Around the same time that Rudolf Koppitz was changing photography with his Motion Studies in Vienna, David Van Buuren, a Dutch Jewish banker from Gouda, Netherlands who had settled in Brussels since 1909, was working his way to becoming a prominent figure in the art world of Belgium.
Our story begins in 1922, when Van Buuren married Alice Piette from Antwerp and decided to build for them a home. He drew the plans himself with the help of his nephew and architect Johan Franco and commissioned Belgian architects Léon Govaerts and Alexis Van Vaerenbergh to build it. The construction took place between 1924-1928 on a plot of land the van Buurens purchased in Léo Errera Avenue, in one of the most affluent neighbourhoods of Brussels, the suburb of Uccle/Ukkel.
Outwardly, the villa is built entirely of red brick in an architectural style typical of the Amsterdam School. Intentionally nondescript, it gives away no hint of the stunning Art Deco interior nor of the eclectic collection of rare furniture, carpets, stained-glass, paintings and sculptures, amassed by the couple over their lifetime. It seems that the Van Buuren villa was destined to be an exhibition space by design – first for friends and family while the couple resided in (and for the last twenty years of her life, solely by Alice), later open to the public when it became a museum in 1973.
For in her will, Alice Van Buuren left the house, the art collection, the magnificent garden surrounding the property and enough capital for their upkeep, to ”The Friends of David and Alice Van Buuren”, a public institution which she had created since 1970 to ensure the establishment and preservation of this gem, so that we may all enjoy it today.
The Dining Room
Sycamore, Brazilian rosewood and Macassar ebony were used for the furniture and panelling, made to order by Belgian cabinet maker Joseph Wynants. The chairs are covered with natural horse hair, chosen by Alice Van Buuren herself. The work is so unbelievably fine I had to go back twice and touch discretely some hairs protruding from a corner of a chair, to be convinced. If I hadn’t read it in the guidebook handed by the receptionist for the duration of our visit (which is where all my notes come from), I would still go on believing the chairs were covered in a kind of wild silk fabric.
The still lifes are by Gustave van de Woestyne. His paintings dominate the walls of the ground floor and staircase, since Van Buuren was the artist’s patron and close friend, their friendship lasting more than 30 years until van de Woestyne’s death in 1947.
The sky blue ceiling paneling between sycamore beams and the large lights in the style of the Amsterdam school, blend harmoniously and add a Japanese flair to the decor.
The Music Room
The piano, encased in rosewood, is a collector’s item. It belonged to Erik Satie before becoming the centrepiece of the Van Buuren music room. Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, one of Alice’s friends(!), used to arrange for pianists who participated at her contest (Queen Elisabeth Competition), to play here. Celebrities from cultural, political and literary circles were joining the merry soirées, generously hosted by the Van Buurens between the two wars. Raoul Dufy, René Magritte, David Ben-Gurion, Christian Dior, Jacques Prévert and – the usual suspect – Gustave van de Woestyne were just a few names mentioned in the guidebook. The painting hanging above the piano is a van de Woestyne.
Curtains and carpets were designed in bold colours by Jaap Gidding, just like the hand-embroidered tapestry on the piano. When designing the curves and hue palette of this carpet, Gidding was inspired by the bright colours of the Kees van Dongen’s ”The Thinker”.
The cozy corner
Destined for reading beside the Labrador granite fireplace which was especially designed to the measurements of the picture that hangs above it: ”Night Seascape” (1913), by Constant Permeke. The furniture was designed by Dominique Paris after sketches by David Van Buuren. Each piece is unique.
Above the sofa I was delighted to discover a version of the famous ”Fall of Icarus” (circle of Peter Bruegel the Elder), painted on oak and was neither signed nor dated. It has been part of the house collection since 1953 and has been hanging in the same place ever since. Another version, painted on canvas, belongs to the collection of the Fine Arts Museum of Brussels.
On the wall beside the staircase, ”The Childrens’ Table” (1919), by Gustave van de Woestyne.
The large desk is the main feature in this room, the only reminder that Van Buuren was a businessman as well as a devoted art lover. It is a marvellous desk with a double top and a rounded back, its surface decorated with strips of walnut veneer in a solar motif. To protect the precious wood, a Galuchat blotter pad (leather made out of the skin of cartilaginous fish such as shark or ray), a rare and luxurious material whose origins can be traced back to 8th century Japan. The pad was designed by Dominique and made by assembling the perfect skins of the bellies of 19 white sharks.
The Hall and staircase
The Brazilian rosewood staircase is bathed in warm light coming through the stained glass work in the Amsterdam school style and the glorious glass and bronze lamp designed by Jan Eisenloeffel and clearly influenced by the Art Nouveau and Vienna Secession movement. The glasswork is by Dutch designer Jaap Gidding.
And then, of course, the garden! Consisting of the Art-Deco rose garden dotted with exotic trees; another large rose garden (it used to be a tennis-court) with ”pedigree” varieties where each flower bed has a precise colour; the Maze designed to evoke the labyrinth of King Minos, which looks rather simple but we still had to turn back a few times before finding the exit; the Garden of the Heart, in a shape of a big heart enclosing 12 smaller ones, Alice’s loving tribute to her late husband; and the Orchard a large, green open space.
Photography is allowed in the gardens only. Some images of the interior were taken before we were kindly, but firmly, reminded of the rules by the watchful ladies of the house. Because, how does one resist taking home a little keepsake of the love for history and culture that oozes out of every precious rosewood pore and transforms every day objects into works of art, as if touched by magic?
41 Avenue Léo Errera
Open daily (except Tuesdays) : 14:00 – 17:30
Tickets can be sold separately for the house and gardens. Attention: cash only.
Shared photo credits (Konstantinos & Lia)
Brussels, 19 October 2014