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Unsung heroes: Design September shows modern face of design in Brussels

16:30 02/09/2014

Yes, summer’s almost gone but the annual Design September festival in Brussels is consolation for dozens of participating designers and thousands of design-loving visitors. Now in its eighth edition, the month-long, city-wide programme has something for everyone: exhibitions, conferences, pop-up stores, studio open-houses, a design market and more. Crammed into September’s 30 days are over 100 events all celebrating the designer, unsung hero of modern life.

For the uninitiated, design is where form meets function. We’re talking architecture, furniture, graphics, textiles and industrial design. As grandiose as it sounds, design is the better part of our everyday interface with the spaces and objects around us.

Although less glamorous, designers are far more influential in our lives than their fine-art counterparts. Good art might have an effect on us, but good design helps us get on in the world long after we leave the museum.

And Brussels is the perfect city to host the international event. “There are many wonderful designers, manufacturers and design brands in Belgium,” says Design September art director Delphine Vercauteren. “With several international design events, museums and internationally respected schools, this small country is a bona fide design hotspot.”

Vera Vermeersch, whose work is showing in the Design September exhibition Intersection#3, has done her part to put Belgium on the design map. The veteran designer established her textile studio in Ghent in the mid-1980s and has been innovating ever since.

If that name sounds familiar even to a design dodo, that’s because Vermeersch is a member of one of Flanders’ most prolific artistic families. Her father, celebrated ceramicist José Vermeersch, has inspired two generations of Vermeersches (and counting) to follow in his footsteps. Among them are Vera, Rik, Pieter, Lowie and Robin, all fixtures in the local art world.

With her father’s artist friends about the house and family members launching artistic careers of their own, Vermeersch’s upbringing could only fascinate and encourage. “Of course growing up in an artistic family influenced me,” Vermeersch says, “not least by showing me how endless the possibilities are. Everyone was busy exploring a different artistic discipline.”

As keen as she was to get exploring herself, she wasn’t sure which of these disciplines to choose. She just knew that she wanted to be an artist. So a young Vermeersch studied art history and eventually, only after graduation, dipped her toe in the waters of tapestry restoration. Realising her passion, she became a dyed-in-the-wool weaver.

“Textiles and threads had always fascinated me,” she says. “That passion has been le fil rouge dans ma vie, as they say.”

That’s where family ties once more came in handy. “Let’s say my name didn’t close any doors,” she laughs. Above all, Vermeersch says, the clan was the perfect support system for an aspiring artist. “My first carpets were bought by my father and brother, and then by family friends, who were also artists. From there, word spread.”

Her family and friends’ early patronage afforded Vermeersch the liberty to experiment in her chosen field. She quickly shifted her focus from the restoration of historic Gobelin tapestries to the innovation of contemporary techniques, including her signature style of hand-tufting. Vermeersch describes this method, which permits blending of different materials and colours, as “painting with wool.”

Her hand-tufted carpets are often the product of collaborations with other artists and designers from around the world. Indeed, they are frequently three-dimensional “translations” of conceptual designs or existing two-dimensional paintings. Vermeersch’s contribution to Design September includes hand-tufted riffs on Roger Raveel (pictured above), Fred Bervoets, Michel Buylen and Kristof Van Gestel. 

The Intersections#3 exhibition also showcases pieces by two other Flemish artists working with different elemental materials. Woodworker Kaspar Hamacher philosophises with a chainsaw with minimalist, forward-looking furniture whose natural roots are evident all the same. The work of ceramicist Hugo Meert is a more polished affair. His tableware is sophisticated, smooth and even ironic.

Vermeersch, Hamacher and Meert share little on the level of technique, but taken together the trio show the contemporary face of design. Cloth, wood and clay were once used for bare subsistence; now these age-old materials are deployed in the name of a bold, modern aesthetic.

The exhibition is hosted inside the ultimate symbol of modern Belgian design: the Atomium. It’s the third consecutive year that the venue is participating in Design September, showing just how well established the festival is in the capital.

Other Design September events are scattered across the city. Most are exhibitions hosted in galleries, shops and artist studios. Chances are you’ll get to meet the designer herself. 

One of the festival’s bigger events is the Design Market, dedicated to furniture and decoration from the mid- to late-twentieth century. International dealers, collectors and amateurs converge at Tour & Taxis for a weekend in the middle of the month for what has become one of Belgium’s biggest vintage design events.

9-30 September
Across Brussels
www.designseptember.be

Photo © Vincent Pinckaers

Written by Georgio Valentino