Is Brussels the New Paris?

Interior of Saint Michel Cathedral, Brussels.
(Click on any image to enlarge.)

It's hard to imagine any city coming close to Paris - at least in terms of sheer beauty and style. But, La Grand Place in Brussels is considered by many to be the most beautiful square in Europe. [Watch a charming little video here.] With NATO headquartered in the city, recent visitors have included Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden. And, Belgium's Prime Minister, Herman van Rompuy, was just named the new President of the European Council. "Brussels is the capital of Europe with its international politics and its international arts scene."*

When the Brussels Flowercarpet is staged every two years at the Grote Markt, on La Grand Place in Brussels, the impossibly elaborate Baroque architecture of the guild houses and gothic-style city hall temporarily plays second fiddle to the flowers.

Lo and behold, Belgian design, once an obscure, little-known variant of French style, is suddenly everywhere these days. Restoration Hardware? How mainstream! Bill Gates? When did techno geeks become design devotees? What the heck is going on?

Some of us might have secretly been thinking that our taste for Belgian design was a bit more sophisticated, chic and – well, exclusive – than that of the masses. It seems, no one outside the small community of designers, design writers and bloggers, even knew of the existence of a Belgian style, just a few years ago.

One man alone has brought his version of an elegantly austere, authentically rustic and (according to Diane Dorrans Saeks*) poetic Belgian aesthetic to the attention of the world. He bought a castle near Antwerp, outfitted it with his design, architecture and antiques businesses ... and the elite world of high-end decorators slowly caught wind. What began as a trickle, has grown into a stream of designers, collectors and celebrities making the trip to pay homage to the king. Axel Vervoordt has, single-handedly perhaps, put Belgium on the map as an interior design and antiques mecca.

Above two images from Axel Vervoordt's Timeless Interiors.

Angelika Taschen caught onto the Belgian vibe and published Brussels Style in 2006, one in a series of Taschen's Icons books.

On the cover, Agnes Emery's kitchen. Photo by Alexander van Berge/Taverne Agency.

Design by Lionel Jadot, photo by Jean-Luc Laloux.

The kitchen of set designer, Eugénie Collet. Photo by S. Anton/Inside.

Another person on my design radar is NYC's arbiter of funky style, decoupage artist, and hip shop owner, John Derian – whose own line of furnishings would feel right at home in a Belgian interior. He and I have so much in common, I'm sure if we ever met we would become instant best friends and stay up late into the night talking. However, these days my bedtime is more like 9 pm, and on a recent trip to NY, despite booking a hotel right around the corner from his shop (for convenient stalking), I never ran into him. But when entering his store, I felt like I had found my own design nirvana, and wanted to scoop it all up:
• Astier de Villatte's Parisian pottery and notebooks - check
• Hugo Guinness botanical drawings - check
• Rustic linen and flax upholstery and fabrics - check
• African straw mats - check

My bounty from John Derian's NY shop: Astier de Villatte vase, and notebook with gold tipped pages (too pretty to actually use except for staging tabletop vignettes!)

John Derian doesn't seem to give over to profuse chatting in interviews, so when he does speak, I pay attention. And when I read recently that his favorite hotel is Hotel Amigo in Brussels*, I was intrigued. I raced to the computer to consult my other favorite friend, Google. As a side note, I confess to having a fondness for hotels, and especially, hotel design. And, I've always secretly dreamed about how wonderful it would be to live in a grand hotel. What could be better than daily maid service, room service and fresh crisp hotel bed linens? Step out your front door and, voila, you're in the heart of a cosmopolitan city, walking distance to a world of excitement and museums, cafés, bookstores, charming shops. Sign me up now.

Hotel Amigo, John Derian's crashpad of choice when hanging out in Brussels.

The Magritte Suite.

Another view of the Magritte Suite.

Hotel Amigo is located next to La Grand Place, near the antiques district of Le Sablon, and is housed in a former prison. (I think John Derian must love the irony in that!) The hotel appears to be a design and art lover's dream. Olga Polizzi, part of the Italian Rocco Forte clan of luxury hotel owners, and who designs all their hotel interiors, has created a special guest package: In The Footsteps of Award-winning Interior Designer. Included are tailored itineraries to the best shops, galleries and museums in Brussels – a pretty good idea for your first trip to the city.

Bocconi Restaurant at Hotel Amigo.

References can be found throughout the hotel to Magritte, the surrealist painter who spent most of his life in Brussels. (The Rene Magritte Museum is located nearby in Magritte's former home.) His art is on display throughout the hotel, and the restaurant has a Magritte Limited Edition Menu, which starts with an appetizer named, Ceci n'est pas une pomme (a play on Magritte's famous painting, Ceci n'est pas une pipe) and ends with dessert consisting of a bowler hat (often seen in Magritte's paintings) stuffed with white and dark chocolate mousse. I just hope in this case, the hat is made of chocolate.

More to come about Belgian style ...
Urbane and sophisticated, and possessing exquisite taste, Diane Dorrans Saeks has authored over 20 books on interior design, architecture, travel and style ... and she writes one of the best design blogs of all time – The Style Saloniste. Please check out her interview of Axel Vervoordt, and read first-hand about an insider's visit to the Vervoordt castle. Set aside plenty of time, as her posts are long, but well-worth the wonderful journey.

See photos of Axel's Italian palazzo, here.


* Christiane Reiter, Brussels Style
** Vanity Fair, 2009


Paloma {La Dolce Vita} said...

I would love to visit Brussels! It seems like such a glorious place. I'm not sure it will ever have the same status as Paris, but that may have something to do with Paris' storied and romantic history. There is a sense of notoriety that goes hand in hand with all of the cultural icons that Paris has produced. Having said all that, Brussels seems like a gorgeous place with so much to offer, especially to design lovers. The hotel you posted is lovely.

Topsy Turvy said...

Paloma - I agree! However, Brussels seems less expensive than Paris so could be an interesting option.


jamesxvi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jamesxvi said...

Lana, thanks for this peek into Taschen's Brussels Style, which I must now add to my wishlist. I am always happy to read more on Belgian style. I have lived and worked in Brussels and Paris, and they will always remain two of my favorite cities. One advantage Brussels has is close proximity to the great flea markets in Waterloo and Tongeren, both filled with treasures at prices you'll never see again in Paris. I have a collection of Belgian finds scattered around here at Garvinweasel.

Topsy Turvy said...

James - Thanks for the insight. I will go check out your Belgian finds.


Francine Gardner said...

Great post! I have been following the work of Axel Vervoordt for years... before his fame followed him to New York. Brussels is a beautiful city, extremely cold in the winter....was there in November without a coat..... Love the Amigo hotel, it is small, intimate and right in the center, a walk away from the antique district. Brugges and Antwerp are very charming cities. It is so amusing how the Belgium and the French have this on going competition and the belgium always point out famous people who were born in Belgium. I had a dispute with a belgium vendor once, and he kindly send me a book about all important belgium people...

My Notting Hill said...

Super post - the title is so on target! Of course, Paris is Paris but Brussels and Belgium are so alluring right now. For the last few weeks I've been thinking I want to go!

J.Covington said...

I would say yes... I antique shop for my store there quite often and just love it. Brussels replaced Paris - for me - about 5 years ago. Of course Paris has my heart for many reasons, but who can resist the scent of waffles drifting throughtout a city?

Jaeve + Things said...

Brussels is the business!

the.neo.lifestyle said...


To you all i can say only one thing come and visit Brussels i live in the center, and its just fun all the time :-)


La Petite Gallery said...

Your post Makes my day. I feel good again.

Thank you.
That Kitchen is just devine..

It is a real delight to visit.


La Petite Gallery said...

I hope this goes through having a problem with connections.

It keeps kicking you off my list..?



I love Brussels and Axel but even more his son, Boris. Maybe there needs to be a blogger visit to Brussels?

Fabulously french said...

Maybe. That said I will always adore Paris, it is such a magical city.

Leeann x

Country French Antiques said...

Oh MY!!
I WANT, I NEED that kitchen!
I think that has to be my favorite of all time.

Christy Walters said...

I love this post! The pictures make me want to redecorate my humble abode :)


Dear Lana,

as it seems that you are questioning yourself about knowing if Brussels is the new Paris, let me tell you that you'll be soon able to see my Brussels' Loft in ELLE DECOR USA, April 2010 issue, on stands by March...

Surprise !!!

All the Best,
(BTW, I hope you haven't been visiting Brussels without telling me !!!)

Topsy Turvy said...

Dear Bruno - how exciting! I can't wait to see your loft! And thank you for thinking of me. Any chance of a sneak preview???

Marisa said...

This is really thorough, I feel as though I was there. The Astier notebook is one of my all time favorites. I visited the Paris shop 8 years ago and was sort of let down by the lack of stuff aside from the white china. Truly a specialty niche for them!