Istanbul has long been a city divided. Straddling the Bosphorus, a strait of water that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia, the city has a tumultuous history. Founded in the seventh century BC as Byzantium, it has been captured and reinvented several times in the past two and a half millennia, and formed the capital of four empires: Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman.
Today Istanbul is a forward-thinking city, the business hub for many of Turkey’s international organisations and home to 13.4m people. One of the industries most keenly benefiting from the city’s progressive attitude is design.
This year sees the inaugural Istanbul Design Biennial, which opens this weekend and runs until mid-December at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art and the Galata Greek Primary School, in the modern quarter of the city, above the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus. The event will showcase designs in architecture, interior design, graphics and fashion.
Joseph Grima, a Milan-based architect and editor of Domus magazine, is one of the biennial’s curators. He says: “Why Istanbul? [Because] Istanbul is undergoing a profound transformation with quite explosive growth and a sense of optimism.”
Istanbul may indeed be carving a place for itself in the contemporary design world but many in the industry say the city remains deeply indebted to its past. One glance at the skyline is enough to demonstrate how the interplay between old and new gives the city its unusual character. Along the Bosphorus are the picturesque yalis, the late Ottoman-era chalet mansions built by the aristocracy in the 19th century. Nearby, on the hills overlooking the river, are the gecekondular, shanty homes thrown up in the latter half of the 20th century – with little thought for quality or planning – to feed the demand caused by rapid population growth. Elsewhere, in the historic part of the city, the 15th-century Topkapi Palace and the city’s Grand Bazaar stand beside towering residential skyscrapers, high-end hotels and international chain shops.
Seyhan Ozdemir, co-owner of design firm Autoban, which combines architecture with interior and furniture design, describes the past as being an important influence on her work: “Istanbul is full of history,” she says. “It is impossible to avoid. There’s also a young generation emerging which is very energetic, and there’s a real mix of cultures, which we treat as an advantage. As there is no particular culture to follow, people are much more open to new things here.”
Can Yalman is a product and furniture designer who is co-ordinating the Musibet Exhibition Project as part of the Istanbul Design Biennial. This event will see a replica of a Charles Eames La Chaise chair placed in various locations around the city.
Educated in both Turkey and New York City, Yalman is well aware of the contemporary design culture, as well as the influence the west has had over his native city, from the effects of the 18th-century Ottoman campaign to the contemporary condos decorated in European luxe style, with plenty of gold and marble.
“The beginning of the influence probably goes back to the 1700s, when the Ottoman empire sent ambassadors throughout the world to westernise the architecture, art, literature and so on [back home],” he says. “This collective knowledge of western thinking has had many influences on the culture. There are great palaces that have been built by architects educated in Europe like Sarkis Balyan, and glasswork coming from great manufacturers in Europe, like Baccarat.”
In Yalman’s work Turkey’s historical roots are very clear. “[When] designing table accessories we look into the tea ceremony and the Turkish coffee culture, while for tiles and bath products the hamam culture is researched extensively,” he says.
“Traditional glass-making styles such as Beykoz, Cesm-i-Bulbul and Byzantine glass are a great [inclusion] to bottle design and packaging. Bronze and copper works from the Seljuk era give amazing detail that can be incorporated into all types of products.”
More contemporary Turkish examples can be seen in the work of interior designer Zeynep Fadillioglu, who designed Istanbul’s Sakirin Mosque in 2009 to international acclaim. She has worked all over the world, creating homes and hotels throughout Europe and the Middle East, often incorporating metals, glass and rich colour schemes throughout her projects.
As a result of globalisation the line between eastern and western influences has, inevitably, become harder to define. Architect and interior designer Ozgun Baskeles, who studied at Istanbul Technical University and now works freelance in London on a range of commercial and residential projects, has seen this for herself. “I do not think the way of life in a big city like Istanbul is different from living in another big city,” she says. “My clients’ requests are more or less the same. Reclaimed materials and furniture are very popular. Industrial-era and original or reproduction vintage furniture, metal chairs, lamps from the early 20th century, rough materials and surfaces are hip.”
This is the core philosophy of Istanbul’s new wave of creative talent – the bringing together of different elements of the city’s past and present, of home-grown and foreign influences. If the new generation of designers have their way, Istanbul will no longer be a city of division but one of many facets.
“Instead of seeing Istanbul as a split, I feel more of a connection, a bridge through history to the contemporary, [from] east to west,” Baskeles says. “These all become a part of you when you are exploring the city. Its culture and history are so intense that every time you look into a building or a street, you see a different aspect of it.”