Democratic Design: The Work of Le Van Bo

Democratic Design: The Work of Le Van Bo

By Caia Hagel
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.

"I read a story about a student in a small one-bedroom apartment who because she could only fit her big bed and her desk in the apartment, was too ashamed to invite her friends or her parents over," remembers Van Bo about his inspiration for this crafty ensemble of furniture. "There was nowhere to cook, nowhere to sit, not even space for standard chairs to fit. It made me think ‘Where do we find the instruction manual for how to use a small space?’ We buy a new computer or a new vacuum cleaner and we are given instructions. But nobody teaches us how to use space". So he designed plans for a small one-bedroom apartment that included a room-dividing piece (the Siwo Couch) that functions as an all-in-one couch, pull-out king size bed and bench that seats six to nine people, a miraculously problem-solving invention, along with custom-sized smaller chairs that double as tables. "Design is a social issue," says Van Bo, "it facilitates or negates social interaction depending on its cleverness, use and beauty. Wohnung makes socializing possible and enjoyable in a small space, on a small budget".

Launched at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in Berlin this July, and full of the photos and personal stories sent in by the Van Bo-following DIY furniture makers from around the world, this book celebrates the love of furniture, the social and creative benefits of building your own chairs, and further illustrates Van Bo’s social outreach. In its pages, he adds instructions on how he has built a community in seven steps, and how he envisions the capitalism of the future—which is all about Thank yous and win-wins.

"There are some things that companies need, which don’t involve money," he explains, "For example, one of the members of my Crowd is a leading figure in Deutsche Bahn, the German Rail company. She says that on hot days when the air conditioning breaks down in one of the rail cars and that car has to be removed and replaced, it causes chaos at the next station. She needs people to come to that station to re-direct traffic, explain the delay, help with the circulation and the clean-up, and give passengers a reassuring smile. If she has Karma Volunteers, they get a badge, they get to help, and they get praise and some free train tickets in return. This is more valuable to both parties than money. It brings people together in a spirit of community, and it makes that community more cohesive. This is the basic principle of Karma Economy. Everyone needs to be needed and needs to be praised. If we can do that for each other while fostering each other’s businesses, it creates a harmonious, helpful, prosperous society".

Anyone can make any of the affordable, classical, Bauhaus-inspired furniture designed by Van Bo Le-Mentzel by downloading the plans for free, investing in a couple of screwdrivers, a Japanese saw and a bit of lumber. There are no rules. You can add or subtract to the designs, paint and decorate however you like, to suit yourself and express yourself.

This is Moritz and Elmar, two DIY chair makers from the Bodensee area of Germany. They had no jobs when they built their 24 Euro chairs, and the experience strengthened their friendship. "They sent this picture in to the Hartz IV Moebel website for my book. This is one of the ways that the Karma Economy has worked for me," says Van Bo. "The KE concept, developed by Danny Iny, about how to help helpful people so that we create a vibrant community without having to use money—has been great for me. These guys are enjoying their new chairs, and I have a book that elucidates my ideas. Everyone is happy!"

Kreuzberg is the bohemian, multi-cultural district of Berlin that Van Bo lives in. "Many of the people who create this chair paint it in bright colors," he says, after the dynamic flavor of its namesake. "One has even been made in recycled paper. If you just want a cheap chair, you can go to Ikea. I love Ikea. But there is something special about making a design yourself, and making it yours—it brings people together, it harnesses creativity. It is a satisfying undertaking."

"This was my first design," says Van Bo, "I often take it with me on the

train so that I have a seat—and it starts a conversation. Even homeless

people will talk to me about it, admiring its familiar shape. This is the

power of design: Mies van der Rohe lives in the psyche of the German

people." He had the idea for this chair after shooting a mock-furniture ad

in one of the Berlin subway stations, designed by van de Rohe. "People

loved the picture and they asked ‘Where is that cool loft? I love the

living room!’ they couldn’t believe that it was an everyday train station.

We are very lucky to live in a city that is so well designed". The 24 Euro

Chair’s premise rests on the concept of the right angle, "This means that

it takes much less time and thought to create a timeless piece of

furniture—that only costs 24 euros ($30) to make".


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