“It was sort of a joke,” explains art dealer Kris Ghesquière about going to live in Uruguay with his partner, painter Eva Claessens. “It might as easily have been Zimbabwe, another country with wide-open spaces and few people.” These two Belgians clearly love a challenge. Exiting their respective homes — his a minimalist white box in Ostend, hers a rambling medieval castle in the south of France — turned out to be the easy part. The couple, with no Uruguayan connections or knowledge of the quiet country between the chaotic giants of Argentina and Brazil, fell in love with a landscape and, fatefully, with a rural ruin and folly that was not remotely a house.
Ultimately, they ended up bringing with them their combined books, art, furniture, three cats and a basset hound called Sammy. Their place is on the road between the coastal town of José Ignacio and the interior village of Garzón. Both were already international hot spots, drawing winemakers, world-class chefs and a collection of foreign artists, architects and bohemian fashion types.
But the couple weren’t even aware of that. As Claessens tells it, “after one minute” of seeing the abandoned structure — with no roof, no doors or windows and trees growing inside — “we exchanged a look. Within five minutes, we made an offer,” which, unsurprisingly, was accepted.
The back patio — one of four terraces on the property — has a view of a lake; the iron chairs came from a castle in the south of France and the table was made by Ghesquière.
What they got was a lot of work —12 acres of undulating greenish-blond land and the gorgeously dilapidated remnants of an 1810 roadside pulpería, once a common sort of general store and way station, where travelers and horses would rest and restock.
It took years to craft a livable house and studio within the romantic suggestion of these remains. First the couple had to sell their two houses and rejigger a business. Ghesquière had been operating a gallery out of his house. Now he runs a curated online shop, Kunzt Gallery, that connects collectors to artists and other vendors.
For her part, Claessens found in Uruguay the perfect combination of natural beauty, solitude for painting and an enthusiastic buying public. Both were well traveled (she has lived in Italy, India, France, Jamaica and the U.S.; he has journeyed alone through 83 countries).
The master bedroom’s chair and floor lamp were found in Buenos Aires, the rug is an antique Bolivian poncho that was a gift from Claessens’s mother, the painting is by and the antique shutters were bought at auction in Montevideo, Uruguay.
But they had not yet lived together when they moved to Uruguay. They settled first in the old resort town of Punta del Este, 25 miles from their future home. There they engaged a local handyman who, with his entire family, went to work on the farm, which came to be called Dos Belgas, or Two Belgians.
Despite differences of language and aesthetics, Ghesquière and Claessens managed to convey to their crew how to make things perfectly imperfect, and scoured the auction houses and markets of Montevideo and Buenos Aires for old doors and windows, sinks and lamps. “We did not want a rustic look,” she says, but rather “a more timeless simplicity.” And so the windows are plain sheets of glass — modern, historically inaccurate and better to capture the bucolic scene.
The kitchen’s pendant light is leather, the ceiling beam is an old railroad track found in a nearby field and the flooring is tinted cement tile.
There were also thrilling discoveries, as in the beautiful geometric tiles they found under about six inches of dirt. The kitchen looks antique when, in fact, it’s newly installed. The result is appealingly eclectic and personal.
Ghesquière designed and hand-built the boathouse next to one of the lakes that he and Claessens created on the property; the handmade chairs on the dock offer views of the hills of Garzón, while the couple’s horses and cows graze in the surrounding fields.
The house and Claessens’s painting studio, along with a walled garden, tack room, and barn, all wrap around a large open courtyard. Most rooms open to an interior patio, as well as to the property’s lakes, with views of the soft hills beyond Garzón. The lakes were a huge undertaking. The homeowners dug three: one by a eucalyptus copse for the horses, a small one for the nightly frog concert and a third, the largest one, where Ghesquière realized what Claessens calls his “boyhood dream” of building a boathouse.
In Ghesquière’s office, the desk is a custom design, the chairs are from Belgium, and the flooring is concrete tile set within a framework of reclaimed wood.
It was a dream of patience, too, since once they had dug the lake, they had to wait nine months for it to fill with rainwater. The art dealer bought 30 books on house and deck construction, teaching himself how to use his hands “and balance my life — since my work is always on the computer.”
The boathouse's bench is from Zimbabwe, and the room's colors we custom-mixed by Claessens.
From the bathtub inside the boathouse, the views look straight out to the lake, which is now home to spoonbills, flamingos, frogs and wild ducks.
Climbing begonias shade the “jungle terrace”; the dining table was designed by Ghesquière, the chairs are from a flea market in the south of France and the lantern came from a market near Florence.
For the artist, the garden and the house are an evolving sculpture. The gardener is not allowed to cut the plants. Instead, Claessens wanders around with her clippers, artistically snipping. “It’s much harder to have a ragged natural look than to have it mown flat,” she explains. Once, when Ghesquière was away on business, she planted a surprise palm tree on the island that they’d established in the big lake. Her painting is similarly whimsical and fluid.
In the living room of Kris Ghesquière and Eva Claessens’s house in southeastern Uruguay, which they built on the remains of an 1810 roadside general store, the chair was constructed by a local carpenter based on a picture in a magazine, the vintage table in front of the sofa was found at an auction in France and the rug is from Iran; the yellow lamb sculptures are by , and the paintings and feather sculpture are by .
Sometimes she adds feathers or bits of linen; works are hung without a frame or even a stretcher. Most important, these dos Belgas have allowed themselves to be influenced by their surroundings — by the light and shadows, the sounds of the country and the slower pace of living and working in the southern hemisphere.
As a result, their place has the feel of an enchanted lab: Here is artistic experimentation with a sense of fun and no rigid formula. With the boathouse done, Ghesquière has bought himself a cream-colored 1951 Traction Avant — something new to work on, because Uruguay, like Cuba, is rich in old cars. Why shouldn’t an art dealer also be a mechanic? As Ghesquière says, “If you think too much about what you’re doing, you’d never do anything.
The desk and bench in the dining room came from a school in Aix-en-Provence, and the lamp is from a flea market in France; the floor tile was discovered on the property and the painting is by .
This story was originally published in the April 2017 issue of ELLE DECOR.