Import.Export Architecture welcomes with love the office of Fragile, a maternity line in Antwerp, Belgium
Maria Shollenbarger -- Interior Design, 7/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Hear that someone's pregnant, and certain words will inevitably come to mind. One of them, arguably, is fragile, the adjective Nathalie Vleeshouwer chose as the name for her maternity-wear line. Her clothes are curve-hugging or fitted or revealing, cut from slinky jersey and translucent cotton and silk. In sum, they turn people's ideas about maternity wear—and pregnancy—on their head. Who knew fragile could be so sexy?
When Vleeshouwer and her husband, Jan Bevernage, also Fragile's co-owner, undertook a renovation and expansion of the company's office in Antwerp, Belgium, they discovered that projecting a balance of fragility and sexiness, of delicacy and strength, is a far more complex, involved task in architecture than in fashion. Silk jersey clings and drapes. Steel and brick, not so much. Indeed, the first architects hired didn't work out. That's when Vleeshouwer and Bevernage turned to Import.Export Architecture principals Oscar Rommens and Joris Van Reusel.
Rommens's children and the couple's attend school together. "We'd become friendly," he says. "It's not always such a great idea to take on a large-scale project with friends, but Nathalie and Jan ended up being ideal clients." Ideal because both Vleeshouwer and Bevernage have backgrounds in design, and Bevernage, furthermore, has experience in furniture manufacturing. Also ideal because, while the couple definitely had conceptual input, they had almost no specific requirements for the 4,300-square-foot, four-story project. So IEA had freedom in determining how to transfer Fragile's set of core values into a walk-in statement.
"We liken our way of working to preparing a consommé," Rommens says with a laugh. "Half a kitchen's worth of ingredients go into a good one. Then you filter almost everything out, and you have a clear, easy-to-digest liquid that still contains the integrity of all the original flavors." What that process created at Fragile was two separate concepts. "They came to us immediately—and stuck," Rommens says.
The first is transparency, as epitomized by the buildings of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. To represent the second, strength in a fragile-looking material, IEA played with the idea of the bamboo scaffolding often found in Asia. "Those bamboo systems look like they could fall at any moment," Van Reusel notes. But actually the material is quite strong and also organic. Standing in for real bamboo are steel tubes 2 inches in diameter, the thinnest that IEA could design for a structural use. Painted white, the tubes move dynamically across the facade and throughout the interior. Their varying angles recall the haphazard growth of bamboo, while the seemingly random placement belies a crucial structural role.
Also white-painted steel, open staircases hover delicately along the black-painted brick of a sidewall. (It's borrowed from the adjacent building, which houses the Fragile boutique below and Vleeshouwer and Bevernage's apartment above.) Vertical gardens, installations of hydroponic
foliage, rise on either side of the flights of stairs. A fire stair, joining the second and third levels, is concealed, along with the restrooms, in an enclosure clad in beveled mirror. The enclosure's front curves in response to the convex path of the curtain wall opposite. Some of the only standard plasterboard walls are behind the showrooms' clothing racks. "We realized that the collections, with their ever changing colors and patterns, would act as decor, so we left them blank," Rommens explains.
Like the envelope, furnishings are squeaky-clean. Simple white worktables are by either Werner Aisslinger or Ronan and Erwan Bourroullec. Swivel chairs are slim and upholstered in sprightly green. For the ceilings, IEA left the steel grid exposed. "It's as distilled as we could make it," Rommens says. "We thought about painting the concrete floors but then decided just to polish them." That way, according to the architects, you can see the concrete expand and change, not unlike a woman's body when she's pregnant.