Known for his dedication to color, texture, and material, it is not surprising to hear that Antwerp-based furniture designer and interior architect Dries Otten had artistic aspirations since childhood. “When I was young I wanted to be an artist, not a designer,” Otten shares. “But painting was too radical as a choice of serious study. It’s not an easy medium and I’m not that great at drawing.”
So, to appease his parents, Otten studied painting conservation at Antwerp’s esteemed Royal Academy of Fine Arts. He soon realized it was not for him. After completing his degree, he took his entire savings and headed to France. There, he found himself renovating a B&B and embarking upon a path that would include furniture design, studying interior design, and a gig as an exhibition designer for the MAS Museum in Antwerp. All of this culminated in the founding of his eponymous studio in 2012.
A deep sense of craft and artistry runs throughout his work. “I get a lot of inspiration from art and cultural history,” he says, citing influences that range from Memphis Movement designer Ettore Sottsass to Dutch architect Huib Hoste, Belgian artist Karel Maes, and fellow Belgian architect and furniture designer Gaston Eysselinck.
Almost all of his designs are made by craftsmen in his workshop and Otten is constantly on the lookout for new materials. “The materials and colors we use are in constant evolution. Our material library is like a dictionary, the more materials and colors we get to know, the more refined our sentences will be,” he explains.
Recently, Otten and his illustrator girlfriend, Emma Thyssen, purchased an old shop in Antwerp, which they share as a live-work space, and are currently in the process of renovating. The storefront has beautiful shop windows and a double-height gallery-like space that they use for meeting with clients. They’ve filled it with whimsical pieces of brightly-colored furniture designed by Otten himself. Upstairs is a slim open mezzanine level that wraps around the perimeter of the space like a hallway and overlooks the gallery below. Otten and Thyssen keep their offices and shared bedroom upstairs, and can relax outside on central patio.
When asked about his design philosophy, Otten breaks it down into a few key principles. “Organization, because the practical use of a design is always the first concern,” he explains. He also prioritizes a concept he calls “minimal input-maximal output.” “I’ve always been rather lazy and don’t like to spend a lot of money,” he confesses. “So I try to get the maximum [impact] with the minimum effort.” Unsurprisingly, the designer also values color and material. “Color and the use of different materials is an easy way to get some structure in design, to emphasize and to soften,” he says.
And, although Otten didn’t set out to be known as a kitchen designer, (“I prefer to say that we are interior designers with a focus on furniture and exhibition design”) thanks to social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, it is Dries Otten’s colorful kitchens that have found a wide audience. Here, we take a look at five of his colorful and forward-thinking kitchens that stole our hearts.
The renovation of this midcentury residence in Antwerp called for the use of a circular island. “We could only create this program with a circular island,” explains Otten, who topped the salmon-colored round form with a vibrant pink concrete worktop. “Otherwise all the circulation towards the backdoor would have been blocked.” High cupboards were employed to insert storage as well as to hide the microwave and the oven.
Otten came up with the idea of a white-tiled, butcher shop-inspired kitchen island for a client who is the son of a butcher. Bespoke touches abound, including a hole in one of the cabinet doors to allow the family cat to access a discretely hidden litter box.
The design for the kitchen in this new, steel construction home in Gent was aimed at making sure that it would not feel like one ambiguous space. “The [open] living area is quite spacious and contains both a seating area, the dining table, and the kitchen,” says Otten. “I was afraid that everything would feel too new, too generic, or too cold.” Luckily, the hexagonal ceramic floor already adds a lot of atmosphere to the kitchen. “We wanted the kitchen to breathe a certain history and character.”
The renovation of this apartment in a 19th-century mansion perhaps best exemplifies Otten’s concept of minimal input-maximal output. “The curtains are a very cheap way to create storage and hide the dishwasher and oven, and also have a big visual effect,” he explains, also noting that the simplicity of this project is what he really likes about it.
Working with significant space constraints—only 35 square meters (377 square feet) for the entire kitchen, dining room, and living area—Otten focused on integrating the three functions of these spaces into one for his Kaars project. “The kitchen couldn’t look too much like a real kitchen; we used warm and classic materials such as walnut veneer and created a round kitchen island with a 20-cm thick bespoke terrazzo worktop as an abstract room divider between the living spaces and the kitchen. We also hid the oven in the island,” he says.