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Nicolas Schuy­broek: Spaces of Objects

Mlle Pogany
Mlle Pogany, version 1, 1913, Constantin Brancusi

In early 2016, when objects work approached Belgian Archi­tect Nicolas Schuy­broek to present a pair of bowls for their growing collec­tion of archi­tect-designed home­wares. The simple request was met by a simple response: two bowls emerg­ing from a point of geomet­ric purity, each described by two perfect circles, extruded in differ­ent mate­ri­als, and set as shells within one another.

Schuy­broek described the exquis­ite pair, named the HH bowls, as comple­men­tary femi­nine and mascu­line versions of one another. The mascu­line is archi­tec­ture in minia­ture, a mass carved from raw stone, while the femi­nine bowl is expressed in lighter mate­ri­als: perfo­rated bronze and lacquer. This simple response reveals very specific think­ing about pairing, rela­tion­ships, inte­ri­or­ity, and exteriority.

While the bowls them­selves are highly consid­ered pieces, even more insight­ful was what Schuy­broek orches­trated when the direc­tor of when objects work, Beat­rice de Lafontaine, asked him to design the show­room at the 2016 Milan Furni­ture Fair. The room would display a range of objects, includ­ing his bowls. For a rela­tively young archi­tect with his primary expe­ri­ence in resi­den­tial inte­ri­ors, it was a unique propo­si­tion. Schuy­broek turned his mind to the project in a masterly manner. Set in an innocu­ous exist­ing build­ing on Milan’s Via Pontac­cio, the show­room space nestled into the rich mate­r­ial history of the city. A tempo­rary pocket of seren­ity, its ephemeral nature was tact­fully coun­tered by the solid­ity of the proposition.

Hh Bowl German Limestone Context
HH Bowl, German Lime­stone by Nicolas Schuybroek

Schuy­broek collab­o­rated with Belgian stone manu­fac­turer Hulle­busch to conceive a means of redefin­ing the tight space. In the centre of the square white room, five when objects works pieces were each placed atop a solid sculp­tural block of raw, unfin­ished grey travertine. 

Nicolas Schuy­broek, 2014

Together with the traver­tine of the mascu­line HH bowl, this design move recalls the family of plinth elements revered Roman­ian sculp­tor Constan­tin Bran­cusi created to support his carved sculp­tures. Raising the objects above the ground to the level of our hands, the blocks read as volcanic growths rather than domes­tic assem­blage: raised geot­her­mal terraces remi­nis­cent of the stalag­mites from which the traver­tine may have orig­i­nally been formed. Address­ing the scale of the human body directly, the blocks became spatial oper­a­tions, not simple display devices. Visi­tors might navi­gate around or through these volcanic stone islands, coming to each object from multi­ple differ­ent perspec­tives. We begin to see things re-envi­sioned as some­thing else: bowls as plinths; plinths as sculp­ture; archi­tec­ture defined not by walls, but by objects and elements.

Constantin Brancusi
Constan­tin Bran­cusi in his studio, circa 1933

Recall­ing the black and white grids of Carl Andre, Schuy­broek finished each plinth with an inset, unfin­ished steel plate, taper­ing the stone to form a nega­tive which allows the plates to hover within the stone, fluid-like. Set against the matte white gallery walls and the richly textured stone, the slight shine of the steel plate was just enough to pick up the light falling into the space from the tall windows that looked out onto the street. Touched by this light, each plate revealed a deep shadow of the object that was set, centrally and singu­larly, on it.

Nicolas Schuybroek Spaces of Objects Hullebusch Biennale Interieur 10
Schuy­broek’s instal­la­tion for Hulle­busch at the 2018 Bien­nale Interieur explores the notion of emotion in archi­tec­ture. Photo cour­tesy of Claessens & Deschamps.

Design­ing this kind of a space might be seen as an inver­sion of Schuybroek’s usual approach. In his career to date, he has shown partic­u­lar adept­ness at reno­va­tion projects, design­ing inward from what already exists. His mastery of this genre may be a response to the rich mate­r­ial and urban fabrics of the places he works, ancient cities in Belgium and France. Here, build­ings are stripped back to struc­tural shells, simpli­fied to reveal a monas­tic inte­ri­or­ity. Schuy­broek works with the finesse of a sculp­tor, aiming not to fill or create space, but to enhance and bring warmth to poten­tially over­looked or forgot­ten inte­ri­ors. With a neutral but rich palette, spaces are re-artic­u­lated, and distinct expe­ri­ences are crafted. Schuy­broek would humby credit the appar­ent effort­less purity of his work to his time working under the mentor­ship of Belgian Archi­tect Vincent van Duysen — but, as with all prac­tices that deal with such a level of craft, his unique eye and hand are evident.

In contrast to these inward looking reno­va­tion projects, design­ing for objects consti­tutes a kind of design­ing outward. The momen­tum is differ­ent. But, to think of reno­va­tions and objects as requir­ing sepa­rate design methods would be to misun­der­stand the ways Schuy­broek works, to over­sim­plify the process as a linear move­ment towards or away from an object or vision. Rather, what Schuy­broek carries out is a kind of Gesamtkunst­werk, a design­ing the whole work, the total­ity of expe­ri­ence from the struc­ture to the finest of details. To catch the specific momen­tum of objects, Schuy­broek looks to quietly reveal ways in which each object might be under­stood. His concern with time and space as the key means of engag­ing with and under­stand­ing each object is evident.

MK House in Antwerp, Belgium 2013 — 2016. Photo Cour­tesy of Claessens & Deschamps, Thomas de Bruyne

An object isn’t just a phys­i­cal item, a mate­r­ial sculp­ture or func­tional piece. An object can be a space, carry­ing with it layers of human meaning, enriched through expe­ri­ence. Design, then, comes at once from objects, and somehow also re-creates the very objects from which it comes. It is these expe­ri­ences, initi­ated at all scales, which Schuy­broek seeks to craft and offer to us as timeless moments.

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