Mixing the Eras: Furniture Designer Jason Lees Explores How Antique and Modern Design Intersect in Belgium

Visiting Belgium for the first time was fascinating. In some ways it felt familiar, akin to its neighbors Holland, France and Germany. But in other ways it has it’s own unmistakable character – with a special knack for blending the familiar with the unexpected that’s uniquely Belgian. If you’ve ever tasted Belgian beer you’ll know what I mean.

While not of the size or stature of the Louvre, Tate Modern, or the Prado, Belgium’s museums are plentiful, and usually free of crowds. From the excellent BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts and the incredible MIM: Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, to the Mode Museum (MOMU) of fashion in Antwerp, the quality of the architecture and exhibitions is outstanding.

On the way from Brussels to Antwerp we stopped off in Gent for a day. After visiting the interesting MIAT: Museum About Industry, Labor and Textiles we were wandering the lovely cobblestone streets of the city center and stumbled across the Design Museum Gent. Talk about an unexpected treat!

“The bright, colorful and sculptural nature of the pieces enhanced the contrast with the dark, traditional backdrop to create a striking dynamic.”

Housed in the former Hotel de Coninck, built in 1755, the museum showcases Belgian and international design. On the ground floor of the main building the interiors have been restored to how they would have looked in the 18th Century; dark walls, flocked wallpaper, mural panels, patterned drapes, antique furnishings and decorations. The Belgian “twist” is that the rooms are used as galleries for pieces from the permanent collection of Mid-Century Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary Modern furniture. The effect is stunning.

On display was furniture by Arne Jacobsen, Ettore Sottsass, Frank Gehry, Shiro Kuramata, Marcel Wanders, Richard Hutten, Ron Arad, Alessandro Mendini, Maarten Van Severen and others. The bright, colorful and sculptural nature of the pieces enhanced the contrast with the dark, traditional backdrop to create a striking dynamic.

When done exceedingly well, as it is here, I find the mixing of styles and eras enthralling and inspiring. Interior spaces that stick to prescribed “rules” seem dull and lifeless in comparison. Just as a modern piece of furniture or art can enliven a traditional space, an antique or rustic accessory can bring depth and texture to a modern space.

In the new, modern wing of the building was a cool exhibit commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Arne Jacobsen’s Series 7 Chair (aka The Butterfly Chair), one of the most famous and best selling chairs of all time. On display were customized versions of the Butterfly Chair (two examples are shown above) and objects, seating and artworks created by design students using discarded seat shells from the factory.

Note: If you’re planning a trip to Belgium, Gent (or Ghent) is well worth a visit. Check out this New York Times guide to the city, 36 Hours in Ghent.

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