Around 1925, the architects who adopted the Art Deco style often had an international outlook and close relations with the business world. This was the case up until the Universal Exhibition in Heysel (Brussels) in 1935, which attracted over twenty million visitors to its monumental buildings.

Here, we must certainly mention the figure of Lucien Kaisin, a lawyer and brilliant financier, who was one of the first Belgian promoters of modern apartment life. In 1921, he commissioned Michel Polak to design the vast complex known as the Résidence Palace (1922-28), the Brussels prototype for a luxurious lifestyle, with the apartments supplemented with a high-quality hotel service, and offering the capital’s first panoramic restaurant. The two men met in Montreux and the start of work on the Résidence Palace prompted Michel Polak to leave Switzerland and move to Brussels with his associate Alfred Hoch.

Very soon, Michel Polak became a key figure in Brussels Art Deco and carried out many projects there, including the Atlanta (1924-1928), Terminus-Albert I (1928-1929) and Plaza (1929-1930) hotels, as well as the Anspach department store (1927-1935) and the administrative offices of Compagnie d’Entreprises électriques Électrobel (1929-1933). He deployed his particularly lavish style in large buildings which remain classical, despite adopting decoration influenced by the Vienna Secession.

When he met the young Louis Empain in 1930, Michel Polak therefore already had a sound reputation in Belgium. Later on, he produced other major buildings in the capital: the George Eastman Dental Institute (1934-1935), the headquarters of the Régie des Télégraphes et Téléphones (1937-1938) and the CERIA (1948, the year of his death), to mention only the most well-known.

At the time of commissioning Michel Polak to build his villa in 1930, Louis Empain already had an interest in the architecture of his era. From conversations with his father he retained a lively curiosity for Art Deco, while his inclination for contemporary creativity and pedagogy led him to appreciate the Bauhaus experimental approach. The project conceived for him by Michel Polak provides a good illustration of these two trends: on the one hand, the luxurious materials and detailing embraced by Art Deco; on the other, the simple, symmetrical lines of a modernist architecture from which all superfluous ornamentation has been banished.

The Villa Empain is unquestionably extremely elegant. The choice of materials in itself bears witness to this: polished Baveno granite on the frontages, brass corner beads with gold leaf on the corners of the house and around the bay windows glazed with polished plate glass, Escalette and Boisjourdan marbles in the interior, marbled Palu wood from the Indies, manilkara from Venezuela (which is sometimes confused with mahogany from Cuba), panelling in polished burr Bubinga, walnut and burr walnut, rosewood and oak, magnificent wrought ironwork, decorated stained-glass and other works in glass, mosaics, etc. The swimming pool, which extends the villa, was one of the most modern of the time and much admired. Supplied with mains water, it was equipped with a centrifugal generator which pumped the water through a filtering device and a thermostat-controlled heater. A valve device specially adapted to the circulating pump enabled dirt to be removed with a portable vacuum hose.

As soon as work was complete, in 1935, the result caused a sensation with its unusual blend of elegance and strong lines.

How did Louis Empain live there, and for how long? There is a rumour that he never moved in, but it is likely that he lived there for at least a year. He was alone, since at that time Louis was single and, in contrast to his brother, led a very celibate existence.