This House Proves Art Galleries Can Be Super-Friendly
By Jaime Gillin / Published by Dwell
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An Antwerp home blurs the boundaries between art and design.

Veerle Wenes has always been interested in hybrid creations, in the blending of disciplines. When she was invited in 2009 to cocurate an exhibition at Belgium’s Musée des Arts Contemporains, she opted to display “very well-known artists alongside unknown designers.” The resulting show was a revelation for her. “Design and art and architecture have had a bad relationship for much of the past 50 or 60 years,” says Wenes. “There was a time in the art deco period where they combined more easily.”

Wenes incorporated artful furnishings into the private spaces: In the living room, a leather chair by Maarten Van Severen is beneath a lamp by his son, Hannes Van Severen, of design duo Muller Van Severen.

Wenes incorporated artful furnishings into the private spaces: In the living room, a leather chair by Maarten Van Severen is beneath a lamp by his son, Hannes Van Severen, of design duo Muller Van Severen.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde
With the help of architect Bart Lens, Veerle Wenes and Bob Christiaens merged a 19th-century building with a 1970s one to create a combined home and art gallery in Antwerp. In the dining room downstairs, Wenes entertains family, friends, and gallery visitors. The yellow chair is by Jens Fager.

With the help of architect Bart Lens, Veerle Wenes and Bob Christiaens merged a 19th-century building with a 1970s one to create a combined home and art gallery in Antwerp. In the dining room downstairs, Wenes entertains family, friends, and gallery visitors. The yellow chair is by Jens Fager.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde

To encourage more genre-crossing activity in the 21st century, Wenes, an architect by training, decided to open Valerie Traan. It was a new kind of gallery for Belgium, one that Wenes says would exist “to mix all these worlds, and to ask architects to make furniture and designers to break out of their own sector and do other things.” She also wanted to create a home for herself and her husband, Bob Christiaens, that was physically and psychically connected to her gallery. “I didn’t just want a huge white place to show things,” she says. “I wanted to combine my private life and my work.” After searching for two years for “the right space, with the right atmosphere,” she found a promising listing in central Antwerp, in a neighborhood “where brasseries come together with shops, where old and young and poor and rich all combine.”

Images by Raw Color hang in a room upstairs.

Images by Raw Color hang in a room upstairs.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde

The property itself was an odd brew, half of it dating from the 19th century and the other half from 1979, with a spacious brick-floored atrium and two outdoor courtyards. It was in bad shape, with cracked PVC windows and ivy growing through the walls, but Wenes’s keen eye immediately saw the possibilities. Though it would be a challenge to transform the raw space into a house, “I decided I couldn’t wait another two or three years to finish a renovation,” she says. “I was 54, so I said: We have to do this immediately—it’s now or never.” She hired Bart Lens, an architect with experience both restoring old buildings and designing contemporary structures, and, to lend extra urgency to her self-imposed deadline, she set—and published—the date of her first gallery exhibition: November 2010, just 11 months away.

The main rooms include an art nook.

The main rooms include an art nook.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde
The room also contains a sofa by Flexform, cushions from textile firm Chevalier Masson, a Jens Fager candelabra, and a painting by Roger Raveel.

The room also contains a sofa by Flexform, cushions from textile firm Chevalier Masson, a Jens Fager candelabra, and a painting by Roger Raveel.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde

“It was a bit stressy,” admits Lens. “There was no time for reflection.” His approach to the renovation, therefore, was straightforward. He aimed to keep as much of the original character of the space as possible while replacing the old windows with modern ones, adding walls to increase display space in the gallery, and installing a monumental white pivoting door to provide access from the street.

An installation by Willem Cole hangs in the gallery, which leads to an open stairway to the office and private bedrooms upstairs.

An installation by Willem Cole hangs in the gallery, which leads to an open stairway to the office and private bedrooms upstairs.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde

Today, when you enter the gallery, a low-ceilinged entrance corridor leads to a soaring multilevel exhibition space. To the right is the ground floor of Wenes’s home, which consists of a living room, a dining area that doubles as a reception space during exhibition openings, and a glass-walled kitchen that overlooks the gallery’s central hall. Upstairs, accessible via a spiral staircase or small elevator (a requirement by Wenes, who wanted to ensure that she and Christiaens could live there for the rest of their lives), is a master bedroom, bathroom, dressing room, and, under a glass cupola, a small guest room.

Wenes and Lens conceptualized a gradation of white to gray hues for the walls of the 1,500-square-foot gallery into the 4,000-square-foot home, culminating in a deep gray for the master bedroom. The room is reserved for meaningful pieces from the couple’s collection, such as a figure they found at a market in Beijing and lamps by artists Wenes represents.

Wenes and Lens conceptualized a gradation of white to gray hues for the walls of the 1,500-square-foot gallery into the 4,000-square-foot home, culminating in a deep gray for the master bedroom. The room is reserved for meaningful pieces from the couple’s collection, such as a figure they found at a market in Beijing and lamps by artists Wenes represents.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde

Throughout their living space are useful everyday objects by artists and designers Wenes represents, including colorful abstract cutting boards, metal trivets, and sculptural floor lamps by Muller Van Severen; wooden knives by Studio Simple and Antoine Van Loocke; and a storage system, consisting of hooks and ropes, by the textile artist Diane Steverlynck and her workmates. Though these pieces are all available for purchase through Wenes’s gallery, she is quick to point out that her home is not a glorified showroom. “Collectors like to see the pieces in my own home—it helps convince them of the quality of the work—but it’s not a strategy,” she says. “I simply surround myself with pieces I like.”

Wenes asked artists from Studio Simple to devise an imaginative storage solution for the bathroom. Starting at one end of the room and working their way across, the team assembled chests and cabinets found at a thrift shop and painted them all white. “It’s like a mosaic,” says Wenes. “It’s a very personalized concept—I feel like it’s my bathroom.”

Wenes asked artists from Studio Simple to devise an imaginative storage solution for the bathroom. Starting at one end of the room and working their way across, the team assembled chests and cabinets found at a thrift shop and painted them all white. “It’s like a mosaic,” says Wenes. “It’s a very personalized concept—I feel like it’s my bathroom.”

Photo: Tim Van de Velde
An installation by d’Hanis & Lachaert.

An installation by d’Hanis & Lachaert.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde

Thanks to the swift work of both Lens and Wenes, the rehabbed gallery opened on time, with an exhibition unveiling Wenes’s design-meets-art-meets-functional-objects concept. The pieces on view ranged from photo-realistic fabric vegetables by Dutch duo Scholten & Baijings to copper office-supply sculptures by Belgian designer Bram Boo. As Wenes had hoped, visitors moved easily between the gallery space and her own dining room table, where she poured coffee and chatted informally about the work on display. Today, she’s on her tenth exhibition, comprising a suite of objects and installations that explore the meaning of color. In between shows, she often co-opts the central gallery space, employing it as an extended dining room for family get-togethers.

A bookshelf by Muller Van Severen.

A bookshelf by Muller Van Severen.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde

Perhaps the best embodiment of Wenes’s approach to her living space, however, is in a room few visitors see: the bathroom. “I did not want a minimalistic bathroom but one with emotion and surprising hidden places,” she says. So she commissioned Ann Vereecken and Jeroen Worst of Studio Simple to transform a fleet of cheap vintage cabinets, mirrors, and dressers picked up at a thrift shop into an installation that spans three walls. They painted everything white and arranged the pieces in a random array. The agglomeration is equal parts art and—some quick snooping reveals—a highly practical piece of furniture, sheltering towels, jewelry, and bathroom supplies. It exemplifies Wenes’s credo: “To combine work and not-work, and to live between house and gallery.”

Three afternoons a week, Wenes opens the gallery and “my private space belongs to the public,” she says. On the box is a piece by Tamara Van San.

Three afternoons a week, Wenes opens the gallery and “my private space belongs to the public,” she says. On the box is a piece by Tamara Van San.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde
Wenes chose to keep the original brick floors to tie the older building to its past.

Wenes chose to keep the original brick floors to tie the older building to its past.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde
The kitchen, which the architect tucked into the back of the house, contains wooden cutting boards by Studio Simple and knives by Studio Simple and Antoine Van Loocke.

The kitchen, which the architect tucked into the back of the house, contains wooden cutting boards by Studio Simple and knives by Studio Simple and Antoine Van Loocke.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde
A workspace within Wenes's Antwerp house and gallery features splashes of color.

A workspace within Wenes's Antwerp house and gallery features splashes of color.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde
“People should choose objects for their home with passion, love, and emotion. You must give your interior some time to grow with your experiences. Let it be a combination of important discoveries from your own life.” —Resident Veerle Wenes

“People should choose objects for their home with passion, love, and emotion. You must give your interior some time to grow with your experiences. Let it be a combination of important discoveries from your own life.” —Resident Veerle Wenes

Photo: Tim Van de Velde
The patio outside Wenes's house and gallery.

The patio outside Wenes's house and gallery.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde
“There was too much visual pollution disturbing the simplicity. The goal was to allow the existing buildings to work within a totally new program, each still distinguishable by its own destiny.” —Architect Bart Len

“There was too much visual pollution disturbing the simplicity. The goal was to allow the existing buildings to work within a totally new program, each still distinguishable by its own destiny.” —Architect Bart Len

Photo: Tim Van de Velde
The floor plan.

The floor plan.

Photo: Tim Van de Velde

Jaime Gillin

@jaimegillin

When not writing, editing, or combing design magazines and blogs for inspiration, Jaime Gillin is experimenting with new recipes, traveling as much as possible, and tackling minor home-improvement projects that inevitably turn out to be more complex than anticipated.

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