Brussels welcomes first museum dedicated to both art and design

Summary

The new Art & Design Atomium Museum makes a unique collection of plastic designs previously only available to knowing visitors by appointment accessible to a wider audience

Plastic is dead, long live plastic

Culture lovers rejoice: Brussels has another new museum. Hot on the heels of Schaarbeek’s Train World, opened back in September, comes the Art & Design Atomium Museum, known as Adam. It’s set up in a former wholesale market and furniture store in the north of the city, alongside the unmissable silver spheres of its parent cultural centre.

Fittingly for a temple to art and design, it’s got distinctive features of its own that make it stand out on the Heizel plateau. The red and yellow scaffolding-style staircase at the front entrance, designed by French city planner and architect Jean Nouvel, is reflected in the building’s windows, and some striking plastic statues stand watch in the gardens outside.

This eye-catching entrance contrasts with the low-key exterior of the resolutely functional Trade Mart building itself, and the understated design theme continues inside, where industrial fittings allow the exhibits to speak for themselves.

Lhoas & Lhoas, the Brussels-based architects charged with designing the museum in the former market space, said that their aim was to take a building that was previously practically invisible and make it just the opposite.

The permanent exhibition is dedicated to the Plasticarium, the Atomium’s incredible collection of plastic objects bought from collector Philippe Decelle, a local enthusiast who has lovingly gathered together thousands of objects since the 1980s.

The collection – a riot of orange, yellow and red – encompasses items dating from the golden age of plastic in the early 1960s via pop art to the postmodern era, with everything from chairs and radios to tableware and telephones. Before the Atomium bought it, the collection was only available to view on appointment at Decelle’s own home.

So seventies

Though many of the objects scream 1970s, and the feel is decidedly retro, organisers are keen to point out that plastic as a medium isn’t dead and continues to evolve, with new developments in more ecological plastics happening all the time. 

Nowhere in Belgium – or in Europe – is there a similar collection or museum

- Nowhere in Belgium – or in Europe – is there a similar collection or museum

And despite their artistic value, many of these objects remain resolutely functional beneath the surface: the curved desk, the child’s table that flips over to become a chair, the hot-lips telephone, the green pineapple water jug and glasses. A handful of the pieces have also been loaned to the ING-sponsored exhibition Pop Art in Belgium and Tate Modern’s The World Goes Pop in London.

Freddy Thielemans, former mayor of Brussels-City and now the honorary mayor, spoke at the opening ceremony. “We’re so proud of this museum we’ve built here,” he said, “because this place is part of our history.”

“It’s important for us that visitors make the link between this museum and the Atomium,” adds museum spokesperson Inge Van Eycken. “It’s really the Atomium’s art and design museum.”

Until now there’s been no dedicated art and design museum in Brussels, she points out. “Adam offers visitors a collection of 2,000 items in plastic, from art objects via design to everyday utility objects. Nowhere in Belgium is there a similar collection or museum, or even anywhere in Europe.”

How does it complement the work of the Atomium, that symbol of progress and modernity at the heart of Expo 58, and still a major city landmark? “It offers us extra space, so some of our temporary exhibitions on design and contemporary art will move to the Adam,” she says. “Together, the Atomium and Adam provide a rich cultural offer: design, architecture, art and subjects like space and water.”

Design for design’s sake

The plastic collection is too big to be displayed all at once, so exhibits will be rotated each year. Those interested in the technical aspects in producing plastic and creating these objects will be disappointed, however. The focus here is purely on appreciating their artistic merit.

Temporary exhibitions will also run alongside the Plasticarium, with a focus on 20th- and 21st-century art and design. They include Eames and Hollywood, coming in March, which will use photos to reveal a lesser-known aspect in the work of Ray and Charles Eames. Armed with a camera, these two American designers immortalised life behind the scenes of Billy Wilder’s Hollywood film sets.

Other shows planned for later in the year are Intersections, focusing on Belgian design, and Art View: A Private Collection, as well as an exhibition as part of Bozar’s Summer of Photography.

“This new museum’s primary aim is to display an exceptional collection by specialists from all over the world, the Plasticarium,” said Karine Lalieux, Brussels-City alderwoman for culture. “It also invites the broader discovery of the art and design of the 20th and 21st centuries. It preserves this unique collection, keeps it in Brussels and makes it accessible to a wide audience.”

Tourism alderman Philippe Close added: “This new cultural site is part of the Neo project that will start in 2018. It should not only be a highlight of the panorama of Brussels’ contemporary art expression, but it should also be a driver for employment and a touristic incentive.”

The museum cost €800,000, split between the City of Brussels and the Atomium. It also includes a children’s lab where workshops will take place, a lecture programme, film and documentary screenings, guided tours, event rooms for hire, a shop and cafe.

Photo courtesy Art & Design Atomium Museum (ADAM) - Elie Leon