Natural Linen Is the Essential Ingredient of Trend-setting Belgian Interior Style
I’ve always loved Belgian linen. I like the cool, dry touch of a linen shirt, the soothing coolness of linen sheets, and the crunch and texture of sheer washed linen curtains blowing in the summer air.
I especially love pure white linen and I have a collection of white linen shirts and blouses to wear in the South of France and India and other hot-weather places.
I’m not a wash-and-wear kind. Linen looks so impeccable when it’s just pressed, and so endearingly floppy and soft and friendly when it’s washed and worn a few times.
In Paris in the summer, some of my favorite sights are the bookish 'intello' types who hang out at Café de Flore and Les Deux-Magots, garbed in a well-worn linen shirt, rumpled and crumpled, its contours over time taking on a certain languor and ease.
Belgian Linen in weights from airy tissue to substantial burlap, and in toned-down colors from pewter and fig to plum, celadon and caramel signifies a new design direction for international style.
Pure Belgian linen is the focus and art of Libeco linens, created and woven and dyed by a 150-year old company in Belgium. It is the choice of all those chic/simple designs everyone copies from Beta-Plus books.
Libeco uses traditional techniques and classic styles that give its home decor, textiles, decorative accessories, table decor, bed linens and clothing certain integrity and authority.
The plain, unpatterned linen also signifies a return to simpler textures and fabrics. Alongside unadorned linen, some multi-colored prints suddenly look frantic.
The sober and unpretentious look of Belgian linen also offers a key to the rigor and sobriety of chic Belgian décor of the last few years. It is also a design secret of Axel Vervoordt’s influential understated interiors. Belgian linen is also among the reasons for Belgium’s dramatic rise in the style stakes.
I’ve always admired the timeless style of Axel Vervoordt and the many ways he uses Belgian linens in ivory or pewter or natural undyed styles in his ultra-refined and elegant interiors.
One of my favorite rooms in Axel’s castle just outside Antwerp is the second floor sitting room. It has a scrubbed oak floor, and is furnished with an armchair in mocha linen and an overscale sofa with a pale ivory linen cover.
This room is super-subtle and monochromatic with ivory plaster walls. Splashes of black from a gold-framed massive Tapies painting, a fireplace with a granite surround and a Japanese calligraphy, are juxtaposed in spring with over-arching flowering branches of wild rhododendron from his garden. The effect in the sumptuous castle setting is very understated, giving the room a somewhat Japanese austerity.
The sofa in this room is slipcovered in washed ivory Belgian linen, simply tailored over the wide flat seat and narrow arms. This lovely linen, simple and pure, drapes softly and neatly down to the plank floor. It is a breath-takingly plain performance, in a castle where antiques of noble provenance and museum-worthy works of art would usually command embroideries, brocades, silks and other heavy-duty traditional textiles. Belgian designers love their linen—and use it with power and confidence.
In contrast with the silks and brocades and lavish textiles beloved in French décor over the centuries, linen has always been a favorite element in Belgian décor.
I was reminded again of the effectiveness, grace and character of Belgian linen some years ago when I was visiting Brussels to conduct private antiques research. Invited to visit the newly decorated apartment of Jean-Marc Louis, an Algerian-born Belgian artist whose works I had recently acquired. I walked with him through a maze of cobblestone streets and lanes fragrant with mediaeval bricks and centuries-old stones, amid shadow and light and springtime lime blossoms.
Finally, we turned to enter an oak doorway. We traversed a dark corridor, and marched up several flights of steep sixteenth-century wooden stairs worn to smooth satin by countless leather soled and hundreds of applications of floor wax.
Up and up we went, until we arrived at a black-painted door opening into Jean-Louis’ apartment.
Plaster walls were white, floors were scrubbed old oak planks, and tall narrow windows were open to welcome views of slate rooftops and a jumble of chimneys. Was I in the twentieth century or the seventeenth?
I turned to take in the pared-down and superbly edited living room.
Then I saw it—the Belgian linen signature—a large Vervoordt-esque sprawling sofa upholstered simply in heavy linen in the strangest and most compelling color, used so boldly in this graphic traditional/modern interior. It was a color with no name. The hue was a dulled down purple/violet/plum color with a good dose of grey. I would say the color was dour. But elegant.
Sunlight splashed through the lead windowpanes of the apartment and illuminated the grey/plum sofa. The sober color seemed at once ancient—as if it had been dyed from some long-ago extinct plant or flower and washed in the river. At the same time, the sobriety of the color and its oddness made it look entirely new.
Belgian linen has clearly left its impression on me. While the bed linens I usually slumber on are pure white Frette Egyptian cotton, I also keep sets of hemstitched white Belgian linen sheets for summer. Freshly pressed, they remind me of summers in the Swedish archipelago, of the gilded suites at Il Palazzo at the Bauer in Venice in the summer (the linens gloriously cool on a hot summer day) and long ago romantic hot-weather idylls in hidden apartments in Rome and Capri.
Onward to the present. I’ve just rediscovered that classic Libeco pure Belgian linen is now available in the US. (See below for information). There is the Libeco Home collection, which includes versatile table linens and traditional bed linens, as well as 100 per cent linen apparel and accessories, fringed scarves, and superb white linen shirts for men and women. The styles are simple and unadorned—all the better to show off the essential character and purity of the linens. There is even pure linen sleepwear, which is always a luxury, and always hard to find at any price.
The company was founded around 150 years ago, and the quality and weaving are superb. This is the real Belgian style—in all the austere and low-key colors that are the signature of Belgian interiors. The best aspect: the Belgian designers for this company have stayed true to Belgian aesthetics and ideals. It’s pure style—not meddled with or changed at all for an international market.
Among my favorite new Libeco products are a collection of table clothes and pillows in soft colors like flax, pewter, moss, taupe, fog, dark grey, mauve and natural. This is the archetypal Belgian color palette—subtle, soft, sober, slightly dusty and powdery, and a wonderful tranquil antidote to screaming colors and primary tones.
In the new January 2010 collections I love the chunky knit linen throws and blankets in natural hues (so chic), as well as striped fringed throws, and pillows and sheets in floral prints.
Noteworthy are eco-linen towels, heavy twill tablecloths (true heirlooms), as well as pinstriped linen sheets and duvet covers.
To entice designers to follow in the Belgian mode (and perhaps in the footsteps of Axel Vervoordt), Libeco also offers pure linen by the yard, for upholstery and curtains (from select retailers, check on www.libeco.com).
Some designs, such as Sienna striped tablecloths are in natural linen with a rather rustic feeling. Other tablecloth designs, like Libeco's Venise, Vence and Champlitte, are classic white, timeless and very elegant. Pure white linens (also in linen-cotton blends) will never go out of style. They are true heirlooms. Vence is also available in colors like celadon, henna, plum frost (that gray/plum I love), picholine (olive), taupe, sage, oyster, and mauve.
Among the apparel collections, I appreciate the white shirts, as well as a series of ethereal fringed shawls in plain colors like oyster and pale blue.
For a trousseau, Libeco’s Basics are an enchanting series of bed linens, in white, light blue and rose, as well as white edged with blue or rose.
Belgian linen. I can’t have enough.
Libeco January 2010 collections, select items and retail prices:
Basics pattern – White 100% Linen Queen Flat Sheet: $295.
Vence pattern – Café Noir, Light Grey, Oyster, Spice or Taupe 100% Linen Queen Flat Sheet: $275.
Libeco Home linen by the yard – Available through Libeco Home Retailers. (Check on www.libeco.com to find retailers.) 100% Linen by the yard from $95.00 yard (at 72” width).
Bastia – Apricot or Fig Striped Linen tablecloth, from $150 (for 69” x 71”).
Frascati – 100% Linen reversible tablecloth, from $199 (for 69” x 69”).
Rapallo – 100% linen cable knit throw: $460.00.
Chester – 100% Linen Grommet Drapery: $340.00 ea. (55” x 106”).
For ordering and information on where to buy Libeco linens, please contact:
www.libeco.com – click on ‘Consumer’ for a list of points of sale per country.
www.LibecoHomeStores.com to buy products worldwide online.
Libeco Home New York sales office: 212.764.6644.
Photography credits: Belgian linen products photographs courtesy Libeco, used with permission.
Photograph of Oriental room designed by Axel Vervoordt, from 'Axel Vervoordt Timeless Interiors’ published by Rizzoli. Used with permission.