There’s a lot of good things to say about the design work coming out of Belgium. Prominent protagonist in the country’s brimming design scene is Hans Verstuyft, founder of his namesake studio. The maestro of minimalism has quietly turned heads with a care for his craft and its raw beauty, sticking to a traditional approach to reform. Hans’ works are characterised by stripping back the stuff and letting a space do the talking. The result? Projects that tell a story not a trend, on a platform of natural materials.
Alongside his firm of four, Hans focuses on process, to create not a new space or home, rather a new way of life. This approach has remained largely the same since the firm’s first residential project eighteen years ago – a home that is just as unapologetically contemporary today. Resonating with us at est, our Hans fandom only grew after exploring the designer’s live-work space. We were left curious about how the designer learned his tricks – and hardly surprised to hear the name of dignitary Vincent Van Duysen. After speaking with the designer we were educated in the art of cohesion, the analysis of constraints and the subjective elements that ensure his boundary-bending work avoids being fashionable at all costs. It’s no wonder this designer continues to break the internet – or Pinterest – with his revered designs.
When did your interest in architecture begin? Can you please take us through your journey from studying, to entering the industry and building your portfolio?
Hans Verstuyft: I think it probably it started at home. There was a specific interest in architecture and interiors from France, and also of Mediterranean style. When starting my studies it all became clear; this was what I would like to do. After I graduated, I worked in well-known offices, starting at Stéphane Beel, Willem-Jan Neuteliings and ending with Vincent Van Duysen’s start up. The start of our work was slow and intense, but I think valuable in growing and understanding architecture and interior. We started with some houses, we then did larger projects, but after the financial crisis, we re-orientated to what we really wanted to do; complete ‘total projects” that are becoming increasingly high-end.
Can you describe your team and how you lead them?
Hans Verstuyft: We have a small team of four, all architects, but with specific interest in our approach. Every project is cared for by one person, but we discuss the projects together and are always looking over each other’s shoulder. I follow each project very closely, by going to the building site. The extra time allowed by going with two people is easily won afterwards in efficiency.
What do you believe is essential to a good working environment? What is it about your work space specifically that makes for a positive studio to return to?
Hans Verstuyft: Our office is a part of our home, so I try to have an inspiring environment. I create an inspiring environment with nice materials, light, furniture that together create a lovely atmosphere. It’s a mix of a home feeling with a creative studio, certainly not a corporate office. Again I try not to be too homey, we don’t want to fall asleep. But having nice pieces around us shows what we want in our projects. A lot of daylight, and the patio with our beautiful tree is also really important. In the summer we eat outside on the roof terrace, so we’re out the office for lunch.
When you walk into a space, what typically grabs your attention?
Hans Verstuyft: Light is very important. One can see this very well in photography. Photos often show light nicer than in reality. Try to get this perspective in your eyes by looking through your eye lashes, and you’ll see what I mean. Also vistas, perspectives are aspects that give a space it’s character.
Can you please tell us a bit about your interest in sobering and reducing. How does this philosophy surface in your designs?
Hans Verstuyft: There’s a lot of stuff in our lives; material things, colors, impressions, noises, people, media. This is distracting us too much from some of the essential beauty that we don’t see anymore. To hear the sea, to feel the wind blowing, experiencing the natural sense without looking for the best restaurant or the coolest music while checking Facebook. In our work it’s a kind of second nature. Some say our interiors look empty. I think we focus on what’s important, and that’s why beauty is expressed more intensely. So it’s an invisible approach, rather than using explicit forms, objects and materials.
You focus on creating ‘warmth, comfort and touch’ across your work. What materials do you rely on to create these feelings?
Hans Verstuyft: I really like natural materials such as wood, stone, metal, leather, wool or linen fabrics instead of artificial materials. Natural materials have imperfections that tell a story, and they age far more gracefully. It’s like ancient buildings – look in Italy for the best proof. Away from fashionable designs, using natural materials and showing them in their essence, brings nature more in the picture. On our worktables we have saddle leather. You see the back of the animal and you see the scratches. The table has now a history and tells its own story. Natural stone with fossils, wood with branch marks are far more alive than dead plastic.
Finally, how do you believe your designs are accommodating to the future?
Hans Verstuyft: The materials and processes are mindful of the ageing process, whether it is interior design, or architectural design. The first house which we built for ourselves in 2000 (and was sold in 2005) is still very contemporary, we’re almost doing the same today, after 18 years – but without being out of fashion. We would love our work to last. Our Austere floor and table lamp is a good example. It has been sold many times, and finds its way in every interior; timeless in its era.