“Ceci N’est Pas…”: Belgium at Virtual Design Destination 2020

“The collection started very intuitively from some pieces, which are made out of unconventional materials such as salt, eggshells, stone coal, or discarded marble. I like how these designers turn – at first sight – simple, commonplace materials into high-quality, exclusive products, and how they play with the conventions around value and whether something is fake or real.”

– Elien Haentjens, curator of the Belgian collection, “Ceci N’est Pas…”


“Ceci N’est Pas…” is part of the Virtual Design Destination presented by Adorno at London Design Festival, 12 – 20 September 2020. Join us for a tour of the virtual environment and collection with curator Elien Haentjens in conversation with Kristen de la Vallière of @sayhito_ on Saturday, 19 September at 15:00 PM BST. “Ceci N’est Pas…” is kindly supported by the Flanders DC, Wallonie-Bruxelles International, and MAD Brussels.

Where does the mind wander in this time of uncertainty? What has our subconscious taken on while we’ve been isolated at home? Here, as we float among the clouds, functional design meets the surreal and these questions are approached by makers and their practices. Clouds float by above and below us as we move across the floating dias towards a scene filled with unique design pieces and references to surrealist visions. Drawn curtains reveal stone, bronze, and coal lighting; wood, salt, and steel furniture; and bio-material textile, among others. Each piece sparks an emotional response, drawing us in by their form, tactile qualities, and inherent story.

Taking inspiration from the surrealist movement and Belgian artist René Magritte, “Ceci N’est Pas…”, the Belgian collection curated by Elien Haentjen, investigates the subconscious, the surreal, and how these notions have been influenced by the current moment through contemporary Belgian design.⁠ There is a focus on sustainability in design and the use of personalised, artisanal practices over mass-production – both of which have become increasingly important amidst our new reality. The personalised aspect is also reflected in the connections these pieces create with the viewer; as Haentjen discusses below, there is an innate emotional relationship created within the subconscious between the maker, object, and audience which alters how we value the objects around us.

Ultimately, this collection champions unusual forms that question design conventions, uncommon materials that allow for experimentation, and new typologies that provide alternative solutions in design. Graphic shapes and textures draw the eye, providing a solid materiality to the surreal qualities of each piece.

“Ceci N’est Pas…” features work by Amandine David, Atelier Haute Cuisine, Chanel Kapitanj, Filip Janssens, Geneviève Levivier, Nicolas Erauw, Objects with Narratives, Pierre-Emmanuel Vandeputte, and Roxane Lahidji.

Ceci N’est Pas…

What are the main themes presented across the works in this collection?

One of the main themes is sustainability, both on the level of materials, production methods, and the conception about the lifespan of objects. A second one is the designer as maker, bringing innovation into traditional crafts and, by doing so, creating a more local alternative for global mass production.

Which three words would you use to describe the contemporary design scene in Belgium? Please describe why.

Perception. Emotion. Humour.

Surrealism is still strongly present in our Belgian DNA. [When] it comes to creativity, this often leads to surprising creations with a twist which have a strong emotional impact on the spectator.

Why have you chosen a surreal scenography among the clouds for this collection?

By linking this collection to surrealism, I wanted to emphasize the importance of the irrational aspects of the pieces. The designers play with the way the spectator perceives their objects. In a world where we are often obliged to be very rational, I think it’s important to give more space to irrationality and to our subconscious again. This quality can be found in surrealism, which is still strongly present in our DNA. It’s no coincidence that one of the most famous surrealist painters in the world, René Magritte, is Belgian.

Chanel Kapitanj, “COIFFEUSE”

There are very evident whimsical qualities and real sense of the surreal throughout this collection. Can you describe your curatorial thoughts when selecting pieces for “Ceci N’est Pas…”?

The collection started very intuitively from some pieces, which are made out of unconventional materials such as salt, eggshells, stone coal, or discarded marble. I like how these designers turn – at first sight – simple, commonplace materials into high-quality, exclusive products, and how they play with the conventions around value and whether something is fake or real. Moreover, the sustainable aspect of these projects is key. From here, I broadened the scope to other pieces playing with conventions, adding a twist, whether it’s in the typology or production method. By adding this twist and turning conventional wisdom on its head, the designers tell their stories and arouse emotions.

Your curatorial statement mentions how this “new reality” and our subconscious may affect how makers approach their practices. What do you see in the future of Belgian design with this theme in mind?

Research has shown that the emotional attachment to the material world that surrounds us must increase, if we want people [to] release an object less quickly. A large amount of waste is a direct consequence of our disrespectful handling of objects and raw materials. That’s why it becomes more important to add an emotional value to an object. In addition to the rational, the irrational aspect, therefore, has an important role. A perfect example is the ring from your grandmother that you received from your mother. Because of the meaning, story, and memories associated with that object, you want to keep it forever. Belgian professor and designer Dirk van Gogh, whose research I recently translated in a book, coined the term ‘relational design’ for this. This means that we should attach at least as much importance to the design of the relationship or dealing with the object than to the object itself.

Objects with Narratives, “Tamayi” Stool
Atelier Haute Cuisine, “COFIT-20”

With reference to the Virtual Design Destination’s theme, how does “Ceci N’est Pas…” respond to the so-called “New Reality”?

The “COFIT-20” Lamp from Haute Cuisine is a direct result of the lockdown. As we all had to stay close to our homes, the designers started experimenting with stone coal, a silent witness of the mine history in their region, which is strongly linked with Belgian history in general. Although the concept of the table, “Abacus” by Pierre-Emmanuel Vandeputte didn’t start from the idea of physical distancing, it can be used as such in this new reality. Besides [those,] local, manual production and sustainable choices, which are omnipresent in the pieces, are answers to this new reality.

Lunair Wall light
Filip Janssens, “Lunair” Light

Has your approach to the curation of this collection been affected by the ongoing uncertainty in the world? Why or why not?

Yes and no. The main themes were already present before. The crisis just made them much more visible and urgent.

Meet Elien Haentjens, Curator of “Ceci N’est Pas…”

Elien Haentjens is trained as an Art Historian at the University of Leuven, where she specialized in Modern and Contemporary Art, before completing her education as a journalist at Vlekho in Brussels. Since 2006, she has worked as a freelance journalist, specializing in art, lifestyle, and especially design. Since 2012, she has curated and organized exhibitions and residencies for designers, mainly in Brazil. These cultural dialogues have resulted in Joias (www.joias.eu). Since 2017, she has curated and promoted Belgian design in the context of the international design platform and gallery Adorno.

Which aspects of curating a collection for a virtual exhibition have intrigued and/or surprised you?

By creating 3D-models of the pieces and by putting them in a virtual surrounding where you can walk [around], this experience becomes much more emotional than I expected. As you see hundreds of images passing on a screen each day, it makes it harder to get touched one. But, when I saw the first presentation, the one of Sweden, I was immediately intrigued. To me, this Virtual Design Destination has something mysterious. It’s fake, but real at the same time. It appeals to our emotions.

What are you most excited to share (ex. thematically, a piece, a designer, etc.) with the Virtual Design Destination audience?

BIOMORPHICA – Deep bleu by Geneviève Levivier. She took this show as an opportunity to transform her years of research into a brand new concept with a spectacular outcome.

Abacus by Pierre-Emmanuel Vandeputte. He is a master in giving a twist to common objects, stimulating a stronger and different experience. His poetic creations make people dream.

The Marbled Salts collection by Roxane Lahidji. I still remember the moment when I discovered it at the graduation show in Eindhoven. I love how she plays with conventions. Luckily she moved to Brussels, so her work can be part of the Belgian collection.

“Ceci N’est Pas…” is kindly supported by:

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