Belgian Modern is, as one decorator describes, “sophisticated without pretension”

Design School

The History of Belgian Modern

By Meaghan O'Neill
February 2, 2018

Refreshingly spare—yet comfortable and inviting—Belgian Modern is as much about a feeling as it is a look

Though the Belgian Modern style has a timeless look—muted colors, natural and tactile materials, and a sense of luxurious simplicity—its modern iteration was defined by now-famous antiques dealer and interior designer Axel Vervoordt. In 1970, at age 21, Vervoordt made a name for himself when he purchased an entire block in Antwerp and overhauled 16 medieval houses. Though they clearly referenced 17th century Dutch and Flemish interiors, Vervoordt’s spaces offered a unique, contemporary take.

Belgian Modern celebrates use of color for a feel that’s comfortable but forward-thinking
Belgian Modern celebrates use of color for a feel that’s comfortable but forward-thinking

With an emphasis on mixing old and new, Belgian Modern style offers a look that interior designer Lisa Tharp describes as “sophisticated without pretension.” Gustavian Swedish antiques, a touch of the Baroque, and contemporary pieces might all come together, for example, to create a space that feels warm and comfortable, but not precious. “The most successful contemporary interiors blend purity of form with notes of warmth, a formula that is consistent with this aesthetic,” says Tharp, who is based in Boston.

Warm, unfinished woods—often showing up as exposed beams—stone floors, and upholstery such as linen or velvet add depth to these spaces. Matte-finish paints, which absorb rather than reflect light, add a sense of patina. Likewise, furnishings are frequently fitted with casual but fitted slipcovers, delivering the notion of updated antiques.

Warm, unfinished woods—often showing up as exposed beams—stone floors, and upholstery such as linen or velvet add depth to these spaces.

Warm, often unfinished woods are a keystone of Belgian Modern design
Warm, often unfinished woods are a keystone of Belgian Modern design

To achieve the look, think restrained elegance. Belgian Modern interiors are all about using negative space to your advantage, so allow favorite pieces to shine. “Start with a singular grand gesture for your space—something that sparks real joy for you—without regard for trends or provenance,” says Tharp. “It may be a work of art, a favorite antique chest, or a modern chair. Then give it breathing room. Framing it with air will imbue the piece with gravitas.”

That is: Resist the urge to fill every corner with stuff. What you may lack in color or objects, you can make up for in texture and drama. Look for seating with clean, strong lines, then upholster it in something soft and cozy. And avoid going overboard with trends such as weathered wood furnishings, cautions Tharp. “Capture the essence of the style rather than literally copying elements,” she advises. “Focus on selections that will remain timeless. This enables you to create a space that is uniquely expressive of you.”