Frame21, Herentals

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We’ve looked at a number of co-working spaces over the past couple of years. We’ve seen the elegant, the industrial, the themed and even the Millennial take on this constantly growing and evolving phenomena. As regular readers will be all too aware, our focus is very much on the UK market. When we find something overseas that is so different and so evolutionary, however, we simply can’t resist featuring it!

That is why, somewhat bizarrely, we find ourselves on the back of a golf cart, flying along the grassy bank of the E313 motorway that connects Antwerp with Limburg!

For those of you who are geographically challenged, we’re in Belgium to take a look around the remarkable Frame21 Business & Event Center – a co-working and event facility like none we’ve seen before.

Firstly, the scale of Frame21 is quite incredible. Secondly, the facilities supersede the scale.

Whether Frame21’s residents/clients fancy a delicious cup of coffee in the WIFI-Lounge, a game of tennis or 5-a-side football on the sports roof, an informal drink with other residents in Bar21 – it’s all here. And much, much more. You might have noticed that we haven’t even mentioned work yet!

Oh, and the reason for the golf cart ride, by the way, is that it allows us to take a short cut from the nearby restaurant through to Frame21.

Frame21 is a flexible work environment that, not unlike Antwerp itself, offers brilliant and beautiful twists and quirks around just about every corner.

The origins of Frame21 are rooted in the world of furniture. The facility is the brainchild of Ad Renders, who is also the CEO of Drisag – the leading seating and furniture manufacturer, whose products are now available exclusively in the UK through Phusei.

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Drisag develops and produces innovative, contemporary products under its own label in close cooperation with renowned designers, including Stefan Schöning, Ton Haas, Roel Vandebeek and Mix profilee Bram Boo.

It’s clear that Ad and Drisag like to dare to be different – and rather than continue along the tried and tested route of city centre furniture showroom, they have relocated their own showspace to Frame21 here in Herentals.

The spectacular building, designed by Antwerp’s B-Architecten, offers the perfect showcase for Drisag’s products – and what better way to show off your products than using them throughout a genuine working space? We’re fortunate enough to be met by Ad and his son Niek, who works alongside his father for both Drisag and Frame21 – and also doubles as a part-time golf cart driver!

Upon entering the space, we can immediately see Drisag’s own furniture alongside a collection of weird and wonderful contemporary artworks and products – including an intriguing partition wall that also incorporates a number of rather unusual phallic coat hooks. ‘We like to show unique pieces of furniture here,’ Niek grins. ‘This area can also be used as an auditorium or a space for events. We work with a lot of local artists here – for example, we have a giant sculpture of a bull’s head, which was made by the local police chief and is constructed from hundreds of individual bull’s horns.’

We head up a grand series of steps, which can double as bleacher-style seating, and get our first glimpse of the flexible Frame21 working zones. ‘We’ve been in this building since 2008,’ Niek reveals. ‘We were previously across the street in our old factory building. We now have the showspace downstairs, we have this flexible co-working space on this floor and then two further co-working and meeting floors above us.

‘ When we started construction here we had about 80 people on this site – now there are over 800.

‘We always had the intention of starting a co-working space here – which I suppose was quite adventurous! At the start it wasn’t so easy to find companies who wanted to come and work here but this building really stands out and we did a lot of marketing – we do have the advantage that there aren’t many companies around here who can offer what we do and give the same service.

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‘Today, we have a real variety of companies in here, from banks, government agencies and lawyers, through to digital marketing and tech start-ups – and we even have schools come in and use the space. We really want it to be interactional and collaborative.

‘As well as the business side, we also like to encourage the social side – so we have the roof with the tennis courts and sports facilities. We have an App, which allows people from the different companies to compete against one another.’

‘This space has been developed to reflect the idea of the modern workplace,’ Ad tells us as we admire the first floor’s vast variety of settings and facilities. ‘We have companies in here from all over Belgium – from Liege to Antwerp. Companies can take space by the hour, by the day, by the year – for longer contracts we have special rates and extra facilities. We even have a postal service, so quite a lot of companies use us as their post box – more than 200 companies in fact.

‘What we have done for a year and a half now is to have a company actually come and work in our showspace. A lot of showrooms have no life in them. We found a digital marketing bureau – who are 30 people and were looking for a new space to work – and we didn’t have the room for them. So we asked them if they’d like to work in our own showspace – they could work with our products and be our testing audience!’

‘We completely transformed the space,’ Niek recalls. ‘It worked out really well for both them and for us.’

The open, flexible nature of Frame21’s facilities means that users can – and will – naturally interact, while the clever integration of work, meeting and relaxation zones adds a level of flexibility that a regular workplace would be hard pushed to replicate.

‘We consciously decided to establish ourselves in a spectacular building with a high ‘Wow’ factor,’ Ad continues, ‘not just to impress, but rather to inspire new target groups, such as young, creative companies. The great advantage is that these users are our own future customers – so we are even growing our own future customer base.

‘These young companies think differently – they bring a lot of good new ideas to both sides of our business.’

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A little earlier, Niek spoke of the social side of Frame21. Once residents here have worked up an appetite or thirst on the sports roof they can head to the extremely smart Bar21 – or they can frequent the amazing Garage restaurant downstairs. Cleverly, the space is a showcase for a number of companies to show off their culinary wares – from barbecues to coffee makers – and offers residents and their guests a fine dining experience. There are reworked Fiat minivans, Matchbox car models and motor garage paraphernalia throughout. Oh, and there’s also a genuine, full-size Ferrari F1 car hanging upside down from the ceiling. Of course there is!

While we’re here and admiring (playing with) the multitude of Drisag products on show, it would be remiss of us not to ask our friends from Phusei about their own collaboration with the manufacturer. ‘I was at an education exhibition in the Netherlands two years ago and every time I left our stand I walked passed this furniture company whose furniture and style really stood out, Phusei’s Robin Bayliss recalls. ‘Before the end of the show I introduced myself to the owner and set up to meet at their HQ. Two years later, I’m at St Pancras, taking Mr Jordan – amongst others – over to visit Drisag, whom we have signed an exclusive agreement with.

‘There are three main reasons as to why we decided to bring Drisag to the UK. Firstly, if you have ever been to Flanders in Belgium you’ll notice they tend to have a unique design flair and manufacturers are much more daring and willing to put pieces of furniture designed by young unknown designers into production, which other manufacturers just wouldn’t do.

‘The result is unique products not produced or copied anywhere else. Secondly, their utter willingness to personalise – and I don’t just mean colours or shapes. They’ll make what we want or, more importantly, if an interior designer or client has a real desire for something and it can’t be found anywhere else, it’s no problem for Drisag – consider it done. If you want copper coloured frames on the desk and on the 5-star base on your task chair, no problem; pink stitching, got it covered – right through to completely new pieces. And finally, of course, it gives Phusei something exciting and new to bring and present to the UK design community and that’s what we’re embarking on right now – our Phusei A&D collaborative roadshow, with 25 never seen before pieces of furniture from Belgium and products from our new Swiss brand, Moving Walls, too.’

We love the enthusiasm. We also can’t help but be impressed by Ad and Niek’s enthusiasm and ambition – however, in their own words, our new friends are only just getting started! There is already a second Frame21 in Roosendaal, with plans for up to 20 more business centres across Belgium and even into Luxemburg.

We’ll be really honest, if we’d been asked whether we could work in a large, open flexible, shared, out-of-town space, next to a motorway, before our visit to Frame21, we’d have definitely said no. Not only have we now changed our minds – we’ve even pointed out to Ad which spaces we’d like to commandeer if we decide to launch Mix Belgium!