Democratic Design: The Work of Le Van Bo

Van Bo Le-Mentzel arrived on the shores of Germany as a young refugee from Laos. He was fascinated by Spiderman and dreamed of the day when he could help the helpless. Today, he still prefers to wear blue and red, in homage to his superhero, and—after studying architecture at Beuth Hochschule, a University of Applied Sciences in the working class Wedding district of Berlin—has found a way to emulate him. Like Peter Parker, he has a day job, though Van Bo has a few: as a celebrated hip hop-rapping MC, a prolific radio and television show broadcaster, a graffiti-artist, a social media king and ambassador for, the German version of Kickstarter, and as a full-time employee at Dan Pearlman Communications and Branding. By night—and this is the Spiderman part—he moonlights as a guerilla furniture designer. Inspired by Berlin’s Bauhaus legacy and the cool factor of DIY, he creates the plans for beautiful, affordable furniture and releases them for free from his website “This gives the power to the people to make their world a more aesthetic, more social, more uplifting place, without government, police or multinational interference,” he says. “They are plans for happiness—and change starts with you.” In exchange for the free plans, he has asked the furniture makers to send him pictures of their finished products along with stories of its making and uses. The result is the book Le-Mentzel & The Crowd: Hartz IV, published by Hatje Cantz in July—a delightfully inventive showcase of a brave new world where virtual crowds and furniture can change your life.

This small (1 square meter at the bottom) house-shaped construction can be just about anything. It has wheels, so it is transportable (in Berlin there are no subway turnstiles, so people wheel their 1SQM houses across town by train). It can turn to the side to be a bed or on its back to be a kitchen. In Berlin, it has been sighted in offices as a personal rest space, and on the streets as an open-air pancake kitchen. Amy McKinney, a visiting New Zealander, is running a coffee shop, Koha Café, out of hers, and sleeping in it at night. East Seven Hostel has three 1 SQM Houses on their front lawn that hostel visitors rent for 1 euro a night.

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