Interview: Nicolas Schuybroek

  • Twice named as one of the world’s top 100 interior designers by French Architectural Digest, Belgian Architect Nicolas Schuybroek has long been on our watch list. His distinctly considered approach to design reflects an aesthetic of absolute contemporary elegance that leaves us wanting more every time.

    In fact, like many others we’ve crowned him the monarch of reinvented minimalism – and for good reason. Time and time again his attention to volume, light and play on proportions is just as significant as his attention to detail. His relentless search for timeless, raw and tactile simplicity is at the forefront of all his work. Which is supremely important when minimalism is all about being selective while preserving the form and function of each space.

    Beginning his career in Montreal, Canada, Schuybroek worked for Intégral Jean Beaudoin, follow by the formative five years he spent working as a project director for acclaimed designer Vincent Van Duysen in Antwerp. After which, it would seem only natural to establish his own Brussels practice in 2011. Since then, Schuybroek has been working his minimalist magic on a growing portfolio of unique residential homes. Having featured many of Schuybroek’s projects such as the MK House and JR Apartment on est, we sat down to learn more about where the designer draws inspiration from, his penchant for curated vintage furniture and what goes into creating a pared-back architectural setting.

    PHOTOGRAPHY: Thomas de BruyneClaessens & Deschamps and Stephan Julliard

    Tell us a little about your background, what did you study and what led you to found Nicolas Schuybroek Architects in 2011?

    Nicolas Schuybroek: I was born and raised in Brussels. I was drawn to architecture from an early age; building things was like a second nature; whether it was a Lego structure or tree houses in the garden. There was something fascinating about projecting myself into a world that didn’t exist. From age 12 to 18, I attended a Benedictine school near Bruges, it was a strict and disciplined education with little room for creativity.

    I studied architecture in Saint-Luc, Brussels and McGill University, Montreal afterwards. Although we spoke French at home, I attended English, French and Dutch-speaking schools.

    I have always aspired to set up my own firm by or around the age of 30 and am now very happy and relieved to have done so! The office was founded 6 years ago in 2011. For now, it cultivates a rather small-scale philosophy. We take on projects of very different scales and in a variety of different locations but I make it a point of honour to maintain a personal hands-on approach.

    You spent five years working as a project director for Vincent Van Duysen, would you consider this a turning point in your career?

    Nicolas Schuybroek: Of course, denying this would be a flat out lie. On my return from Canada to Belgium in 2006, there was only one firm I wanted to work for – Vincent Van Duysen. He represents a sort of architectural truth. There is a great purity to his designs. More than anything, my time with Vincent Van Duysen’s firm instilled a love of interiors and taught me to embrace the so-called “Gesamtkunstwerk” – designing everything from the architecture of a building right down to the smallest decorative details.

    What is your main priority when starting a project? Is there something that is fundamental to your practice that you consider first and foremost?

    Nicolas Schuybroek: I was trained as an architect, not as an interior architect contrary to what a lot of people believe. When starting a project, my priority is to ensure that the end product shall be warm and at the same time timeless-minimalistic, quiet and serene. I seek to create spaces and volumes carefully carved by proportion, geometry, circulation, voids and lines. The use of raw, authentic, simple and noble materials, helps us create pared-down architectures that most importantly has a warm soul as well as a strong temperament. All in all, it could be summarized as a quest for in-depth substance and warmth.

    The process usually takes a metaphysical turn during the early design phase. From time immemorial, man has built to protect himself but our work adds additional layers to that definition. Although architecture is often described as something materialistic by its very nature, we pursue the idea of architecture as a way of creating a soothing, protective or even healing atmosphere.

    I am absolutely not interested in creating a “show-off” type architecture, but rather in embracing the essence of materials and objects. What we do might seem simple but only in appearance. We strive to generate emotions and define a new type of poetics of space.

    Nicolas Schuybroek Architects have already built an impressive portfolio, have there been any stand out projects or clients to date?

    Nicolas Schuybroek: I would have to respectfully disagree the term impressive. One of my main issues is that I am eternally unsatisfied and consider myself as a slow creative type. My consistent belief that something better could have been possible is something I have always struggled with. Stand out projects include the Robey Hotel in Chicago or residences like the MK and MM homes in Antwerp and Mexico. I have fantastic memories from clients like Moises Micha and Carlos Couturier from Grupo Habita, Peter Philips from Dior and the photographer Willy Vanderperre.

    What projects are you currently working on?

    Nicolas Schuybroek: Various large-scale new-built houses in Belgium (Bruges, Brussels, Antwerp), 2 apartments in NY, 2 apartments in Paris and a concrete house set in the middle of the jungle in Indonesia.

    You’re a huge fan of twentieth-century furniture design. Who are some of your favourite designers of this era?

    Nicolas Schuybroek: I do have a particular penchant for the pieces of Pierre Jeanneret created for the Indian city Chandigarh, whose urban plan and buildings were designed by Le Corbusier. What’s really striking is how Jeanneret’s furniture was the perfect foil for the architecture. It is unique in the history of architecture to see such a type of refined and raw furniture pieces specifically designed to fit within the master plan of a whole city. The problem today is that these pieces are so over-hyped and copied everywhere that a real risk exists of reducing this exceptional work to mass production and globalized furniture. I am also deeply inspired by the work of Peter Zumthor, Hans Dom Van Der Laan, Studio Mumbai and Luis Barragan.

    What about your own home, do you have any treasured pieces?

    Nicolas Schuybroek: Paradoxically, the space that is least representative of my style is my own house. Together with my wife and 2 daughters, we live in a 1920s Brussels townhouse. I was not alone in designing it. It is the result of both a desire to keep the old style of the house and a marital compromise. This being said, most of the furniture is similar to the pieces I find for my clients. Amongst my favourite treasured pieces are a pair of black lacquered teak chairs of Pierre Jeanneret and a rare suspension in patinated brass from Florian Schulz . Once a butcher’s shop, the first floor of the townhouse is home to our offices.

    Finally, it seems that minimal and classic interior aesthetics are experiencing a renewed appeal. Do you think this will remain constant in the future?

    Nicolas Schuybroek: Yes, I do, at least in the near and foreseeable future. I think that just like it is the case with lifestyles, music trends, contemporary arts, dietary habits and in general the way of life. People are in desperate need of simplification, purity, tranquillity, meditative philosophy and warmth and architecture is definitely no exception to this trend. On the contrary, warm, minimal, pure and timeless architecture is essential to accommodate new lifestyles. This is why I definitely think that this renewed appeal for minimal and serene interiors will remain constant at least for some time.

    Nicolas Schuybroek’s Insider Guide to Brussels….

    Where do you live in Brussels and what do you love most about it? We live close to the Ixelles ponds and the old Abbey of La Cambre in the centre of Brussels. Like most people here, I have a love-and-hate relationship with Brussels. Generally speaking, the quality of life is unbeatable especially compared to other European capitals. There’s a lot of space, green, a real avant-garde in the arts, architecture, music, movies… but Belgium remains a small country where everyone knows everyone and sometimes it gets a bit oppressive.

    Favourite places to eat? Cafe des Spores in St-Gilles, a wonderful place where the chef specialises in mushrooms. Vieux Saint Martin or Canterbury for the old school, old world Belgian atmosphere.

    Favourite places to drink? Cafe Belga, l’Archiduc, la Mort Subite

    Favourite places to shop? Most galleries vested around le Sablon, especially in Rue Haute and Rue Blaes. Galerie Le Beau is a fantastic shop,

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