During a group lunch at Chez Fred in Antwerp with Interieur Designer of the Year Stephan Schöning, this topic came up: Why is there such great design in Belgium? The Belgians at the table mused about their history as the forefront of creativity in the Middle Ages and joked about their gloomy weather as source of productivity, but my reasoning? It’s the awe-inspiring cultural and governmental support for design across the country.
EXHIBIT A: Winkelhaak Design Center
Twenty-seven start-up design firms occupy this Antwerp building and each is given a furnished office for four, conference rooms, gallery space, a marketing team, a secretary, and basic catering—for free. The only down payment they make is a commitment to improve their business and a promise to leave within five years. With this government-subsidized program, the average design team leaves within three years because their company has outgrown the space.
When the factories shut their doors in the mining town of Limburg and unemployment shot up, the community turned to design as a their salvation. With financing from Belgium and a Euregio (an organization of like-minded European regions) they founded Design Platform Limburg: a network of educators, financiers, marketers, and manufacturers especially created for young designers looking to launch their career. The town is now nationally recognized as a talent-breeding ground and design haven.
EXHIBIT C: Designer Give Back
On this trip we were introduced to a number of accomplished designers. I was inspired by the creativity in their work, but their humility and generosity impressed me the most. Fabiaan Van Severen who has an award-winning furniture line, also teaches design at four schools in Belgium. Sofie Lachaert, who designs for the ever-influential Dutch Droog, runs a gallery in Ghent where emerging talent gets the opportunity to present their work and get the necessary practical experience to succeed.
EXHIBIT D: Interieur
On the surface Interieur might look like a trade show, but it’s a national festival of design. It is open to the public for ten days and families, schools, local companies, and designers of all talents will all attend. The biennale was advertised in each of the four cities I visited and truly celebrated by all.