The Insider: Shopping Brussels

The city inspires a sense of creative freedom

Perhaps it's Brussels' long history and small size—the somehow harmonious cacophony of a place both Flemish and French, medieval and modern, where austere brick stepped gables abut exuberant Baroque curves, and gilding is reflected in slabs of polished granite. Because the city's disparate elements work so well together, become such an engaging whole, Brussels inspires a sense of creative freedom. The city tells you that anything goes—and that anything can go home with you. Brussels, in other words, makes you want to shop.

Fortunately, in answer to that impulse, the city offers an array of antiques stores that is increasingly making it a favorite among American collectors and decorators. In fact, for Stephen Sills and James Huniford of Sills Huniford Associates, a New York interior design firm with clients ranging from top magazine editors and the social elite to hotelier Ian Schrager and singer Tina Turner, Brussels is a required stop these days. "It's one of the last great undiscovered shopping places," Huniford says. "It has a casual air, a friendliness we love. You always find great things there. The city simply has a different point of view than London or Paris has."

The partners visit Brussels four or five times a year, often taking the quick, one-hour train from Paris. "We look for unusual lamps, chandeliers," Huniford says. "We almost always find great tables and interesting objets," the kind of quirky pieces that lend distinction to the firm's signature pared-down classicism. Occasionally they come across major finds, such as an unusual set of Josef Hoffmann dining chairs that is now a highlight of a modernist downtown Manhattan loft recently completed by the firm.

Brussels' small antiques neighborhood is bordered by two main intersecting streets: Rue des Sablons, which originates at one of the city's charming vest-pocket parks, and Rue de la Régence. Along these and the narrow streets in between are nearly two dozen shops whose wares range from ancient artifacts to 16th-century Delft to Pop plastics of the sixties. But the decorators have three particular favorites.

Le Pradel, the shop of Henry Coomans de Brachène (17 Rue des Sablons; 32-2-513-4677) could serve as a microcosm of the city itself in all its variety and international influences. Scandinavian design jostles African tribal art (a reminder that Belgium's King Leopold II once ruled the Congo), and 18th-century Japanese porcelain sits on a highly polished French Art Deco cabinet. Coomans de Brachène's eight-year-old shop features Vienna Secession, Dutch, French, and Italian pieces, but Scandinavian furniture and decorative arts, including bronzes by Danish designer Just Andersen and chairs by his countryman Finn Juhl, are something of a specialty. In fact, the rare and increasingly popular Royal Copenhagen crackle-glazed pieces from the mid-1920s through the '50s are becoming a signature. "I have the world's biggest collection," Coomans de Brachène says proudly, and it's one that he augments with nearly monthly trips to Scandinavia.

If Coomans de Brachène's shop is a bit of a bazaar, then Philippe Denys' small store just down the street (1 Rue des Sablons; 32-2-512-3607) is a jewel box. In its window, pieces of Georg Jensen flatware line up as precisely as soldiers, and refined glass vases by Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala softly reflect the light. Denys, who has been in business for more than 18 years, completely changes the contents of his shop every ten days, moving any items he doesn't sell into storage. Only the highest-end pieces from the 20th century are here, from Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser of the Vienna Secession to French Art Deco by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Paul Dupré-Lafon to the quirky '40s and '50s furniture of Jean Prouvé. But Denys clearly has an eye for the beautiful small object, ranging from bronzes and ceramics to silver candelabra and lamps. "I have clients for everything," he says, numbering among them New York's Museum of Modern Art and museums in Germany and Austria. But finding quality pieces is becoming harder. "It's not easy for anybody to find good things now," he admits.

Yves Macaux's shop, around the corner (43 Rue de la Régence; 32-2-502-3116), is a pristine space where furniture is presented as sculpture, and his pieces can withstand the scrutiny. Macaux focuses on Vienna Secession and German Jugendstil design of the early 20th century, a period he became fascinated with as a teenager in Brussels. He began buying pieces while working in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, and soon had so many items that he opened this shop six years ago. He estimates that more than half of his stock ends up in the United States. And while he acknowledges that Brussels often offers better prices than other antiques capitals, he warns, "for top pieces, the prices can't be that cheap." And to find those pieces, he says, "I go everywhere. I've even bought pieces in New York."

Among his current standouts: a 1904-06 bookcase by Otto Wagner and a Hoffmann chair with its original velvet that appeared in a 1901 Secessionist exhibit. Amid all this European elegance sits a foursquare American Arts and Crafts oak rocker signed by Gustav Stickley. "I like it," explains Macaux with a shrug, the chair as welcome as any other American traveler in this temple of modern history and high style. As everywhere in Brussels, eclecticism rules.