Flanders in Milan: Locals create a buzz at leading design event


There have never been so many Belgian designers at Salone del Mobile in Milan, the biggest design event in the world

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Milan’s annual Salone del Mobile is the biggest design event in the world, with its eponymous indoor fair and hundreds of events and exhibitions known as Fuorisalone throughout the stylish Italian city. This year’s edition wrapped up at the weekend with a record number of Belgian designers having taken part.

“Normally, we have about 60 designers in Milan,” said Inge Vranken, project manager at Flanders DC, the government agency that supports the creative industries. “For this edition, it was well over 100. I think this is due to the quality of the work, the designers’ ability to speak many languages and the mentality of keeping their feet on the ground.”

Case in point: Maarten De Ceulaer, who produced a series of lamps that offer gradient light for the big Spanish company Vibia, was at the Salone.

The number of young designers present is also increasing, with umbrella organisations such stepping up their game. Take Belgium is Design, for instance, an organisation that represents designers internationally, bringing together designers associated with Flanders DC, Wallonie-Bruxelles Design Mode and Mad Brussels.

Eco locals

“Although Belgium is Design has existed for more than 10 years, the communication has streamlined recently,” Vranken explains. The organisation is finally active on social media, has a user-friendly website and put on a sublime group show in Zona Tortona, one of the hot areas during the Salone, counting dozens of exhibitions. “We haven’t organised a show in Tortona since 2010,” says Vranken.

Speaking of Zone Tortona, the show Generous Nature showcased 16 Belgians with a heart for sustainable design. One of them is Sep Verboom, who designed Jiwi, tableware that promotes FSC-certified wood. On the underside of every object, the exact location and method used to fell the trees for the manufacture of the collection is indicated, making the consumer aware of a sustainable wood industry.

We used ‘earth’ as the theme and then started interpreting it individually into objects

- Nel Verbeke of Brut Collective

The Ghent designer’s collection is produced entirely in Peru and is sold only there, making it a very local product. Presenting a product in Milan that you can’t buy in Europe: It’s a bold statement.

Another remarkable Flemish design here is by Heleen Sintobin, who studied interior architecture in Leuven and will finish her master’s in design products at the Royal College of Art in London this June. Sintobin focuses on digital crafts and created Digi-Vas, a collection of leather vases, mugs and bottles. “I want to merge crafts with technology,” she says.

Sintobin used a computer-controlled milling technique to meticulously etch a pattern out of 5.5 millimetre-thick leather, which is impossible to do by hand. Then comes the dying, using plant-based pigments according to a recipe obtained from a book about harnesses dating from 1600.

Digi-Vas Collection by Heleen Sintobin from hsintobin on Vimeo

Finally, she moulds the final product into shape by hand. The original leather comes from Radermecker, “one of the two remaining leather tanneries in Belgium,” she says, “making this an entirely Belgian product”.

While the Flemish designers featured at the Salone del Mobile fair focused on product design, most of the others exhibiting in the city are more involved in collectible design. This means limited edition objects on the border of design and art, with a focus on story and aesthetics rather than functionality.

Collectible design is a fast-growing business, and the Belgians are on top of it, with the annual Collectible fair in Brussels and the Brut Collective, a group of four young designers who created a media storm last year in Milan. This year, Brut Collective won Flanders DC’s Young Design Talent and the Henry Van De Velde Gold Award for Young Talent.

Earth & steel

Just like in 2018, Brut used their heritage as a foundation for the scenography of their Milan show. Last year, their objects were put on a layer of coal, and this year the scene was inspired by the archaeological fame of Tongeren in Limburg. The title of their exhibition was Bodem, which means “ground” or “layer of earth” in Dutch.

“We decided to take ‘earth’ as the theme for this year and then started interpreting it individually into objects,” explains Nel Verbeke of Brut. “The scenography was put together in collaboration with Antoine, a Brussels company specialised in natural architectural finishes, such as clay and lime.” Brut’s show might just have been one of the most elaborate in Milan this year.

Following their major public breakthrough last year, Brut was noticed by international curators, including Milan’s own Nilufar Gallery, one of the top three design galleries in Europe. For its Salon show in its spacious venue this year, Nilufar commissioned two of the Brut designers, Bram Vanderbeke and Linde Tangelder, to create a set of objects.

Vanderbeke's three steel pyramid-shaped objects – which could be put to practical use if a buyer set their mind to it – were one of the most-photographed by visitors of the exhibition. “This show is great for visibility”, says Vanderbeke. “Nilufar truly is next level.” Then he laughs. “During the opening, I stood next to Raf Simons.”

Photos, from top: Brut’s Bodem in Milan ©Jeroen Verrecht, Sep Verboom’s Jiwi line ©Aaron Lapeirre, Bram Vanderbeke's steel pyramids at the Nilufar Gallery ©Jeroen Verrecht