At Home With Kristof And Claudia
Kristof and Claudia Smits moved to Cambodia in September 2015 and brought with them an eclectic mix of art and furniture - things that reflect who they are and their lives together. They only collect pieces they love, and take these with them wherever they go - making their house a home, no matter where they are in the world. Kristof and Claudia had us over to learn more about their love for design, travel, family, art and culture - and how these things have influenced their lives, as well as their living space.
Where are you both from?
C: I’m from Mexico.
K: And I’m from Belgium.
How long have you been living abroad?
C: I have been living abroad since 1996! I went to boarding school in the United States when I was very young, and I stayed there for University before moving to Costa Rica for a year, and then back to Mexico for a couple of years - and then to Geneva, where we met.
K: I have been living abroad since 2008. After Geneva, we lived in Guatemala, before moving here.
You have such an eclectic collection of art and furniture! What are some of the countries your things are from?
C: We have things from Mexico, from Guatemala, from Cambodia… also from Mongolia, Russia and China; from Malaysia… and we have a statue from Papua New Guinea!
K: When we were leaving Guatemala we had so many ornaments and artefacts the moving company suggested we called the Ministry of Culture to inspect everything (to make sure that we were not stealing any of the country’s national treasures!) We had two historians come to our house for half a day. They took particular interest in this one mask... We found this mask in a shop on Flores island close to the Maya ruins of the Tikal. I bought it just because I liked it - I didn’t know or care if it was particularly unique or special but, never again in five years did I see another one like it. Anyway, turns out, we were not stealing any national treasures!
You are obviously both very creative people, and you have good taste! Did this come from anywhere? (e.g. parents, or art school?) Or did you just get lucky?
K: My dad is very interested in art and design, but I attribute my interest in design to the time I went to study in Barcelona for a year. Most of my friends there were architects and designers. There were three young architects that were renovating beautiful old places and they would talk about it with me and ask me how I would do it. It was always interesting to see how they would convert somewhere old into a new restaurant or bar. They taught me another way to look at the world, and I think this was when I became interested in design!
I want to ask you about favourites. Do you have a favorite ornament or decorative piece?
K: The chandelier is my favourite.
Hanging above the dining table is something that resembles more of an art installation than a chandelier. Metal wires branch out from the centre pinching A5 sheets of paper that don doodles, quotes and handwritten notes.
K: We have friends write messages for it! We also like to spend a lot of time around the table underneath it. Food is very important to us, we eat around the table and we play board games under it… and sometimes we look up and it brings back memories. But, it is not always easy to get people to add to it, they get intimidated!
I can imagine! I'd worry my handwriting was no good!
C: My favourite ornament is our Tree of Life. Different cultures have their own versions of the Tree of Life. In Mexico, there is always a man and a woman, and it is more religious. Ours is ceramic, and is full of birds and flowers.
What's your favourite piece of furniture?
C: I like the dining table. I like it for its design, and also because we like to have dinner parties and bring friends together.
K: The Barcelona chair. I wanted one for so, so long! When I finally found it, I was so happy. The ottoman too.
If I were to pick a favourite, I'd have to say, I LOVE the blue chairs! Where are they from?
K: They’re also from Guatemala.
C: They are custom made!
K: We went to a design fair and there were lots of traditional furniture shops, but nothing new or special. In between the mega stands there were three young designers not getting any attention. We stopped by as we were very intrigued by the design of their chairs. What they did for us was incorporate traditional embroidered fabrics with a super modern design.
I also love the couch you guys are sitting on. Buying a couch is a big decision! It’s an investment, and it has to be comfortable! How did you come to choose this one?
K: When we bought this couch, Claudia was in Guatemala and I was in Geneva. So she was sending me pictures of all the couches in the shop asking, ‘do you like it?’ So even though I was away, we chose it together.
C: And I think I sat on about 200 couches because I wanted something that was very comfortable!
K: We are actually really happy to have kept this couch because it reminds us of our dog - we used to have a Great Dane and we would cover it with huge blankets for him (until people came over and we took them off) - it was really his couch.
Favourite painting or piece of art?
C: I will have a favourite for a while, and then move to another one. My current favourite is our collage by Guatemalan artist Alvaro Sanches. It represents how society depicts women. There is a cow that produces milk, a can of tomato soup, a hamster running on the wheel and there is a woman like Marilyn Monroe... I also think it aligns with the work that we do (in human rights).
Before the collage, this painting was my favourite! (Claudia points to a textured painting of three men with instruments, and very pronounced facial features).
K: This is one of my favourites too!
C: This is by a man named Sebastián, and we’re friends with his aunt. Sebastián has autism, and art is how he communicates best, and expresses himself. We saw this one of three musicians and loved the blue background. It may not appear to be the most refined art, but we love it, it’s very expressive and alive. It’s also a popular conversation point – guests will usually ask about it, they’ll ask who did it.
K: I also love this box. It comes from a tiny village in Guatemala that is known for these boxes. The images depict the village where it was made, and Antigua (the old capital of Guatemala), and the landscapes of Guatemala with the volcanos… It is special because these boxes are usually not so ornate, and the artist, Don Asunción, a very well-known primitive painter, is over 80 years old!
Is there any ornament or art piece that has particularly sentimental value?
C: Our Guatemalan Tree of Life. It was given to us by a very close friend, and she gave another one to our other very close friends, so the three of us are linked through this piece of art.
K: The woman who gave it to us is also the director of a textile museum, and she influenced us a lot with regards to artists and designers.
K: The piece that has the most sentimental value to me, is this slab made out of jade. It’s a replica of an ornament that the rulers of Tikal (the Guatemalan temple complex) would wear on their belts as commemoration of a battle. The original was a very important archaeological find from 320 AD, discovered in 1826.
It’s now in a museum in Lyden, Holland, and when I was in Guatemala I worked for the Dutch Embassy there. The Dutch ambassador and I both have this replica. When I look at this piece, I think about serving a good ambassador, and the important role the Dutch Embassy played working on the Genocide trial in Guatemala.
And is there a particularly unusual story behind any one piece in your home?
C: There's the bullfighting cushion. My family once owned a bullfighting ring, and I spent every Sunday throughout my childhood watching the bull fights, and spending time with my family there. But it closed down in the early 90s, when I was a teenager.
Fifteen years later, I found a cushion cover from the bullfighting ring hanging on the wall in a restaurant in my home town! Just hanging there - forgotten! Kristof later went to the restaurant to ask for it, and came back with it! We had it framed. We have some photos of the bull ring, but a lot of the memorabilia went to other members of my family... so this cushion’s now all we have!
Incredible! Speaking of family, is anything in your home inherited?
K: Yes, two paintings from my grandparents. They always get a very special place in the house.
Did you have any furniture made here in Cambodia?
K: Our coffee table, book case, and our bed. One of my biggest inspirations is Charles and Ray Eames. I really love their work! Our coffee table and bookshelf are replicas of their designs. The surfboard coffee table was tricky to get right… it’s not a perfect replica, but I’m happy with it. The book case is actually three pieces. We designed it this way in case we eventually move to a much smaller home in Brussels or Geneva, and need to separate it into smaller shelves.
I really like the distressed wooden border around the top of the bed, is this something you asked for?
K: We asked it to be made with reclaimed wood, and then Claudia came up with the colour as she wanted something Mexican inspired.
Who made all these pieces?
K: A carpenter here in Phnom Penh named Tommy. He came recommended by Corbett Hix (owner of CrossFit Amatak).
Last request. Tell me about the comics.
K: Well, I started collecting in 1989 and my collection starts here at number 67, but the comics first came out in 1944-1945. In English the title is “Spike & Suzie” and they're about two kids that never grow up and travel the world having all these adventures with their friends. When these comics first came out, not a lot of people travelled, so for kids growing up at the time, this was their world. There are two editions a year.
You don’t have every edition do you?
K: No, there’s a couple I still have to get...
Only a couple!
By the way, that painted skull ornament you have on the upper shelf – it reminds of a lifestyle / interiors shop here in Phnom Penh I think you'd like - it's called Bobo, on street 19 #202.
K: We’d love to check Bobo out!
It’s been really lovely to speak to you both, and to listen to the stories of your travels and your home(s). How did you find answering my questions?
K: It was interesting! It really made us think about things… about our home, where we’ve been, and the things that have special meaning to us.
All photographs by Rhiannon Johnson