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.
Long ago, wallpaper was reserved for royalty — a handcrafted thing made with high artistry and hung with equally high aspirations. But since then, with a few very recent notable exceptions, it's become the ambitionless cop-out of modern-day interior design, a failure blamed on wimpy printing techniques but which probably has to do more with a lack of imagination. Among those getting it right is the Athens-based design collective 39.22., which draws both its name and its stable of talent from its own geographical coordinates.
The story of Stefan Scholten and Carole Baijings began, like many Dutch stories do, in a church. In the late ’90s, Baijings was working for an agency whose headquarters were located inside one of the country’s many abandoned houses of worship. Scholten, a graduate of the Design Academy Eindhoven, had a burgeoning design practice nearby. Scholten was asked to design a small bar for the agency’s office, and “the rest is history,” says Baijings.
It's easy to imagine the backstory of a Prada print: Miuccia has a concept for the season, and either a high-end Italian fabric vendor or her own design team supplies prints just for her. But consider a patterned polyester work shirt from Kmart, and you'd never guess that a RISD textile-design grad like Amy Voloshin might be behind it, translating those runway looks into something that appeals to mainstream Americans. It's an art unto itself: "I have a list of things I roll through in my head when I design for those clients: Is the print pretty? Is it scary, thorny, or edgy? If it is, it's not going to work."