Axel Vervoordt has earned renown as a collector, antiquarian, interior designer and, most recently, curator. He counts among his clientele royalty, rock stars, financiers, tech tycoons and artists. Tall and elegant, with a serene smile, this 62-year-old may be one of the world’s foremost tastemakers. Yet he has little interest in “style,” at least as it is currently defined, because essentially, Vervoordt is a metaphysician. Inquiries into the nature of being and concepts of time and space are what most compel him; he conveys his views through his inspired arrangements of objects and interiors. To some, expressing the lofty in the material might seem contradictory, but Vervoordt believes that, as in a Zen koan, truth can be contained in paradox and ambiguity. Clients may go to him in search of a splendid antique armoire or for help renovating and furnishing an 18th-century villa, but the most valuable service they receive is instruction in his highly evolved yet quite fundamental philosophy of living.
Vervoordt was born in Antwerp in 1947 to a worldly father who made his living trading horses and an equally cultivated mother who thrived on the company of artists and intellectuals. In the early 1960s, she pioneered the conservation of the Vlaeykensgang, Antwerp’s historic old quarter, birthplace of the painters Anthony Van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens. She would buy a building, restore its medieval character, then rent it to artists to enliven the neighborhood. In pursuing these projects, she enlisted the help of her son, who from an early age demonstrated an artistic bent, painting his bedroom windows, for example, to resemble stained glass. These hands-on renovations kindled in Vervoordt a love of the old and authentic and a fascination with the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque.
The young Vervoordt got swept up in all his parents’ activities, even their socializing. Their sophisticated friends became his. One taught him to appreciate the different characteristics of various woods; others educated him about antique books and silver — instructing him not only in recognizing the rare and the good but also in distinguishing the fake from the authentic. As a teenager he haunted salesrooms in search of curiosities like treen (small woodenware pieces), turned-ivory objects and memento mori; early on, he demonstrated a knack for spotting overlooked gems. At 14 he traveled to England for the first time to bid directly on pieces with a loan from his father — who demanded interest! Some of what he bought he resold to his parents’ friends to repay that debt, but he managed to hang on to some marvelous works, such as the portrait of a Hanoverian princess attributed to Gainsborough that hangs above the tub in his master bath.
During this period he developed what would become his trademark practice of purchasing against the prevailing fashion. “The taste then [the 1960s] was classical, so there were many pieces for me, and they later became quite valuable,” Vervoordt says. “There was no better time for buying antique English and European furniture and domestic art, because England’s inheritance taxes forced so many families to strip their country houses of the troves they had accumulated over centuries.” He acquired objects “that I loved with my heart. Only after their purchase would I do research on them, buy books and consult experts. I still work in a similar fashion.”
Vervoordt didn’t consider this avocation a potential profession and went off to university to study economics. He was soon bored, however, and left school to perform his national service in the army. While in the military, he continued buying art and antiques — now for clients as well as himself, sometimes arranging the items in their homes. But it was only when, at age 21, he managed to get $50,000 for a 1948 Magritte painting, La mémoire, for which he’d paid $2,400 that he decided “my passion and my hobby would become my life’s work.”
Like his mother, Vervoordt went about restoring houses in the Vlaeykensgang, and he decided to make his home and showroom there. In this Vermeer-like realm, people admired Axel and May’s gezelligheid (“warm and charming” in Flemish) way of living and began asking him to create similar environments for them. Soon he was not only “purifying” interiors but also designing furnishings to complement his clients’ antiques while satisfying “contemporary expectations of comfort.” As the business prospered, Vervoordt transformed many of the surrounding buildings into workshops and warehouses.
The idea of opening a shop never attracted him. “Putting objects in a window was like shoving away friends that I loved,” he says. Instead, Vervoordt wanted to arrange pieces in his home so clients could visit and see how he “perceived their essential qualities.” This sentiment engendered a policy that the company follows to this day: If for any reason the owner of a piece purchased from him no longer wants it, Vervoordt will buy it back at the price for which he sold it or swap something else for it.
As important as friendships have been to Vervoordt, none have influenced him as much as those with artists. It was the Belgian painter Jef Verheyen who introduced him to the Zero movement — and to a fresh manner of seeing. “The way one looks at things is of the utmost importance,” Vervoordt recalls him explaining. “You must feel something with your eyes.” The artist also taught him to recognize emptiness as the place where “the essence reveals itself, where nothing means everything.” This aesthetic awakening led Vervoordt to explore Taoism and Zen Buddhism, as well as quantum physics. The philosophy of art and life that emerged from these studies, he calls volledig which translates as “the fullness of emptiness.”
During the early 1970s, Vervoordt began making buying trips to Thailand, Cambodia and Japan. The stillness of the Buddhist art and the serene architectural spaces of the temples resonated deeply with him. He had already been playing with aesthetic polarities in his design dialogues between rustic and Baroque furnishings and between ancient statuary and modern paintings. Now he recognized the potential for creating analogous conversations with Eastern objects. In fact, he found he had a strong affinity for wabi, the Zen notion that true beauty is imperfect, incomplete and impermanent — in other words, as evanescent as life. This view is reflected in his love of poor, “ugly” objects, like a shepherd’s rough-hewn table or a raku tea bowl.
From the start, Vervoordt’s aesthetic and approach were radically different from those of his antiquarian colleagues. Unlike them, when he presented his wares at prestigious fairs, he put together his stand not as a small shop of objects from the same period but as a room setting. This distinctive approach garnered him many clients beyond his initial northern European market. His real breakthrough in presentation, however, came in 1982, when he made his debut at the Biennale des Antiquaires, in Paris. Given a huge space at the Grand Palais, he conceived a display resembling a cabinet of curiosities in a decorated room. He recalls being very nervous, not only because the concept was so different but also because he was a young man from Antwerp among super sophisticated Parisians. Then, at the last minute, inspired by the framework of the elaborate booths being constructed, he dispensed with his plan and showed his treasures — among them, an enormous 18th-century rock-crystal chandelier, a pair of black Sung vases, a Pietra Dura chest with rock-crystal legs, and silver-gilt jugs that once belonged to Charles II — in a stark industrial setting with iron beams and an exposed concrete floor. Visitors flocked to it, and Vervoordt’s reputation as a visionary was made.
His business burgeoned to the point that he outgrew his cozy complex in the Vlaeykensgang. Searching for a new site for his home and his company, he purchased ’s-Gravenwezel, a 50-room castle, complete with moat, situated just outside Antwerp. Long neglected, the structure and its grounds took four years to renovate. But here Vervoordt was able to create a grand mis-en-scène carefully orchestrated to make manifest his aesthetic. Each room features a different decor: The study is richly furnished in the English style, while the dining room is an all-white Baroque fantasy with an opulent crystal chandelier and a display of blue-and-white Ming. The spare meditation room has white-slipcovered furnishings, bare pine-board flooring, a 16th-century screen by one of Japan’s first Zen masters and a giant Antoni Tàpies canvas, Grand marron troué, 1972, below which rests a Lucio Fontana Concetto spaziale, natura bronze sculpture. Speaking of the room, Vervoordt says, “You can hear the silence.”
Ever intellectually restless, in the 1990s Vervoordt turned his attention to cosmic art from all periods and places, but especially contemporary works. Wishing to put his growing collection on view and once again needing more space for his business, in 1997 he purchased the Kanaal. Left largely untouched, with peeling paint in some places and bare concrete walls, its massive architectural spaces provide dramatic settings for Vervoordt’s displays. In a room with many large columns, for example, he has arranged his rare life-size Dvaravati sculptures, which took him 30 years to assemble, while in the enormous malt works, he has installed Anish Kapoors monumental, perception-altering dome, At the Edge of the World, 1998. Kapoor’s art has tremendous appeal for Vervoordt because it “evokes the abyss that can appear suddenly in everyday life” — the ma of existence.
In 2007, after nearly 40 years of dispensing his aesthetic views to private clients, Vervoordt decided to share his ideas with a wider public through a trilogy of exhibitions exploring the universality of art. For each show, he gathered a salon of scholars in the fields of art, philosophy and science to brainstorm. The fruit of their wide-ranging discussions, distilled to one written page, served as the show’s mission statement, and participants contributed essays to the catalogue.
The Most Iconic Projects
Under the Vervoordts’ tenure the castle has once again taken on a sense of magic and wonder, with a new energy provided by its owners’ ever-evolving collection of art and furniture, as well as their individual approach to interior design. Artworks range from archaeological Egyptian stone vessels and Chinese Sung dynasty Buddhas to Renaissance bronzes and contemporary paintings by the world’s most sought-after artists.
The castle has more than 50 rooms, each decorated in its own style to display exquisite pieces of antique furniture and priceless paintings and artefacts. In the all-white dining-room is a display of antique Chinese ceramics recovered from the Geldermalsen, a Dutch East Indiaman that sank off Jakarta around 1751. Known as the Nanking Cargo, 140,000 salvaged pieces were sold at auction in 1986.
The Greenwich Hotel Penthouse
The Greenwich Hotel – TriBeCa Penthouse was created by Belgian designer Axel Vervoordt and Japanese architect Tatsuro Miki, in close collaboration with the hotel’s partners Ira Drukier and Robert De Niro.The 6,800 sq ft suite was inspired by the TriBeCa neighborhood’s industrial past fused with the ancient Japanese aesthetic of Wabi.The Greenwich Hotel – TriBeCa Penthouse design incorporates the philosophical beliefs of Wabi: beauty found in imperfection and authenticity; Artempo – where time becomes art; and poor materials that are rich in spirit.Sustainable design is echoed throughout the interior and exterior space. Materials like stone, steel and reclaimed wood were carefully selected and thoughtfully utilized in every area of the penthouse.“We want to express a tribeca character in the most humble way. because the architecture is so simple, it belongs as much to the past as to the future,” says designer Axel Vervoordt.
The Greenwich Hotel – TriBeCa Penthouse offers a large open floorplan with multi-purpose living spaces, including a separate living room and drawing room, a full sized chef’s kitchen, three fireplaces, two and half bathrooms and three bedrooms. The private outdoor gardens on two levels span over 4,000 sq ft and feature a spa pool and dining for 18 guests. The original copper roof of the building has been repurposed by an upstate New York artisan who handcrafted gourd-shaped light fixtures from this metal.
An early inspiration of Axel Vervoordt
Axel Vervoordt started as a very young collector when he was 14. He was at an exhibition, which has these machines and mobiles by Tinguely. He couldn’t afford it. The same day he found a 16th century iron chest where one lock moved 8 other locks and this was one tenth of the price. From then, he really felt some old things were as contemporary as contemporary art. For him it’s important that an artist opens his eyes in a new way. He like things that have this eternal message, this essence of being. This dialogue is very important.
Axel Vervoordt Gallery Hong Kong
The Axel Vervoordt Gallery Hong Kong is an extension of the existing gallery in Antwerp. It offers a complementary programme of specially commissioned works, and will be an important platform for internationally renowned artists to participate in the radically-changing art scene in Asia.
Since the 1970s, Axel Vervoordt has developed a strong interest in Eastern philosophy, directly feeding into the spirit of the company, which has the ambition to create a dialogue between East and West. As a result, the gallery has naturally worked with a broad range of artists who tend to explore concepts of void, universality or infinity.
Axel Vervoordt Gallery Hong Kong opened with an exhibition of the African artist El Anatsui entitled Theory of Se. It consisted of three specially-commissioned works, Affirmation, Intimation and Revelation Image, which all contemplate the role the hand plays in forecasting the fate, destiny and fortune of individuals.
Inspirational quotes by Axel Vervoordt
“There’s an art to occupying a house. Practical concerns matter above all else. Aesthetic questions enter the picture only at a later stage. The emotional aspect is important. A house should reflect its occupants’ lifestyles and personalities.”
“There are no rules to what we do—it comes from the heart.”
Talent is a heritage
The history of the company has always been a path of discovery. Axel Vervoordt’s father officially started as an art and antique dealer in the 1960s, but it was the continuation of a passion and interest that he discovered very early in his youth. After discovering and rebuilding the Vlaeykensgang in Antwerp, his parents started participating in art fairs and dealing internationally. In 2011, they opened our gallery in Antwerp near the company’s original home to focus on the works of ZERO and Gutai artists.
In 2007, Axel Vervoordt presented a large installation of El Anatsui on the façade of the Palazzo Fortuny, at Artempo. Where Time Becomes Art, which was for many people the first encounter with the African artist. Since the Antwerp exhibition in 2012 and the Inaugural exhibition of the Axel Vervoordt Gallery in Hong Kong the international attention grew stronger, culminating in this lifetime achievement award.
Instalation was awarded with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement of the 56th International Art Exhibition of the Biennale di Venezia – All the World’s Futures.
Top Projects Gallery