A modernist mansion in southern Cambodia is the antique-filled holiday home of Boris Vervoordt, son of the legendary antiques dealer Axel Vervoordt. Vervoordt Junior reveals the philosophy behind his family's art and interiors company.
In the sort of international circles where people might describe their occupations as that of “collector” or “philanthropist”, the name Axel Vervoordt is synonymous with the finest art and antiques and is a byword for a very high-minded sense of style. A Belgian antiques dealer, interior designer and art curator, Vervoordt’s Antwerp-based company is famous for the outstanding quality of the pieces that pass through its doors on their way to fabulous homes or important public institutions.
Axel Vervoordt himself now operates in the role of mentor to his team and to his older son, Boris Vervoordt, who is in charge of operations at the company that famously uses only “real” antiques. (If a piece they require does not exist they employ their team of art historians and restorers to make it.) The vast complex of warehouses on the outskirts of Antwerp that makes up the Axel Vervoordt headquarters was one of Boris’ first projects within the company.
“There is not an exterior sense of style to Axel Vervoordt,” says Boris, 35, who grew up at his father’s antique-filled castle outside of Antwerp. “Rather, it is a story of style and an evolution rather than one look.”
Nowhere is this philosophy explained better than at Boris’ Cambodian holiday home that he purchased in 2002 with his friend Jef Moons, and which also operates as a small hotel.
Knai Bang Chatt, as the estate is called, is located in Kep, a small beach town that was once a fashionable summer resort but now consists of the ruins of modernist mansions. The three houses that make up Vervoordt’s compound were built between 1962 and 1965 by different protégés of Vann Molyvann, a renowned Khmer pupil of Le Corbusier.
Having been abandoned since the 1970s, Vervoordt called upon the services of local architect Francoise Lavielle to restore the houses and add a new pavilion. He then set about selecting antiques, art and furniture, all of which were locally sourced. The resulting home is a captivating – or, perhaps, signature – mix of 12th-century artefacts and contemporary architecture, which was “designed to give you a sense of space and time between what is the past and present.”
Architecture aficionados and the travel press are unanimous in their praise for this carefully considered project, citing Vervoordt’s expert eye as Knai Bang Chatt’s greatest asset. Indeed, it is the Vervoordt “eye” that is often referred to when describing the interiors and art exhibitions of this formidable father and son team. “It’s more of a third eye than the actual eyes,” responds Boris. “It’s about sensing the art rather than the actual look of it. Expression is what you have to look for.”
What is your definition of luxury?
The freedom to go anywhere, anytime I want, in a comfortable way.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
A great sea view.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
An angel that gives you wings to fly around the world.
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
A place where my closest friends would be very happy.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
A moment that is the perfect combination of happiness and freedom.
How did you discover Kep and how did you come to buy the three houses that make up Knai Bang Chatt?
On my first visit to Cambodia I felt a very special connection. As all tourists do, I first visited Siam Reap, the temple at Angkor Wat and everything I had been reading about for years. It was 2002 and I had read about Kep in an article in the New York Times, so we went south to the beaches wanting to discover the place. We felt completely in love it and the potential of Kep. I was there travelling with a very good friend of mine and we had never owned property together. But we enquired if a house was for sale and were able to buy a few in a row in which we considered to be the best part – seafront, no roads, with a private beach and a view of the sunset. There are only five or six pieces of land like that and we bought four. We were really one of the first ones to restore a ruin there. My reaction was much stronger than expected.
You are an interior designer and grew up surrounded by the finest antiques. What did you envision for Knai Bang Chatt?
We wanted a very rural connection with nature while also respecting these crazy ideas about architecture that they would call modernism. Of course, these buildings in Kep were constructed in the 60s, so it’s all a bit quirky and a bit strange. For the interior we wanted everything to be locally sourced. Among the best pieces in the house are the original Khmer beds, which families still sleep on. I found some amazing examples in teak that must be a few hundred years old. You basically sleep on a plank that is a meter wide, and we put a few in a row with mattresses on top.
Was it difficult to source the antiques you wanted and to restore the house?
It all worked out very well. Once we bought the property, I immediately met a wonderful architect, Francoise Lavielle, and she worked on the houses every week, while I came every six weeks to check on the project. Now I don’t visit as often. I have just returned from three weeks there but before that I hadn’t been in over a year. I want to change my life and go there more often. Sourcing the local antiques and other pieces came quite naturally.
Kep was once a summer playground for the French elite. What is it like now?
We’re probably the hottest spot in town! Basically, Kep is in the middle of nowhere. There must be about 10 or 15 nice private homes now, which have been done up. We built a little sailing club for them and that has become the meeting point of the island. People come there to water-ski and we keep boats there for them to use. It’s a very family orientated holiday. The people who live there are a mix of Khmer and expats who have lived in Cambodia long term. Unfortunately the most beautiful ruins in the most beautiful locations have now been discovered. There is some really interesting architecture but sometimes the immediate environment changed and so they have become less attractive.
You generally work with antiques and ancient buildings. Was buying this modernist house a reaction against that?
Not at all a reaction against that. My family have always been interested in architecture and the renovation of architecture, including contemporary structures. More importantly, contemporary art is key to everything we do.
Recently you have taken over most of the operations at Axel Vervoordt interior design. Does your aesthetic differ much from your father’s?
It’s very interesting because collaborating with my father is inspiring. That’s his main role now. Within the group he is a mentor and the founder of the company and that’s what he loves to do and what he does very well. On the other hand, I organize the business inspired by that vision. There is no aesthetic to Axel Vervoordt interiors. Instead, it’s a quest for harmony and balance.
Axel Vervoordt interiors are renowned for incorporating fine art and contemporary design. How do you decide on which artworks and pieces of design to use?
It always has a lot to do with the client and their vision of things because we only work for people who are genuinely interested themselves. Through their interests and the place that they want us to work on, we get a connection and a base to work from. We look to see what is available and what we can find. It is so hard to find the right pieces today.
You have helped to curate several art exhibitions, including two at the Venice Biennale. What is your vision of how art should be exhibited?
This is my father’s principle role in the company. As a mentor he works within the Vervoordt Foundation and his passion is to show the public – because exhibitions are there for everybody to enjoy – art, objects of value and objects of no value, with a different eye to that of most public institutions and museums. In the nineteenth century, all the different arts were split up and museums were created for ancient, contemporary, and super contemporary arts etc. Where will it stop?
What are your favourite pieces within your own collection of art, design and antiques?
I’m a very eclectic collector. At home, I enjoy my collection of contemporary photography, which is mostly American with some European. I think it has great expression and you can buy good pieces at affordable prices. On the other hand, I have some nice ancient pieces. When I get a sense that I like something for myself, it’s about beautifulness, colour and vibrancy.
As someone who grew up surrounded by art, antiques and architecture of the highest quality and who works for the most demanding clients, what, for you, are the fundamentals of fine living?
I think a wonderful home is very important to a successful and rich life – rich in a spiritual way. It’s very important to have a house for your family and best friends. It needs to be very soothing for yourself and your partner but I think you also need to be able to entertain in a casual or formal way, depending on what sort of person you are. Good, healthy and quality food would also be key to that notion. And I think you need the luxury of travel. Of course, nice homes and nice boats help!
Knai Bang Chatt operates as a mini hotel as well as your private home. How do you like to travel yourself?
I like to discover myself on vacation. Not in a selfish way but I think I always learn about myself through the experience of people very close to me and by things that happen completely out of the blue. I’m very open when I travel, which is why I felt a necessity to buy this place in Kep. It’s completely insane to buy a property in a country where you have never been before! I don’t regret it; I’ve been back there 40 times now.
Knai Bang Chatt is your first endeavour as a hotelier. What are you favourite hotels around the world?
I prefer to stay with very good friends than at hotels. That’s why I made Knai Bang Chatt in such a way that it feels like you’re staying at my place. It’s not like a hotel. When I go to New York I stay with friends or at the Gramercy Park Hotel because it has a certain personality that I like which Julien Schnabel created – it has real art that’s not my taste but at least it’s personal. I’m also quite a fan of Aman resorts. When I go to Kep for example and visit the temples, I always stay in Amansara. I like that sense of understated luxury.
What are you currently working on?
They're quite international projects. Residential homes in Europe, Russia, and the United States, and some yachts and planes.
Which are your favourite houses of all time, both ancient and contemporary?
Andrea Palladio, along with Palladianism and classic architecture in general, would definitely be high on the list. As would the work of Luis Barragán. But I don’t like decorated houses. I just need a few pieces of art to put in it and that would be fine. I think architecture should be great and then you only need to furnish it, make it user friendly and put a few great pieces in the space. In fact, you can only do that when you have great architecture.