“As a student, I was fascinated by Droog Design. The suitcases literally launched my career,”
Maarten De Ceulaer

I have just returned from leading an architecture and design tour in Belgium. One of the highlights was taking my group of Australians to visit Studio with a View. Located in a disused brewery in Brussels, this studio won’t be found in any tourist guidebook. An atelier with large picture windows overlooking the low-rise city, this raw and industrial space is brimming with prototypes and materials waiting to be fashioned into something truly unique.

Designer Maarten De Ceulaer is one of a handful of talented designers enjoying the views of Brussels. He presents to my group with a handful of slides, as well as pointing to a number of his designs dotted around his studio. There’s the model of his ‘molecular’ lounge, an amoeba-like design that appears to have been discovered under a microscope and is now prominently displayed at the Design Museum in Ghent as part of its permanent collection. “I was looking at microscopic images of viruses and bacteria. I started dreaming of furniture that would actually grow by itself, in the same way cells split apart and multiply. I also wanted my piece to look organic, rather than man-made,” says De Ceulaer, who started by making small-scale models in clay.

From De Ceulaer’s presentation, it’s clear that he prefers working with his hands rather than having his ‘nose in a book’, even if it is one on design. “I knew from the age of 18 that I didn’t want to keep pumping all this theory into my head, spitting it out for an exam, and then forgetting all about it!” says De Ceulaer, who was initially advised by his father, an amateur photographer, to study architecture. “Finding out how many years it would take before a building actually gets built certainly didn’t sell the idea to me,” he adds. However, the Interior Design Department at Sint-Lukas Hogeschool in Brussels provided the incentive to study design. “Entering there felt such a relief. It looked like one creative playground. There were models and mock-ups everywhere, as well as drawings and paintings,” he says.

Rather than simply concentrate on the built form, De Ceulaer, under the guidance of department head Koen Deprez, was introduced not only to interior design, but also product design, scenography, furniture, graphic design and even costumes. “My strength was the conceptual part,” says De Ceulaer, who was already dreaming about his graduation project ‘A Pile of Suitcases’. Inspired by travelling, this series initially came about from not passing his final exams.

Although this difficult period is now a distant memory, the experience resulted in a significant collection. ‘A pile of Suitcases’ is considerably more than just a few battered cases. Sumptuously covered suitcases are exquisitely transformed into bureaus and storage units, the latter in hues of mint green and sage.

“I was very angry at the time, because I had already planned to go on a six-month trip through India. I was totally obsessed with that trip and completely devastated to cancel it.”

Artfully stacked, there’s a smattering of the Droog design movement, a Dutch practice that was founded in Amsterdam and included the founder of contemporary jewellery Gijs Bakker that took the design world by storm in the early noughties. “As a student, I was fascinated by Droog Design. The suitcases literally launched my career,” says De Cuelaer, recalling all the attention from the press.

Similar hues were used for a log-style bench draped in leather cushions. This design featured as part of an installation De Ceulaer created for Fendi in 2012. Fendi’s brief was to come up with an installation that would provide a setting for a performance. Rather than uncomfortable chairs with rigid backrests and hard seats that make an audience continually adjust position, De Ceulaer conceived a softer approach; flexible planks with cushions covered in leather, the latter being capable of being nailed into different kinds of wooden objects, from tree trunks to wooden boxes and antique benches.

“The idea was to have a system that enables you to create a comfortable soft sitting area where ever you want. It reminds me of moss growing over a tree in the forest, not dissimilar to a daybed.”

Other items in De Ceulaer ‘repertoire’ include his recent range of bowls, made from a strong synthetic plaster. He was producing a mould for another project and had a small amount of liquid plaster left over after casting. He happened to spot a balloon in his studio and decided to pour the liquid in. Once hard, a beautiful smooth drop of plaster came out. “I loved the smooth organic curved surface that was the result,” says De Ceulaer, realising that this technique could not be achieved by hand. Adding food pigments in the mix resulted in spectacular colourful patterns.

De Ceulaer has predominantly worked with galleries to date, such as the Nilufar Gallery in Milan, which picked up his suitcases and commissioned him to create an entire collection around this concept. His ‘Balloon Bowls’ were taken up by Victor Hunt, as well as the prestigious homewares store Moss, located in Soho, New York. Gerie Du Passage in Paris also collaborated with Nilufar for a solo show of the suitcase collection. Cappellini and Moroso have also reached out to De Ceulaer.

De Ceulaer tends to work on several projects at the one time, pointing out different stages of products in his studio. “There are many ways in which a project takes shape. Usually, it’s a fascination for a certain material or a technique that prompts a design. And sometimes, it takes months or even years to come to fruition. Sometimes, things come about in a total different context.” And when one ‘hurdle’ is overcome, it’s onto the next project, partially inspired by the vistas from his Studio with a View.

Words by Stephen Crafti.

Lifestyle & Design

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