Our latest In Conversation guest, Brussels-based interior designer Nathalie Deboel, is a staunch believer in the power of crafting comfortable, haven-like homes. Previously, she has graced the cover of est magazine issue 40 with her ‘Knokke House’ project – recently named as one of 50 iconic homes to have featured in est magazine. Earlier this year, she was recognised as one of our ‘esteemed 10’, and as we approach the new year, she’s got several exciting projects in the pipeline. Favouring natural, imperfect materials and advocating a connection to nature, her work expresses her commitment to making life more enjoyable through design.
Outside of your own practice, how does design have an influence on you?
Nathalie Deboel: I’m always travelling. Travel gives me energy. Wherever I am going, I make the time to visit an exhibition, an iconic house, an old church, a new hotel that’s just opened, or a restaurant; I love exploring the area around a project to get a sense of its ‘energy’. Nature is also a constant source of inspiration for me.
From what aspects of nature do you draw the most inspiration from?
Nathalie Deboel: It depends on the project; if we’re working on the coast, we use the sea, the sand and the rocks as references for our material palettes. We want to avoid contrasting the building with the landscape; we want to extend the inside to the outside and vice-versa.
In what ways has your upbringing in the coastal town of Knokke shaped your design approach?
Nathalie Deboel: In northern Europe, we’re very much influenced by the weather, and we develop a deep respect for the environment in this way. I’m inspired by the seasons; in Knokke we have beautiful colours that come with each season, especially in Autumn. I also like drawing on the grey, sandy colours of the coastline in my projects – they’re very comforting.
Your design approach centres around an innate desire to create comforting, haven-like homes. Are there certain materials that you find particularly effective in creating a sense of comfort?
Nathalie Deboel: Natural materials. To me, it’s important to feel the age of the material; it could be an old stone for a benchtop or recycled wood for the floorboards. The more imperfect, the better.
Contrast is also very important; I like to balance soft and hard materials and cold and warm materials to create a dialogue between them. For example, in the seaside home that you recently featured in your magazine [Issue 48, pp. 122-125], the kitchen juxtaposes cold metal and concrete with warm wood. You see this same contrast when you look outside to the beach – extending the inside to the outside.
Craftsmanship is at the heart of what you do. How do you work collaboratively with artisans and craftspeople on your projects?
Nathalie Deboel: There’s a saying that Belgians are born with a brick in their stomach; we love to make and build things. That’s why it’s so important that we keep our craftsmanship alive. We are constantly looking for people who can work with specific materials and techniques. It’s becoming increasingly difficult, but we want to encourage young people to work in this industry and carry on these traditions – this authentic way of life.
The reason why we work so much with artisans and craftspeople is because we love imperfection. Imperfect materials pave the path for a more carefree way of living. For us, it’s about creating environments where people feel comfortable, not just environments that look good.
What can we anticipate from Nathalie Deboel in 2024?
Nathalie Deboel: Next to our ‘Comforting Homes’, we are launching ‘Comforting Objects’. We will be expanding on our Nomad Collection to include the small objects in our house that are important to creating a sense of comfort: bed sheets, candles, and throw blankets, for example. We hope that by making small objects, the collection will be more accessible to young people.
We are also working on an array of projects in different locations, from London to the south of France, to Switzerland. Lots of travelling, which I love!
Where we get designers’ takes on broader topics, themes or events currently surfacing in the design world.
How do you view the concept of ‘timelessness’? What do you believe makes a home truly timeless?
Nathalie Deboel: It’s a tricky word because how do we ever really know if something we are designing will be timeless until time has passed? What I will say is that to design something timeless, one must try to avoid being a reactive designer, meaning designing in reaction to whatever is going on at that point in time in the industry and society more broadly. Instead, try to design intuitively – from feeling. Then, the design is more likely to be timeless. Of course, not everything has to be timeless. So much good comes from new design, and it can be interesting to react to something. By the same token, we will always be inspired by the past.
Somewhere that inspires you? Nature, especially my walks through the woods
Someone that inspires you? All the women in architecture of the last century
Favourite three materials to work with? Wood, natural stone, natural fabrics – anything made by hand
Something you want to see more of in design? Quality, simplicity, imperfection, authenticity and respect for nature
Something you want to see less of in design? Building only for money