Verroken or the solitude of a furniture designer
For this Triennial, we went in search of furniture designers who, over the last fifteen years, had not only continued to produce as furniture designers, but who also have regularly been innovative and creative in developing their discipline up to the present day. The pioneers of contemporary furniture design in Belgium, i.e. Emiel Veranneman and Pieter De Bruyne along with their peers, have not been taken into consideration, however. Unfortunately, Pieter De Bruyne died in 1987. Emiel Veranneman has continued to work in the same line which he has been following for the last twenty-five years or more. People are already familiar with the fact. Those they started with have now all disappeared from the contemporary scene1. Having carried out a critical analysis, we found that Verroken was the only artist to meet the above-mentioned criteria. Of course, Verroken is not the only furniture designer from that period. But the others have changed course over the years. They have mainly turned to interior design, teaching or industrial design. Marc Van De Steen was a successful furniture designer from 1972 till about 1982. Frank De Clerq designed furniture from about 1977 till the end of the eighties. But at the beginning of the nineties, he switched to interior design and more particularly the interiors of ships and boats. In no time, Fred Sandra switched to interior design and for years he was the architect of the design fair Interior in Kortrijk. Later, he became the founder of the Classic fair which is also held in Kortrijk. Lucien Bossier from Kortrijk can undoubtedly be described as being an artist who creates structures based on furniture. Frans Van Praet on the other hand, is someone whose approach is that of pure industrial design and is active in all fields from the design of utensils to furniture and interiors. He replaced Fred Sandra for the "Interior for Europe" fair in Kortrijk, which he has now designed on two occasions (1990 and 1992). Less known is the Flemish furniture designer from Brussels, Jan De Smedt (1929-1982) who taught Verroken a lot. For twelve years on end (from 1962 till 1972), he had a much talked-of gallery at 5 Korte Miniemenstraat in Brussels. De Smedt was the first self-employed designer to participate in Interior 682. Other important persons are Rudi Verelst, an industrial designer who emigrated to Canada and the reclusive Ludo Verbeke who now and then creates minimal pieces of furniture. Given the limited scope of this article however, we are unable to examine the work of these people in greater detail. For the last fifteen years, the Flemish furniture scene has not been very lively. There was little new happening. From the mid-eighties onwards however, a creatively strong new generation appeared3. We refer our readers to the contemporary section of this exhibition where they are fully represented. In Flanders, the only designer working in a constant and inventive manner as a pure furniture designer during the period 1980-1995 was Verroken. Verroken is no imitator, but an authentic designer although he does consider himself as being someone who discovered his 'vocation' rather late in life. " He belongs to a small section of furniture designers who think and act straight and give absolute priority to untrammelled independence", states Frans Defour4. Of course, Verroken was already active before 1980. In 1968, he set up his own office for interior design in Schaarbeek and, for years on end (1971-1982), he worked as a free-lance designer for the furniture factory N-Line International in Kluisbergen. Here however, we will mainly be dealing with his later ideas and developments. We do not intend to be exhaustive on the subject, but we want to sketch his role as a furniture maker by shedding some light on a few of his 'key pieces'. Throughout the years, he has remained faithful to a number of artistic principles. These are discussed in his extensive bibliography which mainly consists of essays, introductions and articles in newspapers and weeklies, art magazines and catalogues. We will not be publishing the entire bibliography, and will be limiting ourselves to the most interesting articles. Our point of departure is the grant which he received in 1979 from the Ministry of Dutch Culture that would enable him to continue his experiments in furniture. This was to be a milestone in his career, since it meant that the Commission For Plastic Arts at that time appreciated the strong artistic dimension in his work. Up until then, he had already designed a great deal of pieces of furniture such tables, e.g. the "Piramidetafel" (Pyramid table - 1973), "Octet" (1974), "Vlindertafel" (Butterfly table - 1976), the dinner tables "Duo" (1978) and "Kwadraat" (Quadrate - 1979), which already showed a degree of stylistic continuity. This style is rooted in geometry and architecture, in the Constructivism which he got to know through the deceased painter Marcel Henri Verdren ( ... - 1976) with whom he worked at the offices of "Les architectes de la tour du midi" (The architects of the South Tower) in 19685 and with whom he had a very intense friendship until 1976. He bases his work on permanent values which acquire an increasingly clear individual note as time goes by. In the mid eighties, his ideas on "modules" and "superpositions" for instance were given explicit form (see below). Before 1980, most of his furniture had been tables constructed as harmonious compositions of simple lacquered geometric volumes. On these simple forms, he placed a transparent sheet of glass, thus rendering their construction and interplay between the colour and the shapes of the furniture construction visible and thereby allowing them to interact with the surrounding space6. As far as his industrial designs are concerned, we can say that they are solid classical pieces of furniture "which either could have been produced in a traditional way or industrially7." Our main interest however, is in the furniture which are his sharpest expressions of his most refined notions of form. Here we would like to give a short outline of the spirit of the time in which he worked. In 1980, Italy was still setting the trend, both in classical furniture and in avant-garde work. During that period, Alessandro Mendini and Ettore Sotsass jr. to mention only the most famous, had acquired worldwide fame with their new approach to design. For a whole decade (c. 1976-1986), the new rules were set firstly by Alchimia and later by Memphis. From 1980 onwards, they challenged the ideology of "decent living" and influenced the work of young designers throughout the whole world to such an extent that one could rightly speak of a new movement8. In Flanders, the pieces of furniture by Veranneman and De Bruyne set the tone. Verroken's attitude within this context was simple: his individuality remained intact. An outstanding example of this is his cupboard entitled "Sweet Belgium" (1980), created in 1982 in MDF9, on which he applied black, red and blue satin glosses, finishing off the work with mirror glass and bluestone. The colours of the cupboard eluded to the Memphis trend, while its form was inspired by the work of the two godfathers of contemporary furniture design in Flanders mentioned above. On closer examination, one can clearly distinguish Verroken's inspired mark. "Sweet Belgium" (see photo) is a geometrical cupboard in which the notion of 'superposition' already takes shape. In this sense, it is the precursor of "Superposition" (see photo) which he was to create four years later. It is an adaptable storage furniture made in black satin glossed MDF and layered white or gloss white surfaces. In 1988, his work was given pride of place for the first time at the VAB-VTB10 exhibition in Gallery XXI. His "Superposition" was also on display there, along with "Sweet Belgium". It is an important piece of furniture since it represented a step in the direction of purified form. It represents a move towards his "Trapkast" (Stair cupboard - 1988), a storage cupboard in black varnished ash wood with a laminated white plate finished with rubber and polished steel and containing six drawers on telescopic rails (see photo). Both works were produced for the exhibition. This gained him a great deal of public interest. His pieces of furniture were well received. Monique E.N. Bucquoye compared his work to the Japanese rectilinear style11 and Frans Boenders alluded to the pure geometrical trend found in Art Nouveau and could discern the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh12 - both very striking associations. In fact, Verroken has succeeded in creating a form which was timeless and free. Now, we will allow him to speak for himself. This quotation from 1984 has often been used by the press to comment on his work and cannot be left out in this context. In our opinion, it gives a correct summary of what he was doing then and is, in fact, still doing today: "The elements and compositions used, which reoccur time and again in my work, allude (...) to that which already has been conceived and produced in the course of history. This has nothing to do with nostalgia; all I am trying to do in my designs, is to restore and perpetuate the continuity of architectural tradition. I try to make use of images from the past, archetypes and existing geometrical figures in such a way that I arrive at my own personal vocabulary. (...) I am always in search of a thing's most pithy form 13". He always explores the artistic side thoroughly and places the functional in a larger context14. On top of this, there is the aesthetic aspect about which Verroken says: "Although I consider 'beauty' to be a relative notion, my work can certainly be called aesthetic. This, however, is the result of the great care given to matters of design: ingredients such as proportions, rhythm, material and construction, symmetry and articulations are all given the attention they deserve15." In the late eighties, new international trends emerged which were triggered off by a 'high-tech' piece of furniture, symbolized by constructions made of perforated plates and stainless steel16. This was followed by a period of 'stripped' pieces of furniture, sometimes also called 'informal design'17 from the Pentagon group in Germany. And there was Ron Arad (G.B.) who believed in total freedom of materials, constructions and designs in creating furniture. Today, we have the 'Minimal' trend, which features Jasper Morisson (G.B.), its most important representative on an international level. Very recently, attention has shifted to the 'ecological, honest' furniture in which wood - solid or veneered - plays the leading role. Of course, Verroken remains himself and continues his search for the simple and pure form. In 1989, he assembled the "Bookerprize" (see photo), a bookcase in satin glossed MDF and multiplex birch. It is literally a superposition of elements of two different and interchangeable heights. On first sight, it seems chaotic and disorderly: the opposite of what one might expect of a bookcase. On closer examination however, its strict symmetry, geometrical construction and mathematical order emerge. Some surfaces are horizontal, another feature that does not exactly correspond with the notion of a bookcase. Nevertheless, it is one of the better ways of storing books. The cupboard has already been put on display, in 1989/90 at individual exhibitions at Gallery Hugo Minnen19, for example. It has even been reviewed in the famous Italian magazine "Domus". An interesting feature of this piece of furniture is its minimal handling of the MDF, which is even more striking in his table series "Duo, Trio, Quartet, Quintet, Sextet and Octet" (see photo). The tables were shown for the first time at the Flemish cultural centre "De Brakke Grond" in Amsterdam20. They set off space and all had the basic form of a cube. Each table consisted of two or more cubes connected to each other. All the measurements and thicknesses used were a multiple of three21. The musical quality of this repetition inspired him to borrow the names of the tables from the world of music. During the exhibition at the Brakke Grond, they "evoked a feeling of paradox: extremely pure, simple and common on the one hand, yet simultaneously balanced, perfect and elitist on the other22." In 1994, Verroken exhibited at the Veranneman Foundation23. He also put his drawings on display there. Throughout his career, Verroken has developed as a plastic artist. His drawings are directly related to his pieces of furniture. They are constructivist, at times decorative, yet mainly monumental (see photo). He showed the "solidified" version of the "Duizendpoot" (Centipede), designed in 1988, but only built in 1994 in MDF, solid beech wood and natural varnish. This piece of furniture is shown in the contemporary section of the "Tri‘nnale voor vormgeving" (Triennial for design - see further in this book). In 1994, André Verroken received the VIZO Henry Van de Velde Prize for the 'Best Product'. It was attributed to him for his table "Homenaje a Eduardo Chillada" (see photo). It is a dinner, working and conference table designed in 1993 and built in 1994 in MDF, finished all around with a lacquered veneer of Indian rosewood and ash. He says the following on the subject: "Between the shapes and the empty space, between the wood and the air, there exists a relationship which can hardly be expressed in words, but is experienced through the eyes and the emotions. Never before, have I experienced such a strong relationship as during my first physical confrontation with the work by the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chilida24". Verroken is fond of communicating through his furniture25. He dreams of the "balanced, pure and clear, devoid of all confusing and depressing features; art that has a soothing, peaceful effect on everyone working with his head - business men or intellectuals. Something like a cosy arm chair in which one can relax26". In 1995, Verroken created his "Kontener", another adaptable and superposable programme in the series. To be continued!
Frans Defour, Belgische meubelkunst in de XX° eeuw. Van Horta tot heden. (Belgian Furniture Art in the XXth century. From Horta till now), Lannoo, Tielt, 1979.
Frans Defour, André Verroken, Meubelecho, 25th of March, Brussels, 1985.
Yvonne Joris, Jos Poodt, Ghislain Kieft, Peter Van Kester, Memphis Design, Museum Kruithuis, 's Hertogenbosch, 1984. Catalogue published for the exhibition of the same name which ran from the 20th of April till the 27th of May 1984.
Dr. J. Janssens, Jacques De Visscher, Eric Vanfleteren, Denkbeelden. Meubelide‘en na 1980. (Concepts. Furniture Ideas after 1980), Hoger Architectuurinstituut Sint-Lucas Gent, Ghent, 1987.
Jan Kenis, "Gemeubeld museum te huur" (Furnished Museum for Rent), Provinciale Commissie voor Kunstambachten Limburg (Provincial Commission for Artistic Crafts Limburg), Hasselt, 1987.
Lieven Daenens, Moniek Bucquoye, Nieuwe meubelvormgeving in Belgi‘ (New Furniture Design in Belgium), Interior Foundation and Museum for Decorative Arts, Ghent, 1990
Lieven Daenens, Veerle Van Durme, "Meubelobjectkunst. Een meubel apart" (Furniture Object Art: A different Piece of Furniture), Openbaar Kunstbezit in Vlaanderen, n° 3, 24th year of publication, 1986.
André Verroken, Paul Huylebroeck, De vereniging van Vlaamse ontwerpers in het museum Oud-Hospitaal Aalst (The Association of Flemish Designers at the Oud-Hospitaal Museum, Aalst), Aalst, 1987.
Monique E.N. Bucquoye, De kunst van een kontestant, (The Art of a Contester), Knack, 27th of July 1988, p. 90-91, Roeselare.
Frans Boenders, De zuivere toegepaste kunst van André Verroken (The Pure Applied Art of André Verroken), Kunst & Cultuur, January 1990, Brussels, 1990.
Wolfgang Schepers, and others, Pentagon. Informal Design, Tashen, Köln, 1990.
Sembach, Leuthaüsr, Gässel, Meubeldesign van de 20ste eeuw. (20th-century Furniture Design), Taschen/Librero, Köln, 1989.
Nicole Hermans, "Bruikbare kunstmeubels van André Verroken" (Useful Art Furniture by André Verroken), p. 15-18, in Bijvoorbeeld, 24th year of publication, n° 3, Nijmegen, 1992.
Brochure "VIZO Henry Van de Velde Prizes" 1994, Beste produkt/Best product Laureate André Verroken, VIZO, Brussels, 1994.
1 For more information, we refer the reader to Frans Defour, Belgische meubelkunst in de XX° eeuw (Belgian Furniture Art in the XXth century), Tielt, 1979.
2 Jan De Smedt was more a "cabinet maker" in the French sense of the word, who worked in a classical manner but also showed how innovation could be introduced into classical working methods. Note by André Verroken, 15th of September 1995.
3 Several exhibitions held during the late eighties go in this direction. There was the "Hedendaagse meubelobjecten" exhibition (Contemporary Furniture Objects), 24/10/1986 - .../1986, Museum for Decorative Arts, Ghent during the 3rd Openbaar Kunstbezit in Vlaanderen 1986; "Denkbeelden. Meubelidee‘n na 1980" (Concepts. Furniture Ideas after 1980), 22/05/1987 - 21/07/1987, Hotel d'Hane-Steenhuyse, Ghent, on the occasion of the 125th jubilee Ghent; "De vereniging van Vlaamse ontwerpers in het museum OudHospitaal Aalst" (The association of Flemish designers at the Oud-Hospitaal Museum, Aalst", 14/02/1987 - 01/03/1987, Vrienden van het Oud-Hospitaal Aalst (Friends of the OudHospitaal), Aalst. The work of several young furniture designers was on display at this exhibition ; "Gemeubeld museum te huur" (Furnished Museum for Rent), 02/07/1988 - 25/08/1988, Provinciaal Museum Hasselt; "Nieuwe meubelvormgeving in Belgi‘. New furniture in Belgium. Le nouveau meuble belge." Museum for Decorative Arts (Korenlei), 13/12/1989 - 25/02/1990. All exhibitions were accompanied by a catalogue which is mentioned in the bibliography.
4 Frans Defour, Meubelecho (Furniture Echo), 1985, p. 26-27.
5 Lieven Delafortry, Plein feu sur le créateur André Verroken, Domo, Brussel (The designer André Verroken in the spotlights), 1981.
6 Lieven Delafortry, Plein feu sur le créateur André Verroken, Domo, Brussel (The designer André Verroken in the spotlights), 1981.
8 Memphis, 's Hertogenbosch, 1984, p. 11.
9 Medium density fibreboard.
10 Design in de zomer. Verroken. Recent werk. (Design in summer. Verroken. Recent work.), Gallery XXI, 06/08/1988 - 02/09/1988. A cultural initiative by the VTB-VAB, Antwerp.
11 M.E.N. Bucquoye, Knack, 27th of July 1988.
12 F. Boenders, Kunst & Cultuur, January 1990, Brussels.
13 André Verroken, Paul Huylebroeck, De vereniging van Vlaamse ontwerpers in het museum Oud-Hospitaal Aalst (The Association of Flemish designers at the Oud-Hospitaal Museum, Aalst), Aalst, 1987. André Verroken comments on his own work.
16 Sembach and others, Meubeldesign van de 20ste eeuw. (20thcentury Furniture Design, p. 230, Taschen/Librero, Köln, 1989.
17 Wolfgang Schepers and others, Pentagon. Informal Design, Taschen, Köln, 1990.
18 Pentagon designed the cafe for Documenta 8 in 1987, amongst other things.
19 The exhibition ran from 17/12/1989 till 04/02/1990 at the Hugo Minnen Gallery, Dessel.
20 The exhibition ran from 09/05/1992 till 07/06/1992 at the gallery of the Flemish Cultural Centre De Brakke Grond, Amsterdam.
21 Nicole Hermans, "Bruikbare kunstmeubels van André Verroken", p. 16, Bijvoorbeeld, n° 3, Nijmegen, 1992.
23 "Verroken. Meubelen. Tekeningen." (Verroken. Furniture. Drawings), 05/03/1994 - 14/05/1994, Stichting Veranneman, Kruishoutem.
24 Brochure "VIZO Henry Van de Velde prizes", 1994, Beste produkt/Best product, VIZO, Brussels, 1994.
25 Nicole Hermans, "Bruikbare kunstmeubels van André Verroken" (Useful Art Furniture by André Verroken), p. 18, in Bijvoorbeeld, n° 3, Nijmegen, 1992.
26 Nicole Hermans, "Bruikbare kunstmeubels van André Verroken" (Usable Art Furniture by André Verroken), p. 16, in Bijvoorbeeld, n° 3, Nijmegen, 1992.