When the Dutch architect, Ernest Mourmans, commissioned his friend and colleague, Ettore Sottsass, to design his house, he wanted to introduce him to his two beautiful collections. The Mourmans family owned a number of art works and a collection of endangered birds, both of which obviously required special attention in the typology of the house. By merging together these two different collections, Sottsass was able to propose a dwelling which goes beyond being a mere house for a collector. The house is really a house embodying the image of the collector himself.
The connection between Mourmans and Sottsass
Despite living in two different countries, it did not prevent the architects to work together for years in designing furniture. Ernst Mourmans, who owns one of the few existing galleries that actually produce design, received drawings from Sottsass and was then in charge of solving problems, like finding a particular thickness of stainless steel or where to get cast bronze legs done.
As a result of this mutual understanding for design, it was only natural that Ernest played the role of the site architect for his own house. He had bought a large site of 1.100 square metres in Lanaken, a small town on the Belgian side of the Dutch border of Maastricht. Situated at the periphery of the town at the edge of a wooded landscape, it was an ideal setting for his collections. Following the same method of working, Mourmans sent Sottsass the brief for the project in 1996, a list for what was going to be a spacious house with five bedrooms and studies, a library, four garages and a swimming pool, besides his wish to incorporate his collections. Having understood the complexity of the project, Sottsass elaborated the drawings and instructions which he sent Mourmans so that he himself would materialise his own house.
The merging of rare collections with life
Looking for means to approach this unusual cohabitation of life birds and works of arts, Sottsass designed a sequence of interconnected pavilions, instead of following a more common approach of a rectangle with separate rooms for each collection and an attached aviary. In that way, he managed to interweave different constructions and even managed to produce, visually, a fusion between the exterior and the interior, between the different collections and the everyday life of the family. The pavilions have views and access to the outside from the ground floor where the living room and bedrooms are arranged. In the upper floor from the kitchen and library, which are placed above the master bedroom and living room respectively, a visual fusion is also maintained. The terraces open to the garden, trees planted inside the ponds and semi circular glass aviaries attached to the house, all form a part in helping the architecture to merge with the different collections and so that the family too can interact with them.
In order to differentiate the pavilions, Sottsass used local materials on the outside such as colour glazed bricks, metal roofing as well as ceramic tile cladding and slate. In the interior, he played with unique materials in each pavilion; blue Brazilian marble for the large gallery and entry hall, exotic natural woods for the wardrobe walls, custom made ceramic tiles for the bathrooms and kitchen, rare marble for the fireplaces, bleached wood or fibre-laminate for doors and lemon-wood staircase for the living room. All these materials were extraordinary and were chosen for much of the furniture that Sottsass, and his collaborator Johanna Grawunder, designed for the house, perfectly integrating with Mourmans's art collection. Furthermore, his collection became even bigger when he commissioned different artists to create special art pieces to complete the house. Among them was a mural for the swimming pool by Helmut Newton, a bed designed by Issey Miyake, a Flavin light piece and a wall painting by Francesco Clemente.
With this house, Ernest Mourmans and his family fused their lives with their collections. The birds and the objects, which could belong to a national park or a museum respectively, gave shape to a house which showed how its inhabitants gave value to sharing and participating with their environment.
a. Ettore Sottsass (b. 1917) architect and the founding father of the Memphis group.
b. Sottsass made a sketch of the house which seems to show how to build the mind of the collector.
c. The terraces open to the garden, trees planted inside the ponds and the glass ivories attached to the house, help the family to interact with the different collections. (Photographer: JEAN-PIERRE GABRIEL)
d. Ground floor of Mourmans’ house (2001): 1. Entrance, 2. Living room, 3. Study, 4. Master bedroom, 5. Bathroom, 6. Ivory, 7. Terrace, 8. Bedrooms, 9. Gallery, 10. Library and living room, 11. Garage, 12. Swimming pool.
e+f. A series of interconnected pavilions allow the cohabitation of so diverse collections. (Photographer: JEAN-PIERRE GABRIEL)