Design was one of the tools that the young Belgian state used to legitimise itself when it became independent in the 19th century. The country's leaders were eager for it to develop its own design culture and in modernism traditional forms like Gothic and Flemish Renaissance were combined with avant-garde features.
Exhibition co-curator and design historian Katarina Serulus: « International exhibitions played a large role in putting countries like Belgium on the map. Disappointing results at such events led to a realisation that Belgium had to do more. One of the results was the creation of the Royal Art and History Museum in Brussels. »
« Victor Horta is a leading figure at this time. He was responsible for the Belgian entry at the first world exhibition of the decorative arts in Turin (Italy) in 1902. A desk and chair in yellow sycamore wood is one of the highlights of the exhibition at the ADAM. »
Henry van de Velde is another key figure in Belgian design. During the teens of the last century he was active at the Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts in Germany's Weimar where the principles of the Bauhaus were conceived. Van de Velde was invited to return to Belgium to set up and head the La Cambre Design School in Brussels. Here he implemented the pedagogical ideas that he had developed at Weimar. «
Katarina Serulus: « The items in the exhibition come from the four corners of the country, the North and the South, private collectors and museums. We're very fortunate to be able to show a hand-knotted carpet that Henry van de Velde designed for the office of King Leopold III. It's the first time it's been out of the palace and is on show to the general public. »
After the Second World War Belgium played a key role in European integration. The 1958 World Exhibition in Brussels that gave us the Atomium put Belgium and its design on the world stage.
Katarina Serulus: « In contrast to countries like Italy and Denmark there is no specific Belgian design. There is and there was of course the specific Belgian political and economic context. Today efforts are underway to promote a certain Belgian attitude, the Belgitude, best summed up in the words « Je m'en fou » (I couldn't care less.) »
« After the war and with growing European integration the authorities counted on Belgian design to make the difference as Belgian products were having to compete in an increasingly competitive European market. »
« Josiane des Cressonnières was a woman who played a crucial role in this respect. In a man's world she brought men from the world of politics and industry together to convince them of the economic merits of investing in design. She was behind the Signe d'Or award that recognised great design. She also established and led the Belgian Design Centre. »
During the 50s and 60s Belgium attracted numerous international companies that recognised the importance of design. The Kortrijk-based De Coene furniture factory acquired a production licence for America's Knoll furniture. In addition companies like Tupperware and Samsonite also set up production facilities here.
Katarina Serulus: « In Meurop Belgium also had a mass producer of low cost plastic design furniture of its own. Based in Mechelen in its heyday the company possessed over 60 outlets in North Western Europe. Unfortunately, in the 70s the oil crisis heralded the end to its success. »
« In the 70s Josiane des Cressonnières' Design Centre was also instrumental in setting up an exhibition showcasing the future Brussels metro. The first metro carriages would only run in 1976, but as early as 1972 the first designs were being shown to the general public. To get the public at large on board ordinary people were also given a say on the colour of the metro cars. They could choose between blue and orange in a referendum. The result was decisive and responsible for the orange still visible in the interiors of the cars on some of the lines today. »
A History of Modern Design in Belgium is on show at the ADAM in Brussels until 7 January 2018.