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Belgium’s Biennale Interieur was formed just six years after the Milanese furniture mega-show Salone del Mobile kicked off in 1961. The two oldest global design fairs have taken very different courses over the past half-century. While Milan’s spectacle has become a mecca for all involved in this burgeoning industry, its smaller Belgian counterpart is now the fair to go to for those in the know.

A key reason for this is that Kortrijk (the sleepy French-bordering Flemish city where the event pops up every other year) is the gateway to a nation increasingly growing in design might. “Belgium has this reputation right now in design, and we had it 30 years ago in fashion – and it comes from our culture,” says Biennale Interieur’s CEO Jo Libeer from Kortrijk Xpo, where the biennale’s trade fair takes place in late October. “Belgium is on the crossroads of two cultures: the German and the Latin. We mix the best of both worlds while avoiding the worst of both worlds at the same time,” says Libeer. “We have the Latin frivolity, good taste and appreciation for aesthetics, and we have the German culture of making good, well-designed and thoughtful products.”

Proof of this description is revealed across the offerings of established Belgian brands at the event. Outdoor-furniture specialist Extremis and stone supplier Hullebusch are two companies that have enlisted respected architects to build masterful, eye-catching display stands. They’re joined by many newcomers, including Roux, a collaborative project between acclaimed designers Michaël Verheyden and Bart America, and a master cabinet-maker from the small town of Genk. They build immaculately refined Belgian marble and oak kitchen units.

While Biennale Interieur initially established itself as the entry point to the Benelux region for Italian furniture companies (which boomed in the 1960s and 1970s), today half of the exhibiting brands at this fair are Belgian. “Biennale Interieur is the birthplace of Belgian design,” says Libeer.

The lack of Italian dominance, typically felt on the international design-fair circuit (now numbering some 279 events), is not the only noticeable difference between Biennale Interieur and its global cousins. What has helped cement its reputation among visiting property developers, architects and furniture buyers is the true emphasis on quality over quantity on its exhibitor list. “It’s a special event and the curating at the fair is so well done that there is actually not one booth that is not interesting; this is unusual for a trade fair,” says property developer Ofer Mizrahi of Miami Ironside, who has flown in from the US specifically for the biennale. “It’s a show that you remember for the next couple of years until the next one rolls around.”

Designers from London, Paris and Brussels are attracted by the coveted awards programme, which this year honoured Belgian Frederik Delbart as its designer of the year. A decent chunk of the event’s budget goes into commissioning “scenography”, and promising small design practices are usually given the job to help grow their brand.

In 2018, Studio Verter, from the Netherlands, brought the bland conference hall to life by playing with a humble material palette. Huge rolls of scaffold netting stretched out across the halls, bordering a central “piazza”, to form a semi-transparent divider, a handsome talking point and a container for a marketplace of good design. Five “landmarks”, including an obelisk of kaleidoscopic colours, were also installed as a wayfinding system.

“The scale of trade fairs invites us to think of them as cities because they are so huge and hard to navigate,” says Studio Verter’s Roxane van Hoof. “So including city elements like layering over a square and adding a forum makes sense for us.”

While most design stands dazzle, it’s a cast of local businesses that have out-glossed the efforts of Scandinavian and Italian companies. Top marks went to the artful installation from Harelbeke-based window frame brand Allaert Aluminium. Parisian studio Studio Dessuant Bone was given carte blanche with the presentation of its materials, resulting in a yellow carpeted box (walls and all) kitted out with vintage televisions.

“When you trust a designer or artist, and don’t dilute their vision at all, that’s how you end up with something different that actually really talks to people,” says designer Marie Dessuant. “We’re still showing the function of their product. It’s just a more interesting way to talk about it.”

Best of the biennale

The emerging brands and designers you’ll be seeing a lot more of.

1. Gunther Pelgrims

Marawi, a Japanese-inspired table, highlights the fine joinery Pelgrims is becoming known for.

2. Barh

This Brussels brand softens its brutalist inspirations via a warm materials palette.

3. Nicolas Schuybroek

A sanctuary that Schuybroek designed for stone supplier Hullebusch.

4. Sebastian Menschhorn

The conceptual nature of this piece shows the daring nature of Menschhorn’s work.

5. Amorce Studio

This prototype from the Belgian firm used inexpensive materials and drew an appreciative crowd.

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