Along the airport road, I saw crumbling Ottoman town houses clinging to vertiginous hills, huge chunks of Byzantine walls, industrial docks, commercial fish markets and domestic ferry terminals whisking cars across to Anatolia, where swathes of identikit glass towers are sprouting to house a growing middle class. It’s no surprise that Istanbul is home to a complex, varied contemporary design scene. As Turkey’s economy has grown, a new generation of designers has emerged, spurred on by wealthy patrons with design vision and deep pockets.
“We were alone in design when we started ten years ago, but we felt nourished by this area – and it showed in our work”
Now in its second year, the Istanbul Design Biennial has put the city on the circuit for the world’s buyers and media en route from Mason & Objet or Dutch Design Week. Many of the exhibitors are young, inspired and ready to talk about what makes design in this great city that bridges the seam between Europe and Asia, but the biennial also includes some of the big hitters in the world of Turkish design. Autoban is launching its latest project at the 2014 Biennial, a redesign for Renault car interiors. Founded by Seyhan Özdemir and Sefer Çağlar, Autoban also serves as a product design company and has already invaded the airports and hotels of a swathe of cities with their high concept approach to design.
Their studio sits in a grand Ottoman-era building in the historic area of Beyoglu, a district that has always specialised in craftsmanship. The backstreets here are dotted with workshops making everything from copperware to enamel, as well as a growing community of new shops, cafés, hotels and bars. “We were alone in design when we started ten years ago, but we felt nourished by this area – and it showed in our work,” Özdemir tells me as we drink tea from tiny brass cups at his giant desk. A vast glass wall behind us encases an array of his work, and Autoban-designed tables, chairs, mirrors and cabinets all clutter the large room. “We did it without funding or support, but now the community of designers is growing. It’s an exciting time.”
Autoban, too, is growing. Though they started out creating café interiors in Istanbul, Autoban have just put the finishing touches to their biggest project yet, Baku’s international terminal in Azerbaijan. Their next project: styling several new restaurants coming soon to London’s Soho. “It is still always about the story,” says Özdemir. “From the smallest light fixture to large architecture projects, that narrative always has to be there. Function alone is not enough – a design has to offer something new to the experience of using each product or space. And we have amazing resources in Turkey, which means we can source everything here. We get the wood from near the Black Sea, the marble from the Asian Anatolian and Mediterranean coasts and, as for craftsmanship, it is all here already. It has been for centuries.”
As I crossed the Bosphorus, I saw in the mêlée of boats and cruisers one amazing sight – a pod of dolphins, backs sometimes above the waves, leapt their way between the commercial ships
Leaving Galata behind, I crossed the Golden Horn to see another side of the Istanbul style resurgence. Stately ferries plough across the choppy water and sound their deep bass horns at super tankers so large it takes them a mile to stop. As I crossed the Bosphorus, I saw in the mêlée of boats and cruisers one amazing sight – a pod of dolphins, backs sometimes above the waves, leapt their way between the commercial ships. Where else would that happen?
On the far side of the Golden Horn is Balat, a historic district next to old Constantinople’s walls that’s beginning to buzz with young creatives and new ideas. Here, designer Sema Topaloglu has a studio space in which a sculptural metal grate wall separates workshop from an elegant space displaying finished pieces. Brightly-coloured blown glass drips from the ceiling and walls in swirls of yellow, blues and reds – they are designed to hang on walls as art or surround a light; here, they cast their colours onto upright curved upholstered white dining chairs. The effect is modern, and dreamlike – yet there’s a feel of ornate antiquity, too, a sense of the opulence of the Orient. The midpoint between Asia and Europe, Balat is the perfect place for Sema and for her work, influenced by both worlds.
Sema has recently finished designs for the Ankara University campus, and is now musing on turning her hand to catwalk design, as well as flats for Turkish families in Kensington. She is a true polymath. “The Turkish middle classes have grown accustomed to curated spaces and considered design in restaurants, cafés and shops, and now want to make statements in their homes too. Turkish people are open minded, they want to learn, they look around the world and want to recreate it.”
Other young designers are drawing on Istanbul’s past more than others. On a cobbled street in the city’s vine-covered antiques district, Oytun Berktan’s studio-cum-showroom in Cucurkuma displays a bright custom-made armchair covered in a bright embroidered parrot fabric – birds in indigo, orange and crimson. In the middle of the room stands a low coffee table, a checkerboard of light and dark oak. “This is so we can lay out the mezze, the tea, the desserts so important to Turkish life,” Oytun says affectionately, slicing the air with his hands as he describes the precise symmetrical arrangement required for the most casual Turkish meal.
Oytun’s work uses antique pieces sourced from local dealers, and he calls upon the area’s network of carpenters and upholstery specialists to update and customise original pieces using Turkish fabrics sourced from the provinces. His customers range from passers-by interested in one-off pieces to large-scale interior projects such as boutique hotels, houses, restaurants and bars. “I found this in an antique shop,” he tells me stroking the sanded foot of a low 1920s style chair with a deep-set cushion and long, elegant curved armrests. “I’m thinking of doing some copies because the line of the wood is so beautiful.” Here the cut of the Turkish jib is slick and assertive, modern but nostalgic, decadent and pared back.
Istanbul’s design renaissance is changing the texture of the city. House Hotel Galatasaray, for instance, blends in perfectly with its diverse neighbours – the second-hand shop opposite selling leather travel trunks and teak cabinets, the hole in the wall next door that sells chicken shish kebab in fresh white bread. Yet the faded yellow façade conceals an upscale marvel of an interior by Autoban: with its brass and iron chandelier, its sweeping, regal marble staircase and its blue and grey geometric tiles throughout, this interior wouldn’t be out of place on the boulevards of Paris. The international atmosphere is no coincidence; in the 19th century Greek, Jewish and French communities lived in Curcurkuma, and its streets were crowded with traders from every nation in the near and Middle East, Russia and Bulgaria. Reminders of this vibrant heritage pop up constantly in HHG: the sign over the front door reads “Zenovitch apartments”, after the Russian merchant who constructed the place in 1880).
Breakfasting on the roof terrace, where tea is served in a samovar, I looked out over the skyline to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the architectural zeniths of not one, but two empires. Istanbul was capital of the great Christian Byzantine Empire and Hagia Sophia was, for more than a millennium, the greatest interior space in the world, the wonder of travellers with its stunning mosaics and spatial mastery. And the Blue Mosque, architect Sinan’s triumph a thousand years later under the Muslim Ottomans, is full of glittering glass and myriad tiles of complex patterns. Little wonder that with this double heritage Istanbul is heir to a design and art history unrivalled anywhere. It’s only amazing that its resurgence has taken so long. C