Berlin bound

Cheap rent and lots of space make the German capital an attractive destination for artists and experimental designers alike. Clare Dowdy peruses the city ahead of this year’s International Design Festival Berlin

’We need conceptual thinkers, lateral thinkers, revolutionaries, explorers, inventors, anarchists, activists, cross-disciplinarians and non-linear agenda-benders.’ So said curator Sophie Lovell of her exhibition Freak Show, which took place in Berlin earlier this year. Lovell was in absolutely the right place for such a shopping list.

Berlin spacious though it is is fit to burst with boundary-pushing creatives. Karen Khurana, an organiser of the International Design Festival Berlin, puts it rather more understatedly than Lovell when she says, ’Most of the designers here work quite independently and like to take some time to experiment.’ The festival, taking place in June, includes an event called Makerlab that is dedicated to exactly this kind of experimentation, reflecting the fact that this city teems with designers and artists attracted to it by the relatively low cost of living (half a litre of beer costs as little as €1.60 [£1.40]), and the space, both mental and physical, for exploration.

’You would need more money to have this business model in Amsterdam,’ says Edial Dekker of Your Neighbours, a Berlin-based digital group founded by three Dutchmen. Like Dekker, it is rare to be a Berliner born and bred. Most are incomers, including Freak Show participants Martí Guixé and Jerszy Seymour, who have settled there, and former residents El Ultimo Grito and Stuart Haygarth.

These free-spirited artists and designers have together created a culture of blending self-initiated projects with client work, going to great lengths to make sure they do their own thing which ironically can have the effect of attracting more clients. ’We really notice that every time we open up we get something back from it,’ says Dekker.

Your Neighbours is not short of paid work, with a portfolio that includes Universal, the Dutch government, Etsy, Wunderman and The Red Cross. ’We have no problems finding clients, it’s just about the direction,’ says Dekker, meaning that self-initiated projects help to take them in a different direction and allow them to appeal to more interesting clients.

The group created a set of icons as a self-started project, which it put online for all to share. The upshot was an approach from the British Government to design ’a new monochrome icon set for an [unnamed] Web project it is starting up’, says Dekker.

Berlin has so much space and freedom for people to build stuff. I couldn’t imagine a better place to work like this. It just wouldn’t happen in Munich or Hamburg

Julius Kranefuss, Zweidrei

In fact, Your Neighbours has saved enough money over the past two years to put nearly all commercial work on hold so that it can focus on a big project of its own an online marketplace for tour guides. ’If you’re living in Berlin and know a lot about art, or mushroom-picking or bird-watching, you will be able to create a platform through this marketplace,’ Dekker explains.

Similarly, graphic design consultancy Hello Me’s Till Wiedeck and Timm Häneke commissioned themselves to create an entire monospace typeface in 24 hours. ’We created a demi-bold sans serif typeface entitled HM Tilm. The character-set features 240 glyphs,’ says Wiedeck. He describes it as ’a really fast project which had a rather big impact’, leading to a project for Barneys New York.

Wiedeck reports that about 40 per cent of his work is personal projects, with 60 per cent being commercial, but like Dekker, he says he has a good hit rate through his own work, as ’self-initiated projects often lead to more progressive solutions and show how far you are able to go.’

For architect and furniture designer Julius Kranefuss, of multidisciplinary collective Zweidrei, his own work is a way of getting first media and then client attention. His commercial work includes Efa’s Frozen Yogurt Store in Berlin, which opened in April. At the same time as working on this project, Kranefuss and Zweidrei had an idea for ’a shelving system that looks like a fresco you can hang on the wall,’ says Kranefuss. The group spent several hours developing a collage of figures, along with the story behind what they were doing. It was built from a special biodegradable paper and titled Bacchanalia, in celebration of the god of wine.

Exhibited at the Milan furniture fair, Bacchanalia was picked up by the media, ’so the plan worked’, he says.

Kranefuss is German-born, but he too is an incomer to Berlin. ’Berlin has so much space and freedom for people to build stuff. I couldn’t imagine a better place than here to work like this,’ he says. ’It wouldn’t happen in Munich or Hamburg.’

While cheap rent and lots of room breeds experimentation and creativity, it’s a clear case of necessity being the mother of invention or design, in this case. Some do admit that paid work is scarce and often poorly remunerated. Is it just a case of oversupply? Wiedeck says, ’In Berlin there are a lot of designers and not so many clients.’ However, Dekker sees the silver lining on this cloud: ’No one here is dependent on money because there is so little of it.’

International Design Festival Berlin runs from 1-5 June

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