Centuries ago, European artisans from painters to metalsmiths organized into communities around their crafts in order to control production, rates, and quality as well as cultivate political influence. As these great craft guilds rose in cities such as Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Brussels they built for themselves headquarters in ornate halls, themselves expressions of the skills of those collaborating within.
I pondered those practices on a recent spring afternoon as I wandered the great hall of Zaventem Ateliers, a design cooperative and creative playground in Brussels where guilds once steered the course of local art, architecture, and craft for over 300 years. There, I passed through “Concrete Soldiers,” a series of massive concrete-covered wooden sculptures that looked like Brutalist totems, designed by the project’s founder and creative force, Belgian interior designer Lionel Jadot with help from Sophie Coucke, a tenant that specializes in material innovation.
Beyond them I found a few souls gathered around a large, open metal fireplace—artisans circled at hearth. There was Vladimir Slavov, a former theatre designer who now fabricates monumental lighting fixtures under the label DIM Atelier. Next to him were Alexandra and Grégoire Jonckers, the middle-aged children of the artist and designer Armand Jonckers who founded an eponymous maison for bespoke sculptural furniture in the ‘70s. The 24-year-old Arno Declercq, who builds African–inspired furniture and accessories, passed by as he headed back to one of the two spaces he rents in the building: one a showroom and office, the other a production studio festooned with his father’s collection of African tribal objects.
I followed the Jonckers to their soaring space filled with shoulder-height mounds of disused foundry molds and wooden models of large industrial valves that could easily pass for sculptures themselves. Their workshop serves as lab, showroom, and storehouse for found matter and their father’s vintage round tables and screens made of resin and etched metal.
Alexandra has spent the last decade creating elaborate jewelry pieces and Grégoire is a well-known interior designer in Brussels. Their father, now 80, is still very much involved. “He had five children with five different women, “Alexandra laughs. “Our youngest step-sibling is 24 years old and making jewelry. All of us work in the arts.” She and Grégoire were one of the first to see the Zaventem Ateliers in its raw, early state in 2017 and connected with the concept immediately. “We want to be with other artists,” Alexandra says. “We are excited about the potential for synergies and collaborations. We saw from the start that this place was crazy, and we wanted to be part of it.”
In a sense, Zaventem is a bit crazy. Certainly, the 46-year-old Jadot dreamed up the idea in somewhat of a mania after happenstance led him to an erstwhile, centuries-old paper factory. He imagined a place where makers could come together to share techniques and inspiration as was done in the guilds of old. No, it wouldn’t be as organized and political as those trade societies, but it would be, like them, a hive of independent workshops that would function as an analog, open-source network.
It’s a model that is catching on around the world in a variety of different configurations. There’s HUBBA Thailand in Bangkok. Designed by Supermachine Studio the collection of creative spaces includes a photography darkroom, ceramics studio, screening room, and digital workshop complete with laser-cutting machines. Occupying a former cigarette factory in Marseille, France, is the alternative cultural community of La Friche la Belle de Mai. In addition to its dozens of art and design studios, it houses a variety of exhibition and performance venues and will soon be adding a public elementary school.
The trend of design cooperatives and communities has emerged in tandem with the growing popularity of innovation and makers labs, which provide public access to expensive tools and technology such as 3-D printers and metal working facilities, many of which are embedded in schools. The CITRIS Invention Lab at Berkeley, for instance, offers students tools and skilled makers to help build them prototypes ranging from wearable technology to responsive architecture. Since its launch over a decade ago, it has given birth to over 50 startups.
But Zaventem isn’t so much looking to the future as trying to recreate a certain construct that dates back to the Middle Ages. Jadot, whose family had owned a chair- and sofa-making business for five generations, grew up surrounded by the smell of wood shavings and the sound of tools. “My playground was one huge workshop where more than 30 artisans would be working at one time,” he says. “I would pick up scraps on the floor and think about what I could make with them. If I needed something I would go to the workshop and build it.” After high school, he went to the prestigious Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Just as he was planning to continue his studies in Milan, his mother died and his father was thinking about selling the family business. At the age of 20 Jadot quit his studies to run the workshop with his father instead. It was the ‘90s, and he became concerned with the fragile state of craftsmanship in Europe. “I started to feel an urgency because I knew all these talented people who were experts working with gold or in wood,” he says, “but there was no longer a market for them.”
It took a year to renovate the three-story, 6,000-square-meter space after Jadot purchased it with the help of several friends. The design leaves many of the surfaces raw but adds 25 workshops and public rooms. “I immediately felt there was something special about the space even though it was abandoned and somewhat of a ruin,” he says. “The light was exceptional.” During renovation, Jadot put together a small board to help him recruit the right mix of tenants. Most important to Jadot was a mix of people with a very hands-on approach and a miscellany of skill sets. “I didn’t want five ceramicists and five woodworkers.”
Zaventem might be a place that reveres old-world craft, but the house ideals are very much New Age. Spend a few minutes perusing Zaventem’s website and you start to pick up what Jadot is putting down. Encouragement comes in the form of short haikus, challenging prospective tenants to, “become the inspiring neighbor of your floor and share your energy” and promising a, “never sterile open laboratory giving birth to strong emulations,” that lets the “the brutality of the place produce collisions.”
The 25-year-old Declercq, who has attracted the attention of everyone from Jennifer Lopez to Vincent van Duysen with his dark wood candlesticks that are like something out of Game of Thrones and his tables inspired by African and Renaissance-era objects, is a product of modern technology who taught himself woodworking by watching YouTube videos and launched his business on Instagram. Nonetheless, he says the most appealing factor of Zaventem Ateliers is its analog nature. Not only does he enjoy the fact that the designers each bring their clients into the space, exposing all the tenants to new eyes, he loves the collaborative possibilities the environment creates. He is currently working with the jewelry designer Aurelie lanoiselee, also a tenant here, to craft an exclusive line of accessories. “I work 12 hours a day,” Delercq says. “For me, the greatest benefit of having my studio in Zaventem is that I’m always surrounded by other creative people.”
One of the potential projects that Jadot has in mind for Zaventem is a house collection of sorts; something like a Moooi or Vitra, but curated and run by the designers themselves. As an experiment this past March—the first spring that Zaventem Ateliers was officially in operation—a dozen of the designers came together to show their work at Collectible, a small but exclusive contemporary design fair in Brussels. Jadot created a starkly minimalist design for the booth, placing the products on the floor and drawing a chalk circle around each one with the name its designer next to it. “As a collective we stood out and met a lot of new people,” he says. “We realized that we are stronger together. We are each other’s best PR. It’s really wonderful and it’s working better than I had imagined.”
The presentation was just one example of Jadot’s unconventional approach as a founder and leader. “I am not a CEO, I am not the boss,” he says. “I am not here to make money off of the artists. I am just really happy to bring people together and to be a part of it.” One of Jadot’s pleasures has been in designing the space itself, which features an abundance of public areas, such as the Tropical Coffee Lounge, a small room filled with leafy plants, a vintage Japanese buffet table, and a 500-year-old tree trunk sprayed with metallic paint. There’s also a generous communal kitchen and next year, Zaventem will open a restaurant its ground floor that will host a rotating mix of visiting chefs which Jadot hopes will reflect the artisanal nature of the place. “Maybe we’d try to connect a designer to the chef or the idea of a workshop to the kitchen,” he says.
“Lionel really leads Zaventem to make us all strong,” write Justine de Moriamé and Erika Schillebeeckx, the young duo behind the contemporary textile firm Studio Krjst, in an email. After working alone for the past seven years, they hesitated to join a collective, becoming some of the last residents to move in. Now, they’ve become fans of the exposure to other disciplines Zaventem offers. “Everyone has a singular style and vision,” they write “You have so many personalities between the age range of 25 and 80 years old. There are solo artists, couples, small collectives, and family businesses. It creates a very rich environment with different stories and work methodologies.” They add, “and then Lionel somehow harnesses all that energy into one big positive flow.”
Peeking inside Zaventem’s workshops, and looking at each designer’s work—from the monumental tables (slabs of marble placed on a metal “cushions”) created by the Belgian designer Ben Storms, to the products of Portuguese ceramicist Bela Silva, to the experimental work shown at the gallery Alfa Brussels, a design residency program overseen by mid-century dealer Boris Devis—is like stepping into a cosmic system filled with disparate worlds. On the top floor, I found the recently completed Noguchi room, a simple Japanese-inspired bedroom with a futon which Jadot created for anyone who works late and doesn’t want to drive home.
Eventually I made my way into Jadot’s own sprawling studio, filled with an eclectic mix of things: a vintage motorcycle, wicker peacock chairs, Indian couches covered in African wax fabric, and patterned screens made of wood scraps. Jadot, who is currently showing several custom furniture pieces at Todd Merrill Studio in New York while working on a Lisbon hotel project and a Brussels food hall called WOLF, spoke about the possibility of hosting exhibitions in Zaventem’s great hall. He has already asked Dimitri Jeurissen, the cofounder of Base Design agency, to curate a show of site-specific installations by French visual artist and designer Stéphane Barbier Bouvet.
As far as what else is in store, Jadot says he never makes a plan, especially a business one, but Zaventem’s allegiance to tactile practices will remain ironclad. “It needs to be flexible and free and not defined by its financial potential,” Jadot says. “Otherwise the soul will disappear.” He adds, “I see the world moving towards AI and virtual reality and I feel this strong, urgent drive within me to create a world of real people making real things and to show how beautiful it is. In the end, this is a showcase for humanity.”
(Photos: Xavier Portela, Mireille Roobaert, Stan Guldemont)