Kanye West's Lifestyle Guru Offers Wisdom in New Book

Frederik Vercruysse; Courtesy of Rizzoli
Axel Vervoordt and the new Rizzoli book on his work.

The new book 'Axel Vervoordt: Portraits of Interiors' displays the castle in which the Belgian connoisseur resides, plus the London apartment he conceived for Sting and Trudie Styler.

In recent years, stars such as Ellen DeGeneres, Robert De Niro, Kanye West and others (including beauty guru and Violet Grey founder Cassandra Grey) have pilgrimaged to Axel Vervoordt’s moated 12th-century castle near Antwerp to view the eclectic wares the Belgian antiquarian-designer displays amid a stark, minimalist backdrop. Think gargantuan yet spare rooms enlivened by the likes of French Baroque treasures, Arte Povera, Anish Kapoor sculpture, George IV silver, ancient Egyptian artifacts, Ming china and gracefully aged farmhouse furniture.

Since Vervoordt commenced antique and art dealing in 1969, he has sold all of that and much, much more. Now, for those who can’t bear the 12-hour plus journey to Kasteel van's-Gravenwezel – as the connoisseur’s twin-turreted edifice is known – the magnificent palace and 15 sumptuous homes he has conceived for clients and friends (including Trudie Styler and Sting) are explored in Axel Vervoordt: Portraits of Interiors (Rizzoli, $75).

Consider this lavish hardback tome beyond the average coffee table topper. While Vervoordt’s characteristic, moodily lit, mostly muted-hue homes are captured by Laziz Hamani, the still-life photographer with whom he has long worked, the book features thoughtful contributions from the master himself, plus his son, Boris Vervoordt (who is director of his company), and Boris’s better half, the essayist Michael James Gardner. Together, the trio illuminate the long road the design guru traveled to arrive at the pinnacle of his profession.

His retreat from his thriving art and antique dealing business, which he conducted from a collection of 16th-century houses in central Antwerp, was motivated by “signs of destiny” that convinced Vervoordt and his wife, May, to acquire the castle in 1984. “The carved inscriptions on an iron entrance gate included the last two digits of Axel’s birth year, 47,” notes Gardner. “Old stone sculptures in the park were designed by a Vervoordt ancestor.”

The book is also a manual relating Vervoordt’s feel-good philosophy, which, over time, has been influenced by “Chinese Taoism, Japanese Zen Buddhist mediation and teachings,” and “Korean Sunbi philosophy and art,” says Vervoordt. He is also renowned for preaching the merits of “wabi sabi.” This Japanese philosophy – which prizes imperfection and also reveres peacefulness and moderation – may seem antithetical to dealing in exceedingly high-priced possessions, but the Eastern ideas seem to bewitch Vervoordt’s clients in a similar way to how the “pull, don’t push” strategy of deal-making often works in Hollywood.

“We aspire to create spaces which are genuine and authentic and that envelop visitors with positive energy,” explains Vervoordt of his residential projects. “This is a result of seeking balance and creating a dialogue between architecture, nature and art.”

So in Sting and Styler’s two-story London penthouse, the contemporary metal and glass materials were calmed by Vervoordt’s use of “materials that connect with the earth,” writes Gardner. “Every choice for furniture, textiles, art, and objects in the home was made based on its natural texture and the power of the original material,” such as the salvaged wood used for shelves in a drawing room library, which was, ultimately, inspired by Haeinsa, the renowned South Korean mountain temple that has preserved the entire Buddhist Scriptures since 1398. An ancient Cambodian sandstone divinity sculpture is positioned before a floor-to-ceiling glass window to “frame” the panoramic Thames River view of London. “It’s like video art,” says Vervoordt of the sight.

A chapter devoted to “The TriBeCa Penthouse” – the sprawling three-bedroom duplex conceived atop New York’s Greenwich Hotel upon request of its co-owners, De Niro and Ira Drukier – illuminates how Vervoordt and his collaborator, the Japanese architect Tatsuro Miki, won an appeal with New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to gut the space and return it to its authentic “basic architecture.”

Copper salvaged from the building’s roof was used to conceive hanging lamps for the exterior terrace. (Vervoordt, in turn, salvaged some of that copper for the lamps that illuminate part of his “monochromatic” castle garden, which was created the late virtuosic landscape architect, Jacques Wirtz.) A circle of light emanating from an “oculus” window and a fireplace constructed from locally sourced stone lend warmth to the Greenwich Hotel penthouse suite’s drawing room. “Above all, this is a space where you can connect to the earth and find silence in the middle of Manhattan,” explains Vervoordt.

The silence is truly golden, given that experiencing the TriBeCa Penthouse costs approximately $15,000 per night.

To be published next year is a book exploring the art preserved by the Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation, and also the monumental, must-see exhibitions he oversaw at Palazzo Fortuny during the Venice Biennale for 10 years from 2007. “The central question this book seeks to ask is ‘what does it mean to collect?’ and ‘what is the Vervoordt vision on collecting?’” reveals Gardner. “The book will profile key works in the collection as well as the foundational philosophy."