Noble and Adaptable
The architecture of Marie-José Van Hee
Marie-José Van Hee is an architect who ‘sees’ places, space and proportions. She explores them, re-orders them, reshapes them and makes something new that we seemingly already know. To achieve this she works through a long process of thinking and drawing, of consultation with the client and her own experience, intuition and knowledge. This repeatedly yields a very precise building: where everything is perfectly thought through, consistent and right. The result is a tranquil architecture that is not conspicuous but evokes calm and asceticism. The austerity of the plan, the stacking of spaces, and the pure construction are related to the freedom that the architecture is intended to offer. These are buildings that make room for their occupation, where their use and its versatility can gain the upper hand. Houses, public buildings, designs for bridges, the refurbishment of public squares: it’s a varied range of assignments in which the designer always embraces garden, landscape or city and urban life as a context.
The furniture of Marie-José Van Hee
In her designs for houses, the furniture is an integral part of the space: rooms and circulation areas. Walls, staircases, galleries and so on become concealed cupboards, cloakrooms, workspaces, alcoves or bookcases. Van Hee sees tables, chairs and beds as the only movable furniture that belongs in a house. The freestanding pieces of furniture contribute to the changes of use and can be recycled or passed down. They are added and moved by the occupants for various purposes and in different seasons and stages of life, and can be moved out again. They will not make any fundamental changes to the space or the effect of light.
Marie-José Van Hee does not consider furniture to be art or design, yet her furniture designs are based on a certain ambiguity. This can already be seen in the names given to each piece. The bed-bank (bed/sofa) can be used either as a bed or as a sofa. The huis-werk-tafel (house/work/table) is a worktable that can stand in the kitchen, patio, gallery or garden. These twin uses for the pieces of furniture are also a matter of limiting the number of objects in favour of ‘Lebensraum’ or ‘living space’.
The motivation behind her furniture designs is usually a personal need. About twenty years ago, Van Hee designed beds for her own house, with futons that were raised off the ground. A simple structure: an oak frame, painted white, with cedar planks on which the futon could lie. This piece of furniture started to lead a life of its own and in 2016 was adapted to create the present bed-bank with its several uses. The oak frame was redesigned and divided into two longitudinal elements. The structure of the bed consists on the one longitudinal side of two legs on the corners connected by a beam and, on the other side of an identical beam with two recessed legs.
The prototype of the bed-bank was developed with Frank Ternier of LABT. Two beds are turned into a sofa by setting one of them up as a backrest and fixing the legs together using leather straps. This is a paraphrase of a solution Van Hee had herself applied when she slept in a youth hostel and tied two iron beds together with socks.
The huis-werk-tafel (2011-2017) began at the request of a client who could not find the table he had in mind in the standard design ranges. Van Hee started working on the design, which was her first joint project with Frank Ternier of LABT, in 2013. What is crucial is the way the steel and wood are connected to form a sturdy object. To limit the weight of the table with its structure in black stainless steel, and to enable it to be used both indoors and outdoors, they chose acetylated softwood painted white or green. The table-top is made up of beams of varying widths that are held together by four threaded rods and which also fix the four steel legs.
The dien-blad-koffer (serving/tray/case) (2017), designed for MANIERA combines three functions. It is an occasional table-cum-storage place for linen or books and newspapers. The structure is a continuation of the bed-bank; oak legs with cedar beams between them. The case is a spacious hanging bag in oiled cowhide leather, developed in association with Michel Devos. The bag can be used by taking off the cedar serving tray.
The textiles by Marie Mees and Cathérine Biasino
Several interiors of houses by Marie-José Van Hee have been fitted with curtains and carpets by the textile designers Marie Mees and Cathérine Biasino in collaboration with the architect. It is all about the way textiles can change rooms and summon up emotions by their colour, movement, translucence and sound.
Although textiles may not seem to be naturally combinable with Marie-José Van Hee’s architecture, they do turn out to be. The naturalness of such materials as wool, linen and cotton are in the same register as stone, concrete, wood and metal, which usually appear in the interiors in unworked form and in their original colour. Several of Van Hee’s clients have wanted a filtering of sunlight, to shut out the darkness of the evening and night, or a sound-deadening element. These practical requirements however also express a desire for intimacy, a lighter and more flexible definition of the architecture and a second, softer layer. This gives rise to a dialogue between the designers and an interplay between textiles and architecture.
The affinity between Van Hee, Mees and Biasino is also to be found in their common craftsmanlike approach to their discipline. The search for and rendering of exactly what the brief consists of, the design itself and the dialogue with those who are implementing it, are the same steps in the process, which the architect and the textile designers follow-up very meticulously. Marie Mees and Cathérine Biasino carry out new research for each separate assignment: into the appropriate raw material (wool, cotton, linen), the thickness of the thread, the colour (preferably of plant origin), the structure of the weaving, and the workshops where it is made by craftsmen.
A limited edition version of the bed-bank
On the occasion of the exhibition ‘A piece of furniture is also a house’ at the Design museum in Ghent (2016), Marie Mees and Cathérine Biasino designed a cushion for Van Hee’s bed-bank in association with Julie Van den Meutter. For a limited edition version of the bed-bank to add to the MANIERA collection, Marie-José Van Hee again invited Mees and Biasino to upholster the bed-bank, to make it into a proper, comfortable sofa and bed. Based on a design and basic idea by Marie-José Van Hee, this duo developed a thin mattress which can be rolled up to become a backrest. The mattress, produced by Cover & Couch, is accompanied by a new series of knitted cushions whose designs and graphic motifs (seven different ones) are related to the dimensions and the individual elements of the bed-bank. A sturdily knitted fabric in slightly matted wool was chosen. They are made in one piece, with no seams, and look like an envelope in which you can put a cushion. Finishing the bed-bank with textiles results in a delicate composition with an extra element that is as manipulable as the piece of furniture itself.
© Filip Dujardin