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.