London gets taste of creative Berlin

London gets a taste of Berlin this month with an exhibition showcasing some of the brightest talent from the German capital. Clare Dowdy explores a historic city determined to hang on to its non-commercial creative aesthetic

Come 2009, Berlin will have been a ‘free’ city for two full decades, but that hasn’t made it a clone of every other capitalist Western European capital.

In fact, it’s hanging on to its refreshingly boho and grungy credentials with strong fingernails. And the city’s creatives are doing much to foster this. First there was Design Mai, the May festival which trumpeted Berlin’s young and/or small design businesses. And now a flavour of that event is transported to the UK this September, as part of Tent London, courtesy of Create Berlin Goes London.

The organisers have teamed up some unlikely creative pairings and got them to magic something particular for the East End’s Dray Walk Gallery. This approach seems fitting for Berlin-based designers. The creative scene there is so eclectic as to be almost uncategorisable, and it’s not uncommon for unlikely collaborations to happen, and for designers to switch between disciplines.

As Create Berlin organiser Antje Link explains,’Berlin has a vibrant wild style, and it’s cheap to live there as there are lots of empty spaces in the centre. The style is down to earth.’

She cites fashion label C Neeon and communication design consultancy as epitomising the Berlin way. ‘They are a very good example of how creative people in Berlin live and work,’ she adds. The two businesses work out of an old East German kindergarden in the Berlin quarter of Lichtenberg, under the project name of Heikonaut. ‘This is a very poor area which suffered a lot after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are a lot of empty spaces and the infrastructure is not very well developed. But the artists and designers work very closely together,’ says Link.

Whether this sort of energy can stay the course remains to be seen – and some designers are aware of the pressures on the city. ‘Berlin is held in high esteem internationally, which has to do with the charming and relaxed nature of its residents. We hope the city is able to survive the inevitability of globalisation and preserve its relaxed and pleasant nature,’ says Ania Bauer of design group Llot Llov.

Llot Llov is (for Berlin) a typical bunch of variously disciplined designers focusing on product development and spatial design. They joined forces with knitwear designer Leyla Piedayesh of Lala Berlin for the Lola light installation. To make this, ‘skeletons of old lampshades are joined together to form a new shade’, explains Piedayesh. ‘The merging of various materials in light grey tones allows the patchwork-like presentation to gel into a single entity.’

One of the most interesting pairings for Create Berlin is that of Coordination – an exhibition, product and interior design consultancy – and photography duo Dirk Dähmlow and Ken Schluchtmann. This summer, they placed their Crystal City Mind mirror sculpture at poignant spots along the Berlin Wall’s old route. ‘The mirrors show different image sequences of the architectural and social processes the city has undergone during the past 20 years,’ say Tilman Thürmer, founder of Coordination. For the London exhibition, the mirrors will reflect Brick Lane, creating a dialogue between the two cities.

One of the most heavyweight collaborations is that of Horst Schulz and Rüdiger Schlömer. Schlömer is a sound and media artist in his early 30s, whose work turns up at techie shindigs like Seoul’s Net Festival and the InterCommunication Centre in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, Schulz, more than 50 years Schlömer’s senior, left Germany in 1945 and learned knitting in Denmark during four years of internment there. Some of his first pieces were 36 lace blankets made of sackcloth, for which he used wire as knitting needles. When Schlömer first came to Berlin, he worked as a decorator, but then developed his own patchwork technique, and is credited with inventing ‘the new knitting’.

Schlömer calls their joint effort, Schalala, an experimental remix. Their starting point was football scarves – schal means scarf in German. ‘The idea is to misuse the fan-scarf as a communication medium, recombining existing scarves into new statements,’ he adds. So even the name is a sort of contemporary musical sampling or remix.

And this being the digital age, the central element is an online remix-interface, in which anyone can insert pictures of their own scarf, remix a new one and download a knitting pattern from the remix. And then real-life scarves are actually made by knitting circles.

Few of these concepts have any commercial viability, but one may be different. It’s a modular storage system with a fabric skin. The creation of product and furniture design consultancy Ett La Benn and Danish textile company Kvadrat, SWOC has the feel of something that may reach the market.

But then, for many Berlin-based creatives, commerciality doesn’t seem to be their raison d’être. ‘Many young designers don’t want to deal with big companies,’ says Link. ‘Berlin is like a special island. The designers make for themselves, not for their clients.’ •

Create Berlin Goes London is at the Dray Walk Gallery, London E1, from 18-21 September

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