You know I’ve been on a cross-country road trip to explore our American interior design styles, but there’s no reason why we can’t catch a last-minute flight to Belgium to check out a “not-so” All-American style. As Americans, I find we are fascinated with the aesthetics of older countries. While we can’t emulate historic homes with centuries more character than our own, we can look to them for storied inspiration. So grab your passport and join me as I explain the characteristics of Belgian interior design and Axel Vervoordt’s influence on the style and my own work.
What is the Belgian Interior Design Style?
Belgian interior design is under-decorated, unapologetically simple, and undeniably welcoming. While other styles rely on heavy ornamentation, bold pattern, and color, the Belgian style strips things down so you can appreciate the materials used and the history of each curated item. Belgian design allows the home’s structure to take center stage, perfect for this region of gorgeous, old, characterful homes. The interiors are free of clutter as designers practice restraint, placing perfectly curated antiques alongside overstuffed seating. Belgian design is rooted in juxtaposition — old and new, rustic and refined, cozy and elegant.
You Can’t Talk about Belgian Design without Recognizing Axel Vervoordt’s Influence on the Style
Axel Vervoordt is the visual guide and iconic personality who popularized the Belgian interior design style in the 1970s with his iconic refurbished houses in Antwerp. He is more of an antiques curator and tastemaker than an interior designer. However, he has created stunning homes. He said his work is about “silence and strength,” and his projects bring centuries of character back into view. Axel himself lives in an 1108 castle and believes the aged patina is akin to contemporary art. He uses the scale of the spaces he works in to enhance the feeling of space and time, embracing the patinas that took decades to form. His style is the perfect balance of timelessness, antiquity, and contemporary living, which sets his projects apart from the rest. Just ask Sting and Robert DiNero!
My Own Experience Discovering Belgian Design and Axel Vervoordt
I was first introduced to Axel Vervoordt in the early 2000s while working for Tom Scheerer. He was finishing up a project in Aspen, Colorado, when I came on as his first employee, and he generously invited me to go on the final installation. This particular client had an original Lucio Fontana art piece from his Slashed Canvases series. On the sideboard below the canvas sat Axel Vervoordt: The Story of a Style which had a cover image featuring another Fontana piece. Of course, it piqued my interest, and I cracked open the book.
I sat in that amazing Aspen room surrounded by views of the snow-capped mountains beneath a magnificent piece of art and flipped through Axel Vervoordt’s book for some time. It was a transcendent experience. I was only about five years into my design career and just discovering my own interest and direction. Axel Vervoordt fascinated me! He was clearly from a completely different planet. Belgium of the 1960s and South Austin of the 1970s were as far apart to me as the Earth and the Moon. However, I resonated with his appreciation for antiquity.
Elements of the Belgian Interior Design Style
Belgian style came into the interior design world with Axel Vervoordt in the 1960s and ‘70s and has made a lasting impression, from blond wood floors to overstuffed sofas to plastered white walls. Here are some of the effortless style elements associated with Belgian design.
Raw and Weathered Materials
Belgian style focuses on the materials, their origin, their stories, and their character. Expose materials for what they are, and embrace the patina of antiques to showcase their wear and journey.
Warm Neutral Colors
Belgian design utilizes warm neutrals to create a peaceful, refined, and welcoming feel, layering in rich creams, earthy browns, and warm grays. Pull inspiration from the snowy Belgian countryside.
Blond wood flooring brings a light and airy feel to a space, working to make a room feel even larger than it is. Belgian style uses blond wood accents to create a harmonious blend of tones that coordinate with neutral linen furnishings and white plaster walls.
Overstuffed Linen Furniture
Axel Vervoordt himself can be seen sitting on an overstuffed linen sofa. Large statement pieces help anchor minimalist Belgian rooms, creating a welcoming spot to unwind and curl up with a good book. Light, linen fabrics help to preserve a feeling of airiness despite the oversized piece.
Clear of Clutter but Full of Personality
Belgian style is minimalist but not void of personality. Here, the restraint used when decorating helps you appreciate the structure of the home and each carefully curated element — free from unnecessary distractions or noise.
I’m Jealous of What Belgian Designers Have to Work With
At my Austin interior design firm, we’re often working in fairly new homes. Even when we’re doing period renovations, they typically only date as far back as the 1920s, which is nothing compared to the age of a 12th-century castle! It takes skill, time, and creativity to turn newer, historyless spaces into storied and layered dwellings the way an older home would naturally feel. It is almost an unfair advantage that Belgian designers have these ancient, weathered structures to work with as a base, along with their beautiful northern climate, gorgeous natural light, and a plethora of antique shops. We here in the U.S. of A can’t compete, which is why we’re probably so fascinated with all things old and European. Walt Disney understood this and capitalized on it. After all, Cinderella’s castle is just a copy of the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.
What Makes Belgian Interior Design So Appealing to Americans?
So, why are Americans so easily swept away by the rustic charm of Belgian design? I think it has something to do with the whimsical charm of a storied history. Personally, I have always been enamored by the history of objects. When I worked at Christie’s Auction House, I’d spend my breaks in the antique department to admire the ancient objects and dream about the lives they previously lived. I’m no Axel Vervoordt, but I share his appreciation for layered art, curated furniture, textured finishes, and all things old.
A Love of Character and Design
The interior design industry never gets old (pun intended) because a project can go in so many different directions. Design projects are as varied as the clients, designers, and homes to which we seek to add a dash of personality. It takes a certain skill level for a designer to align with their client’s wants and respect the home’s structure. But with the right combination, a project sings! It’s a beautiful thing to watch come together and why I still love this work.
We can’t all live in a Belgian castle like Axel Vervoordt, but we can aspire to create magical spaces full of meaning.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.