The equivalent of a tour de force attraction (think Paris’s Eiffel Tower, or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge) is the Atomium, a giant molecule. And although it’s officially bilingual, in the surreal linguistic battle between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons, many transactions occur in neither language. People just speak English.
Belgium assumed independence in 1830 after being taken over, and over and over, by its neighbors to the north and south—the Netherlands and France. Over-looked (Jacques Brel, french fries, and Johnny Hallyday are theirs, Belgians will tell you tersely) and underappreciated (it’s the flyover between Paris and Amsterdam), Brussels has a kind of runt-of-the-litter charm. The gilded 17th-century Grand Place is surrounded by brutal office and apartment blocks that look all the more grim under almost constantly gray skies. Its unassuming character made Brussels the perfect compromise for postwar rivals choosing a headquarters for the European Union and NATO, while all the diplomats and a swirl of immigrants from North and Central Africa give it an intense international, cosmopolitan flavor rare for such a small city.
Given the Belgians’ taste for contradictions, it’s little surprise that in a country known for incessant rain, Dirk Wynants created the outdoor-furniture company Extremis. “When it finally is nice out, we really enjoy it,” he says. We asked Wynants to help us peel off the staid surface and show us what Brussels has to offer.
So much of Brussels’s modern architecture is downright ugly. What is your favorite modern building?
I’m afraid I can’t show you great modern architecture in Brussels. The modern architecture they’ve built in recent years is so common—it takes no risks. My favorite building is the Atomium. It’s a representation of the iron atom built in 1958 for the World’s Fair and was supposed to stay up for only a few months. All the other buildings have disappeared, but the Atomium is now renovated. The designer André Waterkeyn had the foresight to get a copyright for the design, so you have to pay to print photos of the building. He got money for the rest of his life from this building that was supposed to have stood only a few months.
What, then, is good architecture in Brussels?
The Belgian Center for Comic Strip Art was originally a department store and warehouse designed by Victor Horta, the great Art Nouveau architect. What’s amazing is that it was built for public rather than private use. I think that in the days when it was built, it was what architecture should be. To the last detail, even furniture, he designed it himself. How did he explain the creation of all this organic design? I think he had to stand next to the guy who was producing it. You can’t do all those forms by writing it down.
Since you make outdoor furniture, what are your favorite outdoor places in Brussels?
Brussels has parks and forests, of course, but one place I especially like is both outside and inside. The Galeries Saint-Hubert were the first glass-covered shopping arcades in Europe. They aren’t as opulent as the one in Milan, for example, but at the time they were groundbreaking. There are cafés in the galleries where you can sit outside and watch people go by, but you’re not in the rain.
Speaking of cafés, are there any others you can suggest? Or restaurants?
The Mort Subite (the name means “Sudden Death” and is also the name of its own beer) is a place that never changes. The furniture is the same. It hasn’t been painted for a very long time. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Le Cirio is another traditional bar—it’s one of the only places where you really feel you’re in Brussels. From the outside, with these plastic chairs in front, it looks awful, but that’s leather on the walls—an expensive wall covering. This must have been one of the finest places around when it was built in 1886. The owner was Italian, and he also sold Italian goods. He invented tomato paste. The roots of ketchup are in this bar. Belga Queen isn’t the newest restaurant in Brussels, but it’s special for what they did with the place. It used to be a bank—very ornate—and they did a nice job of respecting the old elements. But look at the bar’s very high-tech materials. If you try to put in elements in the same style as the building itself, it’s always wrong, because you can’t match it. Downstairs there’s a smoking room in an old vault, where customers can keep their cigars or their personal bottle of whiskey in a safe deposit box. They didn’t really do anything, they just changed the functionality. It’s logical. L’Archiduc stays open late, and I’ve been known to close it. And there’s the original Pain Quotidien, another Belgian company that’s finding international success. They came up with this idea of a big table where you sit with people you don’t know. I like that. It’s like our furniture—creating tools for togetherness.
Belgium is best-known for its fashion designers, mostly from Antwerp.
I’d love to wear Belgian designers, but they never make things in my size. There’s a whole street, Rue Antoine Dansaert, lined with design stores, mostly fashion but also other things. I buy clothes from Marithé + François Girbaud, but they’re French. For the Belgians, there’s Olivier Strelli, and Natan—a favorite of the royal family. Stijl was one of the first shops to sell clothes by the Antwerp Six. Theo Depot does eyeglasses. I don’t need to wear glasses, but their designer Patrick Hoet makes me wish I did.
What about other design?
Top-Mouton is the best interior design company in Belgium. They have three generations doing custom-made interiors. If you get a chance to see the installations they did in the 1970s, they are just as fresh today. They were one of the first to make an all-white kitchen in laminate. There’s also chocolate, of course. Actually, I don’t like it and I don’t eat it, but it’s amazing what you can do with it artistically. Pierre Marcolini has an architectural way of dealing with chocolate—it puts the product on a completely different level. Design Flanders is a center for Belgian design funded by the Flemish government. They have a rotating expo of new designers. There’s also a design center sponsored by the government for the French-speaking part of the country, and one for Brussels. We have three governments, you know: Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels.
Right. Ten million people in a territory the size of Maryland—split three ways. The richer, Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, the poorer, French-speaking Wallonia in the south, and Brussels, the capital, in the middle. It seems tense.
It’s a shame we are so divided when we are so small. We spend too much time in competition with ourselves instead of promoting Belgium in the bigger world.
And it’s a lot of government for a little country.
Governments are in power only a few years. If they want to make changes that are necessary, they get punished and voted out. That’s why it’s so hard to get government buildings that are exciting. They want something everyone will like. You will never get great design if you try to please everyone.