An atmospheric home and gallery in Amsterdam, carved from a former cargo boat
Dutch artist Birgitta de Vos is somewhat amused by the frenzy for sustainability in today’s world. For her, it was a concern back in the 1990s when she ran her recycled fashion label Beyond out of her Brussels concept store. Finding new life and beauty in what most of us deem ugly and therefore discard has been at the very heart of her work for decades, be it clothes, books or sculpture. Or a home.
When de Vos’ husband suggested the couple buy a houseboat in addition to their permanent house in the country (where her studio is based), she agreed on the condition it could become a creative endeavour. It turned out that the two-year resuscitation of a decommissioned cargo boat, which is now both her part-time home and a gallery, was the perfect embodiment of her philosophy of restoration and reuse.
Moored just 15 minutes from the centre of Amsterdam, The Iron Lady, as de Vos and her husband named her, was an abandoned 1962 cargo boat, more used to transporting coal than housing people and art. “Before us, the boat had been dumped, but when I first entered it I thought, yes, this is it,” she says. “It felt like a huge, industrial space, something I could do something with. Everything was rusty and brown, which I wanted to keep. For me that was the soul of the boat.”
Everything was rusty and brown, which I wanted to keep. For me that was the soul of the boat
Keen to control every aspect of the project, de Vos chose to design it herself, working with a team of boat specialists and welders, but no other designers: “I needed to be a part of every detail, so I became the boat’s architect. We already knew people in the boat building business so we went to them to do the work.”
The Iron Lady had to become habitable, so certain compromises were made during its rebuild. For example, at 50 metres long, the vessel was too large for domestic use, so a ten-metre section was cut from the boat’s centre. “For us, it seemed like an impossible thing, but for the people working with boats, they said OK, we can do that,” says de Vos.
Inside, de Vos has decided to be sparing with superfluous detail, instead preferring to retain the boat’s character and live as simply as possible. “We are living in a world with too much and it’s much too fast. So the most important thing for me is empty space and then it’s about finding the thing in nothing. How do you find something beautiful in something that is not any more? How do we transform our waste into something beautiful? Those are my aims.
De Vos has fulfilled these aims to great success. The boat’s interior feels at once open and vast, but also warm and welcoming; a place for contemplation, expression and being sociable. The dark, rich patina of rust along the walls, which de Vos was forced to have sealed, receives intense pools of light from the roof, which has been punctuated with large skylights, allowing abstract patterns of sunlight to shift along the walls and floor throughout the day.
A few hidden luxuries make this minimalistic place extra special, however. The underfloor heating beneath the poured concrete flooring, a custom-made burner and oversized sofas and chairs remind you that this is a home. On an upper level, directly above the engine room, a master bedroom and bathroom lie close to what was the captain’s cabin. A smaller seating area on the mezzanine overlooks the main expanse, which houses the kitchen and living room gallery space. There are a further two bedrooms on the main floor.
De Vos calls The Iron Lady a gesamtkunstwek – a total work of art, created with a single creative mind at the helm. That also refers to her attempt to use as much of the existing materials of the boat as possible. The custom dining table and kitchen counters were made from the old timber floors of the boat, same as the flooring in the bedrooms. That ten-metre section of the boat that needed to be sliced out has not gone to waste either – instead it’s been used to make the kitchen units, stairs and all of the internal sliding doors.
The acoustics of such a large cavernous space were also a consideration. “It’s silent,” explains de Vos. “There is no echo; it’s really silent. Nor do you really feel the water unless the weather is very rough. But there’s nothing – you don’t feel anything, you’re in a cocoon.” When guests enter, she continues, they instantly respond to their peaceful surroundings. “It’s a perfect place for reflection and going inside yourself, quietening, with the world running outside, this is a place you can really go in.”
Her own work, she explains, has evolved since she completed the boat. “Everything you do contributes to the next step,” she says. “I was working with iron before, but cutting the boat and watching people working with iron has made me more interested. I like to work in situ and I’m creating larger sculptures.”
Might this be a forever home for de Vos and her husband? She’s not sure. “I move easily,” she admits. “I let go easily of things and places. I’m always dreaming of somewhere else. For me it’s almost as if I’m The Iron Lady’s servant, I feel guilty if I don’t give her enough attention. It’s like she’s really there.” She just might be.