The artists of the fin de siècle did everything in style, and when it comes to interior-architecture, there is no exception. Not all absinthe and decadence, the ideas and aesthetics of these turn of the century free-spirits played an important role in the birth of modernism, influencing the decades to follow with their nifty design. Case in point: this light-filled apartment in Brussels owned by interior designer Elena Barenghi, which she shares with her 13 year-old daughter Athena.
Born in the French part of Switzerland, raised in Italy and having lived in London, New York and now Brussels, Elena’s style is a vibrant mix and this is illustrated beautifully in her home. Reflecting her career in fashion and art – Elena used to own the boutique EM72 in Brussels – the house features lots of influences that tie together very well. “I have learned a lot here in Belgium regarding aesthetics,” she says. “I think they have a refined way of putting things together and don’t fall into a traditional style.”
Looking for something different in a home, Elena found it here. Located in the trendy Brugmann area of Brussels, this spacious, big-windowed apartment stands out against the uniform Haussmannian buildings either side. Designed by a pupil of the Brussels architect Victor Horta – Belgium’s answer to Hector Guimard, who is credited as introducing Art Nouveau into architecture – this isn’t a home in a Victorian sense but features a ground-breaking semi open-plan floor layout for a house of its time. Simplified and less flamboyant than earlier Art Nouveau curvaceous designs, this elegant 1902 artist’s studio incorporates double-height ceilings and a mezzanine. Not really the done thing before.
Buying the house in an abandoned state, Elena set about the task of renovating. Working with the architect Pierre Lhaos, the pair brought the place back to its prime, painting everything white and allowing the original fireplace to grace the space. “I wanted to give the apartment back its soul,” says Elena. “I don’t like changing things for changing sake, but prefer to respect the heritage of the building and bring it back to what it was. My aim was to create a space that feels good to live in. Somewhere peaceful, but with a good energy too.”
Cleverly using the space to create different areas, the living room is divided by a bookcase and mezzanine that Elena uses as her office. For her daughter’s bedroom, Elena created a cosy room-within-a-room, rather than close up the open-plan space. Describing the style as simple, creative and light, Elena draws on her intuition when it comes to design. “It’s like poetry,” she explains. “You can study for years but either you have a feel for it or not. It has to come from within. With my interior projects, nothing is rational. It’s not a calculation but is more natural than that.”
“My background is a mixture of cultures and traditions from Jewish to Catholic, bourgeois to bohemian,” says Elena. “I have lived in many different many places, always travelling and absorbing what I find.” Applying this free-thinking spirit into her work and home, her avant-garde predecessors would have been proud.
Words adapted from: Claire Bingham. Photos: Chris Tubbs
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Emily Peck, Editor
View all posts by Emily Peck, Editor