Belgium-based designer Michaël Verheyden used to design handbags. But then he ventured into objects for the home and felt himself connecting to even more craftmanship. The switch proves successful. The collection sells worldwide, and at the Antwerp-based Graanmarkt 13 concept store, where a special corner just opened. ‘Designing only bags felt like an emprisonment.’
‘Watch out, it’s rather heavy’, he says, handing me again one of his wrapped up home collection pieces. The van has just arrived back from Paris, where Michaël Verheyden and his wife Saartje Vereecke enjoyed a couple of days of hard work and tons of very good reactions from visitors at their Maison & Objet booth. More wrapped pieces are coming my way and I hand them over to Saartje, who puts them on and beneath the wooden table in the garden, alongside their workshop. ‘It’s up to us again to unwrap everything and do another final check of every piece’, says Saartje, who’s been a close companion of Michael, since they met in the Nineties. ‘We will clean every piece by hand, or even repolish when necessary. Then we’ll try to get every piece to the right customer. We sure know what we’re up to these coming days.’
Saartje used to work as an artist in her own right, but since the business grew, she decided to collaborate to the full with Michaël. They don’t need to speak too much. He says a, she adds b, and before they know it, a new design is born.
I have known them both for a very long time. I was on Michaël’s jury, when he graduated as an industrial designer at the Media & Design Academy of Genk in 2001, the school which also counts Raf Simons among its alumni. Later, I saw Michaël at work, fixing his first handbag designs. I watched him playing in a rockband, when he opened his first big showroom on C-mine, a former coalmine-site in Genk, one of the larger cities in the province of Limburg, to the East of Antwerp. I even flew to Casablanca, in Morocco, with Michaël, to see where his handbag collection and some of his early home collection pieces were produced. Michaël, in return, asked me to take part in a sort of test group of friends to talk about a new project, his home collection. Plates, boxes, a chair, a stool, all handmade, all made out of wood, marble or some other natural material. And all of that so detailed, so precious. ‘The attention to detail was there since the start’, says Michaël, when we finally sit down in his living room. ‘To be honest: everyone asks me whether designing a home collection feels any different from designing bags, well it doesn’t. Saartje always tells me I’m living in my own bubble. It was like that at school, it hasn’t changed since then. I do the things I really want to do. And I go all the way.’
Moving into the fashion field came quite naturally. Michaël met Raf Simons (and even modeled for him) and his close friends Peter Philips and Olivier Rizzo. Simons even helped him with his graduation project at the academy: a menswear collection. Michaël knew instantly that fashion was to become his playground. Though he still did internships with ‘design’ designers like Piet Stockmans and Fabiaan Van Severen, he felt like making handbags and pursued a career in leather accessories. From 2002 onwards the Michaël Verheyden collection was all about straight lines, contemporary shapes, and rich yet sometimes sturdy leathers. Quite quickly he found himself a true following. ‘But I couldn’t resist making pieces for the home. I didn’t want to become a prisoner of my handbag collection. Eventually, I think my bags weren’t unique enough for the world in which we live today. Moving on to other designs felt great. The designs seem to blend in with what the designworld is asking right now. Immediately the international market reacted: we’ve been working together with the best shops and the best architects all over the world. And sorry if I don’t want to drop names…’
Calling his work minimal is one thing, but don’t start about decoration. It’s much more than that. Michaël: ‘Call me naive, but I think you feel better when you’re surrounded by beauty. Seeing beauty, living with it, touching it even… I’m not a big fan of large flower arrangements, but even there, I can see that it brings out deep emotions in people. You know, I was in Barcelona, visiting the Mies Van der Rohe pavillion. I went back a second time, early one morning, because the place just shocked me. It was so perfect. The proportions and all… it’s like when you see a movie and hardly wake up from it, once it is finished. Or when you visit a museum and are totally swiped off your feet.’ He walks up to his own designs and asks me to touch the vases, the platters, the chair, and even the lower table. I touch the materials. And admire his choice of line and colour. I also see the functionality in every piece, in every detail even. ‘Some people are just living. Barely surviving even. But I don’t want to live like that. I want to be always aware of the beauty around me. Because beauty is priceless.’
Although some of his work is made elsewhere, in India, Vietnam or Morocco, Michaël tries to have as much as possible made in Belgium. He’s constantly challenging manufacturers. And what’s more: he’s often the one doing the job, next to them. He isn’t scared of using his hands. ‘Being involved in production makes me very happy’, he admits, ‘I feel part of a sort of modern artisanal handcraft-movement. That probably scares off some people. I think that as a designer, I’m quite the fascist type. I mean: I want the best, always. Asking that from a manufacturer isn’t easy, but I learned that from people like Raf Simons and Rick Owens. You know that I made a few handbags for Rick a few seasons ago? He just emailed me one day, saying he loved my work, and did I want to meet up? Needless to say I was on his doorstep in Paris a couple of days later. We worked together an entire day, sketching and trying out stuff. It felt wonderful. We worked together for two seasons, but eventually there was a problem with the licence, so the collection fell through. I just know we will be seeing more of each other. I love Rick: his work, how he lives. No army of assistents. No hysterical moments… And how he’s always ahead of everything.’
Michael admits: the press has been helpful. Magazines like Wallpaper* have given his geometry set, poker table and mirror a prestigious Wallpaper* award. In some Northern European publications, his work is featured in every issue. ‘It feels different, it’s true. When I walk around on Maison & Objet, I don’t have to beg anymore. And you know what: when they see that I’m also presenting a few bags they just go: oh my, you design bags as well? Isn’t that funny?’