Past, meet future: Lifetime achievement award for Bart Lens


The Henry Van de Velde Lifetime Achievement Award has this year gone to Bart Lens, who re-invents everyday objects but has also connected the Bokrijk open-air museum to the present day

Using history

Though many would classify art and design in the same category, design – let’s be honest – needs to be practical. There’s no point having a beautiful lamp that doesn’t fit a standard bulb, is there?

So a designer must constantly tread the line between look and function. And the jury of Flanders DC’s annual Henry Van de Velde Awards has a sharp eye out for those who have accomplished both.

This is why it has chosen Hasselt-based architect and designer Bart Lens for its Henry Van de Velde Lifetime Achievement Award this year. Lens’s work is often focused on taking everyday objects and making them infinitely more practical – or more beautiful.

So, while a trivet should protect your table from damage from a hot dish, it can also be a gorgeous decoration for the table itself. And while your old farmhouse surrounded by lovely green fields has those traditional tiny windows, there’s no reason you can’t smash out a half a wall to create a picture postcard of the countryside.

Some of Lens’s solutions for everyday living seem so simple, and yet when clients are confronted with them, they can seem life changing. His firm, he says, tries “to see architecture as more than just a pile of bricks. We look at the total project. That means we consider lighting, materials and textures.”

Old is new again

If an architectural element doesn’t exist, he says, “we just make it ourselves”. That’s how a giant polyester lamp came to hang in his own workshop in Hasselt.

A member of staff had one of those huge beach balls that people toss around in the crowd at music festivals. Cut in half, it became the basis for a new design for lamps for their own workspace.

“What we didn’t expect is that other people would also want these lamps, too.” And voila, a new design was born. “You don’t learn these things in school, they just happen.”

We are trying to conserve our Flemish history at Bokrijk, but we need to curate it, to give our history a future

- Bart Lens

The deciding factor for the Henry Van de Velde award, however, was his firm’s work at Bokrijk, Flanders’ open-air museum in Genk, just a few kilometres from Hasselt. Bokrijk is at once a playpark for kids, an arboretum and an experience centre, with costumed traders, artisans, farmers and schoolteachers demonstrating their trades in authentic houses from past centuries.

With Bokrijk Brandmerkt, the open-air museum wanted to better showcase traditional crafts and connect them to the modern world. Management chose Lens as the curator, and the project is nearing completion.

“I often wondered why Bokrijk was so much like a museum, so still, so devoid of life,” says Lens. “It’s because it has been all about conservation, we are trying to conserve our Flemish history there. But perhaps that’s what was wrong. You need to curate it. You need to give our history a future. What are we doing with it today? What will we do with it tomorrow?”

‘I got tears in my eyes’

And that’s what Lens has done. For example, previously at Bokrijk, pottery was limited to a demonstration. Now, visitors can see – and take part in – the entire process of making a finished product from clay. Variances between different steps, different crafts, brings participants into contact with contemporary techniques as well.

So while it’s about what your great-grandmother might have done, it’s about how that has led to the design objects we create today. “If you’re not going to do anything with your history, then you might as well throw it out, it’s useless,” says Lens.

The Henry Van de Velde Award comes in the later part of Lens’s career. Finding out about it, he says, “made me see all those years pass by me in a few seconds. So many years of hard work, stumbling and getting up again. Years of growth. And now my retirement is on its way. So much went through my head. I immediately got tears in my eyes. Probably because I felt appreciated.”

Discover the other Henry Van de Velde Award winners at the Flanders DC website or visit the related exhibition running until 15 April at Bozar in Brussels