Listen to the conversation between Rosanna and Studio STRAF.

“Straf is a very Flemish expression from the old, old times: if the farmers were mesmerised by the good weather conditions they would say that it is straf,” explains Julie Claes, the Founding Architect of Studio STRAF who started the Belgian architectural collective in 2014. “I had always envisioned the studio as something that isn’t mine alone, and so that’s why my name isn’t above the door…”

Based in Antwerp, the architectural practice is renowned for its use of natural and sustainable materials – a marriage of traditional craft and contemporary technologies – and its interiors continue in the same vein, using reclaimed materials and natural textures to create thoughtful spaces that are populated with pieces made by local craftsmen. The launch of the ‘atelier’ in 2020 enabled STRAF to produce products that meet the studio’s exacting needs and specifications, both in terms of aesthetics and ethos.

“The Atelier originated from a lack of finding the right pieces – but also, at the same time [here in Antwerp] there were lots of artisans who were having difficulties – people whose traditional crafts were dying because no one saw a use for them. The artisans asked if we could help find a new way [to use their skills, and as a result] the Atelier has become a sort of gallery for old crafts and traditions.”

The first pieces produced by the atelier make reference to the elegance of natural forms, which Claes expresses through shape, colour, texture and material. “I have Araucana chickens in my house, which lay beautiful blue eggs that we eat every day – and so I went downstairs, took an egg out of the fridge and really studied it – and that’s how the three little eggs were drawn.”

“I was inspired by the egg because it’s a very pure form”

The trio of coffee tables cluster together, overlapping and intersecting one another. The three ovoids vary slightly in shape and size, each with a cylindrical base that perfectly corresponds to its top. Much like the egg itself, the pieces are perfectly-formed, smooth and seamless. Made in lime-based plaster – an ancient and naturally-derived architectural material that was in common use before the advent of modern gypsum-based plaster – the surfaces recall the soft matt texture of eggshell.

Applied to a wooden skeleton, the lime plaster is built up in layers, from which a smooth and rounded silhouette emerges. “We are very happy to have two really great artisans who are dedicated to the line – and what’s interesting is that their hand is their signature, and if someone else does it you really notice.”

Pebbles are an important visual reference for the designer, who has amassed a collection over many years – a habit she shares with her partner who “always brings me a stone as a present [whenever he travels].” Drawn to these objects for the “softness of their shape”, Claes’ pieces have a similar silhouette and sensibility, with shapes that feel as though they might also be the result of tumbling and erosion.

“If water passes a stone, it becomes more round and soft”

Broad and flat, The Amorphe Coffee Table has a large surface area and a subtly asymmetrical outline; hovering just above the ground, the large expanse focuses attention on the texture and rhythm of the lime plaster – the velvet finish created by hand, in many layers. Claes describes the lime plaster as being “warm and soft”, adding that the studio has partnered with other innovators to “come up with some unique textures” and to create further uses and finishes. Led by their research and experiments, Claes jokes that “we should have called it the ‘labo’ instead of atelier!”

“My interest in materials [started when] I shared a studio with some South American architects [during my studies in America]. They would always start from material: they would find a new way to use a local material so that local people could actually build their houses themselves – with what is already there. This [way of thinking] brings out so much creativity, because you’re taught as an architect to think in terms of forms and functions – and, of course, aesthetics – but if you have to start from material it’s much more interesting.”

Colour is inextricably linked to material – striking beautiful harmonies between the two. Available in Boney White – “when you cook a bone for your dog, that’s the colour that we made” – and ‘Charcoal’, the unmistakably matt-grey of burnt and blackened wood. The evocative colours bring to mind the tones and textures of the natural world, and each colour was mixed in the studio using only natural pigments. Requiring a meticulous eye and an intuition for the subtleties of tint and hue, Claes is currently in the process of creating a third colour: African Soil, which is inspired by “the dry, African earth, which I have always thought was one of the most beautiful colours.”

Sat atop a cylindrical base – a chunky central pillar finished in layers of the same lime plaster – one has the impression that each piece was carved like a sculpture from a single block. However, despite their solidity, the architect’s rigorous understanding of scale and equilibrium means that the pieces “never feel heavy as they are really designed so that everything is in proportion.”

This sense of proportion extends beyond the visual and into the ergonomic: “for the tables we have the long ovals, and also the wide ovals. The wide oval seats up to 14 people – and having been at a dinner around this table – you can be in conversation with everybody [who is sat around it]. Whereas the long oval table is [designed so that] after the first course everybody switches places – which we do a lot in Belgium.”

Operating as both a laboratory and an atelier, Studio STRAF brings together elements from the natural world and the built environment, taking ideas from the past whilst looking to the future. Claes recalls the words of her mentor, who told her that “it’s a lie to think that you can create something entirely new, but it’s your unique eye that can combine things which are innovative.”

Building upon centuries of architectural prestige and the intuition of the craftsman, Julie Claes engages with the classical questions of form and function, layering and complicating them with notions of integrity, sustainability and value. Driven by an authentic engagement with the ecological impact of making things in today’s world, Claes notes that STRAF is “working on circular lines with new methods of using waste – even food waste. There’s so much going on [in this field], and it makes me really happy if I can think outside of the box, or go two steps further to do some good – to have a positive impact.”

Whether reviving traditional crafts; working with local artisans; returning to ancient, low-impact materials such as lime plaster; or partnering with technologists, scientists and other innovators, Claes and her team search for the perfect solution – and, much like the farmers who looked out in admiration at unseasonably beautiful weather, the studio-collective must feel an equal sense of delight, satisfaction – and straf – when they too hit upon the perfect conditions for their work.

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