Turkey’s turn

Best known for its traditional Islamic and Ottoman designs, Turkey is emerging as the nation to watch for its approach to more contemporary creations, reports Sarah Verdone

Anyone who has ever walked on a Turkish kilim or seen Topkapi Palace or the Blue Mosque would think that Turkey has design down pat. Not so, say Istanbul’s growing community of designers. ‘Five years ago the design scene was Turkish carpets and Ottoman icons. Now it is more contemporary,’ says designer Seyhan Özdemir of Autoban, one of the Turkish companies receiving international attention.

In fact, Turkey seems to be on the verge, if not already in the throes, of a design boom. International investment and a powerful industry intent on competing with China are fuelling the fire, says Arhan Kayar, partner of DDF communication design consultancy, founder of Istanbul Design Week – which launched in 2005 – and self-proclaimed ‘catalyser and provocateur of Turkish design’.

The evidence is all around: two Turkish designers won Red Dot awards in 2007; Istanbul’s Kanyon shopping/living complex has changed the face of the ancient city (and introduced Turkey to Harvey Nichols); and Istanbul’s Bilgi University, one of the 16 schools where students can study design, has opened its sprawling new Santralistanbul cultural centre. Not bad for a country whose industrial designer society is less than 20 years old. Designer Ayse Birsel claims she and her former classmates are just hitting their stride. ‘Turkey’s first design school graduates are now in their 40s – the perfect time,’ she says. ‘They’ve matured and they’ve laid the groundwork for young designers’.

Inci Mutlu is one of those paving the way. The organiser of a 30-strong Turkish collective, Ilk in Milano, at last year’s Milan furniture fair, Mutlu claims she tired of seeing European designers put on their own exhibitions. ‘They were all encouraged by their governments. Why not us?’ she says. Mutlu, who lives in Italy, arranged the show with the help and sponsorship of Turkish furniture company Nurus, and the collective effort marked a watershed for the country’s profession.

‘We are in an interesting position,’ says Güran Gökyay, referring to Turkey’s geographical position situated between markets in Europe, Russia and the Middle East, as well as its spot in the global marketplace. The same could also be said for Nurus, the award-winning international office furniture brand that Gökyay and his brother, Renan, built up from a sleepy family furniture business.

‘The Gökyay brothers work and manufacture with their hearts as well as their brains,’ says Mutlu. This combination seems to be working well: Nurus earned its first Red Dot award last year for U Too, a flexible office system by Turkish-born designer Sezgin Aksu and his Italian partner Silvia Suardi.

However, Gökyay tempers his support of local talents with tough love. ‘This will [upset] people – Turkish design is only recently being done well,’ he says. ‘It has been looked at as one of the arts, but schools need to teach marketing and design management. There’s a lot of potential, but Turkey needs to make its own brands.’

Besides Nurus, companies like Koleksiyon Mobilya and Vitra have also been staunch supporters of design, but one indie entrepreneur, Gaye Çevikel, stands out. Her brand, Gaia & Gino, produces globetrotting collections by far-flung multinationals. ‘If more companies sponsored design, it could be perceived as a value,’ says Çevikel.

Meanwhile, more designers are taking matters into their own hands. Erdem Akan is part of the collective exhibit Barbarians’ Banquet – a group of Istanbul designers who use rapid manufacturing techniques to make tongue-in-cheek statements about their place at the global table. The show – which includes table-top items like a nut dish evoking an atomic explosion – attracted the attention of Valerio Castelli, who has invited them to exhibit in 2008 at the Milan furniture fair’s Zona Tortona. Akan attracted media attention when he presented the provocative XXX Design at last September’s Istanbul Design Week, 30 racy prototypes and products.

Aykut Erol is another designer challenging convention. ‘It’s very unusual to make a modern carpet in Turkey,’ Erol says, who has buried tables and chairs in a shaggy wool carpet (the furniture pops up when needed, then stores flat). ‘Here, carpet has been so meaningful.’ Erol plans to produce the carpets himself if he doesn’t find a manufacturer.

Pinar Yar and Tugrul Gövsa, who design and manufacture, know both sides well and have noticed a sea change. ‘Before, engineers and architects were doing design. Now companies are giving more importance to industrial designers,’ says Yar, who is presenting products, such as a flexible glass fibre hammock, at the Cologne furniture fair this month.

While many designers infuse their work with qualities that reflect their Turkish heritage, designer Aziz Sariyer says, ‘When you ask about Turkish design, you ask about something that doesn’t exist. We’re just a bridge between two cultures. I feel more global than Turkish.

Designer Defne Koz says the ‘fantastic talent for adaptation’ is a defining characteristic of a nation with four empires-worth of history. ‘This is just the beginning for design in Turkey. I’m sure that, from now on, Turkish designers will take four steps forward for every one.’ With Istanbul slated to be the European Capital of Culture in 2010, Turkish designers should take their marks.

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