Caspar and Dedy Collette’s house looks out onto a brick wall. And that’s just the way they like it. Their home, in one of the new suburbs of Breda, a historic southern Dutch city, is restrained, modern, and easy on the eye. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the neighboring homes, which all too often favor a faux ranch or chalet look—not the kind of thing a pair of modern-design enthusiasts want to see from their floor-to-ceiling windows.
"The concept here was living behind walls," says the couple’s architect, Pascal Grosfeld, looking askance at the proliferation of gables and columns outside. "Rather like Mies’s patio houses, it’s an introverted way of living, of giving people a sense of their own property." The lack of a great view is no problem for the Collettes, who find it an advantage to shut out the noise of the mix of building styles, so that they can hear the quiet fugue of their own serenely understated house and the furniture it contains.
Caspar Collette, who works with designer Gerard van den Berg, travels all over the world as export manager for the Dutch furniture company Label. "We have furniture from 14 countries in our house," he says. "You could say we’re bringing the world within our own four walls." For Caspar, a tall, jovial figure with an affable worldly air, this makes perfect sense as he lived and worked in the Caribbean, South America, and Spain for many years before returning to Holland to settle down in 1998.
Caspar had known van den Berg for several years before joining him at Label five years ago. Previously, van den Berg co-founded the company Montis with his brother Ton (it now belongs to his brother Paul), which still produces many of his designs from the 1970s on. Van den Berg’s work past and present marries an abstract, minimal beauty with a profound humanism. Like Caspar, he travels extensively, but lives near Breda.
Entering Caspar and Dedy’s garden through the six-and-a-half-foot-tall brick perimeter wall is like being let in on a well-kept suburban secret. The domestic space feels intimate and secluded, with an orderly lawn tidily bordered by long, thin bricks the color of burned earth and by the bleached-amber cedar planks of the garden shed (which echoes the exterior of the upper floor).
"The materials mean the house never looks the same," says Caspar. "The brick and cedar change color with the weather. And after rain, the cedar even smells different—it gives off a pencil aroma that I love, because it takes me right back to my schooldays."
The kitchen sits behind a glass wall like a diorama, appearing as if it had grown out of the ground as organically as the grass in front of it. To the left of the kitchen, the view through the house’s several glass doors continues the line of the path unimpeded for nearly 200 feet, stopping only at the brick wall at the end of the rear garden—which is the snaking continuation of the wall at the opposite end. You could call it a wall-to-wall view.
That elongated perspective is what won Grosfeld the competition for the building design. In 1998, Breda’s local architectural association had called for designs for a project of six semi-detached houses for a plot of land. Grosfeld chose to ignore the brief: "The plot was too long and narrow to fit six semi-detached houses," he explains. "The only thing to do was work with the proportions, so I decided on a plot division of 5.1 by 60 meters [approximately 17 by 200 feet] per property. The houses are in a terraced row, but the individual gardens are divided from each other by the tall slingermuur (garland wall), which allows the entrances to be at alternate ends." Although adjacent to the next-door house, the Collettes’ house, located at the end of the row, feels totally self-contained because of this enclosing wall.
The Collettes bought the then-unbuilt house in 2001, so "it was a great opportunity to get involved in the design," explains Caspar. Grosfeld admits he was "surprised, but pleased" that Caspar and Dedy became so involved in developing the design of their house—other buyers accepted his design unconditionally.
According to Grosfeld’s plans, the kitchen, for example, was to have been set in the center of the house (the "functional core" idea of Le Corbusier and Gerrit Rietveld), but the clients thought otherwise. "We both love to cook," says Dedy. "So why would we want to hide the kitchen away in the middle of the building?"
Instead, "the kitchen became the entrance point [for the house]," says Caspar. "I grew up in the country, and everyone always came in through the kitchen—it makes the house feel friendly, homely." In such a kitchen, there’s no more important focus—socially, practically, symbolically, and aesthetically—than the table. "Ours is Arctica, a Label piece by Gerard," says Caspar. "The thin layers of beech sit comfortably with the solid oak floor we’ve used throughout the house. The zinc tabletop is soft enough to show the scratches and marks, the signs of living. We like these signs of use. They humanize the table. Though I’m in the furniture business, my house is not a showroom. I don’t want it to look as if you can’t touch anything."
In the living room, the architect combated the seemingly inevitable darkness that would have come from the long narrow plan by creating a vertical 21-foot perspective in the central stairwell, with the view up to the skylight left open. Light floods the middle of the house as a result. "With light this intense, we decided on white walls throughout the ground floor, allowing us to play around with color in the furniture and to pick some very strong pieces," says Caspar, surveying the room’s gray-and-orange-striped rug and vividly colored furniture. "We chose the purple Rodolfo Dordoni sofa and chairs because of the flowing shape, and because you can see around and underneath them. I dislike furniture that ‘sticks’ to the floor. It eats your space. Like the Gigi armchair and the Tiba dining chairs Gerard also designed, a chair can be spacious and comfortable and yet still have a streamlined profile.
"To live happily with a piece of furniture, as with a house, the design has to be straightforward, immediately comprehensible," he continues. "Take Gerard’s stainless steel Seamless table, which we’ve put in front of our open fire. The finishing of this piece is the ‘one idea’ Gerard talks about, the one special thing that is all you need to enliven a design. It looks as if it’s made from a single piece of metal, which lends it a marvelous integrity and authenticity." Van den Berg, whose father had a furniture factory, and Caspar, whose father is an interior architect, both grew up in the business. "I was seven when I first went to the Cologne Furniture Fair," says Caspar. "My mother had a design shop stocking stuff like iittala. We grew up surrounded by modern design. I must admit I am slightly obsessive."
It comes as no surprise, then, that upstairs, the Collettes’ two children, Jort (two years old) and Roemer (eight months), have already begun developing their first designer furniture collections. Their brightly colored rooms, with balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows, contain such gems as Jort’s bobbinlike table and chairs in beech by the Danish designer Nanna Ditzel ("Now 80-something and still designing," says Collette admiringly) and an Eames Hang-It-All. "Why should we put up with badly designed kids’ furniture?" Caspar asks. "Take the kids’ beds from Stokke. They’re elegant cribs, and they convert later into a bed, a desk, or even two chairs—good design, with a long life. That’s what furniture design is all about. We chose things for the kids’ rooms the way we chose everything about the house: It’s a question of looking at the range of possibilities and selecting what fits your taste, what you feel comfortable with.
"With this house, we tried to embody pure thinking," he continues. "A wall is a wall, a floor is a floor—it’s all as simple as possible, no trims or embellishments or distractions. Gerard’s furniture is also the result of pure thinking, and that’s why I never tire of it, and why there’s so much of it in our house—a chair is a chair, nothing more, nothing less."
Amsterdam-based contributing editor Jane Szita took the train to Ghent–three hours away, but a very different Franco-Flemish culture. While touring Van Everbroeck's house, she took time to revisit Jan van Eyck's 15th-century painted church altarpiece. "Flemish painters' works have a depth of color artists had never achieved before," says Szita. "Ghent was the perfect place for an assignment; one could argue that the city was the birthplace of the modern color palette."