The Belgian sky is a solid grey, and cows graze in mist-shrouded pastures between groves of forested green. Dropped off on the side of a lonesome road in the small town of Evergem outside Ghent, I have reached my destination – the design studio and residence of visual artists and furniture designers Muller Van Severen. I step into the front garden space between tall roadside shrubbery and a two-storey house. A concrete stair mysteriously wraps up off the ground into the air and two ducks waddle around the sculpture piece. What peculiar wonderland have I wandered into? As if on cue, artist Hannes Van Severen, dressed in denim and boots, walks out of the neighbouring barn that houses a design studio. He greets me with a calm, genuine smile and welcomes me into the home where I’m introduced to his life and creative partner, photographer Fien Muller.

Creative Couples: Drawing in Space with Muller Van Severen

Hannes Van Severen and Fien Muller © Frederik Vercruysse

Working together as Muller Van Severen, this duo have piqued international interest with their furniture designs. A look into their studio space reveals a collection of various pieces and works in progress, each of them constructed out of thin wire frames in gestures that suggest a spark of creative humour, “a quest for intersections,” as they explain.

Sitting around a bowl of delicious yellow fruit picked from their backyard, we drink coffee out of thin blue porcelain and backtrack to their origins. Hannes recounts: “Fien studied photography for four years at the Academy of Ghent. I started sculpture at Sint-Lucas in Ghent. After her studies in photography, Fien also started sculpture and there we met.”

And while it took them quite a few years to work together as a couple, Fien muses that “there was an ambition to work together, we just never found a medium.” So how did these visual artists come to collaborate on furniture design? “Three years ago, a design and art gallery in Antwerp asked Fien to do an exhibition, together with an invited artist,” Hannes beams, “And Fien asked me!” At that time, they were renovating what was to become the lovely home that they now live in with their two daughters. Of course Murphy’s Law interjected and refused allowance of electricity above the dining area. “So we thought of a table with a lamp. That was the first thing we made, and immediately we felt it was something right. The other furniture pieces came spontaneously, and we decided to have the exhibition with furniture only. Muller Van Severen was born.”

To get a full spectrum of their narrative, we refill our coffee cups and dig into the story.

What was it like at the beginning as artists working in different mediums?
Fien: I think we inspired each other as individual artists. When you see our work, it’s not completely different: Hannes creates poetry in 3D sculpture, and I in 2D.

Where do you draw the line between collaboration and independent work?
Hannes: I think the line is that now there is a function. We have a perimeter. In art, you can go in any direction. With furniture, you have a limitation in the form of functionality. But it feels liberating that we have this limitation.

Who comes up with the first concept sketch?
Fien: Sometimes Hannes starts with a little drawing and sometimes I do; it’s a game of back and forth. But the other can immediately feel what it is and what it can be. We’re designing while we live our daily lives.

How is design then developed?
Hannes: We draw and we start making a prototype right away in the studio – we’re very impatient. We weld it rough, and we look if the proportions are right. We’re chaotic!

Your pieces seem to be developed quite intuitively.
Hannes: Yes, very much so. Also, we don’t think of our work as “furniture”. We want to create a sculptural piece that involves the space, to make landscapes in a room with our furniture.
Fien: That’s true. We don’t think of furniture as isolated objects. You can sit and watch TV while the other one reads a book and you both share a lamp. You can be together, doing different things with the same object.
Hannes: That’s why we like to use thin lines in our furniture to achieve strict forms but to also have as much transparency as possible.
Fien: Like a drawing in space! Hannes: And playful. It becomes a mix between Baroque and Minimalism. I come from a family that’s minimalistic. My father (Maarten Van Severen) was a designer creating simple straight forms. And my grandfather was a minimalist painter in the 1950s. Fien grew up in a more Baroque environment. I think it’s a good mix for our furniture, both worlds coming together.

Why do you favour the materials you use?
Hannes: Because they’re honest. You can find them with their standard dimensions at the store.
Fien: They’re very classic too. Marble, steel – they’re rich, beautiful materials. We start, not by making drawings, but by seeing and being inspired by materials.

How do you balance individual work, Muller Van Severen and your personal lives?
Fien: For me, there’s a lot of work with the furniture, so for now photography is limited to taking photos of the furniture. But I’m always thinking of my own work because that’s what inspires our furniture work. It originally came from that, our two separate worlds joined together.

Thank you both!

Hannes Van Severen: www.hannesvanseveren.be

Fien Muller: www.fienmuller.be

Photos: © Frederik Vercruysse