flat. Where would you find the dirt? And why would you want to?

Yet Axel Vervoordt has done this before, at home, in his 50-room medieval castle outside Antwerp in Belgium, and more recently for Robert De Niro's New York penthouse. What's more, he wouldn't mind repeating it here.

For the designer dubbed as one of the world's most influential tastemakers (by Elle Décor) and among the "most inspirational designers of our time" ( House Beautiful), reclaiming materials from the surrounding area gives a building authenticity.

There's a method, of course, to his use of local earth mixed with plaster as a wall treatment, which is an old-fashioned process of layered hard finish that used to be known as "scratch" plaster.

Vervoordt, who is also partial to peeling paint and weathered patinas, sees "beauty in imperfection", "elegance in natural materials" and "nobility without sophistication" as integral to creating a peaceful sanctuary within the chaos of the city.

Speaking by phone from his castle, which the 67-year-old shares with his wife May, he tells of his fondness for Hong Kong, where his elder son, Boris, this year opened the Axel Vervoordt Gallery of contemporary art. It is the family business' second art gallery - an extension of their Antwerp gallery, established in 2011.

There are no plans to extend his design services to Hong Kong, but Vervoordt says he would love to do a project here, should the opportunity arise.

The design period the family refers to as "the Vervoordt era" stems in earnest from the late 1960s, when the patriarch discovered and acquired 16 Renaissance houses in the Vlaeykensgang in Antwerp, with the aim of conserving their character and soul.

The inventiveness of this approach - so different from hardcore restoration - and its subtle results established the reputation of Axel Vervoordt as "a connoisseur d'art".

Born in 1947 to "worldly" parents who introduced him to their sophisticated friends, Vervoordt recalls that he started dealing in art and antiques at the age of 14.

These two passions formed the core business of the Axel Vervoordt Company, which over the years grew to encompass interior design and conservation consulting services, as well as a line of home furniture and accessories - a collection that "grew out of a need to find functional objects that would fit in the serene and harmonious Vervoordt interiors".

It's reported that his clients range from royalty to rock stars. Apart from name-dropping De Niro, for whom Vervoordt and Japanese architect Tatsuro Miki collaborated on a penthouse, the designer won' t say.

The penthouse design is based on the ancient Japanese wabi principles of purity and simplicity (which Vervoordt writes of in his book, Wabi Inspirations), using reclaimed and/or repurposed materials such as stone, steel and wood.

Asian aesthetic ideals have greatly influenced Vervoordt's design ethos, and fed the company's ambition to create a dialogue between East and West.

"There is an irrefutable wisdom in Asia that believes it is better to leave the unexplained, unexplained," Vervoordt writes in Wabi Inspirations.

The Hong Kong gallery will enable the art side of the business to grow its roster of artists and, in particular, foster relationships with Asian contemporary artists.

The annual programme of exhibitions by established artists will be punctuated by showcases of work by younger and emerging artists, Boris Vervoordt says, reflecting another of his father's passions, which is to foster new talent.