We often dream of a fresh start, of trying something new, of reinventing ourselves. For Parisian-born architect turned designer Nathalie Wolberg and her Texan husband, sculptor and collage artist Tim Stokes, their move to Antwerp five years ago proved to be just that.
They fell in love with the small yet culturally vibrant Belgian city after just three days, and within three months, were lucky enough to stumble upon an old 600m² warehouse in the former red-light district near the Port of Antwerp. The ramshackle building hadn’t been touched since the 1960s and was in a dilapidated state. It became the couple’s largest undertaking: one that would test them creatively yet bring them closer to each other. Fueled by the city’s infectious creative spirit and the inspiring young creative class, Nathalie and Tim have both changed artistic direction since moving to the city and seem more grounded than ever before. Warm and inviting, the light, art-filled space is a bubble of sorts, where you find yourself endlessly transfixed by the neon colors, bold textures, and obscure objects.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online, who presents a special curation of our pictures on ZEIT Magazin Online.
“When people ask us why we chose to live in Belgium, I say, we didn’t choose to live in Belgium, we chose to live in Antwerp, which is a big difference for us. I think it’s been very rich for our new work.”
Tell us about yourselves. Nathalie, you’re originally from Paris?
Nathalie: Yes, I grew up in Paris. When I was 18 years old, I started studying architecture. I had always been more passionate about interior architecture and once I had my diploma, started working as an interior architect. In 2008, I was invited to participate in an artist residency at the University of Texas in Dallas. It was a new artist residency at the time, Central Trak, and they were starting with an exhibition about art and architecture called ‘False Space and Time of the Apartment’. That’s where I met Tim.
What about you, Tim?
Tim: I grew up in Texas. It wasn’t an easy childhood; I left school when I was 16 and worked for almost 20 years. I worked in construction and in different factories. I would go home in the evenings and teach myself how to paint. I guess you could say it was more of an innate desire, something I couldn’t live without. When I was 36, I called my brother, and told him, “I have a choice to make and I want you to make it. I’m either going to go to art school or I’m going to jump off a building.” He said, “Maybe you should go to arts school.” So I moved in with him and four years later, I graduated from university. From there, I entered the artist residency and met Nathalie. I never went to grad school but went to Europe instead; I’d say I’ve received a much greater education this way.
So you met at the artist residency in Dallas. What happened next?
N: We fell in love after just two months and moved to Paris together. We were living in a home I had designed in the suburbs of Saint-Ouen called ‘Maison NW’. There wasn’t enough space for Tim’s studio so we decided it was time to find something else. Everything in Paris was so expensive and I guess I was ready to leave my city. I suggested we look into Belgium, and out of curiosity, we visited Antwerp. We knew we wanted to move here after just three days.
After just three days?
N: It was quite something! Antwerp is not very big yet. There’s a vibrant energy: you can feel the creativity even when you don’t know the city that well.
T: There’s also this incredible entrepreneurial spirit here. I don’t know what it is but at 30 years old, people are starting their own companies and doing their own thing. There’s an infectious atmosphere here. Even though we’re 20 years older, we want to keep up. We want to be a part of it.
“There’s an infectious atmosphere here. Even though we’re 20 years older, we want to keep up. We want to be a part of it.”
Once settling in Antwerp, you spent three years renovating this space. What was it like when you found it?
T: It definitely didn’t look like this [Nathalie points to the framed photographs lining the wall which depict the space prior to starting the renovations]. The former warehouse had been an import and export office and hadn’t been touched since the 1960s. When we decided to take on the project, Nathalie designed day and night and I would come over here and rip shit off the walls. It went on like this for about a year. Then we constructed the apartment upstairs so that we could finally move in and it took another year and a half or so to finish the renovations down here.
Nathalie, can you tell us more about the interior design of the space?
N: We first took out everything from the ceiling and the walls to uncover the original material of the space. We focused on preserving the original structure and re-using materials. What you see now is a flexible environment in which light, color and texture allow for numerous interpretations of the different areas, including our studios, the common area, the kitchen and the gallery.
Would you say that this space is a good representation of your work?
N: In all of my work, people are most important. I try to find a connection between them and the space; I analyze their psychological and physical posture to create a space that relates to them. I try to create a unique ambience for each space by working with sensitive architecture—light, materials, textures, etc. That’s true here too; we had to find a way to combine our work and our private lives. As a workspace, we knew we would need a kitchen where we could cook during the day, a common space to receive people, and spaces where we could both work. That was the idea to mix all of this: public, private and work, together.
By public, you mean the gallery space.
T: Yes, we included a gallery space in the design, which we rent out for exhibitions and events. This way, we can reach out to the local community—it’s been a great way to get to know people and introduce them to who we are and what we’re doing. We occasionally put on our own shows; I just recently put on the group exhibition ‘The really really affordable art fair’—it was a commentary on art fairs today, with works on display between 10 and 1,000 euro.
Do you feel like the creative community in Antwerp has accepted you?
N: As people say, it takes time. I think that people in Antwerp are very generous but expect you to prove yourself. Speaking the language definitely helps. Unfortunately there’s the tendency that you have to be born in Antwerp, or at least have to have attended the academy, to enter into this community. I don’t think that’s specific to Antwerp; I’ve heard the same thing about Ghent and Brussels. There’s still the old city-state mentality, from a thousand years ago. But we have found that it’s been very easy to make friends here in a very short time; these are all people whom we consider family.
Has it been difficult then, to settle in here?
N: It definitely hasn’t been easy. It was especially difficult after the renovation. I felt a little lost—I was in a new country, I didn’t speak the language, and felt like I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted to. I was focused on trying to get our name out there in Antwerp, so I forced myself to make the website, the logo—things I didn’t know anything about. At the same time, I really wanted to start my new work but didn’t have the time. I honestly felt like a prisoner in this space.
“The space doesn’t feel finished. It’s flexible and there are possibilities for it to evolve with us.”
Have you found time to start your new work?
N: Yes. Previously, I was working on ‘complete’ projects, so spaces where I could design everything from the furniture to the walls. When taking on this space, I had to deal with the fact that there had been an identity previously; the idea was to conserve this identity but to create smaller spaces within a large space. I created lots of smaller spaces, or cocoons. Now my work focuses more on something I like to call ‘little architecture’, or smaller spaces that people can buy and install in their homes. You could see it as a mix between furniture and installation.
And Tim, what are you working on right now?
T: This is all relatively new work, created within the last six months. Previously I was doing an entire body of work that was based the negative side of the childhood experience. Then when the plagiarism case of Belgian painter Luc Tuymans came up I started thinking about appropriation. And really, it’s kind of ridiculous to say that under EU law you can only appropriate music when in all of art history, appropriation has been such an important part of how things were invented. As a sculptor and collage artist, I’m finally able to combine these two disciplines.
What was it like to bring your two styles together in this space?
N: It was a funny challenge. I have to be honest, I was a little afraid at first. I wanted to make sure that Tim could feel at home and I didn’t want to impose my style. OK, I imposed a little [laughs] but it was important that we both felt comfortable in the space. The house in Paris was quite unusual, I guess you could say it was more experimental than here.
T: The house she had designed in Paris was very different yet it was the easiest place to live. I’ve never felt more comfortable in a house. When she says she considers the body and how it moves in the space, and how she focuses on creating an ambience, it’s true. Nothing is an accident in any of her work; it’s all thought out and intentional. I cried when we left the house, I had never experienced anything like it before—we all grew up in log cabins where I come from.
Was this the first time you worked together?
N: Yes, actually. When we met, Tim was working a lot with light [Nathalie refers to the sculpture ‘Nathalie, Daughter of the Republic’ (2008) that has a special place in their apartment upstairs]. He was creating sculptures using chairs and light, and he was really connecting the domestic space to light. In this way, it was quite similar to my work. Still today, we recognize some parts of our own work in the work of the other. I think we’re influenced by each other, especially now.
Would you also say that the city influences your work?
N: Our work has definitely changed since moving to Antwerp. I was an architect and now I’m a designer and Tim’s work has become more surrealistic. When people ask us why we chose to live in Belgium, I say, we didn’t choose to live in Belgium, we chose to live in Antwerp, which is a big difference for us. I think it’s been very rich for our new work.
And you’re not planning on moving any time soon, are you?
T: We’re going to move to an island now [laughs]!
N: No, not yet. I don’t think we’ll spend our whole lives here but there’s something exciting about what we have built. The space doesn’t feel finished. It’s flexible and there are possibilities for it to evolve with us. If we decide something needs to be changed or we want to add something, we can build it. It’s that simple. Voilà!
Thank you, Nathalie and Tim, for taking the time to show us around your studio and share your story. Many thanks to DATE Antwerp for introducing us to their work and community – to learn more about the art space, visit the Paris Texas antwerp website.