Is Lionel Jadot the Willy Wonka of Upcycled Belgian Design?

Growing up as the scion of the Belgian Vanhamme family of luxury furniture makers, Lionel Jadot had his parents’ design studio for his childhood playground. He was given leftover fabrics and materials and went off to create.

That spirit of play, working with recycled materials and inventor’s sense of freedom are at the heart of Jadot’s Brussels-based multidisciplinary studio, Atelier Lionel Jadot, which uses repurposed materials to create mix-and-match design pieces and also works with high-profile clients on interior redesigns. His own creations are eclectic and experimental, not necessarily resembling furniture at all.

LIONEL JADOT in the under-construction lobby of the MIX BRUSSELS hotel
Lionel Jadot stands in the under-construction lobby of the Mix Brussels hotel, whose interiors he designed (portrait by Tim Van De Velde). Top: In 2019, Jadot established Zaventem Ateliers in a 65,000-square-foot 19th-century paper factory to house his offices and workshop as well as those of dozens of other creators who could collaborate on projects. Here, the Luncheon on the Grass tapestry, Turkish Delight sofa and Gilga lamps are all by Jadot. (photo by Mireille Roobaert and courtesy of Lionel Jadot).

The steel, brass and wood Black Caterpillar chair, for example, is reminiscent of one of Jean Tinguely’s kinetic-art machines, with cleaner lines. Made of scrap metal he gets from a company that laser-cuts steel for industrial machinery, the chair takes on different forms as it moves. “The leftover shapes are very nice, metal that looks like lace,” Jadot explains. “I like to play with shadows, and when you put it in front of a white wall, it creates very graphic shadows.”

Other assemblage pieces include his Lost Highway chair, composed of three slabs of asphalt held together with steel rods, which he insists is “surprisingly comfortable”; contemporary table lamps constructed of “plaster trash” and wood; and his SLV table and chair, incorporating removable used cassette tapes. 

Jadot’s work, which he calls functional art, has been displayed at such art fairs as Design Miami/Basel, Milan Design Week and the Armory Show in New York. It has also been exhibited at the Design Museum of Brussels; Goldwood gallery, in Antwerp; Todd Merrill Studio, in New York; and in the home of the famous Belgian collector Galila Barzilaï-Hollander.

Jadot is not merely a furniture maker. Nor is he just an adept interior architect — although he is that, too, as evidenced most recently by his stunning work on the new 180-room Mix Brussels, which opened in June. He is also a force in Belgian contemporary art and design who has established a hub for creators on a historic estate just outside Brussels and is building a community of like-minded freethinking designers he likes to call a “hive.”

Zaventem Ateliers office interiors
Jadot sees Zaventem Ateliers as a hub where like-minded freethinking artists work together as a “hive.” He designed all the desks in this office area of Atelier Lionel Jadot. Photo by Mireille Roobaert and courtesy of Lionel Jadot

In 2019, Jadot took over a 65,000-square-foot 19th-century paper factory in Zaventem and turned it into a massive space for inventive exploration, inviting lamp makers, leather weavers, textile artists and woodworkers to be tenants. The resulting Zaventem Ateliers “has become like a big family, with a common energy and a common willingness to create something in a good way,” he says.

As a designer, Jadot is largely self-taught, although his training ground was the Vanhamme workshop, with its six-generation history of hand-crafting furniture and upholstery. He was preparing to attend design school in Florence at age 18, when his mother died. “Because my parents always did everything together, my father just stopped everything,” he recalls. “I said to my dad, ‘I will stay with you.’ ” 

A spirit of play, the use of recycled materials and an inventor’s sense of freedom are at the heart of Jadot’s practice, as is evident in this table made from construction-site signs at Zaventem Ateliers. The armchair is Memphis Milano. Photo by Mireille Roobaert and courtesy of Lionel Jadot

His father accepted his offer to take over the family furniture business, but only after they wrote on a piece of paper that Jadot was free to leave whenever he wanted. He ended up running the firm, working with 35 craftsmen, for 10 years.

While overseeing Vanhamme, Jadot began building furniture from repurposed materials — “by intuition,” he says. He also landed jobs to redesign “a library, a kitchen, a bathroom,” little by little working his way up to “a chalet in the mountains.” The string of projects led to the establishment of Atelier Lionel Jadot. “That was twenty-two years ago, and voilà!” he says. “After a few years, I left my father because he was okay to continue on his own.”

Then, one day, a few years ago, he was on the highway in Brussels and got stuck in a traffic jam.

Spin Love ping-pong table,
Fifteen European artisans and members of Zaventem Ateliers — including Alexandre Lowie; Luna Lotta; Maison Armand Jonckers; Krjst Studio; Roxane Lahidji; Vladimir Slavov; Adeline Halot; Aurélie Lanoiselée; Clem Vanhee, of Atelier 185; French leather maker Niyona; and Jadot — collaborated on the Spin Love Ping-Pong table, 2021, offered by Todd Merrill Studio in New York. Photo by Mireille Roobaert and courtesy of Lionel Jadot

“I saw the roof of this building, so I drove out of the traffic and went to look at it,” he says. “I just totally fell in love. I wasn’t even looking for a new workshop. But then, I thought, ‘Let’s create for this space a new creative hub of collectible design, with a great collection of people who have knowledge and creativity.’ ”

Design writer Gisela Williams described Zaventem Ateliers in the New York Times as part of a European revival of medieval guilds. In addition to two dozen studio spaces, it has a large common space and an exhibition hall, as well as the Noguchi room, named after the Japanese designer Isamu Noguchi, where people can bunk down if they are working late.

Mix Brussels guest room filled with collaborative designs
The Mix hotel is filled with collaborative creations. This guest room contains a desk chair by Jadot x David Chair Docter, table lamp by Pascale Risbourg x Atelier Haute Cuisine and printed curtains by Krjst Studio x Home Sails. The marbled-salt pendant lights are by Lahidji, and Tommy Lhomme designed the rug. Photo by Mireille Roobaert and courtesy of Lionel Jadot

During Milan Design Week in 2022, a group of Zaventem’s creators took over a disused Necchi sewing machine factory in the city’s formerly industrial Baranzate district to showcase their wares, thus bringing wider design-world recognition to the collective. 

When Jadot won the prestigious contract to transform the former headquarters of La Royale Belge, a striking 1960s Functionalist building designed by architects René Stapels and Pierre Dufau, into the new Mix hotel, he invited members of Zaventem Ateliers to create custom-made furniture and objects for the common spaces. All 25 studios participated, and Jadot enlisted 27 more designers from across Belgium to collaborate, so ultimately, 52 designers were involved. 

“I was like a movie director,” says Jadot. “We wrote the script, we put the script on the table, and we shared it with all the designers. It was super-open, and everyone brought something interesting.”

Jadot’s aim, he says, was to integrate new design features into the building’s distinctive architecture so that visitors would be asking themselves, Is this new or original? A large sculptural concrete fireplace incorporated into the lobby adds a Brutalist feature to the concrete structural underpinnings, while small details, such as bespoke brass doorknobs created with the local Woit Foundry, echo the elegance of the original interior.

This seating nook in the lobby has a sofa by Jadot, tapestry by Krjst Studio, armchairs by François Coppens and lamps by Aurélie Lanoiselée. Photo by Mireille Roobaert and courtesy of Lionel Jadot

Bas-reliefs in cardboard papier-mâché made by the collective Papier Boulettes provide a discreet screen for the meeting rooms, while the hanging lamps in the bedroom are earth-toned orbs created by Parisian-born designer Roxane Lahidji using sustainable marbled salts. The reception desk, featuring a sculptural hand-formed partition of engraved brass, comes from Maison Armand Jonckers.

Back in his own space at Zaventem Ateliers — a 7,500-square-foot office plus a 4,300-square-foot workshop — Jadot continues to make furniture “when I find an hour here or there.” 

This includes the I Studebaker assemblage sofa, with a base composed of ceiling beams from a bank designed by Belgian architect Christophe Gevers and supple honey-colored cushions made of leather from a local vegetable-tanning operation. “It reminds me of the feeling of sitting in the back of an old car my grandfather might have been driving,” Jadot says.

His overall design goal has nothing to do with any particular aesthetic. “I’m material driven, for sure,” he says, “but I’m also creating an atmosphere. I try to nourish myself with honesty and creativity and also to stay far, far away from all the commercial ways of working. I go by my instincts.”

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