“The Future Is Here”: A Design Conversation With Kanye West
The hip-hop mogul interviews his interior designer Axel Vervoordt and reveals his own plans for a philosophy book, thoughts on Virgil Abloh going to Louis Vuitton, and his future goals for the brand: "I don’t wish to be number one anymore, I wish to be water."
A curious thing happened when Kanye West sat down to interview his design collaborator Axel Vervoordt. As Vervoordt walked into the Calabasas offices of Yeezy — the hip-hop mogul’s Adidas fashion brand — West seemed preoccupied. He would later admit that his mood was due to longtime Yeezy collaborator Virgil Abloh having just been named Louis Vuitton’s menswear artistic director. But as West and Vervoordt settled in on that afternoon in late March, everything seemed to click.
Both men sensed it, too, as Vervoordt’s answers repeatedly provided perfect segues to West’s next question. It was electric. The dialogue — timed to the publication of Flammarion’s Axel Vervoordt: Stories and Reflections, a memoir co-written by Michael Gardner (full disclosure: the brother of this conversation’s moderator) — waxed philosophical as well as temporal, touching on their work together (Vervoordt helped West and wife Kim Kardashian design their nearby estate) among many other topics. “I need this,” said West. “This is like church for me.”
Vervoordt agreed, but don’t call him a minister. He prefers not to be called a decorator, either. “Some people call me that, but I really don’t feel like that at all,” he demured. Instead, Belgium-born and bred Vervoordt, 70 — who runs his namesake business alongside son Boris just outside Antwerp, overseeing 100-plus employees — prefers to be known as an “art dealer, curator and designer.”
Vervoordt, named to Architectural Digest’s inaugural AD100 Hall of Fame last year, is known for his eclectic eye, talent for mixing genres and time periods, and show-stopping stands at art, antiques and interior design fairs across the globe. He’s designed homes in New York, Miami, Tokyo, London, Los Angeles, and all over Europe and even the Middle East. To those in the art world, he’s also known for his legendary exhibitions at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice during the Biennale from 2007-17.
He’s also the go-to designer for West and Kardashian, as well as Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler. They, like West, have made multiple trips to his home, a 12th century castle known as ‘s-Gravenwezel, and his company headquarters Kanaal, a former malting factory his company transformed into showrooms, workshops and art galleries, alongside 100 apartments, a restaurant, bakery and fresh market. (Others, like Ellen DeGeneres, are just fans: “Axel Vervoordt is kind of everything,” she has said.)
“Axel’s talent is to find the spirit of any place he transforms, and to reflect it back within design,” write Sting and Styler in an affectionate emailed statement. “He finds its history, its mood, its soil. Also, to embrace the idea and fact of impermanence. He is a joyful person and we are proud to call him our friend.”
Same for Robert De Niro, who worked with Vervoordt on the penthouse of his Greenwich Hotel. De Niro tells THR that he drafted Vervoordt to design something special for the city that would stand out. “I like his style, elegance and sophistication,” says De Niro, adding that he most responds to the simple elegance of his work. “The penthouse doesn’t have immediate conveniences that you would expect, but it’s a work of art and a crown jewel in the city. That was the intention, and who else could do that but Axel?”
And who else but Vervoordt could bring West to church on a Friday? “Spiritual is the best word I can use,” West says, missing no beats but also adding the term essential to the mix. “I don’t want to put too many boxes on it because the work speaks louder than words.”
KANYE WEST THR says people will want to know how we met. I remember I walked past your booth [at The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, Netherlands, in 2013] and saw this coffee table. It was a very low, dark coffee table with round edges, and it looked like it was floating, like a spaceship. I remember walking in and feeling like the movie Batman. (Laughs.) Some Bruce Wayne type. It had this very soulful, emotional feeling to the space. I came up to you and said, “Who is responsible for this?”
AXEL VERVOORDT It was an immediate connection. I could feel that you were really in love with things. Even if people think we come out of two different worlds, the act of meeting makes one another stronger. You were so spontaneous, totally true and intense. Now we’re working on a house together, and I’ve learned from you because you have great taste. We talk about things, we change things. That’s what I like so much about you — I’m the same way — you’ve never arrived, you never are the best and you always want to do your best. You always want to learn and serve people. You’ve said many times, “I’m very responsible for a lot of people, for millions of people. My missus, she is very important.” That was so nice and it touched me so deeply. You didn’t say it once, you said it many times.
WEST Mmm-hmm. You are self-educated about art, design and interiors. Can you say where your instincts come from?
VERVOORDT From childhood. We had horses, and my father would bring field flowers from the horse meadows, and my mother loved that more than the red roses from the shop. She taught me to appreciate humble things.
WEST That’s beautiful. This is kind of a little secret weapon that I’ve had on the world: I’ve actually got a Ph.D. from the Art Institute of Chicago. (Laughs.) I went to college on an art scholarship at the American Academy of Art, but the education comes from being passionate about objects, spaces, colors and the way they affect your senses. Sometimes you get educated by being really bothered by things and you have to educate yourself on how to respond. If you’re bothered in a non-spiritual space, Axel Vervoordt is responding with a nuke weapon!
VERVOORDT Yes, you learn also from the ugliness because you either want to make it better or try to accept it. There is no beauty without ugliness. Art made me look at things differently. It opened my mind. I went on my own to England when I was 14 to buy antiques, and then I sold to my parents’ friends. I went to big, beautiful houses, and they had the most amazing art and furniture with Wellington boots out front. They lived in a casual way with beautiful things. In France and other countries, people had expensive things, but you couldn’t touch them. It was only to show riches, and I never liked that. I like things that are close to you that give you spirit.
When I was 21 and in the army, I bought a surrealist Magritte painting. But then, I found that I couldn’t live with it anymore. It no longer touched me, so I turned it around and put it on the floor in my room. Somebody made a big offer and I sold it for a lot of money. I never believed it would be that much. Then, I bought a [Lucio] Fontana. He created a third dimension; he created emptiness and opened space and canvas. It’s like giving birth, which is also painful but it gives a new world. These artists influenced me a lot. Some of them, like Gunther Uecker, for example, with the nails, he became a very good friend. It took me 20 years before I wanted to buy a work from him because I found it aggressive until I discovered that it’s like planting trees and being focused. Every nail is focused. It’s like a Zen master. Very spiritual. I discovered the spiritual side in his work and I’m so fond of it now.
WEST What about movies or television? Do you watch? And do entertainment art forms inspire your work in any way?
VERVOORDT It’s terrible. I have no time, and I should. But when I see a movie that I don’t like, for me, it’s like a lost evening. So I’m scared to go to the movie and have a lost evening. (Laughs.) I don’t read papers anymore. I almost never look at television because I like to have that open mind and feel things not with the influence. I’m a little bit scared that most news is too negative. It’s too much about what’s going wrong and they say too little what’s going well and they never talk about wonderful people who help others. It disturbs me deeply.
WEST I do think that there’s not a balance in the news. Like you said, we don’t want to be influenced, just informed. That’s a big term that people use right now: influencers. I don’t want anyone to influence. … I don’t usually watch normal TV. I liked watching the Olympics. (Laughs.) I do try to watch documentaries. And there’s a Wes Anderson movie [Isle of Dogs] that’s out right now that I’m definitely going to try to catch.
VERVOORDT I need to be focused on work, you know? It’s restarting every day. You want to be part of the flow without ego. The freer you are, the more creative you will be. Ego is limiting.
WEST I fight with that every day.
VERVOORDT We all do. I do as well.
WEST Your home is a castle, which you bought with your wife in the ’80s.
VERVOORDT In ’84, when I bought the castle, the dollar was at the highest. Everybody was investing in the States, but I still believed in Europe. Inside, it was absolutely terrible. All fake Louis XIV, fake French. We had to strip it totally. In the beginning, I thought the castle bought me, and I was the servant or the housekeeper. But after four years, in ’88, I had a shock, like lightning. I became one with the castle, which we continue changing.
WEST I’ve been many times and it’s incredible. The landscaping, the — it’s very difficult to just describe in words. People have to see and just be inside of the space. Every piece is worth a million words. It’s more the feeling that you get into it. You’re known for mixing old and new, Eastern and Western elements. You’re the original person to do that mix that so many people imitate now. What is your secret?
VERVOORDT I compare it to when you organize a dinner and you invite many different people who don’t know each other to gather around one table. It becomes the most amazing dinner. Everybody inspires each other. It’s a bit like how I bring things together. They should have something in common. It’s also about the timeless.
WEST I do believe that all time is now. The future is here now, the past is here now. There’s certain people that you meet and you say, “Oh, you’re from the future.” You feel this in their spirit, people who are just staying in a time where the time doesn’t celebrate who they are, and there’s other people right now who the time does celebrate, and those people end up more famous or notorious. But I’m big on connecting with timeless energy, with people and musicians that I’m around. When working on “Runaway” with [artist] Vanessa Beecroft, it was very important to not define the time, to not give any labels to the environments that we were in.
VERVOORDT Very nicely said. It’s totally exactly that attitude for myself. In every moment in the future, the past is present. It’s why you need to be connected to this big power without your ego, without the limits of your ego. You feel the timeless, which is totally beyond fashion. It has nothing to do with fashion. I think everything you like, you do, you create, is beyond fashion. It’s not like with people, the mentality, “This is for this season, for next season” — it’s nothing to do. You like to create things that they are just there and they are timeless. I’m sure there are other creators who think fast fashion, who think this season, next season. I’m sure you never think like that, I never think like that.
WEST Yeah, sometimes even people say that the clothes are boring, but you can wear something from four years ago today. We avoid trends. … If you had to live in another time period, what would you pick?
VERVOORDT I don’t know, I never even thought about it because I live now, as in now, the past, the future is present. Why should I want to live in another time period?
WEST Yeah. … Really big, be here now, now be here. I go to an extreme. I’ve got this new concept that I’ve been diggin’ into. I’m writing a philosophy book right now called Break the Simulation. And I’ve got this philosophy — or let’s say it’s just a concept because sometimes philosophy sounds too heavy-handed. I’ve got a concept about photographs, and I’m on the fence about photographs — about human beings being obsessed with photographs — because it takes you out of the now and transports you into the past or transports you into the future. It can be used to document, but a lot of times it overtakes [people]. People dwell too much in the memories. People always wanna hear the history of something, which is important, but I think it there’s too much of an importance put on history. One of the things that I thought was interesting was how far people go in the past when you’re working on clothing. There’s people who will go and reference something from the 1920s or reference something from the ’40s, especially dealing with sportswear. My sports wear is athletic wear. I was working with a guy named David Casavant and we were looking at a jogging pant from the 1940s and we were looking at a jogging pant from the 1980s, and I thought it was interesting that he refused to go all the way back to the ’40s as a reference, that he wanted to keep the references close to now, to be here now. So I’m not saying that, you know, it’s bad to go all the way back. (Laughs.)
But it’s interesting, as me and you are working on a new community [development in L.A.] — what do our homes look like now? Even with my wife, I see her as a representation, as a Marie Antoinette of our time. So with your mentality with spaces, I believe that what we’ve been working on will represent humanity for the next 500 to 1,000 years.
VERVOORDT Wow, I feel I’m turning red. (Laughter.)
WEST A designer told me that my wife was a master of light and I was a master of time. How to use time is equal to being someone who can cut a diamond. The ability to preserve time is more valuable than the ability to preserve a diamond because time is our most valuable resource. So using something timeless to remind us of what time is, is a good bar. When you walked into the room, I had been dealing with a very heavy concept this week that I couldn’t get out of my head. Just the way you’re expressing yourself has lifted the burden on me.
VERVOORDT Something bad happened?
WEST It’s not bad or good, it’s my creative collaborator being the head of Louis Vuitton. (Laughs.)
VERVOORDT Whoa, whoa.
WEST Because [Abloh and I] have been fighting to make apparel at a certain price that still has the same credibility and desirability as something at a higher price. … But when they say he was my creative director, that’s incorrect. He was a creative collaborator.
VERVOORDT In every loss there is something you gain, and in everything you gain there is something you lose. But some people will always look at the thing that doesn’t work as a sign of destruction. We have to accept it like a samurai. Then nothing can hurt you. Acceptance is a learning process.
WEST This is very spiritual, what you’re saying. At Adidas, I have Yeezy, but it’s a namesake brand. It’s my nickname. We do these sneakers that sell out and we get, “Oh, this is the number one brand on Women’s Wear Daily.” And I don’t wish to be number one anymore, I wish to be water. I wish to be closer to UNICEF or something where I can take the information that I have and help as many people as possible, not to just shove it into a brand.
VERVOORDT I understand. I have that feeling as well. I never wanted to be the first or the best, never. I always wanted to do my best. And even when I ride horses all my life and I do dressage, it’s a battle with myself and the horse, more with myself than the horse, you know? It’s, “I want to be one with that horse, and through that oneness with the horse, I feel oneness with the universe,” you know? It’s never a competition. It’s a learning process.
WEST [You] have this quote: “Nothing goes out of fashion quicker than fashion.” (Laughter.)
VERVOORDT Yes, that’s true.
WEST But when I talk to people in fashion they say “Fashion is a dream, you’re selling a dream, it’s selling that aspiration.” I started to say things to people — now some of these things I could change my opinion two or three times on it depending on the feeling. I feel like Stephen Hawking. He changed his ideas and his theories all the time. After proving something right, he proved something wrong, right? Because there is no wrong or right, it’s bipolarity, it is both sides.
WEST But fashion says, “It’s a dream that they’re selling.” Now with Instagram and who you are on the internet versus who you really are; who you are when you’re awake versus who you can be when you go to sleep and you really “dream.” I had this Martin Luther King — he says, “I had a dream,” and I say “No more dreams.” These are ideas that could be put into action. Sometimes to say something is a dream is almost to say that it isn’t possible, or to say that you’re trying but — It’s like the word try. Sometimes the word try for me it sounds like fail also. (Laughs.)
VERVOORDT So I don’t dream something I know I will never realize. I dream it, and even if it’s very difficult, I want to realize it.
WEST There are just a lot of words that I want to remove when you think about a company, like the word company. I like the word community better. I don’t like the word brand because we don’t use branding.
VERVOORDT Yeah, exactly.
WEST We inform. It’s a lot of things — a complete different ethos to what Yeezy is.
VERVOORDT What I think about great fashion is that creative fashion, for me, the ideal creative fashion is the one who feels what people need at that moment. The world changes all the time.
WEST You always say, “Think globally, act locally.” So even now one of the requests I have for you is: How do we build our furniture in L.A. and not have it be stopped at customs, coming from Belgium?
VERVOORDT Like the new project as well, we want to go back not to the past, but we go back to the origin. We want to feel the origin of nature, the origin of that mountain and what that mountain wants of a house. It’s not the attitude like “Are we gonna build the house that everybody will see how beautiful it is?” No. I think we’re searching for something that belongs to it, that was always there, and that’s gonna make it timeless more in the future, but it’s also connected to the origin. That’s always the search that’s going very far in the past and that way you go far in the future as well.
WEST With this concept, I have so many friends — not just artist friends, but being that we’re artists, obviously we want our other artist friends to be close — but a lot of artists have to compromise their principles in the way that they work with the galleries and various things to be able to afford things that connect to, and afford homes that connect to, the type of spaces that will make them feel better — to be able to have a house that has windows looking at nature. And these things are currently really, really expensive, so we’re on a mission to take what someone would call the highest sensibility — and, I don’t even like speaking in verticals, I like speaking horizontally to say take away the class and what’s high, what’s low and say it’s all on the same plane. So, right now, since this is the way we communicate, the simplest way is to say the highest sensibility and to be able to apply it to everyone, period.
THR wants us to say what the most beautifully designed place in the world is. My answer would be where the ocean meets the rocks in Africa or in Hawaii. Big Sur is close to that feeling. But that’s designed by God.
VERVOORDT I cannot say this is the most beautiful, but that hidden burial chamber in the Pyramid of Cheops. I had the chance to see it with my two sons [in 1995]. It’s a memory we will never forget. And also to experience the proportions.
WEST Oh, I’ll add your exhibit on proportions. [In 2015, Vervoordt curated a Venice show, Proportio.] Architecture should communicate to humanity an understanding of proportion and spaces and the way it affects your mood. Because we are all being attacked by things made not for the right reasons, whether from lack of education or lack of responsibility. There has to be a responsibility in design, whether it’s apparel, tech, Instagram, where you get so many likes, so it’s a dopamine that attacks your ego and your esteem. You know?
VERVOORDT Yes. (Laughs.)
WEST I’m sorry to be heavy-handed. I’m only 4 years old. (Laughter.)
VERVOORDT I believe very much in the power of proportions. It’s something you feel. In the 16th and 17th centuries, proportions were a secret knowledge; only the initiated could know the art of proportions. Now we live in a time when there are no secrets anymore.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.