Every contemporary artist has his own maniera, his own unique and consistent way of doing things. In it, Amaryllis Jacobs and Kwinten Lavigne saw an opportunity to invite established architects and artists to Brussels to create limited-edition furniture and design objects. Although founded in 2014, their design/art gallery Maniera already has a strong presence on the global design market, quietly and successfully changing prevailing notions of furniture design and production.

Every contemporary artist has his own maniera, his own unique and consistent way of doing things. In it, Amaryllis Jacobs and Kwinten Lavigne saw an opportunity to invite established architects and artists to Brussels to create limited-edition furniture and design objects. Although founded in 2014, their design/art gallery Maniera already has a strong presence on the global design market, quietly and successfully changing prevailing notions of furniture design and production.

Why do you think the concept of commissioning architects and artists to develop limited edition furniture series, is so appealing these days? It’s not a new phenomenon.

KWINTEN: You are right. Many artists have created functional objects in the past. There are many examples in Bauhaus and Minimalism.

AMARYLLIS: Think of Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt. Or take the artist Franz West who used furniture as a medium. I can name many artists and architects who designed successful furniture. Maniera is an Italian term, an invention of Giorgio Vasari, architect and art historian, who wrote that after the High Renaissance, for the first time artists developed their own maniera, method and formal language. Previously, they followed the trend of the times. Today, architects and artists are only as interesting as their own specific manner, working method and conceptual mode of thought.

KWINTEN: Although the term was later used in a pejorative way, Mannerism marked the beginning of Modern and Contemporary Art.

AMARYLLIS: What makes Maniera stand apart I reckon, is the people we work with. OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen, Jonathan Muecke, De Vylder Vinck Taillieu, Studio Mumbai, 6a Architects, Richard Venlet, Sophie Nys and Valérie Mannaerts are all established architects and artists. They all have developed a very specific maniera and an idiosyncratic formal language. We thought it was interesting to invite them to our gallery in Brussels to design pieces of furniture.

Why furniture?

AMARYLLIS: We both are somewhat object fetishists. We love beautiful design pieces. Moreover, we love architecture and art. We have a strong preference for art works that blur the lines between disciplines. Kwinten works as a production manager at Wiels and I was head of education and communication at Bozar and KVS. We both knew our way around the art world, and we had a big network. But we lacked the commercial experience of running a gallery. We just had this very clear idea of bringing design, art, and architecture together through inviting people with a clear awareness of form and space to design furniture. Even though they never developed furniture before, we were convinced that the outcome of these commissions would be successful. The first Maniera exhibition was held in our living room, in the home we share in a former 1920s lingerie sewing factory.

So how does it work: you simply ask an architect or artist whose work you admire, to design you a family of objects?

AMARYLLIS: Yes, we commission them to explore different materials and media and to bring their ideas to life through extraordinary and collectible furniture. Every project we have done so far is quite unique. Some products have taken a little time to develop, others took up to one and a half or two years.

KWINTEN: We don’t create furniture in the strict sense of the word. At Maniera you buy an experiment, a possible prototype, not a finished product with a CB certificate. What we do, implies a different type of thinking. We issue the pieces in limited editions. If we were to develop serial furniture, there would be more restrictions and limitations. We give carte blanche to our ‘designers’. Ergonomy or durability are less important than concept and narrative. The solution is to sell the items as art objects. That way we don’t have to deliver a warranty with the pieces. (Laughs)

AMARYLLIS: We felt like collaborating with people whose work we admire and create both beautiful and interesting objects together. Kwinten is a maker. He has technical knowledge in terms of production.

Production is one thing, but how do you make your business commercial sustainable?

AMARYLLIS: We offer three type of products. The more sculptural pieces or experiments end up in collections. We make only a few of these. They are unique pieces or very limited editions. Then, you have the more functional items, just great designs people want to have in their homes. These are less exclusive. We issue them in larger editions. Last but not least, in every series, we try to have at least one smaller and less expensive object. Those are unlimited editions and affordable for everyone. But we still make them one by one, in small workshops, with great craftsmen. Not in series. We are lucky to have found buyers for the three categories.

Since every artist and architect have their own way of thinking, working and producing, who do you enjoy working with the most?

KWINTEN: I offer to assist our temporary ‘designers’ in any way I can. The experience I have grown in the art world has given me the following nickname: yellow pages. (Laughs) I am a walking directory, for I am acquainted with excellent craftsmen and specialists all over Europe. The artists we worked with used this knowledge more than the architects did. Most architects have their own production partners. There’s a big difference between the two, but it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly those differences are.

AMARYLLIS: Maybe artists can really focus on one project from start to finish, whereas architects do multiple jobs simultaneously.

KWINTEN: It’s quite impossible to generalize. I fondly remember working with Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai. He is a class act who keeps the production in house. He owns an atelier alongside an architecture studio. Artisans and architects create together during group workshops, like they did on the Maniera project on which they worked during a whole month, while other jobs were put aside. Many ideas were developed through making, adapting, remaking, … I thought that method was quite extraordinary.

AMARYLLIS: Bijoy has a very peculiar and inspiring way of doing things. Currently, we are working on a new project with him. He asked us to think about the interior and the furniture of an old convent in Nice, which he is renovating into a hotel. He likes working in a team, so we invited artist Richard Venlet and textile designer Christoph Hefti to join us for the project. In January, we will all travel to Mumbai for a 5-day workshop. We are so lucky to have the opportunity to work with unique artists and architects who take us with them on their extraordinary path. I’d never thought that Maniera would lead us this quickly into the world of interiors, but I am glad it did.

The idea for your company started in your loft-like apartment. What made you decide to move the collectible pieces to a new gallery space at Le Sablon?

AMARYLLIS: For us, using our home as a gallery was the only way to show what we were working on. When you set up a new business, you don’t want to spend too much money on rent. We wanted to invest in production. Unsure whether commissioning artists and architects to make functional objects would pay the bills, we cleared out half of our home and invited the public in. We lived and worked in the same space, which wasn’t always easy especially not with a three-year-old daughter walking around.

KWINTEN: Not that she ever broke anything.

AMARYLLIS: But whenever the doorbell rang, we were rushed in tidying the place. The Anneessens neighborhood near the city’s Gare de Midi is not quite popular, most certainly not amongst design lovers or collectors. I was always surprised when people made it to our front door just to see our shows. At that time, people didn’t care about the location. They were merely interested in the product.

It’s a risk that took off. As a result, you were invited to participate in Design Miami/Basel, where you have sold multiple pieces to collectors and museum worldwide.

KWINTEN: At first, we thought the invitation was too soon. I mean, we had only shown one collaboration. We were delighted but also curious how they knew about this small initiative in Brussels. But when they asked us a second time, we just couldn’t refuse their offer.

AMARYLLIS: Our first collections consisted of three industrialized tables and a reinterpreted Thonet chair called the Solo Chair by OFFICE and faux-stone furniture by Anne Holtrop. It was a show that got us a lot of international press coverage because of the reputation of the architects and the quality of the pieces. It was also the time that natural stone was very popular in the design world. Anne’s fake stones really got their attention. In general, we are lucky many journalists and writers like what we do. In February 2016, the New York Times tipped us as ‘one of the 5 most interesting new design initiatives’ in the world.

What we do, implies a different type of thinking.

KWINTEN: One of the reasons why we get this much international attention is the status of Brussels. The city is more personal, experimental, smaller and cheaper than London, Paris, Berlin and New York.

AMARYLLISThe art and architecture scene here is exciting. There are a lot of possibilities here, and foremost there is freedom.

The perfect city for a laboratory like Maniera.

Text: Magali Elali Photography: Bart Kiggen