Jean-Philippe Demeyer likes fresh air. Doors and windows are to be kept open at all times, giving whatever breeze there is free play to dance through rooms and corridors. It makes the slightly enchanted world he created come alive, as if his collection of rare artefacts and artworks might awaken and break into some infernal ballet anytime.
I’m meeting the acclaimed interior designer in the greenhouse of the century-old castle farm he’s inhabited for the past 15 years. Today’s wind is a lukewarm autumn one and blows in dry leaves through the huge glass doors. The walls are painted bright yellow, what’s supposed to be a dining table is set with huge ornamental vases and a collection of ceramic dogs proudly gazes at me from across the room. Demeyer’s love for all things “interesting” -he doesn’t do ugly and pretty- has earned him the reputation of eclectic, sometimes even eccentric, artist and he is known for his colorful and imaginative style. “I can’t stand empty spaces, places without a theme. It’s important for objects to tell a story and to breath life into a room. It is one of my never-ending obsessions: the search for a good theme. Take this one for instance,” he gestures at a yellow lion sculpture resting at his feet,” I can perfectly imagine it in an all-yellow bathroom, with an amazing green carpet and a bright white bath tub. I don’t really care where an object comes from, who designed it or how much it costs. Its worth for me is its power to communicate something, to create an entire universe all by itself. Mind you, the latter only happens when you install it the right way: just stack all sorts of stuff together in a room and it becomes a soulless depot. You can only give meaning to something by displaying it well, compare it to what a chef does with ingredients; you need to pair them well and give each and every one its moment to shine. That’s why I in fact dò like emptiness: I prefer a few strong eye-catchers in a room to an overload of redundant stuff. I don’t really consider myself a decorator in that way, I don’t even like that word, rather someone who structures things. I’m one for structure, and clutter harms structure. A table may remain empty, a bookshelf doesn’t need to be crammed. I set down a theme, and after that it is up to the people to stuff their homes with pots and pans, not me.”
Speaking of themes, the home he has built for himself is full of them. “It may be overwhelming for other people, but this is just the way we live, the old-school antiquarian way. I consider each and every object here to be a working tool and I just happen to live in my workplace, surrounded by all of my tools -just like any other craftsman used to. It can be harassing sometimes: I’ll have someone over for dinner who likes the table and chairs, and before I know it, he or she takes off with them. I’m in constant need of replacing things, which is why I spend a lot of time at auctions, sell-offs and flea markets -never online, I just hate the idea of spending three hours on my laptop while I might as well be walking around interesting places. The endless va-et-vient of my household goods may be tiring, but it is refreshing at the same time. It’s a gush of fresh air breathing through the house!”
The wind of change will be a bit more radical this year though, as the designer is about to start completely anew: come winter, he’ll have left the house and everything within it. He’s hosting a sale and put a price on every single item in the house. “It’s dancing with tears in my eyes, really. I have no issue with leaving objects behind, but I do love this house dearly. We’ve decided to move because the maintenance of this place has become unmanageable. I was drawn to the Sleeping Beauty charm of it once, and have loved every minute of living in it, but it’s just not reasonable anymore -at least for tenants. So I’m out, but not without a bang! In England, the cradle of interior design, it is the habit to hold a big house sale and celebrate the spirit of a home. It’s the perfect opportunity for anyone to see this little world one last time, to experience something out of the ordinary for once.” And out of the ordinary it is: “I’m afraid I’m suffering from an overactive imagination. I keep designing imaginary spaces for imaginary clients. The horde of dogs, for instance, was collected with someone’s entrance hall in mind, I just haven’t found that person yet. I could fill an entire palace with things nobody wants… People keep telling me they don’t necessarily wànt ceramic hounds in their home, ahah, nor do they nééd a set of Egyptian heads on their dinner table… but I’ll find someone someday! That may in fact be the hardest part of this job: to find and match with the right people. Luckily, and contrary to popular belief, Belgians àre quite eccentric, this country is filled with good potential clients.”
New beginning or not, there’s one thing Demeyer won’t leave behind: “I’ve learned something really valuable by literally living within ancient walls: you don’t have to keep something old for the sake of it being old. When I moved in I wanted to restore everything in an authentic way, while the key is in fact to march it into a modern world. Yes the pebbled floor we’re standing on is romantic, but give it one winter and you’ll start to hate how cold it is and how water infiltrates through every stone. Replace it by a nice terrazzo floor and the whole room lits up. Living here sparked my love for upcycling and recycling stuff, something I’ve inherited from my grandmother in fact. She had this thing with painting little landscapes on every available surface: she’d buy old dressers and paint every spare inch of them. I love structuring stuff with a good dose of what I call rewilding: to infuse it with some imagination and fun. Gluing some tacky plastic flowers on it, sewing eyelashes on or painting it with dancing figures. It requires some technical knowledge, but that is the good part: Belgium is rife with ateliers that are specialized in all these ancient crafts. There’s so much technical talent here that will turn old treasures into little works of art. That’s also part of treasuring the past: not letting anything go to waste. Speaking of which, I’m kind of manic about sorting waste: nothing, I repeat nothing, will upset me more than someone putting a banana with the regular household waste!”
With that said, let’s have a final look at his countryside wonderland before it’s all gone with the wind -yes, I dò feel like sounding a bit dramatic is in order here…: