Home Tour: Eclectic Folklore Accents Bring This Industrial-Era House In Berlin To Life
An ornately carved Moroccan door leads through the large Berliner Zimmer —a spacious room connecting the front and back houses—to the bedroom in Kasia Korczak and Payam Sharifi’s apartment in a classic Gründerzeitwohnung (Industrial Era building) in Moabit, an inner city locality of Berlin.
Sharifi says that, when the door is closed, it has a tromp l’oeil effect: guests often don’t realise that it’s a real door. “Because it doesn’t fit in with that environment—there’s this traditional Moroccan door squeezed into a 19th-century house—[they assume that] it’s a sculpture or a wall piece,” he says. “They don’t think it opens up.” But it does, and it has a curious psychological impact. “There’s an ‘Open Sesame’ effect of opening an old wooden door, as opposed to a modern door, which makes the passage into the bedroom more pronounced, separating the private space from the more public realm of the home,” he says.
A NECESSARY TRANSITION
Prior to renovating the apartment, Korczak had already decided to include the door in the plans. As their architect Marc Benjamin Drewes, who worked in collaboration with German design firm Schneider Oelsen, recalls, “The first time we walked into the space, it was already lying on the floor.” He freely admits that he would never have been bold enough to include it in a renovation, but loves its effect.
The Moroccan door also marks an important transition in the apartment between the spaces with original 19th-century features—which were restored—and a contrasting, more modern section where new walls were added to accommodate bathrooms and where “we couldn’t rely on the old traditional look,” says Drewes. “Hence we went completely modern and did something without any details.”
Finding this apartment and moving in wasa significant turning point for Korczak and Sharifi. As co-founders of the art collective Slavs and Tatars, they and the other members of the collective had practiced apart, dotted across different cities around the world since they formed in 2006.
Sharifi is an American-Iranian writer, researcher, and artist from Texas who has lived and worked in London, New York, Paris, Moscow, and Tehran. Korczak, originally from Łódz, in central Poland, has lived, worked, and studied in London, Arnhem, and Brussels.
“It was essentially the first time we were both in the same city as a collective, so it was the first time we had a home and a studio,” says Sharifi.
They chose Berlin as their base for several reasons. Slavs and Tatars is a research-based artistic practice, concentrating on the region between the former Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China. “Berlin is perfectly suited to accommodate those research needs,” says Sharifi. “It has the resources that you have at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, but also the Russian State Library in Moscow. So, in one city, you have access to research materials you would normally find only in a Slavic or Eastern city, or a Western city.”
Their current neighbourhood, Berlin Moabit, is situated slightly north of the city centre, near Tiergarten and the Reichstag. It was in the former West Berlin, but has working-class roots and was among the last neighbourhoods to gentrify. “It’s a microcosm of the whole of Berlin: most of the city is pretty communitarian, but here you have Germans, Turks, Africans, Arabs, and Eastern Europeans all within half a square kilometre,” says Sharifi.
NUANCES FROM THE PAST
The working-class roots of the area made the features of the apartment they found all the more exciting. “It had many original materials, and really extensive moulding on the ceilings,” says Drewes. “You don’t see that so much.” He thought of it as a diamond in the rough.
The 19th century Gründerzeit origins of the building were interesting to Korczak and Sharifi in terms of their artistic practice, too. Part of reason they formed Slavs and Tatars was to envision an alternative idea of modernity that does not so much rupture with the past as innovate within a tradition. Not only was the anonymous craftsmanship embodied in the ceiling mouldings an example of the kind of craft-based practice that they like to reconnect with in their own work, but it also evoked a pre-modern world view that many cultures have in common.
“Of course, modernity has made ceilings blank slates,” says Sharifi. “But, until the turn of the 20th century, people around the world invested their wealth in their ceilings.” From the wood carvings in middle European medieval houses to the Muslim world, ceilings were clad with “a certain indulgence of assets” as Sharifi puts it. “A [beautiful] ceiling elevates you, it makes you look up like you do in a cathedral. Modernity re-centred that gaze towards the individual and this world and not the next world,” says Sharifi. “You’re always looking at eye level or down, at the floors.” He found the effect of the ornate “pre-modern ceiling, where you can see a relative amount of wealth for a working class neighbourhood” intriguing, and he and Korczak saw its potential to allow life and their artistic practice to dovetail.
For the most part, rather than altering the apartment, the renovation involved bringing out its inherent qualities. “The task was not to destroy anything,” says Drewes. The moulding on the ceilings in three of the rooms, for example, had been painted and repainted so many times over the past century that much of the detail had been obscured. A lot of time and effort went into painstakingly shaving off the layers of paint by hand. “We didn’t know in the beginning how long it would take,” says Drewes.
A SENSE OF DISCOVERY
As they peeled off the layers, they uncovered patches of colour and even evidence that the ceiling had once been decorated with figurative frescoes. “When everything wascleaned, we decided to just leave it like it is, and not paint over it,” says Drewes. “Now you have this really rich texture in the ceiling that defines the room.”
The rest of the restoration involved sanding the old oak parquet and the wooden boards and treating them with a mixture of oil and wax. The doors were stripped and repainted, too, and the walls plastered with a simple roughly textured lime cement.
In the back of the apartment, where there was none of the detailing that attracted Korczak and Sharifi, the renovation took on a contrasting approach. These areas, including the bedroom that leads off the Berliner Zimmer via the Moroccan door and new bathrooms, are characterised by a minimalist approach. Walls were added and the bathrooms modernised. “We went completely modern,” says Drewes. Details were all but excluded—the door handles have roses for flush installation and the doors themselves have concealed hinges and are flush fitting. There is no skirting on the walls either, but a line of special paint instead. “It really goes in the complete other direction,” says Drewes. “This is a combination that I am particularly interested in, and that really works well, I think.”
The floors in these new areas are tiled with patterned untreated cement tiles, prompted by the Moroccan door, which also impart a particular atmosphere to these areas of the apartment. They offset the pristine modernity of the new areas, and Sharifi notes how they “breathe” and cool these areas without making it necessary to open a window in the bedroom, for example, which would create a draft.
Just as Korczak and Sharifi’s artistic practice as Slavs and Tatars involves an investigation of complex, ambiguous, and multiple subjectivities, and the design of the apartment itself plays modern and pre-modern eras off against each other, so the furnishings and art continue that habit of a complex investigation of space and identity.
While Sharifi is clear to point out that he’s not anti-modern, a large portion of Slavs and Tatars’ artistic practice involves collaborating with craftspeople from Eurasia to create elements of the installations and objects that constitute their work. “One of the reasons [the art collective] was created was to put pressure on a received notion of modernity,” says Sharifi. “There’s less emphasis on authorship in the crafts as there is in the fine arts. It’s much less about the individual and much less about rupture. In the arts, the emphasis is always about a break—about going against what came before you. Whereas crafts are about actually inscribing yourself in a tradition, and then innovating, but within that tradition.”
It was very important to Korczak and Sharifi that their home should be socially and culturally inclusive: that both builders who worked on the renovation and art collectors who visit could feel equally comfortable in it. “What’s special about our home is that it manages to be an interesting space without being socially exclusive,” says Sharifi. “The idea of hospitality is central to much of Slavs and Tatars’ work, and couldn’t be more relevant politically in the current climate.”
From the anonymous craftsmanship of the ceiling mouldings to the furnishings and decorative elements that are drawn from the artisanal traditions of Poland and Iran, given Korczak and Sharifi’s backgrounds, the design is collective and inclusive rather than intended to impress anyone or display the owners’ status and aspirations.
Perhaps one of the most prominent pieces of furniture that embodies this democratization of design is the Iranian riverbed in the living room. “This is considered an example of a vernacular architecture you find across Central Asia and the Caucuses,” explains Sharifi. “You find it at roadside stops. You often find it near rivers, hence its name, and in tea houses. What’s interesting for us is that, as opposed to a Western type seating where a chair is ‘your chair’ or ‘my chair,’ there is no individual space here. There is space for three or four people to sit on it, and there is no delineation whose space is what. It also has a multi-functionality where you can take a tray and have tea, you can sit, you can eat, you can lie down and read, you can essentially do anything, as opposed to this very prescriptive idea of a chair or couch, which is essentially something you sit on (or lie down on at best).”
Similarly, the Polish mountain chairs from the village of Zakopane in the Tatra mountains, not far from Krakow, represent an early 20th century national movement, not unlike the Art and Crafts movement in England, in which “urban Poles and intellectuals moved to the countryside to rediscover what is quintessentially Polish”. “It became a kind of cult creative getaway, almost the 19th century or early 20th century equivalent of Santa Fe or Marfa, in Texas,” says Sharifi.
The three-legged stools from Romania are a simpler vernacular handcrafted design. At the same time, there are a number of mid-century Polish pieces, many inherited from Korczak’s family. And one of Sharifi’s favourite pieces is a pre-1914 cubist chandelier by Czech Josef Gocár. “It is a rare example of a principle of the fine arts being applied to one of the applied arts,” he says.
The significance of the carpets throughout the apartment is another exploration into the possibilities of handcrafts. The artists often collaborate with craftsmen from Turkey, Iran, and Poland to create rugs and carpets for their own artworks and installations. They like the cultural ambiguity such materialsrepresent. “In Eastern Europe, people put carpets on the walls,” Sharifi explains. “We of course in the Middle East and the Caucuses put them on the floor. We do both in our practice.” He likes the sense of indeterminacy they create.
In their home, however, the carpets represent an interest in their design, particularly what Sharifi calls a “cult subgenre of figurative rugs” featuring lions made by nomadic tribes. “They’re always particularly small so they can be carried,” he explains, “And they’re often stitched as a dowry or benediction, to give birth to a boy.”
More generally, however, the carpets represent another cultural bridge to a premodern era and a corrective to the preciousness with which they’re typically treated in the West. “In places that make carpets like Iran and Turkey—we’re not precious about carpets,” he says. “They last for a hundred years. Red wine has spilled on my parents’ carpets for as long as I can remember, and you just wash it out. You don’t obsess about it, really.”
There’s one in the kitchen area, and a number of others throughout the house. Sharifi says that the obsession with hygiene and cleanliness that typically keeps kitchens in the West tiled is another “obsession of modernity.” “I’m cooking three times a day, .unless you’re a complete mess, there’s a margin of error for stuff to fall,” he says. For Sharifi and Korczak, this exploration of the possibilities f or a modernity that links with the past is evident everywhere in their house. Sharifi cites Antoine Compagnon, a French literary critic, who argues that “the true modernists were actually the likes of Baudelaire who were ambivalent about the passing of the pre-modern era.” He calls them “people with one eye in the rear-view mirror, moving forward, but with a little bit of a conflictual relationship with the past.”
It’s the very ambiguity, the uncertainly and even sense of conflict in certain elements throughout the apartment that create its unique sense of hospitality. It invites interaction; it invites in the anonymous craftspeople who created so many of its furnishings and features; it invites in the past and the present; it invites interpretation, and wine on the carpets.
It is a very special home for Korczak and Sharifi, but a place where others might feel at home too. It’s a uniquely wonderful space that builds bridges.
Styling Sven: Alberding/ Bureaux | Photography: Greg Cox/ Bureaux
Originally published in the latest Philippine Tatler Homes, which is now available in all leading newsstands and bookstores, and downloadable via Magzter, Zinio, or PressReader.