Maarten Van Severen

by Branka Bozic

Maarten Van Severen

Maarten Van Severen designed furniture by asking clear questions. How do I sit? Where do I need a table and how do I sit at it? Where do I store utensils? The goals of successful people mostly come down to basic principles. No matter how obvious it seems, among rare ones are those who resist aesthetic character of the design. Maarten van Severen brought the beauty and function to the same level with his exhaustive research and practical work. 

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Maarten Van Severen was born in 1956 in Belgian town of Antwerp. His father, Dan van Severen, was a recognized painter of abstract art. Geometrical forms, complemented by colors of nature, were dominant motives on Dan’s paintings. Father was definitively a role model to Maarten’s, but he grew up with his brother who had the same affections. One year younger, his brother Fabiaan followed his father’s footsteps at first. Later, he also decided to find his place in the world of interior and furniture design. Entire Maarten’s opus was the symbiosis of three van Severens. Having someone who’s familiar with creative craft by his side was priceless for his work. An honest criticism created epochal pieces. 

Maarten Van Severen studied architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, one of the oldest art schools in Belgium. Founded in 1751 in Ghent, it is considered to be one of the most prestigious academies. After studying Architecture for three years, he decided to dedicate his work to the interiors rather than architectural design. At the very beginning of his career, in 1986, he created his first furniture pieces. Shortly after, he founded his own workshop from which simple and impressive ideas came from.

He gave importance to creative process – designing, in the same way as he enjoyed following the process of production itself. His workshop was a place where idea met realization. In time he wasn’t able to reach the speed of furniture’s industrial production. As a consequence of this problem, collaboration with Top Mouton appeared, the company dealing with semi-industrial production. He was working with them until a great turnover in his career happened, the one that was crucial for his stage survival. 

Chair is the Reflection of Carrier

The foundation of Maarten’s work was based on the study of utilitarian furniture such as chairs, tables, lamps and closets. This is how classical pieces like T88W table or K88 bookshelves were created. At the beginning of 1990’s he decided to direct his attention to chairs so in this period some of the unsurpassed pieces were created. On The Maarten Van Severen Foundation website there is an overview of the chairs that he designed. The first one that Maarten created was CN° I (Chair number one). Archetypal model was almost entirely made of metal, colored in black. The seat shaped with leather material gave an industrial note to this chair.

The second piece, CN° II (Chair number two), was launched in 1992. It was significantly different from the previous one but at the same time it represented the pattern for the majority of designed chairs to come. The main element was aluminum rectangular part curved in two places. Simple moves gave a contour with practical use. After this piece, variations like those more casual ones: MVSCHOO, LL04 and LC03 followed. A bit later, furniture pieces for offices appeared such as the chair .04. Devoid of decoration they found wide range of usage in public sector.

Another in a row, recognized as an epochal one, was Loop Chair LC 95A. Difficult to produce, its aluminum element was abruptly bent repeatedly. Silhouette that was made was enchanting and Top Mouton succeeded in dealing with these moves. Like majority of Maarten’s chairs, this one also got its copy in another material. Made of polycarbonate, LCP00 chairs were produced by Kartell from 1990 until 1999.

Courage and Details Lead to Vitra

If we observe Maarten’s whole opus, tendency towards experimenting with forms and materials was obvious. Shapes varied from clean and sharp ones to wavy and irregular. Materials varied from softer to more solid, depending on form, so he applied wood, plastic, leather, aluminum… As a result of such an improvement, a collection of more than 20 chairs appeared. They are synonym for diversity and authenticity. Maybe that particular characteristic made Marteen Van Severen distinctive and special. Each new chair was original while quality remained. Proportions were skillfully combined through form and accuracy reflected in combined materials. Even Marteen himself claimed that it was the base of his work philosophy: “The attention you pay to precision or a particular way of looking at things is something you are born with. Not just when it comes to the furniture I make, but also what I experience in life.”   

The text, which was published in a respectable Italian magazine “Domus” from 1994, testified about this.  Federica Zanco wrote an article called “A way of work for a way of life”. As a wife of Rolf Fehlbaum, Vitra’s director at the time, she must have had an influence on his visit to Maarten the same year. Impressed by his creative concept, Rolf started collaboration with him in a short period of time. In this way a new stage of Maarten’s mastery started in 1996, the Vitra Era. Semi-industrial production was replaced by a serial one and the study of materials became more available than ever. The product was the unsurpassed 0.3 Chair. Actually, it was the famous Chair number two, this time covered with polyurethane foam. The old design was improved and refreshed. It was followed by other timeless chairs – 0.4, 0.5, 0.6 and 0.7. 

Mutual inspiration

Rem Koolhaas was definitely the person who had an influence on Maarten Van Severen. At the beginning of 1990’s two of them began collaboration within Koolhaas’ projects such as Villa dall’Ava and Lemoine house. Together with Hans Lensvelt they designed the interior for the representative Seattle Central Library. The company of Rem Koolhaas, OMA, organized an installation in Milan in 2014 to honor Maarten’s work. Within the Milan Design Week his furniture was redesigned with modern materials. OMA reminded us successfully of this giant, keeping the spirit of his ideas. In order to make experience more impressive, a surrounding that resembled Maarten’s workshop was made. Koolhaas often admitted how significant Maarten Van Severen was for his career: “He could create something that on one hand was extremely plain – but also highly imaginative. Maybe that was Maarten’s intrinsic talent.” 

Koolhass, as a faithful architecture theorist, motivated Maarten to take the same way. He lectured at the University College West Flanders in Kortrijk, the Academy of Fine Arts in Maastricht, Delft University of Technology and other big universities. Unfortunately, Maarten Van Severen left the world of design too soon, he died from cancer in 2005. With his approach to work he remained a role model for future generations. He designed in proper way, without neglecting the object’s essence. “Furniture is what makes the space liveable.” he would repeat. With his “step by step” Maarten Van Severen succeeded in designing the ideal construction based on materials. Materials would shape the form resulting in usable and at the same time graceful design. Passion towards art was harmonized with stability. Isn’t that what design’s true purpose is and what should be a guideline for every serious designer?

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