“I could eat pizza everyday”, Jo says with a smile while we have lunch. It’s comforting to know that someone with an aesthetic vision as developed as his loves the same simple stuff we all do as well. Describing Kind of OJ - his love child - isn’t that easy. It’s an art gallery and a showroom in a way, but it’s also a bed & breakfast. Most of all though, it’s a beautiful and inspiring place, a hidden gem at a stone’s throw from Bruges’ historic center. Next to that, he’s also half of Studio LoHo, creating clay bathtubs and other high-end bespoke interior objects. With his loyal companion Nelson never far away, we spent a day with Jo and picked his brain.
Have you always lived in Bruges? Can you describe your relationship with city?
Both of my parents are originally from the other end of the country, the province of Limburg. I was born and raised here, but I was always very aware that my background was different. I never fully adopted the local dialect for example, which already creates some sort of distance. It makes people feel uncomfortable at times, which is the last thing I’d want. So yes, I grew up as somewhat of an outsider, which may sound more dramatic than I want it to, because I enjoyed growing up here.
Even if bigger cities have always really appealed to me as well, I stuck around in Bruges. Doing what I do, it’s a great place to live because the artisans I work with are all either in or close to Bruges. A lot of expertise and craftmanship can be found in this part of the country. That proximity makes designing and collaborating a lot easier and without it, Studio LoHo wouldn’t be what it is today. But who knows what the future will bring, right?
This is my little island. I don’t venture into the city that often, but when I do, it’s usually when it’s quiet. I love Bruges when it’s calm. When I need a dose of big city hustle and bustle, I go elsewhere, to Brussels for example. Having the park that close by is a luxury. It’s there that I usually take Nelson for walks every morning and evening.
What made your parents move all the way here ? Did you have any brothers or sisters ?
They came to Bruges to open their own grocery store, a local supermarket. Strangely enough, when they moved here in the early 1980s, there was no such thing here. Keep in mind that it was a rough time economically, the unemployment rate was high but despite that, they moved here. There’s a funny anecdote related to that; my grandfather had advised them to attend Sunday mass in different churches throughout the city, so they could see in which neighborhoods people put the most money into the collection basket (laughs) and where to open their supermarket.
I was an only child. My parents assured me that having just me was as challenging as raising 3 children though (laughs). I was a handful in school, a bit of a rebel. I was always testing the limits of how far I could go. I usually knew where those limits were, but sometimes I overstepped them and was politely asked to find a different school. That never bothered me because it just seemed like a new adventure.
Did you have issues with authority, or did you just have trouble finding your place ?
Both. My trajectory in school was a very classic one but I couldn’t help but question what the use of it all was. There’s no denying that basic mathematics will always come in handy. But when it came to physics and chemistry for example, that kind of subject matter was completely foreign to me and it wore me out just trying to keep up. On one hand, I’m thankful for the education I’ve gotten but on the other, I do realize that hours and hours have been wasted on me.
Was there a way for you to express your creativity already at that time ?
I always had a certain kind of creativity in me, but it didn’t fit the type of school I was in. I didn’t feel like I belonged there, without knowing exactly where I would’ve belonged. The same thing still applies today. I don’t feel like I’m part of the world of interior architects, I don’t feel like I’m an academic either. But the advantage of being displaced like that is the freedom to approach everything with an open mind, to experiment freely.
Was there anyone that instilled that creative seed in you ?
My mother was very much into fashion and design. My father was always working very hard, so in a way, I became my mother’s partner in crime and confidant when it came to all things aesthetic. We’d take trips to Antwerp to discover the new Dries Van Noten collection or to Paris to visit Marni. While we were there, she’d always involve me and ask me what I thought, which forced me to reflect and think critically. I’m thankful that I got to experience all of that, it definitely shaped that part of me.
The need to test limits that we discussed earlier still seems to be there when you look at the uncommon projects you’re involved in. Kind of OJ for starters.
It was a trip to Norway that inspired me to start Kind of OJ a few years ago. The trip was during the winter, with temperatures around - 20° and we were staying in a tent (laughs). A storm-proof camping tent with a stove to be precise, in which we traveled to the North of Norway. The wind blew incessantly, we were constantly at the mercy of the elements.
Towards the end of our trip we figured we’d treat ourselves to just one night in an apartment, as a reward for making it that far. That’s when I noticed how sterile that environment was, how uninspiring. I realized that by shutting nature out, there was total lack of impulses or triggers. That’s where I decided that I needed to be surrounded by things that trigger and inspire me, which explains the abundance of art and design you can find here. For me, it’s either culture that triggers me, or nature. Both extremes work for me and allow me to free my mind.
Kind of OJ – to me – seems like an idea that grew organically, adding layer after layer until eventually you shape into what it becomes. It seems like the type of project that takes years of preparation and thinking. Am I wrong ?
I’ve always loved visiting different hotels throughout the world – I’d often plan holidays around the idea of visiting a certain hotel rather than a certain city. That lead me to study hotel design in Milan and that’s how the idea grew further. When my parents divorced, this house – which is the house I grew up in – became available. Given its character and history, you can’t just do whatever here. So, in all my crazy ambition I decided to go all the way and create something luxurious, something niche, with a strong identity and strong aesthetics. Once I got in full Kind of OJ-mode it was as if I was in a dream. I was unstoppable and determined to realize my vision.
The strange thing is that since I turned that dream into something real, I’ve been experiencing a level of stress that was unknown to me before. Much more so than a job you’re doing just to get by. It’s super exciting at the same time, but I’m very much aware of the fact that the success or failure of Kind of OJ is in my own hands. I guess the trick is to not think about it too much.
Where does Studio LoHo come in?
When you’re someone that loves taking risks and challenging yourself, most people will look at you in a weird way or try to talk you out of it. But Karel, my partner in Studio LoHo, is the opposite of that. He’s the man that leads from behind, which makes our collaboration so much fun.
Take our clay bathtubs. The feedback on those is incredible now. However, the first year after we launched them, they were nearly impossible to market. Just when I started thinking that I lacked the talent to actually sell something, things started taking off and we’re now reaching a clientele that is based all over the world. We have customers in Malibu, Geneva and even Sydney. We produce them in our own atelier here in Bruges and then they’re shipped off to wherever the customer lives.
And you have the perfect place right here to test your designs.
That’s the great thing. This place allows me to experiment in various ways. I can showcase our own designs, or designer objects that I’ve bought and believe in. I can exhibit art of all kinds. By curating and mixing these different elements, I want to provoke a reaction. I prefer outspoken reactions. That’s why you’ll find furniture designed by Dutch monk/architect Dom Hans Van Der Laan next to half-naked punks created by Rotterdam design label Nightshop.
Everything here is for sale but isn’t it hard sometimes to let certain things go ?
It is. But that’s the way I decided to work. I’d have trouble letting go of this massive wooden dining table for example, because it’s an amazing piece with an amazing history too. During the second world war, Bruges wasn’t bombed but nearby village Moerkerke was. It so happened that during those bombings a lime tree and a sycamore tree, that were right next to each other, both got hit. As a result, they fell into each other, grafting them together. I used to pass that tree all the time on the way to school as a kid. It was iconic. When the tree fell ill later, it was cut down. I was lucky enough to track it down, which enabled me to purchase this massive piece of its trunk.
Do you think that the great attention to details, the deliberation and well-considered approach to everything you do reflects your personality ?
I think it’s impossible to deny that I’m a control freak, which can be vexing for the people around me, as well as myself. On the other hand, this is an emotion-driven business. You either like something a lot or you don’t. Rationality only comes into play when you’re discussing prices. Basically, I work with feelings but it’s my job to structure those.
It’s a mixed bag. While I’m a very rational person, I do thrive on emotion and need to challenge myself often enough. It’s always the methods used to achieve a certain design or piece of art that interest me, even if those are also partly inexplicable.
Being surrounded by beautiful, aesthetically pleasing objects all the time, how do you know what you want to add to your collection and display here ?
That’s childishly simple. I see it and I want it. Especially with design because the essence of it is its functionality, so it’s easier to understand for me. I don’t want to get too philosophical about it, because that’s how I see it. When I’m at a trader’s warehouse, I can select the pieces that I want really quickly, and I prefer buying designers I don’t know yet. What’s the use of buying the umpteenth Mangiarotti table?
When it comes to art, I’m less impulsive. I’ll go back a couple of times to see if it still pleases me the 3rd or 4th time I see it. I want to be sure I won’t get sick of it within months (laughs). What drives an artist is harder to grasp and to understand, so that explains why I approach that differently.
And what do you define as ugly ?
I don’t like anything that’s too perfect. Same goes for clothing. If someone’s trying too hard and is dressed too nicely, there’s no appeal in that to me.
Sometimes it’s pretty to cultivate some ugliness. Going back to what we talked about earlier, it’s that juxtaposition that I find so interesting. Those figurines that were designed by Nightshop aren’t beautiful if you ask me, but they are strikingly cool. When you place them next to a totally different Dutch designer the result is very interesting.
Scratch what I said, when it comes down to it, imbalance or disproportion is what I think of as ugly.