Monday, October 26, 2009

ANTIQUES DEALERS I ADMIRE: Axel and Boris Vervoordt

Fields of Vision

Boris Vervoordt brings rare Egyptian treasure and bold Sugimoto photography to California for this year’s San Francisco Fall Antiques Show, opening next week, with a preview party on October 28.

DATELINE: ANTWERP, BELGIUM — It’s a freezing cold winter evening, already midnight dark and damp at 6pm. I’m standing at the stone gatehouse of Axel Vervoordt’s twelfth-century castle in the silent ‘s-Grevenwezel countryside, on the fog-swathed outskirts of Antwerp. I’m meeting Axel and May Vervoordt and their sons Boris and Dick for the first time at the castle, invited for a family dinner.

Around me in many layers is enough cashmere to choke a mountain goat, and still I am shivering as I ring the doorbell, my hands protected with cashmere-lined leather gloves. Lights are flickering in the castle, visible in the mist across the moat. Someone unseen buzzes the door; I push it open and make a dash across the dark cobblestones and over the moat bridge. Breathless, I make it up the wide, stone stairs of the castle, and to the front door. Axel and Boris are waiting there, back-lit and beaming, welcoming me into some of the most beautiful rooms in Europe.

I’d flown from San Francisco to London, and then straight on to Antwerp. I set down my bags at the exquisite all-white De Witte Lelie hotel, and almost immediately headed to Axel’s.

Axel offered me a well-chilled flute of Krug Champagne, and invited me upstairs to see new acquisitions, sculptures and paintings.

Perhaps my favorite, in the rather bare Oriental room, is the twelve-foot tall Antoni Tapies oil painting from 1972. In a signature Vervoordt juxtaposition, it hangs near a sixties Lucio Fontana abstract bronze sculpture that looks like an asteroid.

Displayed throughout the formal downstairs living rooms and the family’s upstairs quarters are exquisite 13th-century Thai vases, Khmer statues of Buddha, and second-millennium BC stone sculptures from Ecuador, Egyptian porphyry bowls, and a collection of Lucio Fontana Spatialist paintings as well as the more-expected Old Master paintings and venerable European antiques. May’s lovely flowers, including amaryllis grown in the Orangerie, are placed elegantly on tables and in window niches.

Highlights from the Vervoordt photo album include the dramatic 12th-century castle residence northeast of Antwerp.

The interior of the castle, where Axel and May live and work, is rich in detail. Best of all, there are densely detailed rooms like Axel’s study with walls of antique embossed and gilded leather (a Belgian tradition). My favorite is an Oriental sitting room with scrubbed pine floors, and a music room, the white dining room. The castle windows, which overlook the moat and gardens, all have deep reveals. Axel arranges collections of porcelains there, and May sets flowers from the garden on the windowsills. Images courtesy of

This was perhaps twelve or thirteen years ago, maybe more, and Axel Vervoordt was not yet widely known except to European cognoscenti, certain designers, antique dealers in the inner circle, and European royalty, naturally. Now, of course he has published two marvelous volumes and has been ‘copied’ by designers left and right. There is ought to be a ‘Vervoordt style’, though his work ranges from palatial period rooms and humble country cottages to stark art-filled galleries, as well as Venetian palazzi. Never published are decades of handsome country houses dotted around Antwerp, all of them surrounded with Jacques Wirtz gardens.

Axel’s books make it apparent that his collections and designs are worldly, highly individual, and always authoritative. They paint a portrait of the owners and their lives and aspirations—but there is always a sign of Axel, in a Fontana painting, an Anish Kapoor sculpture, the floor (often bare), the fabrics (never printed patterns and usually no motif at all), spare rather than over-blown backgrounds, and a reverence for aged and old and worn and time-altered surfaces.

I’ve since had the great pleasure to return to the castle several times. In summer that meant dining with the family in the cutting garden beneath a flowering apple tree. One evening, young Antwerp student musicians were invited to play for dinner guests. Vervoordt family members have always been generous patrons of both accomplished musicians and music students.

Some years later, on a warm day in July, we sipped an aperitif in the Orangerie, and later Boris took me to meet the great landscaper Jacques Wirtz, before heading to the dramatic new Kanaal headquarters.
And last year, Axel presented the acclaimed Artempo exhibition at the Fortuny palazzo in Venice. I was fortunate to be there at the right moment, and both Axel and Boris conducted me through the rooms, stopping to announce a favorite video, an unknown sculptor, a fetish object, and an antiquity. Heaven.

This year in Venice Vervoordt is presenting In-finitum, conceived by the Vervoordt Foundation and the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia and set in the mysterious and exquisite Palazzo Fortuny.

The concept of this new show, Axel told me, is a discourse on art and life and death and creativity. Rather more abstract that last year’s debut show, it expressed, said Axel, the infinite in the finite, the indefinite, and unfinished art of all kinds. Art without words, I would say.

In-finitum exhibits 300 works of art, including large and small-scale pieces, video and photographic works, conceptual works, old and modern masters as well as archaeological artifacts. Artists include Picasso, Rothko, Viola, Miró, Twombly, Fontana and Kapoor. The exhibition will remain open until 15 November. As with everything Vervoordt, the collection is one-of-a-kind and provocative and it combines today’s cutting edge conceptual art with archaeological digs and rare masterpieces.

Axel Vervoordt, courtsey of Architectural Digest

Axel Vervoordt’s interiors are always heart-breakingly beautiful and poetic—without being in any way dramatic or emphatic. Vervoordt can do simple interiors—and he can happily accrete the antiques and books and objects that make his study one of the most compelling rooms in the world (outside a museum).

There, too, are his famous sofas—long, simple, spare, and dramatic (larger than they look in these photos). I sat on one recently, sipping Champagne, and enjoying lively conversation with the Vervoordt family. Dinner later in the blue and white dining room. I look forward to more meetings with the Vervoordts—in San Francisco, at the new palace in Venice, and in Antwerp or Paris. Always a great pleasure.

Axel Vervoordt, over the last three decades, has established himself as a favorite antiques dealer of both the European Old Guard and American tech moguls (he never drops names, but Bill Gates has been a client). He was, not long ago, a secret source whispered among friends. Appointments at his castle headquarters just outside Antwerp required a discreet call made through a decorator or architect.

Clients as diverse as Sting, the piano-playing duo Katia and Marielle Labeque, San Francisco interior designer Steven Volpe, as well as fashion designer Bill Blass, San Francisco interior designers Douglas Durkin and Paul Wiseman, and Antwerp fashion designer Dries van Noten have all acquired antiques and art from Axel Vervoordt. Not that the discreet Vervoordt drops these names or would offer any hint as to their acquisitions.

Axel Vervoordt's office, courtesy of

The scholarly Vervoordt, 64, an engaging, warm and articulate man who moves without fanfare in the rarified realms of Europe’s royalty and dedicated antiques collectors, was one of the founders of the prestigious annual European Fine Arts Fair in Maastricht, and has been a vivid presence at both the New York International Fine Art and Antique Dealers show, the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show, and the Paris Biennale des Antiquaires for many years.

The dazzling Labeque sisters, however, do speak of Vervoordt as a mentor, and have filled their Tuscan palazzo with Vervoordt treasures placed with Vervoordt style: gilded Venetian mirrors, a polychrome Piedmontese cabinet, antique Cambodian pots, and a Thai bust of a warrior prince. The chic sisters and the Vervoordts have become close friends.

In California, too, Vervoordt has been an inspiration.

“Axel is one of the few truly cross-cultural antiquaires, who draws his collections of antiques and garden ornament from the far corners of the earth and several millennia,” commented Ed Hardy, a leading antiques dealer in California

Today, Boris Vervoordt, Axel and May’s elder son, has taken over management of the company and he is now the director. Axel spends more time with his foundation, his Venetian projects, and handpicked clients.

In this new capacity, Boris oversees core activities of the Axel Vervoordt company-- art and antiques, home collection and interior design. He continues the company’s values of quality, durability, harmony. The concept is that Axel and his wife May Vervoordt will act as mentors and éminences grises within the company. Axel channels the majority of his time and energy into the Vervoordt Foundation, which he and May established, and of which Axel is the President.

Boris Vervoordt

“From day one, the core and drive of our company has been an uncompromising search for quality, beauty and harmony,” said Boris.

“The realities of the new economy all point in one direction: a revaluation of basic values,” said Boris. Our continued strength has been that we have never lost sight of these ideals. They run through all our activities, they are our raison d’être and the key to our success. The current zeitgeist fits our strategy and mission like a glove.”

May Vervoordt

The Axel Vervoordt approach continues to be a search for absolute harmony, serenity, purity, authenticity and genuine soul, said Boris, an engaging dinner partner.

This week, October 28, will see the next stage and statement of the Vervoordts.

Rare Egyptian treasures and modern art collections are among the selections Boris is bringing to the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show. He’s accompanied by his colleague, Cecile Terwan.

And perhaps in the winter I will fly off to Antwerp to take another winter visit to the castle. Treasures await inside.

ABOVE: Axel Vervoordt at the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show 2008.

BELOW: An exciting preview of what Boris Vervoordt will be bringing to at the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show this year, beginning this week at Fort Mason.

The San Francisco Fall Antiques Show:
A Benefit for Enterprise for High School Students

The presenting sponsor is 1stdibs
Wine sponsor is Michael Polenske, Blackbird Vineyards

Designer Vignettes:
Four vignettes include a chic classic modern style by Grant K. Gibson (with antiques from Therien & Co and Epoca), along with style statements by architect Stephen Sutro, a living room setting by Cheryl DuCote, and a garden scene by Elizabeth Everdell.

Among speakers on Egyptian style are: John Saladino, Suzanne Tucker, and one of my favorite design bloggers, Emily Evans Eerdmans.

Egyptomania—Nile Style in the Decorative Arts—Planned and directed by Lisa Podos. Curated by Maria Santangelo. Creative director is Andrew Skurman. Presents paintings, jewelry, decorative accessories, cabinets, etchings and influential styles through the centuries. Displays in glass cabinets surround the café.

The San Francisco Fall Antiques Show
Fort Mason Center, Festival Pavilion
Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
2009 Preview Party Benefit Gala
Wednesday, October 28, 2009, 7 to 9 p.m.

2009 Show
October 29 to November 1, 2009
Thursday - Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Sunday, Noon to 6 p.m.
For more information:, email: or phone 415-989-9019.

See you there!

Some years ago, I wrote a feature on Axel Vervoordt for Departures. This involved many days of directing photography of the garden, the many rooms of the castle, the orangerie, the park, the rhododendrons, the statuary, with photographer Deidi von Schaewen, who I adore. Deidi and I had also worked together on the huge best seller, the Icon book 'Paris Style' published to great success by Taschen. Toward the end of this magical week chez Vervoordt, Axel and I were talking of his horses. I suddenly had the idea to take a portrait of him, formal, very Gainsborough, on one of his fine Andalusian horses. I selected his (English, of course) riding gear and styled him for this shoot. As Deidi was getting her light readings and we were getting horse and rider in position, with the castle in the background, I pulled out my own camera and snapped Axel. The picture is one of my favorites, and a lovely reminder of a wonderful moment and a great and generous person (and the most beautiful horse, ever.)


Mrs. Blandings said...

Diane - I'm always speechless after your posts - I adore hearing about your adventures.

Debra Healy said...

beautiful words, with exquisite views. What a a genuine treat.

Tavarua said...

It is nice to see a well lived life...Fantastic Post, you are definitely a traveler, pure sophistication. Axel Vervoordt, I agree, refined, poetic and understated elegance...You live an extraordinary life... very nice.....Life is an art... said...

what a wonderful post, i love it in everyway, it's funny, sunday i just posted a little article about axel also.

I am sure if you see the images you will like them also, i watch them every time i need inspiration


vicki archer said...

What a brilliant post Diane and I am, of course, a fan of Axel Vervoordt. I can just imagine the magic of the castle at night and the experience of sitting in amongst his magnificent interiors. What wonderful times you have with your work, xv.

Greet said...

This is a great post! I think you must have had a wonderful time at the castele of Mr Vervoordt!
I always visit the castle at the open house weekends! I wan't miss any of these!
Mr and Mrs Vervoordt and their work are a constantly source of inspiration for my daily work in business!
These are really nice, friendly people!

Thank you for your wonderful post! I really enjoyed it!


Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-

I am so truly happy to receive such heartfelt--and international--response to my Axel and Boris feature.

Wow, Neo in London, Greet in Belgium, Vicki in Provence, Mrs B in Kansas, Debra somewhere totally exotic, and Tavarua (I think in Italy right now, on his global voyages, dining on Chanterelles and wild boar)--
This is so fantastic--as I watch the traffic on my blog go wild with readers in Moscow and Sao Paulo and Western Australia and Texas and Paris and New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and much more including Poland.
Mrs B. I know you are an old hand at this, but I'm thrilled with this worldly group, along with all my friends in California.
Thank you so much for your appreciation of the Vervoordts. Yes, indeed, they are aesthetic emperors, but also philanthropists for the arts, and lovely generous people. I could not be happier.

Trouvais said...

Hi Diane. Wonderful as always, so charmed by Axel on his white horse, what an image to keep in your mind, much less your very own photo. I posted some photos earlier of the Axel designed villa of the musical Labeque sisters from a 2002 House and Garden (on my sidebar under "Impressive Details"...also a startlingly beautiful photo from your "A Certain Style" of Whitney Warren's bare living room).The SF Fall Antiques Show sounds incredible this year. Thanks. Trish

A Thousand Clapping Hands said...

I couldn't help but think of all the marvelous conversations that must take place in these rooms. Such an interesting post, Diane. Many thanks.

Mélanie said...

I guess We all admire him . Above all when we are antiques dealer , he is an example and someone we want to look like.
I was surprised that his wife's name was May , actually it is my nickname and I love it . I guess that is a begining , I have something from the Vervoordts

Pigtown-Design said...

Diane... you write so beautifully. I felt that I was right there along side you!

Trouvais said...

Bonjour Diane. Here is the link to the post with sister's palazzo

Clarity said...

I adore elegance without pretension. I also admire his discretion, that shows a graceful confidence.

Thank you for introducing me to some beautiful and memorable interiors, Diane. May also looks poetic herself, might I add.

"enough cashmere to choke a mountain goat", chortling.

little augury said...

oh so late & lack luster on the international map-but a devotee of your Salon.A beautiful post-I watched in pleasure and curiosity-the videos posted by the NEO(a wonderful blog).Of course-the castle was beyond exquisite, I understood none of the words- but the Vervoordt faces were beautiful. I was delighted to see in them-yes they are all beautiful- but it was the grace, lack of pretense, the smiles & their closeness that swept me to the door with You.I am glad I saw the piece before I read your post-I wanted to visit-to see all that Beauty. GT

Thank You For Asking said...

What an interesting article. I love getting an insiders view on such an interesting place and person.
Being a fellow San Franciscan I love to hear your impressions.

Karena said...

Diane, so happy to discover you through Greet! Wonderful post and what an adventure to be able to visit with the Vervoordts. Axel is such an icon of his time.

Dumbwit Tellher said...

Truly a moving, incredible post about a remarkable family. I am amazed how you can take us (readers) in to easily follow your spectacular journeys. I pictured myself sitting there in the white dining room with the massive castle as my backdrop. A flute of Krug in hand and yes,swathed in toasty cashmere. Chatting quietly with such fascinating individuals as the student musicians playing sweetly into the night. The photo you took of Axel was the pièce de résistance. Thank you Diane ~

Helen James said...

I first came across Vervvoordt by buying an "other people who bought your purchase also bought:" on Amazon. I was so delighted I did and immediately fell for his opulent simplicity. Thank you for the treat of this insider viewpoint.

Cathy Whitlock said...

I have followed your work for years, love your books and thrilled to read your blog. As always, wonderful work!

Oliveaux said...

This is a brilliant post Diane! What a wonderful castle and work they do and always an inspiration. Ax

Velvet and Linen said...

I am so thrilled to have found your beautiful blog.
The Vervoordt's work has been so inspiring for our work.
My husband, Steve and I first became aware of the Vervoordts when we stumbled upon an exhibit of their art collection at Fortuny's home in Venice. We have since become rather obsessed with finding out as much as possible about this talented family.
This was a wonderful post.
I look forward to many more visits to your blog.


home before dark said...

The first time I opened Timeless Interiors, I felt I could not breathe. The quality of light in the photographs, the interiors themselves looked like Vermeers. Loved the story of his life and his amazing work.

Laura [What I Like] said...

Well I thought I'd had a fabulous time in Antwerp...but your trip(s) sound just absolutely beyond! I cannot believe you got to cross an actual moat, that is so glamorous. And am I the only one who thinks that the great Mr. Vervoordt bears a vague resemblance to Oscar de la Renta?

Bart Boehlert said...

Diane, what a great post. I was so interested to learn more about Mr. Vervoordt. I love the combination of austerity and luxury in these interiors. And lucky you to share so many wonderful experiences with the family!

Brillante Home Decor said...

What an extraordinary family and described so well by you. Unfortunately I missed In-finitum while there, too many things happening.
Looking forward to your report on the Fall Antiques Show.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear, Dear Friends-

I have been overwhelmed by the response this week to my Axel and Boris Vervoordt feature.
I've been at the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show for the last 3 days (and tomorrow for John Saladino's lecture) so I have seen Boris every day. His stand is beyond glorious and I love walking into it, seeing it, moving around it. It's superb. The Vervoordts sent an artist from Antwerp to paint the walls and muddy earthy color.
Boris, genial and expansive like his father, is so kind and said he was happy and thrilled about the post. And I rec'd a message from the Vervoordt office in 's-Gravenwezel that they are very happy with the feature, too.
I was delighted that so many lovely readers commented 'this is such a nice family' and my Belgian friends said 'Axel is such a nice man' and so many people live and on the blog poured out their admiration for Axel's interiors. He has sold, Boris told me, 45,000 copies of his books. That's a massive number of $60 books.
Thank you all for sending me such generous and thoughtful comments. I take them all to heart. Warmest thanks and devotion, DIANE

ER said...

Thank you for your warm welcome, Diane. I am so glad i found your blog! My European aunt and uncle had an interior design business in Manhattan. I don't remember ever not being interested in design and architecture. I live in the Scottish Highlands now, far from the culture that raised me. Your blog is an ex-pat's dream. I look forward to visiting regularly. Lizzy :)

jezebel said...

I can imagine Nabokov strolling up alongside him, arms full of butterfly nets and specimen jars.

Karena said...

Oh, and I absolutely love the Vervoordt's use of Abstract & Contemporary art and integrating it into their designs.