Material ColourMuller Van Severen's Home and Studio
"You can take the same form, and by changing the colour, you change the object; it can be very young and playful, or very elegant and sophisticated."
On the outskirts of Ghent, a boldly coloured assortment of chairs, tables, and other furniture occupy the front room of a 19th century house. Their forms are deceptively simple, disguising an array of functions: elegant armchairs, formed of single panels of leather hung in minimal steel frames, join seamlessly together in opposing directions, while others combine with a shelving unit to one side, with a small writing desk projecting from the far edge. Tables are incorporated with tall lamps that rise arching from one leg, and a turquoise sofa appears as if two chaise longues have merged perpendicularly together. The result is something between a functional living room and a sculptural art installation, both playful and contemplative.
The pieces are the creations of Fien Muller and Hannes Van Severen, who live here with their two daughters, and work in the adjacent studio building as design duo Muller Van Severen. “Our daughters have grown up with our designs and think it is completely normal,” says Van Severen. “When they were very little, whenever they drew a picture of a table, it was always with a lamp attached,” he laughs.
The duo first met when studying sculpture at the Academy of Art in Ghent. “I was making installations with recognisable objects, to which I made small changes, to create something that seems part reality, part imagination,” says Van Severen. One such piece is on display outside the entrance to their home: a surreal concrete staircase twisting in on itself as it ascends. “I was creating contemporary still lives with found objects, combining them in interesting ways, sometimes with an element of humour,” says Muller. “We were interested in similar things in a way: the meeting point of the imagination with everyday objects, prompting people to look again at these familiar forms in a new light – to re-see them.”
The two artists began working together in 2011 when Muller was invited by Antwerp-based design and art gallery Valerie Traan to present a show. “The gallery director, Veerle Wenes, asks her artists to reach out to another person to collaborate with,” says Muller. “So I asked Hannes to make something with me. We were renovating our house at the time, and started thinking, ‘Why not make functional objects together?’ We had a particular problem with the overhead lighting fixture in our living room, so we began developing a table that incorporated a lamp in its design. It was a very spontaneous dialogue between us. A lot of ideas came together very quickly – we made the whole exhibition in two months. We went on to show our work in Brussels and at the Kortrijk Biennale that year, and in 2013, we began exhibiting internationally with a show in Milan.”
For the two artists, this move to functional objects felt relieving. “Embracing functionality was very liberating for us,” says Van Severen. “We built up a piece like we would a sculpture, adding different functions until it expanded into a whole installation. We were working with very thin steel profiles, so although the pieces felt quite large, they were almost transparent at the same time – you could look through them and see the architecture of the room behind. It allows the pieces to negotiate a certain kind of presence in your home: they may assert themselves, but they can also be transformed by your other possessions.” “A good example is the wire cabinet we have,” says Muller, gesturing behind her to a cabinet mounted on the wall of their studio. The metal wire creates a bold form that simultaneously reveals the objects inside. “When people fill it with their things, it becomes a completely new object. That is what interests us: it can never be the same thing each time.”
An important and unlikely material in much of Muller Van Severen’s work is polyethylene, a plastic most commonly used for making kitchen chopping boards. The waxy material is manufactured in eight colours, each corresponding to certain foods – green for chopping vegetables, red for meat, blue for fish, and so on. “Colour is not something we add later; it is there right from the beginning,” says Muller. “It can feel very nostalgic. It is so personal, and a very emotional element for us. By changing the combinations of those eight colours, the work can evoke a completely different world.” The same material was used in their design for Reform, a Danish brand who invite designers to create kitchen tops and fronts to fit IKEA cabinets. Muller Van Severen selected six colours for their customisable polyethylene fronts, paired with a marble top and brass handles. “Colour is like a material to us,” says Van Severen. “You can take the same form, and by changing the colour, you change the object; it can be very young and playful, or very elegant and sophisticated.”
Their latest series, ALLTUBES, is constructed of repeating, standardised aluminium tubes, laid in parallel to form the surfaces of seats, with the outer units bending into flowing legs or backrests. “Sometimes, the colour of the raw material can be very satisfying,” says Van Severen. “For this series, we wanted to keep the aluminium surface as it is. When the light shines on it, it creates a kind of gleaming rainbow effect. It feels very mysterious to us, like opening an oyster and peering at the inside of its shell.”
Muller Van Severen were due to present their work as part of Lille Metropole 2020 with a show at Villa Cavrois, an awe-inspiring, sand-toned modernist mansion built by Robert Mallet-Stevens in 1933 on the outskirts of Lille. “Our work is all there, set up in the villa,” says Muller, “but Covid-19 lockdown measures came into effect in France the day before it was due to start.” However, the show is to run until October 2020, and may extend to make up for the delayed opening. “When we visited the villa and studied the details, the materials, and the way the light moves in the space, it felt very natural to complement the interiors with our work, so we began testing our pieces in relation to the space,” says Van Severen. During these visits, they were moved to design a sofa specifically for the show: the turquoise, dual-form Sofa Cavrois. “We were on the terrace, positioning our curving wire chairs outside, when we saw the reflection of one in the window, as if it was already inside the villa,” says Miller. “We were amazed. We took pictures of it, and began drawing on the pictures back in the studio, which eventually led to the design for the Sofa Cavrois.” In position throughout the villa, their furniture relates to the interiors fluently. “We found that our pieces became objects of the 1930s; at the same time, the architecture of the villa appeared entirely contemporary,” says Muller. “An understanding of time seemed to disappear.”