8 Things
Autoban, furniture and interior designers

The Beyoğlu district is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Istanbul, but for centuries, it’s been the Turkish cultural capital’s most modern quarter as well. Beyoğlu got telephone lines, electricity, and a funicular early on; new technologies, fashion, and the arts have always flourished there. So it’s fitting that the creative firm helping to spearhead the growth of modern design in Turkey has all but grown up on Beyoğlu’s cobbled streets. Headed by Seyhan Özdemir and Sefer Çağlar — an architect and interior designer who met as students in the late 1990s — Autoban is housed in a half-baroque, mid-19th-century Italianate building, but inside, the studio is almost seamlessly modern: high-ceilinged and open plan, lined with white marble and fixtureless white cabinets. The only nod to the past comes in the form of old wooden sills that unfurl around the windows of the partners’ offices.

When I visited Autoban this summer, Özdemir was slender and tan following her recent wedding to a Turkish restaurateur in glamorously retro Ravello. Now 36, the designer grew up along Istanbul’s picturesque Bosphorus waterfront and in the winding streets of Ortakoy, and she met Cağlar, two years her senior, while studying architecture at Mimar Sinan University. The pair graduated in 1998, at a time when the country’s modern design industry was emerging and amorphous. But rather than emigrate to a more design-centric European capital, like Milan or Paris, they decided to stake a claim in their hometown, founding Autoban in 2003. Almost immediately, their pared-down but lush signature aesthetic — which often reinterprets the ancient typologies and interiors Istanbul is known for through the use of modern fixtures crafted in marble, wood, and glass — earned them international press and turned them into the go-to designers for most of the city’s major modern design projects. Over the past several years, they’ve become particularly well-known for the look and feel of the virally expanding House Café and Hotel empire (in which one of Özdemir’s sisters is a partner), preserving the architectural details of historical local buildings and then stripping everything away and adding only the simplest “accessories” to create a warm, glossy modernism, as if the architecture were a piece of couture.

Özdemir and Çağlar describe their approach to design as narrative: They develop a storyline for each space in which the furnishings become characters, and every space has its own history. Each project begins with a specific inspiration, and as is true of most designers, Özdemir is constantly collecting objects, images, and ideas and filing them away for later projects. “You have to see everything around you; it’s not about looking at one thing,” says the designer. “It can be anything from a person on the street to a stone on the beach.” We asked Özdemir to share some of the things that she’s been collecting over the years and then pulling out of the library of her mind to make each of Autoban’s design so handsomely legible.

1 chinese tea set03

Chinese tea services: As a Turk, Özdemir usually sips tea from the traditional, tulip-shaped glasses of her native country. But she has long been obsessed by the narrative quality of Chinese tea services, which often depict stories in their blue-and-white porcelain. Last year, the studio used those services as a jumping-off point for the interior of their first overseas project, a New York–style Italian restaurant in Hong Kong called 208 Duecento Otto.

GM 208

Chinese tea services: The studio tiled the walls of the restaurant in custom blue-and-white ceramic, using a story they found in an old Chinese book. Instead of using Chinese porcelain from the nearby mainland for dinner service, however, Autoban used the renowned blue çini porcelain that’s handcrafted in the Turkish city of Iznik.

2 dolmabache01

The winter garden at Dolmabahçe Palace: A 19th-century Ottoman palace on the shore of the Bosphorus, Dolmabahçe was the Turkish Rococo residence of six successive sultans. Inside, a small winter garden framed in iron and glass is, as Özdemir puts it, “handmade, high-ceilinged, and very transparent — a space but not a space,” exposed as it is to its surroundings through extensive glazing.

2 houseistinye01

The winter garden at Dolmabahçe Palace: In 2007, Autoban was asked to design an outpost of the House Café in Istanbul’s Istinye Park shopping mall, but they were forbidden from building solid walls in the large open thoroughfare in which the restaurant would be located. “That’s when we remembered the winter garden in Dolmabahçe, which defines a space but is transparent,” Özdemir recalls. The cafe doesn’t feel solid; it’s merely a fretwork of frames so that passersby can see in and patrons eating inside can survey the mall “outside.”

3 Makam_i_Ibrahim_Camii_revak_by_mustafacan

The riwaq at Topkapi Palace: “There are Turkish influences in our work,” Özdemir admits, “but we never think about specifically using this Ottoman or that Byzantine shape in our designs.” For example, in their interior for local airline caterer Do&Co, the pair drew upon the vaulted arcade, or riwaq, at the 15th-century Topkapi Palace, which served as the primary residence of Ottoman sultans for 400 years.

3 Do&Co01

The riwaq at Topkapi Palace: By clarifying the lines and exaggerating the proportions of the arches, and by letting light pour down from the center of the vault — traditionally enclosed by a dome — the Do & Co interior brings the riwaq up to date. “The modern idea came from our university education, where we had so many German professors who brought with them their Bauhaus modern style,” explains Özdemir.

4 versailles_garden

The gardens of Versailles: Though Özdemir made her first pilgrimage to Versailles only three years ago, she was familiar with its elaborate gardens from university classes and books. “It’s so sculptural,” she says. “The garden is very architectural with very floral patterns everywhere. When we visited it, we were in love with the space. The scale was amazing! You’re tiny, tiny, tiny in a huge garden. And you can see the whole garden at once.”

4 daisy side table marble

The gardens of Versailles: Autoban turned to these sorts of structured gardens, with their graphical emphasis and exercises in scale, when creating the Daisy furniture series for The House Hotel Nisantasi. “The hotel building was very strong — architecturally it was basically a box,” Özdemir says. “We thought we should bring an organicism in.”

5 container02

Shipping containers: “From the windows of our old studio in Galata, I could always see red cranes lifting and stacking containers in the harbor. We’ve always wanted to make a portable house using shipping containers — like so many architects.” Özdemir laughs. “You can create such a well-defined life in them and you can carry them anywhere, even to the top of the Bosphorus where you aren’t allowed to build permanent structures.”

Nef Flats 163 (1)

Shipping containers: The designers got their wish with the forthcoming Nef Flats 163 residential tower, currently under construction in Istanbul's Gültepe neighborhood. “It’s very close to the center of the city,” Özdemir explains, “but there are still so many illegal buildings, large and small, short and tall — it’s a mess there — so we thought that we could use these informal architectural shapes.”

6 pebble in marble-dekupe

Pebbles: Originally created for a 2007 Milan Furniture Fair exhibition, this table, also available in aluminum and wood, is made from Turkish marble. “Marble is stone, so you can use any shape you want,” Özdemir explains, “but we wanted to use a very organic, natural form, as if you had left a block of marble by the sea and the waves had worn it away, leaving only this form.” The table is named for and recalls a beach pebble, but in Özdemir’s view, the table is not just about the form of the object we can see; it is also about the force that formed it: “The shape of the table,” she says, “is all about waves.”

7 Spider Lamp

Spiders: We see spiders everywhere and most of us get the creepy-crawlies, but Özdemir finds beauty in them: “In my childhood I was afraid of spiders; I always saw spiders on the ceiling at night and the light from below, casting its shadow on the ceiling. When we were playing with the light bulb and some pipes to make the Spider Lamp, it reminded me of that fear from my childhood,” Özdemir remembers. “But the way we made it, it’s actually kind of funny.”

8 bird cage2

Bird cages: The cage is a recurring theme in the studio’s work, popping up in everything from lighting to interiors to the high wooden slats of the studio’s Nest chair. “A cage creates its own architectural space and if you have something surrounding you, you feel more comfortable and calm,” the designer explains. “But there are so many different kinds of bird cage; there’s no direct relation between this cage and the Nest chair. We use patterns from the libraries in our heads, but it’s not actually such a direct connection.”

8 Nest Lounge Chair (1)

Autoban's Nest Chair, which has been used extensively in interior projects for the studio. See it, and more, when Autoban exhibits at The Tramshed at next month's London Design Festival.