For the Biennale Interieur, the only way to stay the same is to change. That ‘same’ refers to the event’s ability to surprise and challenge its audience with its selection of young talents and a wide range of genre-bending installations; the ‘change’ alludes to the organisers’ decision to trim the calendar and focus on a professional audience.

Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, this edition of the Kortrijk showcase is heavily mixing innovation with business. In addition to a detailed cultural agenda, the Biennale is holding an architecture programme that will provide national and international professionals with the change to engage in company visits; the Interieur Festival is mainly focused on customisation and responsive prototyping, aimed at quicker, better shipments. ‘Interaction and exchange between participants, trade and professional customers is central,’ explained Dieter Van Den Storm, the Biennale’s creative coordinator.

But their customary visual challenges and their young-wild-and-free approach are still there: the Festival itself, titled To Object, will be taking place at an abandoned hospital, an atypical location that will be transformed by the likes of Sabine Marcelis, DIFT, Sep Verboom and Harvey Bouterse. And the Kortrijk Xpo, the event’s main location, will be put in the hands of emerging architectural firm Studio Verter, whose members have decided to turn it into a central piazza with some rather unique landmarks.

We spoke with Van Den Storm about how the event keeps its spirit even in the face of market shifts, and how joy and sadness play a large role in this year’s edition.

The first edition of the Biennale, 50 years ago

The Biennale Interieur was groundbreaking in its introductory combination of design with cultural and commercial elements. How is it breaking ground 50 years later?
DIETER VAN DEN STORM: It’s still that unique combination of both the cultural and the commercial. Most of the design fairs and events are either one or the other. The Biennale Interieur does this by attracting promising talents and asking them to present their oeuvre in an installation. This year, we have chosen a generation that is still undiscovered, with names such as Adam Nathaniel Furman, Conrad Willems and Chmara Rosinke.

How does the city festival continue to promote the original ideas of the Biennale, even today?
From the beginning in 1968, the Biennale Interieur has always chosen to promote young talent or innovative processes. Back then, ‘contemporary’ design was rather new. It was an era in which new forms, materials and uses were launched. In that sense, the post-war period was an interesting time – the Salone, the furniture fair of Milan, was launched in 1967, just a year before the Biennale Interieur.

It’s difficult to return to that groundbreaking spirit, as our audience is well aware of what is happening in the world of design, but we’ll try to surprise them with new talents, new objects and our installations.

How the defunct hospital looks like at the moment, before any interventions (Photo by Dennis De Smet)

The Floor is Yours is one of the scenarios conceived for such surprises. What are the platform’s most visible success stories?
Belgian designer Bram Kerkhofs was one of the participants last time, and won one of our design award this year. Other well-known designers from Belgium might ring a bell: Maarten De Ceulaer, Muller Van Severen, Ben Storm and Unfold are on the list. They all presented their work in an early stage on our floor for young talents.

The Sint-Maarten hospital is a building that has a history, where happiness and sadness came together

How did you decide upon the abandoned Sint-Maarten hospital as a site for intervention?
Kortrijk is not Milan – there is no abundance in choice of edgy venues outside the exhibition halls. And yet, when we first visited the empty hospital, we immediately felt there were opportunities. First of all, it’s rather specific as a context, knowing there are empty recovery and operation rooms, isolation cells for psychiatric use and a maternity wing. It’s a building that has a history, where happiness and sadness came together. The building has no architectural value, but it’s the context that’s so appealing. I’m curious myself to see how the designers will transform its spaces.

The HoWest pop-up academy is surprisingly thorough and detailed for an event of its kind. How come?
HoWest, the design academy of Kortrijk, is a very important player in the city, when it comes to our creative industry. Many of their alumni are working in that field now, and somehow, their professional paths often cross with the Biennale Interieur. Having a pop-up academy in an empty hospital isn’t only inspiring for their students: it also triggers our audience and inspires youngsters.

Belgium has always been a particular place for creativity, and the Biennale is a celebration of our own talent

The Lumalisk by Adam Nathaniel Furman, one of the landmarks that will cross the expo halls

An eye-catching installation by Sabine Marcelis will adorn the entrance hall of the Sint-Maarten hospital

Why did you decide to shorten the event to five days?

It’s a natural process due to changing markets. There’s a certain situation in design events happening weekly somewhere in Europe! Therefore, 10 days is too much of an investment. We’re also heading towards a more professional approach, due to the demands of the market, and five days is the norm for this type of event.

Taking the pulse of the interior design scene in Belgium, how would you describe what’s going on at the moment?
Belgium has always been a particular place for creativity. We don’t have much industry, so our designers are forced to spread their wings and work for international companies. This makes them wanted.

On the other hand, the industry players we do have – we’re very strong in lighting and high-end kitchens – are internationally known. The Biennale Interieur is, as such, also a celebration of our own talent.