More than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany’s capital city is still very much a work in progress. Construction sites and towering cranes interrupt the architectural landscape; its industry is defined by tourism and IT start-ups. “Poor but sexy” is the city’s overworked, but still relevant motto, coined by Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit back in 2003.
For years that poor but sexy spirit was reflected in the city’s bohemian industrial design aesthetic, the archetype perhaps being a long table made of repurposed wood surrounded by a mix of mismatched vintage Eames chairs.
Design may have taken a back seat to Berlin’s internationally significant art scene, but there have been several noteworthy talents, such as Sven Temper and Jerszy Seymour, who have managed to create looks that bridge both worlds. Their work is embedded in the city’s artistic spirit, often incorporating materials that are, or appear to be, recycled.
Clemens Tissi, a Berlin-based designer, says: “My pieces should look like mock-ups of themselves. Like an idea and not a final finished product.”
Tissi, like other designers in Berlin, uses materials such as medium-density fibreboard (MDF), plywood and Formica (plastic laminate typically used for kitchen counters), which he can buy and have cut at his local Bauhaus to keep production low-cost and self-sufficient. He uses a carpenter when necessary but hand-paints every piece himself, purposefully allowing brushstrokes to show.
One of the first pieces he designed is a lamp called Leuchte01, which is made from a linear incandescent bulb and two separate pieces made of painted MDF that can be assembled in a variety of ways. The end result is a sculptural floor lamp that gives off different light depending on how the owner puts it together. Despite the utilitarian building materials, Tissi’s pieces show a refined minimalist aesthetic. They also come with a relatively high price tag; the light sells for €480 while his adjustable table (Tisch01) sells for €1,800.
Tissi’s work cannot be found at traditional design shops. Instead he sells his pieces through high-end galleries in Berlin and London.
Sven Temper has shown his chairs, which cost €1,000-€7,000, at Hans Peter Jochum, a prestigious Berlin-based gallery of vintage furniture. Temper, who studied in Hamburg under the contemporary artist Franz Erhard Walther, prefers to be called an artist rather than a furniture designer.
Ulrich Hettinger, a Berlin-based advertising executive, and his wife bought their first piece of Temper furniture – a simple stool – several years ago. Since then they have selected other pieces, such as a lamp and a sideboard, which they have placed in their turn-of-the-century apartment in the well-heeled neighbourhood of Charlottenburg in the city’s west.
Before the Hettingers discovered Temper, they had started to get bored with their decor, a stylish mix of mid-century furniture, kilim rugs and Eames chairs. “We got to the point where we felt it was a predictable look that we were seeing everywhere,” says Ulrich Hettinger. “Everything was almost too perfect.” The Temper stool was a fresh addition. “Every time I went by it I thought about it as art. Its imperfections made me think.”
He adds that the odd mix of materials used to make the stool – steel tubes and wood – looked like they had all been heavily used before. “That’s what fascinated us with his work,” he says. “It seemed that all the materials had had a life before coming together to make this piece of design.”
When Manuel Raeder was asked to design furniture for a summer art programme at the Kunstverein Munich, he began with the idea of recycling plywood and MDF used in past museum exhibitions. A member of “My Bauhaus is Better Than Yours”, a collective based in Berlin and Weimar that produces furniture, accessories and graphic design, he developed Group Affinity: five plywood benches designed like puzzle pieces to assemble into a rectangular table.
“The idea of this project was to create something that wasn’t finished. The benches, depending on how they were put together, created different constellations,” he says.
My Bauhaus is Better Than Yours now sells this grouping online (store.betterbauhaus.com), along with another piece by Raeder. Called the Cake Table, it is a circular object formed by “cake-slice” pieces that work equally well as a bookshelf in a living room or as a set of tables and chairs in a children’s room. Each piece is a different size and contains a smaller identical version that can be used as a shelf or stool.
“This piece speaks to the famous Italian designer Enzo Mari, who would give people puzzle pieces and that interaction was often the piece itself,” says Carson Chan, a Berlin-based curator, architect and writer who recently curated the Marrakech Biennale.
Because of Berlin’s relatively low cost of living, many local designers can afford to “to push ideas forward and not feel like they have to be commercially dictated”, says Chan. He sites the conceptual designs of Seymour, whose Workshop Chair, made of untreated wood and red wax, was selected for the permanent collection at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
“Low production value, high concepts,” says Chan. “That’s one way to describe the designers working in Berlin.”