At Home With
Judith Seng and Alex Valder, Designers

Despite what most people imagine, you don’t just find 3,300-square-foot apartments in Berlin these days — they have to find you. In Judith Seng and Alex Valder‘s case, it was a newly divorced friend of a friend, abandoning the loft in which he’d lived and worked with his musician wife, and searching for someone who could fill the sprawling space. Seng and Valder, two process-oriented product designers with a habit of accumulating furniture off the street, signed the lease immediately. In May, they moved their home from a 1960s Socialist housing bloc on the historic GDR boulevard Karl-Marx-Allee, then packed up their separate studios, creating a common office in the apartment’s would-be living area. There’s a dishwasher and a fancy Duravit bathtub, a spare bedroom and a roof terrace. Space may be abundant and cheap in Berlin, but this is not the norm. Friends seeing it for the first time routinely gape.

Now, the couple — who met in 1995 while seated across from each other during a college entrance exam and who went on to study design together at Berlin’s UDK school, with Enzo Mari as a one-time professor — work at neighboring desks less than 40 feet away from where they sleep. “If it makes sense, we collaborate,” says Seng. “And of course we influence each other’s work because we discuss everything. But we prefer to keep it that way, so someone always has the outsider’s viewpoint.” Seng, best known for her wood furniture half-dipped in colorful high-gloss car paint, can usually be found behind her computer, preparing for one of the classes she teaches or doing research and ideation for various clients. At the moment, she’s helping the artist Mathilde ter Heijne develop a conceptual barter shop for an upcoming exhibition, as well as beginning a project in which she’ll “design” a dance performance from top to bottom.

Valder, on the other hand, recently quit an eight-year desk job as managing director at an exhibition-design company to focus on his own work, and he spends his days whizzing around the apartment excitedly building things. Currently on the boards is a series of spindly stools and tables called Boekkle — “the cute word for ‘trestle,'” he says — and the workshop is full of corresponding cardboard models. “Alex is a maker guy,” Seng explains. “His old colleagues always had to drag him out of the workshop, saying, ‘That’s not your job, you’re supposed to be managing the company!'” Consequently, the apartment is full of items Valder has spontaneously rigged for various purposes, not to mention dozens of examples of the pair’s professional output. I may be biased — I’ve spent the summer living in their guest bedroom — but I think it’s one of the better examples of someone’s space reflecting their creative outlook. Seng and Valder recently offered Sight Unseen the official tour.

JA1341

Seng and Valder's new office area, pictured here, represents less than half of their new apartment's main living area. It's elevated about 20 inches on a stage-like platform which Valder says a previous tenant built to hide discarded building materials, rather than going to the effort of hauling them out.

JA1413

Adjacent to the office is where Valder built this model-making workshop, in which he's like a kid in a candy store.

JA1417

Models for his Boekkle stools and tables — an old project, but one he never quite was able to see through owing to an eight-year office job. Now he's set about preparing them for a September launch at a local shop.

JA1484

A finished Boekkle stool with a green laminate top. Next to it is a model for one of Seng's wax-embedded wooden Ecdysis tables, which she exhibited in Milan this year at the show "Totem and Taboo." Hanging above both is a cluster of Valder's fabric salad spinners, which get regular use in the couple's kitchen: Just place wet lettuce inside the bag's mesh liner and twirl vigorously.

JA1463

Inside these large pots is where Seng cooked the nearly 175 pounds of wax she used for the Ecdysis series, which also included ghostly molded-wax tabletop vessels. The blue box is one of the first objects she ever made: Her high school in Karlsruhe, Germany, taught skills like woodworking and gardening in addition to its normal curriculum.

JA1346

Fake mustaches pinned to one of the apartment's three industrial columns, with post-move boxes still unpacked in the background. Valder bought the paste-on facial hair when a mustachioed former professor retired, then rounded up his past students (including friends Oliver Deichmann and Blasius Osko) and photographed them wearing the disguise.

JA1304

This tiny plastic seafood restaurant is a reminder of the pair's former apartment on the famed Socialist bouelvard Karl-Marx-Allee. They found it, along with a mini-fire station and house, on the building's communal giveaway table. Valder guesses that the toys are East German in origin, and possibly from the '70s. "All of our friends' kids ask their parents to come over to our place just so they can play with them."

JA1460

Seng's Trift series, debuted at last year's London Design Festival, are solid blocks of wood coated in car lacquer. The London store Mint acquired some after the exhibition, but recently asked for larger, furniture-sized versions. "It's hard to find such big trees, and they need to be very dry to be painted, so I've found myself in the forest around Berlin a lot lately," she says. "But it's also inspiring to be setting up a network in the countryside. I love to work with people locally."

JA1480

The blue table is a precursor to Trift, developed in 2008 for Milan's Post Design Gallery. The chair, however, is a kind of inside joke — Seng acquired the broken Thonet frame from her grandmother's house eight years ago, and Valder kept begging her to fix it or throw it out. The feud was resolved during the move in May, when someone rested one of Seng's stumps on the chair's seat by happenstance. "Now we love it," says Valder.

JA1447

Seng's Patches tables, which can be rearranged at will.

JA1449

One of the living room walls hosts a makeshift art installation consisting of photos the pair took on a recent trip to New York, photos from past projects, gifts from friends, and in the upper right corner, their first art purchase — it's part of an art workshop a friend conducted with children in Africa. The chair halves were part of Seng's diploma project at school.

JA1451

The aforementioned New York photos, which feature either Seng or Valder running through MoMA's courtyard, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and along a Brooklyn sports field. "We saw so many people running in New York, we figured we'd join in," Valder says.

JA1444

A makeshift storage system for odds and ends.

JA1409

One of the pair's main professional collaborations was a glass series made at the research center CIAV, where they explored traditional decorative techniques like etching and engraving. The center is about to put this bowl — which is painstakingly engraved on two sides — into limited production, to be sold at its on-site shop.

JA1427

The apartment's huge kitchen offers seating for 10, on an assortment of found chairs Seng painted gray for a previous project. The pendant lamp was assembled by Valder from dual sockets he collected at American hardware stores.

JA1323

The story of the Saturday sign: Seng and her former studiomates had been fretting over how to build a communal kitchen when she discovered a cabinet on the street. She went to eat lunch, and by the time she came back to get it, it was covered in graffiti. She dragged it inside anyway, but when the others ordered her to throw it out, she saved this single panel. Later, she learned it was the work of the famous graffiti artist Nomad. The blue object on the right is a welding machine — Valder trained as a blacksmith for three years before attending university.

JA1429

Also in the kitchen, Seng's Hide + Show cabinet sits next to an old locker Valder found in an abandoned power station shortly after the Wall fell. "A lot of the big industry in East Berlin crashed, and there was a time when you could illegally sneak into these buildings and take out furniture or tools," he says. "It was like they left within a second. Sometimes you stepped into offices where you had the feeling that someone just went out for dinner and never came back. It was kind of spooky."

JA1334

Another GDR relic: these hen-shaped egg cups, ubiquitous on German breakfast tables during the Communist years. The pair found them unused at a flea market. "You couldn't get these in the West because they made them in the '70s, then used them or threw them away," says Valder. "But in the East they produced all of the '70s stuff until '89, and you can still find the deadstock."

JA1431

Behind the dining table, a nook for plants, cookbooks, and the wall-mounted liquor cabinet. "Kassel" is scratched out because Seng used to travel there once a week to teach and no longer does; "witzig," the German word for "funny," recently got banned in the household for overuse. The couple doesn't have any children — the kids' chair was another street find.

JA1438

Pasted to the front of the kitchen island is a panoramic photo of New York City, clearly taken before 9/11. Left over from the previous tenant, Seng claims its headed for removal, but Valder secretly admits he's grown to like it. The flag was made recently by an artist friend in honor of the 4th of July.

JA1482

In the guest bedroom, portraits of farm animals were part of Valder's personal mission to bring nature into a former apartment, which looked out onto a busy street. "It was dirty and loud," he recalls. The lamps were a school project.

JA1344

More of the farm animal shots, with a mother-of-pearl lampshade from Seng's grandmother in the background.

JA1472

The apartment is still a work-in-progress, with boxes full of books left to unpack and spur-of-the-moment storage solutions like this shelving unit — built by Valder in an afternoon for the pair's bedroom — going up all the time. The little red table is, of course, another discarded object which they adopted and have put to good use.