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Keren Richter and Gabriel Kuo’s RATS Pop-Up Shop in Berlin

Talk about the right place at the wrong time: I left Berlin to come back to New York two weeks ago, and thus managed to miss what may end up being the coolest event of the summer, tonight’s opening of Keren Richter and Gabriel Kuo‘s RATS pop-up shop in Mitte. Kuo, who’s an art director and graphic designer, and Richter, an illustrator and artist, are both longtime New Yorkers who (like me) consider Berlin as something of a second home; for RATS, they joined forces to bring the German capital a strange sampling of some of their favorite objects and oddities from New York and beyond, everything from Fort Standard bottle openers to Knicks hats to strange souvenirs they’ve acquired on their travels. If you’re in Berlin or headed there, don’t miss the chance to visit the shop at Torstrasse 68 before it closes at the end of August. Otherwise, get a virtual sneak peek at it here, alongside an interview with Richter and Kuo about how and why they put the RATS project together.

So tell me a bit about the concept behind the RATS shop.
Keren Richter: I think the shop, in my head anyway, is like 1920s does ’80s does 2013. The whole thing is being done with a sense of humor. I mean, we’re selling Cool Ranch Doritos alongside jewelry by Wwake and Lauren Manoogian. Hopefully people here in Berlin enjoy the mix of high and low.

Gabriel Kuo: That said, we see the RATS project as something really modular. It can be a retail space, a cultural style, a website — what we want to do is figure out how many different places we can go with it.

KR: It’s almost like a curatorial project, and the RATS shop is our first retail foray.
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Do either of you have any past experience doing pop-up shops?

KR: I’ve curated two art shows before and did a zine that was all about psychedelic art, which was also kind of a curatorial project. But this is the first time we’re doing sales or thinking about consignment and wholesale. I did prop styling for awhile so idea of setting up a space wasn’t so foreign, but merchandising… Gabe is familiar with branding, obviously, but in terms of a retail experience, we’re so green.

GK: This started out as both of us trusting each other’s tastes and styles, that’s where the seed comes from. Because we’ve never been in retail, but we are consumers, and we know what we like and what we want to experience when we go into a store. For me, if I’m on a shopping trip in a different city, I would love to see something that speaks to my own design and art sensibilities, but also something I’ve never seen before.

KR: I like to feel like I’m being educated. I love stores that have a story or a distinctive point of view that makes me reconsider things. I also like stores that can take an object and elevate it or change how I think about it.

GK: Even things that are familiar to you can be re-contextualized — a bottle of Coke, if you’re in Asia, you experience it differently. Your relationship with it is somehow altered because you’re in a new place. So for example we have the Cool Ranch Doritos in our shop because they don’t have them in Germany; I gave some to my friend here and she said she hadn’t seen anything like it.
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You’re both New Yorkers — why did you decide to do your first shop in Berlin?

KR: Gabe came out to Berlin last summer for three months while I was here. I’ve been in New York now for 13 years, and Gabe for 18. New York is losing a bit of its lustre for us.

GK: New York is so financially driven. To have a good time, and experience anything new, you have to have a lot of money, and even then that doesn’t guarantee you anything new. I’m seeking other cities now that might have that missing curiosity level. The last couple years I’ve been traveling a ton, taking photographs, making zines and t-shirts — my foot is in a couple different places. Right now I’m doing work for the agency of Freunde von Freunden in Berlin, but I also clients have clients in New York, so I’m straddling both countries now.

KR: It’s funny because with the store, we’re bringing New York to Berlin…

GK: That’s the circular thing here. Because we grew up there, most of our pivotal memories are of New York culture.
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How did that influence what you decided to stock?
KR: It’s definitely a funny mix, what we’ve selected to bring with us. We have some things that are very Brooklyn to me — objects by Fort Standard and Confetti System. But people in Berlin who have never seen these brands get so excited by them, and we’re excited to give them a new audience. But then yeah we also have like New York Knicks hats, Doritos, and funny trading cards from Mad magazine. We have beautiful handmade jewelry by artists like Samma and Quarry, which are at a higher price point, but also things on the other end of scale, like Baggu, and vintage, and zines. We’re trying to be inclusive.

GK: What unites everything we carry is that the deisgners and artists behind all the products all have a very visionary spirit and come from an independent point of view. They all have a very personal vision.

KR: We also have things from my travels in past year. I go to flea markets in whatever city I visit. So it’s a mix of that, plus my favorite contempory brands, plus some of Gabe’s favorite zine publishers and record labels. We have some stuff by Wierd Records…

GK: That’s a long standing project in New York that just ended, though the record label itself still lives on. A lot of that stuff is very European; it’s American cold wave and dark wave bands that have taken cues from European techo and Krautrock. So there’s a nice symbiotic relationship between the two countries when it comes to some of the music we’re carrying.

KR: Then we’re carrying zines from Ed Varie in the East Village, and home accessories like shibori dyed pillows from upstate, a Score + Solder terrarium, and some really amazing bottle openers by Iacoli and McAllister and Fort Standard. The majority of the brands are from Brooklyn. For the most part we’ve only bought one or two of each thing, so when it’s gone it’s gone and we rotate inventory. Since this is our first time doing retail, we’re trusting our own tastes, but we don’t want to have stock, or different sizes of anything. We wanted it to be like buy it now, or else — but that’s the fun of it, the store wil be changing as we re-merchandise, which will encourage people to come back.
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What about the shop décor itself? How did you source everything?

KR: My mom is an Egyptologist, and I tend to gravitate towards ancient Greek and Egyptian iconography, and I think that’s sort of the meeting point between Gabe’s more minimal gothy aesthetic and my more janky ceramics and art-school teacher vibe. We made the column shelves ourselves — we went to a hardware store, found cement garden-planter things, plastered them in the shop, got some wood for the shelves themselves, and plastered the wood.

GK: The shop was basically a plaster factory for three days.

KR: Yeah, we built Rome in three days, haha. Everything else, almost all of it is from my fiancé’s German grandfather’s barn, or from a hardware store, or from eBay local. It was fun buying random crap used and trying to communicate with people in English and having them write back using Google Translate.Rats1
Can you walk me through some of the items in the next few photos?
KR: Sure! For the vase shown above, I got a bunch of vessels from the flea market, got some ceramic paint, and did some zig zags on them. I love doing janky textiles and handmade patterns, so whenever I find an object to cover in those patterns it’s great. To the left is jewelry by Susannah Wainhouse, who went to Pratt as a painter and fell into jewelry. She sells at Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Beautiful Dreamers, and Barneys. I made a plaster slab for them to sit on; I took Sight Unseen’s casting class with Chen Chen and Kai Williams during the Noho Design District, and I thought I could make some plaster things. So I threw a bunch of plaster in a cardboard box. The Art Deco creamer I got at flea market.
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KR: The leopard, I think he’s covered in rabbit fur and painted… It’s an antique and it’s not for sale — it’s already sold to me, haha. I got it on Etsy. If you search fur toys on Etsy, you can find some really good things.

GK: In the background are Cracked cards. We were originally thinking about having Garbage Pail Kids, Mad magazines, and those things from my childhood, I forget what they’re called, where they’re parodies of cleaning products and candy bars — so instead of Ritz crackers, it’s Rats crackers. I thought it would be great to include all these products Germany has never seen. Everyone loves the Cracked cards; it’s the hot seller. I got them at brimfield. I made a trip there and got a couple of things for the shop, and that was one of them.

KR: I got really into the idea of these kids’ toys from my childhood, like the clocks with eyes that go back and forth, or the bird that drinks the water that you see here at the back of the same shelf. They’re so janky but so graphic; the colors and shapes of those toys are really appealing to someone with an artistic sensibility.
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KR: The pineapple is so 2013! Every day we’ve been open, people have been asking how much it costs, but my friend Julia claimed it before we opened; I told her it had to stay in the store, but I feel like such a tease, everyone wants it. It’s sitting on top of a marble trivet by Fort Standard.
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KR: At right on this table are two antique mirrors and a modernist cologne bottle. Then there’s a Fredericks & Mae checkerboard, and we also have their dominoes and backgammon set. We also got some Fredericks & Mae arrows, but they’re still stuck in customs. I hope they’re not being mistaken for weapons.

GK: Also on this table are two books from Libraryman, Sol & Luna and Die Son Sien Alles. They’re by Viviane Sassen, my favorite photographer, with Tony from Libraryman doing the design and art direction. Then some of these zines are by Jesse Hlebo at Swill Children, who printed my zine. He prints on only risographs left in the area, which is basically a Xerox machine with a color drum.

KR: In the jewelry case here it’s Susannah Winehouse, Quarry, Fort Standard, and Samma — it’s the brass zone. In general I think the shop is a good marriage between my interests and Gabe’s. I tend to graivtate towards jewelry and ceramics, while he gravitates towards music, zines, and art books. It’s very complimentary. Yes, we’re doing things that are cool and on trend, but at the end of the day these are all things that have been made with heart by our friends and peers, and want to celebrate them. We’ve only been open a few days but we’ve had really good feedback. People are excited!