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Designer Charles Kaisin creates once-in-a-lifetime dinners that tap into Belgium's surrealist streak

11:18 03/12/2019

When luxury brands, collectors or heads of state want to throw a dinner party their guests won’t forget, they turn to Charleroi-born designer Charles Kaisin. Whether it’s conjuring up the cosmos for a Cartier jewellery launch – waiters wore silver-foil suits and gravity itself was suspended – or inviting guests to fish for ducks (à table) in the Brussels metro, Kaisin’s parties have a madcap, whimsical air straight from the pages of Alice in Wonderland.

A trained architect, Kaisin studied under Israeli designer Ron Arad at the Royal College of Art in London, before internships with French starchitect Jean Nouvel and British sculptor Tony Cragg. Since then he has forged a singular, mercurial path – his 20-strong Brussels office tackles the dinners and three other main areas of activity: object design, architecture and scenography.

Projects have ranged from creating chocolates for Pierre Marcolini to bags for Delvaux and designing an interior wing of contemporary art museum MAC’s, near Mons (he’s currently working on a listed farm in Wallonia for private clients). He’s also known for his spectacular installations – such as recreating Rolls-Royce’s ‘spirit of ecstasy’ bonnet ornament from 2,500 pieces of miniature origami, something that’s been a fascination since he was an exchange student in Kyoto.

“I try to work on the identity of objects because it’s the strongest way to touch people’s emotions,” he explains. “I’m interested in things that can be domesticated, that you can interact with and inflect with personality.” In the case of the Almaha Marrakech hotel, for instance, that translated into animating Charles Baudelaire’s exotic poem L’Invitation au voyage by recruiting a cast of local artisans to deck its walls with Bedouin textiles or sew silk squares into an abstract representation of the local Jemaa el-Fna market place.

Themes of recycling, metamorphosis and movement unite his disparate output. One early project, long predating the current trend for recycling, was the honeycomb-structured polypropylene K-bench, which could be extended and placed inside or outside. He has also made a newspaper version. His latest creation for the Brussels contemporary deisgn fair Collectible is a reversible glass akin to a chalice designed to take both wine and champagne.

The Surrealist Dinners, appropriately, happened by chance. The first, held at his Brussels studio, was to thank supporters; almost a decade on, Kaisin has hosted 55 events in 18 countries, from the Monte-Carlo Casino to the Château de Chambord – France’s second biggest castle after Versailles – and for Belgian brand Ice-Watch.

“In Brussels, the objective of the dinners was to create something like a performance or happening, and to valorise Belgian culture using surrealism,” he says. “That’s also what we do abroad.” Given the costs involved, most events are for luxury brands such as Hermès or individuals of means.

All start with a theme – be it madness or a love of play, say – that’s fleshed out by extensive research and meticulously brought to life. “The theme is the thread, which we articulate – via a client, a brand, a birthday – in a surprising manner. It must be linked to the person, their values or universe.”

An art director by nature, Kaisin oversees every detail, from the epic sets to the service. “There’s one waiter for every one or two people, so everyone is served at the same time,” he says. “There’s a star chef, and there’s always an extraordinary location – we’ve had dinners in pools, in churches.”

For Kaisin, suffering a dull dinner party is akin to torture. But staging one on behalf of cultured VIPs means the sky is the limit – or not, in the case of his cosmic Cartier dinner. And, as with the objects he makes, the point isn’t functionality but conjuring a world of dreams. “My dinners are about the idea of poetry and surprise,” he says. “What we do is appeal to people’s childlike sides, create an astonishment that’s primordial and sublime.”

Photos: Nicolas Lobet. This article first appeared in Wab (Wallonia and Brussels) magazine

Written by Clodagh Kinsella