With a great deal of international experience and passion for his profession, Stef Claes designs timeless interiors and residences with a rich simplicity, earthy tones and interesting perspectives. By constantly fusing interior and architecture, he focuses on the experience and has developed a powerful design language of his own.
The foundations for Stef Claes' career as an architect were already laid at an early age. From when he was only a child, he was busy sketching floor plans and homes and was inspired by houses around him. Like many renowned architects before him, it was a natural choice for Claes to study Architecture at Sint Lucas in Ghent. He also went abroad for his further studies. For example, he studied in Lisbon for a while, a city he continues to visit and which gives him energy, and he obtained a master's degree in Architectural Management from the IE School in Madrid.
“I keep seeing elements returning. I like to remain faithful, also to myself.”
His foreign experience was not limited to studying alone. He namely went to work in Los Angeles at the agency that ran the John Lautner Foundation, and in Paris he was apprenticed to none other than the Japanese grandmaster Shigeru Ban, known from the Centre Pompidou-Metz, among other projects. In Malaysia he worked on several hotel projects of the Aman Group. His passion and eagerness to learn brought Stef Claes from one side of the world to the other. He travelled from west to east and finally returned to Europe with all this exceptional experience, to Geneva where he now lives. Since 2014, he has his own agency and realises projects all over Europe. ”’You have to follow your love’, that's often my motto and this doesn’t always refer to architecture, but also to my partner,” Claes says.
To get to know this talented architect better together, Claes made time for Imagicasa and we talked with him about his style, evolution and global inspirations. Did you always want to be an architect?
”Yes! I've been making models since I was a child, and when a house that inspired me appeared in a film or book, it made me draw and fantasise about what the floor plan would look like.”
How would you describe your style?
“I’ve consulted some clients and friends for this question. It's hard to make out for myself. It's not that I will or want to bring a certain style. Like beauty, style is not an objective concept, it is what the person in question sees in them. By looking at my work from some distance, we might see the following: rich simplicity, subdued, human, earthly, lines and perspectives, warmth, with texture, timeless,... Maybe it's not unimportant that I keep returning to architecture. I always try to write architecture, to design real interior architecture instead of interior design. Architecture and interior thus merge and determine the experience in symbiosis. I will never design a building or house without thinking about the interior and the experience of it.” What inspires you?
“Travel and to discover architecture and cultures. To 'stay somewhere' in all its facets. American living, Mediterranean living, Asian refinement, even everyday formality can be translated into a unique experience. Gardens and the natural environment are also very inspiring. Recently we were in Sri Lanka and visited the gardens and houses of Geoffrey Bawa a famous Sri Lankan Modernist architect, Ed.. An impression for life. ‘Architecture is something you have to experience and see,’ a professor once said to me. The visual culture brings us into contact with a lot of things, which is truly amazing. The experience in reality is another story though. Sometimes it's about height and width, proportions, tactility of materials, the framing of views and perspectives, ...”
“Materials make the difference in nuances.”
Which architects or designers do you look up to and why?
“Of course the Belgian grand masters inspire me like Marc Corbiau or Vincent Van Duysen. The study of proportions and the architectural promenade in their work is very strong. The new generation of colleagues is also very inspiring. Sometimes not only in the field of architecture but also how they tell their story. But I also like to mention some niche names, which makes their discovery all the more surprising. Unravelling the story behind their designs and letting it stimulate you is fascinating. Ed Tuttle and Kerry Hill are amazing to me, the Japanese are also strong, whether it's Ando or Isamu Noguchi. This summer I did an architectural pilgrimage on the east coast of the US, I fell in love with Russel Wright's house. He was an industrial designer and his house was designed with this eye for detail. Sublime! I also have a strong love for everything Brazilian, although I've never been there, but their architecture and designers are just so stylish. My father is a wine lover and once took me on a discovery of Napa Valley where I came into contact with houses and buildings by Cliff May, these were a strong inspiration for one of my last realised houses. Low, sprawling, earthy...” What kind of projects do you realise and how do we recognise a Stef Claes project?
“Mainly residential projects, 'the aspect of staying somewhere with its individual design'. An architect is often a determinant of how people start to live, work, relax, eat and so on. That's why it's extremely important to listen to the builder, have conversations, look into their lives. You not only buy a design but also a relationship and the success of the design is partly in the relationship you enter into. You inspire each other and translate a wish into form.”
Which materials and colours do you prefer to work with?
“I like to keep it simple but powerful. And it is the grain of the material that will very strongly determine the experience. Think of it as a cashmere sweater combined with jeans, or a whole outfit in jeans. That's how you make the difference in nuances with materials. For example the grain or veining in the wood in combination with a very earthy stone floor, or the natural drawing of marble with stainless steel. With this I like to look for excitement and modern cosiness. Fabrics have a wealth of possibilities to bring refinement into a design.”
“I like to seek excitement and modern conviviality.”
What do you find important in an interior?
“Sight and light. The perspectives or looks you create in an interior determine the comfort. Sometimes it is through the sequence of spaces or the framing of views through spaces or to the outside. With this I try to give more space to the room. By visually integrating an adjoining space or rewriting the enfilade concept, you create visual space. In addition, light is primordial. Daylight and also the right lighting, this determines and creates atmosphere.”
How do you distinguish yourself from other (interior) architects?
“By being who I am, I guess. Nowadays it's not so difficult to reproduce a certain style. The human side of a design makes all the difference. Listening, being open, thinking along and translating wishes into your architectural language.”
Is there a dream project you'd like to realise?
“I want to turn every project into a dream project, it's the relationship with the client that holds the key. It's that human click that determines whether we'll write a project together. Of course, straight from my heart I would love to do a bar, restaurant or hotel or a holiday home in a place where it is a matter of finding the right balance between nature and architecture. Or a project in a big city, for example somewhere in America, in New York, ah dreams enough!”
You can read the full article in Imagicasa Spring 2020. This issue came out last March, but you can still order it on our webshop' target='_blank'>webshop or for international orders, go to Boutique Mags. Header Image: Stef Claes