The central premise of magic realism, whether it be works on canvas or the written word, is a subtle disruption of reality. Think of the hypnotic stories of Jorge Luis Borges, where the lines between the real and the fantastical become muddied and vague, or Giorgio de Chirico’s perspective-defying paintings.
For fans of the genre, Museum Arnhem, perched on the crest of a grassy hill overlooking the Rhine River, has long been a pilgrimage point, as it holds one of the most significant collections of magic realist paintings in the Netherlands. Recently, the building itself experienced a dramatic narrative shift.
It’s the latest chapter in an ongoing saga. The building was originally constructed in 1873 as a gentlemen’s club with a hexagonal triple-height central volume; the city’s bourgeois men would gather to socialize beneath its monumental neoclassical dome. When the museum took up residence in 1920, the central space became a picture gallery, but at the cost of the original architecture — including that dome. (Two lateral single-storey wings were added later, in 1956 and 2000.)
“Over the years, the cupola had been closed off,” recounts Esther Stam, founder of Studio Modijefsky. She was tasked with the museum’s most recent interior redesign in 2020, when it underwent a major renovation and expansion. Benthem Crouwel Architects stripped back layers of unfortunate past interventions and built a new wing to house the art collection, allowing Studio Modijefsky to transform the former gentlemen’s club into a bistro with its own interpretation of the collection’s spellbinding subject matter.
First, they introduced a sense of weightiness on the ground floor via dark-stained wooden booths upholstered in tobacco-toned leather, chocolate brown walls and a monolithic textured marble bar. To emphasize the room’s soaring height, they installed an elaborate multi-part chandelier that hangs directly in the centre, its shape based on the newly revealed original architecture. “We took impressions of the outlines of the cupola itself, mirrored them and flipped them upside down,” Stam explains of the hanging light piece, a series of curving abstract forms suspended over the bistro tables.
“We wanted to have neon, but neon is expensive and fragile,” she continues. Instead, they replicated its ambient glow using a system of custom LED tubes — “which are nice,” adds Stam, “because they’re bigger and less fragile than standard neon.” To further captivate the museum’s visitors, they programmed the tiered clusters of lights to slowly pulsate throughout the day, creating the uncanny effect that they “live” in the space. They also took a similar approach in the museum’s entranceway, where a smaller version of the grand chandelier acts as “a little teaser.”
For the final touch, an homage to the museum’s otherworldly collection, Studio Modijefsky designed a ripstop nylon lantern based on the exact proportions of the reception desk, which it now hangs directly above. The boxy, translucent pendant floats like a spectral beacon, glowing above its mirror-image, Stam says, “almost like a ghost.”