Axel Vervoordt has earned renown as a collector, antiquaire, 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.
"There’s an art to occupying a house," Vervoordt counsels. "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."
Vervoordt’s family-run business is housed in a massive former distillery complex, the Kanaal, originally constructed in the early 19th century and located near Antwerp, Belgium. Within its stucco and brick walls about 85 highly skilled restorers, art historians, architects and craftspeople keep the enormously successful operation humming. At any given time, the firm has an average of 12 to 20 major decorative and furnishing commissions under way, along with another 30 or so smaller projects. Vervoordt’s wife of 40 years, May, is in charge of the fabric division, while the couple’s two children, Boris and Dick, ages 37 and 34, handle, respectively, the design and real-estate sides of the business. The Vervoordt aesthetic reaches a global audience, thanks to the dealer’s presence at major biennials and fairs — he makes his 35th appearance at TEFAF Maastricht this month — and the art exhibitions he has designed.
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 painterJef 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 callsvolledig 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.
Vervoordt also became intrigued by the Zen concept of ma. The word translates as "space" while also connoting "interval." Vervoordt interprets it as a threshold or gateway "so intense you have to interact with it on its own terms." The tokonoma, the alcove in traditional Japanese houses and tea pavilions for displaying a single artwork or an ikebana arrangement, derives from this idea.
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 supersophisticated 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 giantAntoni 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 first installment, which Vervoordt developed with his friend Mattijs Visser, then the head of exhibitions at the Museum Kunst Palastin Düsseldorf, was "Artempo — Where Time becomes Art." Exploring the relationships among art, time and the power of display, it debuted at the 2007 Venice Biennale in the Palazzo Fortuny. Vervoordt draped the façade of the building with a gorgeous tapestry of tins — commissioned from the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, one of the stars of the Biennale — that resembled a gold Fortuny fabric. Inside, more than 300 works, ranging from archeological objects to contemporary commissions, were displayed amid the physical and sonic architectures of the palazzo’s sumptuous interior and Mireille Capelles specially scored compositions. It drew more than 50,000 visitors.
"Academia: Qui es-tu?" was held the following year at the Ecole nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris and was equally acclaimed. In 2009 the trilogy concluded, as it had begun, during the Biennale at the Palazzo Fortuny, with the tour de force "In-Finitum," focusing on the mystery of "the infinite in the finite." Despite his previous curatorial achievements, Vervoordt confesses to having been "scared up to the last minute," considering this exhibition an "extraordinary risk." He was especially worried about reactions to the wabi pavilion in the attic, where he had combined raku tea bowls and Japanese ceramic urns with sculptures by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso and Cy Twombly, canvases by Piero Manzoni and Mark Rothko and views of ancient Venetian rooftops. Would visitors recognize the connections between the works of the modern masters and the "poor" Japanese objects? The art critic Jerry Saltz did, calling it an "amazing walk-in Wunderkammer."
Vervoordt has built another wabi pavilion on his estate. Made of earth and fallen tree limbs, the "rain hut" is one of Vervoordt’s proudest accomplishments. One imagines he will have a great deal of time to contemplate cloudbursts from this humble shelter. Like the devout of the East, who believe in changing roles at different stages in life, he has decided to withdraw, at least partially, from worldly gain, turning over his enterprises to his sons and scaling back his role to that of éminence grise. He has also established a private foundation, of which he is president, to oversee his collection and investigate the universal in art through exhibitions and educational activities. It will eventually take the form of an actual museum within the Kanaal complex, that he hopes will embody his favorite adage: Etre heureux en rendant heureux ("Be happy while making happy.") In between these activities, he will visit his hut to contemplate the universe.
"Zen and the Art of Axel Vervoordt" originally appeared in the March issue of Art+Auction.