Five things to know when exploring Belgium's design heart

STEPHEN CRAFTI

Australian architecture and design writer Stephen Crafti has written 40 books on contemporary design, and leads design tours through Melbourne and around the world with Australians Studying Abroad. See asatours.com.au, stephencrafti.com.au

STEP ONE

Why Belgium? It's the new Paris. Paris is fine, but Parisians go to Belgium to get inspiration. There are very few cities in the world that offer the whole package, and Belgium is the full deal. Architecture, food, fashion… it has a history with textiles and fashion and creating things by hand, and is one of the richest, most culturally engaging countries in the world. You don't have to be an architect, you don't have to be a designer, not even a design snob, but not everything's new, it's a matter of knowing where things come from.

STEP TWO

The whole aesthetic of Belgium is Art Nouveau, which started with architect Victor Horta and his Tassel House, often cited as the first Art Nouveau building. You can visit Horta's home studio, when he was just starting; and why wouldn't you want to go the source of where it came from? Nothing comes back the same way, but when I look at contemporary furniture and design, I can see that fluid, luscious use of lines, whether it's furniture or fashion, even the peacock emblem, which is very strong again: that's Art Nouveau.

STEP THREE

Antwerp is slightly dark and moody, and there's a real voice to it. It's got only 600,000 people, but there's a level of sophistication and design that gets under your skin. For example, there's a glove shop with all the original fittings from the 1870s: everyone knows about it. You put your arm on the table, and they fit you personally. Another of Antwerp's the highlights are its Art Nouveau mansions, including designer Tim Van Steenbergen's own home and I like to visit the first store of fashion designer Dries Van Noten, one of the so-called Antwerp Six from the '80s. Why look at it now? Because the early '80s is back, glovesboon.be, timvansteenbergen.com, driesvannoten.com

STEP FOUR

In Brussels, Le Plasticarium exhibits hundreds of plastic objects, furniture, dish drainers from the 1930s to its rebirth in the 70s and to the present. Otherwise, you can see a very severe 1930s Brutalist mansion that's now an art gallery. In the past, Nazis used to have their swimming parties in the back pool. That put me off, but really, it's extraordinary. It's how the very wealthy lived in that time. You can learn so much about the past from design. Design has a history to it, adamuseum.be

STEP FIVE

Brussels flea markets? Wow, wow, wow. You can buy clothing, art, furniture and photography: I look for Belgium-made products you can't find anywhere else, something that picks up Belgians' sense of black humour. And if you love fashion but can't afford it, Antwerp's second-hand stores have all the international and Belgian labels such as Dries Van Noten and Maison Martin Margiela. People love vintage clothing here: I bought a gorgeous Prada cord jacket for E30 which is worth thousands. Try Rosier 41, rosier41.be

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