Axel Vervoordt on sacred geometry and balance

STIR speaks with Belgian designer Axel Vervoordt on his philosophy as he elaborates on his latest project and exhibition.

by Devanshi Shah Published on : Oct 08, 2020

Known for his impeccable taste and refined understanding of space, art and heritage, Axel Vervoordt is renowned for his ability to seamlessly blend art, antiques and design. His intimate knowledge of all three aspects is now synonyms with his eponymous company. The Axel Vervoordt Company has always been a family-led business. Helmed by Axel, May, and their sons Boris and Dick Vervoordt, the company has been at the forefront of rethinking designs and aesthetics as a harmonious convergence between the past, present, and future. As an avid collector, of both antiques and contemporary art and in the spirit of sharing their knowledge and inspiration, in 2008 they set up the Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation. The foundation is meant to be a custodian for the collection of its founders.

Vervoordt’s family portrait | Axel Vervoordt Company | STIRworld
Vervoordt’s family portrait Image: Frederik Vercruysse, Courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Company

Axel Vervoordt’s collection is not limited to artefacts. In 1986, Vervoordt famously acquired and moved his family and company to the Castle of ‘s-Gravenwezel, which was subsequently restored and refurbished. Since 1999 the company has found a new home, at its current headquarters at Kanaal in Wijnegemin, in what used to be a distillery and malting complex. While part of a larger project, the Kanaal now hosts the foundation’s collection with over 700 works that include archaeological artefacts and contemporary art. A series of spaces, covering over 4,000 square meters are designed as temporary exhibition spaces for the collection of the Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation as well as the Axel Vervoordt Gallery. There are three spaces, each with their own distinct design, dedicated to the Axel Vervoordt Gallery. Namely the  Patio Gallery, the Terrace Gallery - situated on top of the central ‘ma-ka’ building - and the Escher Gallery.

An overview of the Kanaal complex in Wijnegemin | Axel Vervoordt Company | STIRworld
An overview of the Kanaal complex in Wijnegemin Image: Courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Company

A guiding philosophy of the Axel Vervoordt Company’s design practice is the belief that a home should be a personal expression of one's soul. It is an idea one sees manifesting in various aspects of Vervoordt’s own personal collection, curation and composition. In what can only be summarised as a holistic understanding of what many may consider metaphysical ideas, Axel Vervoordt articulates a symphonious approach to design.

In a candid conversation with STIR, he discusses his philosophy of architecture, and the purity of proportions. Vervoordt elaborates on his endless search to understand and decipher the meaning of beauty and quality.

Devanshi Shah (DS): There is a very intimate sensitivity to the manner in which you talk about spatial experience, of the cosmos and the world. Could you elaborate on the nuance of proportion and sacred geometry as you see it?

Axel Vervoordt (AV): Sacred geometry is something that I have worked with almost all my life since I was in my early 20s. I find it very important, it is the heart of proportions, it is the relationship between human beings and the cosmos. The relationship between earth and heaven, and every proportion has its own meaning and its own expression. We used this in the creation of these museum spaces, for the doors, and the volumes of the exhibition spaces. It is a little strange when one enters, you feel like you are in a sacred space, like a monastery or a church. It feels like a religious space but you don't even know which religion it is. It is the relation between the square and the circle. The square is a manifestation of a spiritual idea on earth, while the circle represents the cosmos, the heavens. And I think all sacred proportions are a relationship between squares and circles. Together with Japanese architect Tatsuro Miki, with whom I have worked on several projects, the exhibition spaces are mainly built with this proportions.

An installation view of James Turrell’s Red Shift, 1995 | Axel Vervoordt Company | STIRworld
An installation view of James Turrell’s Red Shift, 1995 Image: Jan Liégeois, Courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Company

DS: There is a sense of preservation and care that goes well beyond a simple idea of adapting old buildings. Kanaal is host to various permanent art installations that create a harmonious spatial quality with the built spaces, could you tell us a little bit more about that?

AV: The Kanaal project is a large project, it is a community, there are apartments, restaurants, there are offices and it is a whole complex. At Kanaal there is a great installation by Anish Kapoor, the chapel is by James Turell and there are many other very interesting spaces. People come and visit it from far and all over the world.

DS: A recent exhibition titled Writing Beyond is installed at a space known as Henro and Ma-ka, designed by architect Tatsuro Miki according to the principles of sacred geometry. This space is a far cry from the white cubes one usually associates with art exhibitions. Instead the walls are a much darker, nearly black tone; can you elaborate the idea of this space?

AV: The walls are built with hemp. It is a very natural material and you feel that in the energy a bit, it is very positive. It is not synthetic, it is very natural. The colours of Henro and Ma-ka are like shadows. It's painted with earth and Japanese ink and it gives it a very deep shadow colour. So, all the light comes from the artworks. The wall is neutral and makes it very serene, it allows the artwork itself to speak. Then we have another gallery, the Patio Gallery, which is very white, with only the north light filling the space. The Terrace Gallery is a little more earthy. And then another gallery, which is a little dark but not as dark as Ma-ka. All these spaces have a lot to do with light.

DS: Is working with natural material integral to your philosophy?

AV: It is definitely my philosophy, but it is not the same as sacred geometry. But I think when you have the two together it makes it a lot better.

The walls of Henro and Ma-ka are a far cry from the white cubes one usually associates with art spaces | Axel Vervoordt Company | STIRworld
The walls of Henro and Ma-ka are a far cry from the white cubes one usually associates with art spaces Image: Courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Company

DS: The exhibitions that are featured at the galleries are part of your personal collection. Could you tell us how you curate them, personally, and for display?

AV: We organise exhibitions with special themes, like with Writing Beyond, the next one will have another theme. We also have exhibitions with artists in other rooms that change more regularly. The exhibitions in Henro and Ma-ka run longer and always have a more philosophical theme, it is not about one artist, it is more about a concept or an idea.

DS: With the latest exhibition there seems to be a very close connection between the art and the space it occupies in the gallery.

AV: Yes, I think all the art we choose normally corresponds with our own philosophy, things that we want to share, and feel one with the art as well. I think the art is inspiring but at the same time it is like a family of ours. It expresses things you believe in in a very deep way.

Seamlessly conceptualised as a space that allows the artwork on display to speak for itself, the walls of the Henro and Ma-ka exhibition spaces serve as a neutral canvas | Axel Vervoordt Company | STIRworld
Seamlessly conceptualised as a space that allows the artwork on display to speak for itself, the walls of the Henro and Ma-ka exhibition spaces serve as a neutral canvas Image: Courtesy of Axel Vervoordt Company

DS: Concluding our conversation, I would like to discuss the first artefact one encounters when entering the Writing Beyond exhibition. It is a moment that harmonises your philosophical approach to design, curation and art. Why begin with a hieroglyph? 

AV: Hieroglyphs are a kind of writing with figures, the writing beyond exhibition is a lot about writing and about writing that is being born as writing, and also of writing of an artist without meaning. There are several artists that use it as a way of expressing themselves, and you can view it as almost writing, but there is no meaning.

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