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Business News/ Industry / His Father Built a Design Empire. Now It’s His Turn.
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His Father Built a Design Empire. Now It’s His Turn.

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Axel Vervoordt’s vision attracted clients from Nureyev and Givenchy to De Niro. Can his more growth-oriented son uphold the mystique of the family name?

A sisal stool by Fernando Laposse (foreground) and a blue Pierre Jeanneret lounge chair in the family room of Boris Vervoordt’s loft near Antwerp, Belgium. The painting is by Ida Barbarigo.Premium
A sisal stool by Fernando Laposse (foreground) and a blue Pierre Jeanneret lounge chair in the family room of Boris Vervoordt’s loft near Antwerp, Belgium. The painting is by Ida Barbarigo.

BEFORE THE BELGIAN design impresario Axel Vervoordt could face down the matter of his succession, one question kept nagging at him: Who would come live in the castle?

A short drive from Antwerp, the early-12th-century fortress has been Vervoordt’s home since 1984, when he and his wife, May, bought it from 42 descendants of a family that had owned it since 1728. As it evolved from a proving ground for his esoteric tastes into a hub for experimentation, Kasteel van ’s-Gravenwezel became an essential part of his global enterprise—a kind of turreted display case for the ancient objects and modern art that Vervoordt sells to private clients around the world.

Letting it go was out of the question. So thinking ahead, Vervoordt says, he built himself  “a beautiful little pavilion, rather like a little monastery" on the grounds, where he and May could downsize and live out their days amid the horses and the sheep.

The only problem was that neither of his two sons, Boris and Dick, wanted to move in. Dick was happy on his farm, just down the road in Schilde, with his wife and three children. Boris and his husband, Michael Gardner, were already living in Axel and May’s former townhouse in central Antwerp. Setting up house with them at the castle held no appeal.

“I saw that as the end of my happy marriage," Boris says. “A little bit too much."

And Boris already had his eye on a castle of his own: the top floor of a former grain distillery near Antwerp’s port, a building whose sharp edges and grid of concrete silos is a familiar sight in the flat landscape. The condo is part of Kanaal, the Vervoordt company headquarters. By moving there, Boris would essentially be living above the shop. How could his father disapprove?

“It was a bit hard, but now I’m over it," says Axel, 76. “Anyway, I still go to this little pavilion. I use it much more than I thought. I’ll get very old one day, and I would like to be very old there. But now it’s Boris’s time—he goes to Kanaal."

Axel, a legendary showman known for mixing eras, genres and cultures in rooms of austere brilliance, built a $38 million global business catering to the most elite names in international fashion, entertainment, finance and tech; he’s gradually become a free agent, working with special clients and shopping the world for inventory, as his sons have taken charge. Boris, 49, now oversees the art, antiques and interior design divisions, crafting an ambitious growth strategy and drumming up new clients, while Dick, younger by three years, leads the company’s ventures in real estate development (Kanaal, which includes a residential arts community, is one).

The addition of real estate has accommodated those who want to live the undiluted Vervoordt life—a move that might not have appealed to past clients like Rudolf Nureyev and Hubert de Givenchy, but has more recently lured various artists and musicians, including Kanye West, who now owns a flat at Kanaal.

Boris’s interest in contemporary art from an early age propelled him to the heart of his father’s fiefdom. “The first day I had a driver’s license, I picked it up on a Friday morning, and Saturday morning I drove to Documenta," Boris recalls, referring to the contemporary art happening held every five years in Kassell, Germany. “It was 1992—the first time I saw Anish Kapoor, Marina Abramović, Luc Tuymans, the Kabokovs." His advocacy of Kapoor led to the installation, a decade later, of the artist’s extravagantly domed sculpture At the Edge of the World (1998) within a former brewhouse at Kanaal, where it’s become a signature.

Boris calls Axel an intuitive creative thinker—an “ideator," in the language of FourSight Creative Thinking System, a business tool based on Jungian analysis that Boris has become enamored with over the past few years. A lankier, more circumspect version of his father, Boris identifies as both an “ideator" and an “implementer," balancing creativity with an instinct for organization and business. When Axel decided to make a bigger splash in the art world by mounting an elaborate exhibition during the 2007 Venice Biennale, “It was my role to make it happen," Boris says. “This is typically the role I get." (They have now held seven shows in Venice.)

In 2011, Boris opened Axel Vervoordt Gallery opposite his townhouse in Antwerp, followed in 2014 by a location in Hong Kong. The new venture successfully formalized the Vervoordts’ commitment to modern and contemporary art, placing it on equal footing with the interior design business in the public eye. This has been according to plan—Boris’s, with Axel’s buy-in.

“The machine has grown, and that’s Boris," says his friend Steven Volpe, an American interior designer who’s done business with father and son. “Axel is interested in acquisition, in what something is and how it affects him. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. With the shows in Venice, he was creating art. Boris has been able to translate art into a serious business."

BORIS AND MICHAEL moved into Kanaal last spring. Silo 10, as their new place is called around the office, has an unusual configuration. From an elevator bank opening onto the entry hall, one route flows south into the airy dining room, living room and master bedroom and bath. To the north is a network of mostly circular concrete spaces—it’s tempting to call them cells—inside the former grain storage pillars. During Belgian architect Stéphane Beel’s conversion of the building, two of the eight pillars were rebuilt as squares; those now hold the kitchen and family room. The other six (library, gallery, garden, guest room, wine room, laundry) are each 26 feet in diameter and windowed on one, two or three sides. The laundry room, with three windows, offers some of the best views.

The library (one window) is where Michael chooses to work. The former marketing executive from Chicago, who oversees the firm’s social media, exhibition videos and many of its design books, has steeped himself in Vervoordtian shadow and light since 2009, when he and Boris met at a party in Antwerp. Their former townhouse, on the 16th-century cobblestoned street of Vlaeykensgang, bordered on the sepulchral.

Boris is usually at his desk at the south end of the loft, where one window has been blocked with a thickly impastoed painting by the Mexican artist Bosco Sodi. The south-facing view wasn’t all that great, Boris says, “and it’s the Venetian inspiration. A room has two views, not three. It has the canal side and the campo side."

Designing the interiors took four months, a job Boris shared with the in-house team nine floors below. The approach, Michael says, was “typical Vervoordt style—just go forward and move fast. I helped, but it’s like trying to do surgery for the first time when your spouse is a doctor." While Michael’s input was minimal, his interests drove some of the more consequential decisions, including a bedroom with matcha-colored plaster walls and striking floors swabbed with a black silica-based coating over cement, a treatment he’d admired on a Vervoordt project in India.

“It’s Axel 2.0—it’s Boris," Volpe says of the loft, spotting signs of his friend’s tough-minded refinement in a gargantuan table with steel legs by Belgian designer Jules Wabbes and a 1959 Ad Reinhardt black painting—a volcanic presence in the living room. “They are very powerful choices, really almost spiritual."

Boris turns 50 next year, and the confluence of the milestone with this move, after more than three decades of living in town, “almost feels like a rebirth moment," he says. “I wake up much fresher because of the daylight—I can work out and still be in the office at 8." By 11, he might be back upstairs with a client curious to see the new place or view work by a gallery artist.

A distinct porosity between public and private has always marked the Vervoordts’ way of doing business. In the late ’90s, Axel put together a room in the castle with a Ming chair, a white sofa, a well-worn shepherd’s table from the Alps and a few pieces of art. It was a refuge from his warm, cluttered library. “People loved it," he says. “But I realize now that most people will want to live all the time in that library. I can move between them, depending on my mood.

“It’s very strange," Axel says. “We have important clients who love more the apartment of Boris—more contemporary, more younger feeling—but we still have important clients who love the castle, and want the spirit of the castle. More young people don’t want the very minimalistic style anymore. They want warmth and coziness. That’s a big revolution, I think."

Michael Gardner and Boris Vervoordt in their loft near Antwerp, Belgium. The black painting at rear is by Ad Reinhardt.
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Michael Gardner and Boris Vervoordt in their loft near Antwerp, Belgium. The black painting at rear is by Ad Reinhardt.

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