The room in Mathieu Bruyns’ new apartment where guests end up congregating, the one that gets the most oohs and aahs, isn’t the easiest to find. The apartment’s 2,200 square feet — two bedrooms, with views of Brussels’ bustling Congolese Matonge neighborhood — are spread over three half-stories, with joggers and spirals that tend to put off first-time visitors.
“It’s not very clear at all,” explains architect Bernard Dubois, who renovated the space. He leads a tour of a small seating area in the living room, where a neoclassical table supports a chipped metal lamp beneath a photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans of male arms and torsos, one clad in athletic shorts. Then he descends a spiral staircase to a carpeted master suite, crosses a walk-in closet, and climbs a set of six steps.
“Here we had to rearrange the plan and everything to create this,” he says with a wave, “let’s say, Home bathroom.” It designates a space where a tub in a limestone niche acts as a focus. The light is vaporous and diffused. A velvet cushion covers an oval banquette. The walls filled with works of art contribute to an aura of a cocktail bar – or an after-hours shoe lounge – which may explain why everyone ends up here.
Dubois, 42, is not surprised by the play’s success. In 2013, after four years of architecture school, Dubois, with some friends, took part in an open competition to represent Belgium at the Venice Biennale the following year, chaired by architect Rem Koolhaas. Their project was selected and the group spent a year documenting how Belgians modify living spaces according to their personal needs and desires. Dubois witnessed things he will never forget: a laundry room crammed with lounge chairs, a chimney flue as a tchotchke shelf, white appliances lined up like Parthenon columns. A reception bathroom? Nothing in particular.
Dubois came to architecture through photography, after wading through a few years in chemistry at college level (he was born into a family of doctors and engineers). In a maroon Audi 80, he traveled in search of photogenic subjects for school projects – a brutalist concrete villa by Juliaan Lampens; an open-air pyramidal church by Léon Stynen and Paul De Meyer.
“I was always looking at buildings, I was taking pictures,” Dubois says of his landmark releases of Belgian modernism. “Watching buildings, I got excited about building construction.”
Having gone to architecture school, he made his cardboard models in grazing light, à la Fritz Lang. Metropolis, play with their scale. Now that he’s a real-life architect, cardboard has given way to 3D renderings, which Dubois uses to shape restaurants and retail boutiques for clients including Galeries Lafayette, Carven, Valextra and Courrèges. Later this spring, a 15-room hotel he designed opens rue Bouchardon in the 10th arrondissement of Paris. Dubois maintains a small office in this city, from where he gets most of his orders.
Until recently, his home base in Brussels was tough. At the end of 2018, his friend Bruyns, a hotel entrepreneur who grew up in a family of art collectors, alerted Dubois to an apartment he had just bought on the third floor of a 19th century mansion. The place had been badly expanded twice, in the 1920s and 1980s, and decorated “tragically”, according to Bruyns, in the 1970s. But the high ceilings, spacious enough to house his collections, and the Matonge location attract him.
Dubois was in it: the challenge of merging centuries of history, the contemporary art of Bruyns and his vintage Brazilian furniture, and the chance to have lunch on West African chicken mafé from time to time. Due to the discomfort of the apartment I-layout form, he felt that a strong hand would be needed. You enter at the level of the living room and the guest suite, go upstairs for the kitchen and dining room, or downstairs for the master suite. Bruyns finds this two-tiered effect charming. “It’s like a little house,” he says. He had in mind a living room that would retain a certain 19th century character, with a sleek, high-performance kitchen and master bathroom.
Dubois, meanwhile, thought of unity, a fusion of original and new (and high and low) that, like his retail work, would be elevated by playing natural light against a tightly knit language. control of shapes and materials. His design for the kitchen is a dramatic arrangement of solids and voids rendered in stainless steel, a material choice Dubois felt was inevitable given its visibility from both the living room and the dining room.
Bruyns cooks Asian stir-fries there during the week and prepares dinners with friends at the weekend: roast beef, fries, Béarnaise sauce, followed by a good Belgian chocolate. “I believe if you have a stainless steel kitchen, you have to cook. No lie,” he says. “And I eat a little chocolate every day.”
Cabinet knobs have become a kind of opportunity to fend for themselves. “It was a very strong moment,” Dubois says diplomatically of the maker’s struggle to understand his shared desire with Bruyns for a spherical knob that would hug the surface of the steel cabinet rather than protrude like a Tootsie Pop. . For Dubois, this detail “is decorative in a good way. The little balls make it somehow more charming, more 70s at the same time. The door handle changes everything.
The button reappears throughout the apartment, including in a walk-in closet where tambour-style cabinet fronts are crafted from Finnish birch plywood, a material illuminated from within that also appears in Dubois’ 2020 design for the Xavier Hufkens gallery, near rue Van Eyck.
“I admire the way Bernard uses bold, minimalist shapes that are very effective,” Hufkens says of the space, where heavy tables, desks and shelves are all rendered in the monolithic honey hue of birch. “Something that is especially important in a no-frills gallery space.”
Bruyns’ quasi-triplex is a gallery for one. His art unfolds around a bulbous sofa by Mario Bellini, steel shelves by a young Belgian collaboration, Duplex Studio, and caned chairs by Brazilians Joaquim Tenreiro and Sergio Rodrigues so delicate that they seem to dissolve in the sun. . During the renovation, which took a year and a half, the chairs were packed up and stored at Bruyns’ mother’s house across town – an ordeal for him if not for the chairs.
“The Tenreiro, I have to sit in it every day, at different times during the trip,” says Bruyns. Now here it is, showing the way.
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