As part of its participation in the Maison & Objet fair, The Socialite Family takes you to discover the world of Thibaud Elzière, the man breaking the codes of hospitality and co-founder of holiday homes for rent 2.0, Iconic House. This is an uninhibited vision of the luxury hotel industry, in which, alongside his brother and associate Robin Michel, he surrounds himself with leading architects to design the scenography of each establishment. One would think that the hyperactive entrepreneur would call on one of his renowned decorators to design his own Brussels showcase. But it is not so. For his family home south of the Belgian capital, the significance is different. The engineer by training and his partner Marine de Waziers set about designing the furnishings for their home, guided by their own inspirations. Wood, in all its forms. Beech is a constant line through the furniture, reflecting the beech wood next to their garden, and right up to the central staircase and the modular screens in the living room, allowing the spaces of this tripartite building plenty of room for expression. With the help of Dutch architects KRFT, the couple are creating a real “house of the future” with a reduced environmental footprint. Its Japanese-inspired structure is harmonised with the path of the sun and the cycle of the seasons to better define the areas of circulation and uses of each room. It is a succession of “blocks” that play on lines and floor levels, and that reveal everything to the visitor. Learn about this extraordinary project and its owners, synchronised to the concerns of their time.
Thibaud and Marine, would you like to introduce yourselves?
We’re a Franco-Belgian couple! We’re part of the big Erasmus family. In 2003, Marine did an exchange in Berlin as part of her Solvay studies in Brussels, and I did an exchange as part of my engineering course at Centrale in Lyon. We met quite by chance in a lecture theatre at a university in the German capital and have never been apart since. I was a young entrepreneur, and I joined her in Brussels, where I developed my first company, Fotolia, while she was finishing her final year. After that, we moved around a bit in London and Paris before finally settling back in Brussels when Alban, our eldest son, was born. Since then, we’ve had two more children, Emma and Edith. We love our lives here in this beautiful city, but we still treat each other to getaways from time to time. Especially during the summer holidays, which are always an opportunity for a road trip in Southern Europe. But there’s also the chance to stay in France in the top-of-the-range iconic.house holiday homes for rent that we designed with my brother and partner Robin Michel and which the five of us are testing out. Entrepreneurship shapes the daily rhythm of our professional lives in our family. Marine and I often work on different projects, but always with the same passion and energy. This project, creating the family home where we are welcoming you today, was finally a way, for once, to do something together.
Thibaud, you’ve already introduced us to the private world of your exceptional Iconic House hotels, and now you’re opening the doors to your wood-and-concrete residence in Brussels. Tell us about the background to this family project, which began five years ago.
It all started with a plot of land I bought ten years ago more because it came up as an opportunity than because I wanted to build something for myself. This plot of land is located in the commune of Watermael-Boitsfort on the edge of the Forêt de Soignes, a forest of over 5,000 hectares bordering the south of Brussels. It’s the largest peri-urban forest in Europe. And it’s precisely this proximity to nature that made us want to make this lush, green place our new home five years ago. At the time, we weren’t aware of the scale of the task ahead of us… What we liked about our previous house was its modesty: it was a loft apartment in a small cobbled street. We were after something similar with our new home: we wanted to design a house with generous proportions but with a small visual footprint from the street. We also wanted to give visitors a surprise when they step inside!
You called in the Dutch architectural firm KRFT to work with you to design this eco-construction project. What appealed to you about the way they design and build their homes?
Once our house project was taking shape, we set about meeting a number of Belgian architects before stumbling across an episode of The World’s Most Amazing Houses broadcast on the BBC about the construction of ‘The Dutch Mountain’, an underground house in the suburbs of Amsterdam. It was a revelation. One solution would be to bury the house to take advantage of having a large volume without appearing to do so. So the very next day, Marine and I got in touch with these Dutch architects and found ourselves in the Dutch capital a few days later. We felt an excellent rapport with these two young architects. We shook hands, and the adventure began! The project was defined by three constraints: a plan (room layout) compatible with our way of life, a vision of an underground house to reduce its visual footprint, and a home designed for the world of the future. Ultimately, it was considering our lifestyles that shaped the overall direction of the project. Gradually, the structure took shape as three blocks: a first block for the bedrooms (known as the sleeping tower), a central block comprising the kitchen and double-height living rooms (living tower) and a third block comprising the workspace (working tower). These blocks are wooden cubes that appear from the street to be completely separate from each other whereas, in fact, they are set on a buried concrete structure that allows movement from one space to another. The underground part of the building is open to the outside on the south elevation, letting in light through huge bay windows from which the garden leads, gracefully linking the semi-basement and ground floor on a gentle slope. A large underground garage allows the blocks to be set back from the street and provides open space for a car, bikes, wine cellar, workshop, storage and a table tennis table. A huge secret double door opens from the garage into the main living area, connecting the two spaces.
From the living room to the kitchen and dining area, the living spaces play on the differences in floor levels. Tell us about your desire to break new ground with the design of your home, while at the same time making it part of an eco-friendly process.
When we were designing the house, we wanted to imagine the house of the future. We designed the overall architecture and techniques to minimise the structure’s environmental footprint despite its size. The building is totally passive, with the underground section providing natural insulation for the large volume. We opted for flat roofs over the entire house so that we could install solar panels and collect rainwater. These are drained into wells that supply a water system for the toilets and watering. For heating, we opted for a water-to-water heat pump system with geothermal energy provided by three 100 m-deep wells. Heating is supplemented by a wood-burning stove in the central living room (fuelled by wood cut from the garden for the building) and a ventilation system that distributes heat evenly throughout the house. We decided not to connect the house to mains gas at all. In addition to the technical aspects, we worked with KRFT to define the use of the living spaces according to the time of day. This Japanese-inspired approach combines technology with a passive ecological approach. This means that the living spaces reflect the position of the sun and the seasons, and they’re even delineated on the ground by differences in level and material. The garage, scullery, games room and TV room are made of polished concrete set back from the garden, while the kitchen and living room have wooden floors 40 cm higher than the terrace and garden.
Nature is an integral part of your home. Here, openings onto the surrounding landscape echo the generous use of organic materials throughout your living spaces.
I grew up in a small village in the Alpilles in the south of France. Marine, on the other hand, was quite accustomed to the big American megacities of Houston, Dallas and Boston. After we met, Brussels proved to be a good compromise, offering the advantages of a European capital and the quality of life a provincial town offers. It’s our close proximity to this immense beech forest that keeps us in Brussels today and was the reason for choosing the location of the house. From the kitchen, the whole house looks out towards the forest, and from the garden, the view continues into the greenery beyond. There is no visual barrier between the house and the start of this immense wooded area. The forest is a haven of peace. We often go for walks in the woods and sometimes even go Nordic walking. It’s a fantastic playground for us! We often tell our children how lucky we are to live in a temperate climate with clearly defined seasons. The forest reflects the four seasons: lush, even tropical in summer; it turns golden brown in autumn with colours worthy of Vermont. In winter, it is stripped bare and offers new views and tree trunks as far as the eye can see. Spring is Marine’s favourite time of year when the little green leaves start to appear on all the branches and nature emerges from its slumber. The seasons and the activities that accompany them shape our family life and keep us in tune with nature.
When we were designing the house, we wanted to imagine the house of the future. We designed the overall architecture and techniques to minimise the structure’s environmental footprint despite its size.
How did you go about decorating this ever-changing architectural environment?
Unlike our iconic.house homes, where we always work with well-known interior architects or decorators, we wanted to get down to the business of decorating our home ourselves, bit by bit. Which made the process longer and more laborious. We’ve lost count of the number of missing wall lights and handles. It’s not perfect, that’s for sure, but at least it gives us time to learn how best to live in our home and gives us the opportunity to work with the craftspeople and artists we meet along the way. For example, we’ve just added two large wooden pieces designed and built by Arca, the cabinet-making workshop that also designed the central staircase in ash from the garden on a 3D-printed concrete base. The first separates the kitchen from the children’s playroom. This is a modular folding screen in oak, cleverly built into a concrete recess. The panels of the folding screen are totally invisible when closed and separate the two rooms when open, revealing the attractive markings and pockets in the flexible laminated wood known as Woowood, one of the workshop’s specialities. The second, on the other side of the living tower, matches the first and acts similarly. That screen in walnut uses pivoting panels to separate the TV area from the central room. The panels preserve the view when they are open, and when they are closed, they darken the spaces within and isolate them acoustically, creating a real TV corner. Over the years, all these hare-brained ideas we’ve had for our own house have fed into our inspirations for iconic.house and vice versa.
Is there a piece from our collection that you could imagine having here?
I mentioned earlier that we had a progressive approach to interior decoration and that we still lacked quite a few wall lights in our home. I recently fell in love with your Haos sconce. What really appealed to me was its rounded shape and the contrast between the ceramic and the brass.
The Socialite Family is delighted to be taking part in the 2023 Maison & Objet show… What does Hospitality 2.0 mean to you?
Hospitality 2.0 means solving the difficult equation of making others feel at home while transporting them somewhere else entirely! That’s what we really love doing, and is what drives us forward at iconic.house. Together with Robin – my brother and partner – we do everything we can to offer our customers an environment in which they can feel as relaxed as if they were in their own homes. And take them on a voyage of discovery at the same time! Through the attention we pay to choosing the right location, an attractive building, subtle decoration, special fixtures and fittings and a great team, iconic.house homes offer a unique holiday experience that we promise you will be unforgettable!
Photographies : Eve Campestrini – Texte : Juliette Bruneau @thesocialitefamily