"Money, budgets, strategy, borders, limits—–if you want to be successful, you have to keep them all in mind at once," says Seyhan Özdemir while smoking a cigarette at her desk. A slice of the Bosporus, blue with white boats, peeks between buildings through the tall window behind her. It then reflects off a mirror, placed deliberately so she can enjoy the view from where she sits.
Özdemir founded the design firm Autoban with Sefer Çağlar in 2003, eight years after they met, at age 20, at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University—–Özdemir studying architecture, Çağlar interior design. "Sefer is like a brother," Özdemir says. "We created ourselves together through our passions for design, architecture, and telling a story." After a few years of professional experience, they opened a small studio and began designing interiors.
"In those days, Turkey didn’t know about branding," she recalls with a hint of disdain. The duo wanted to create total environments, filled with their own furniture and graphic designs and their distinctive aesthetic character. They needed to claim their territory and did it in part through the name Autoban, which came from the life-as-highway metaphor—–driving fast and making all the right moves.
"The decisions we make are so important," Özdemir adds. "Every project is a mix of the client’s brief, the location, the history, the architecture, the people who live there, who eat there. Sometimes it’s just a feeling."
The feeling in an Autoban space is generally warm, good-humored, and cosmopolitan. The designers also have a healthy appetite for aesthetic contrasts, and their work can offer baroque curves meeting square edges, the old abutting the new, rough-hewn surfaces jostling up against polished metal, and subtle cultural influences playing off each other. Traces of humor emerge here and there, and wood—–the material most readily available for local production in Istanbul—–is everywhere.
The Autoban partners combine product development, their favorite activity, with interior design projects. Their first interior, Istanbul’s Sedir cafe, was in a converted 19th-century Greek mansion, and the budget was tiny. They created ornate light fixtures using found objects, delineated the window frames with bright colors, stripped the walls, painted sections in crisp white
to offset scruffy swaths of worn paint, and incorporated summer-house-style furniture to reference the neighborhood’s past life as a resort town.
Most importantly, they added a graphic message, using icons like the crescent moon and star of the Turkish flag, which they emblazoned on a wooden panel and surrounded with lightbulbs—–a national coat of arms spliced with a vanity mirror. The message prompts questions, but it’s these whimsical graphic touches that make Autoban’s interiors feel like more than simple decoration.
Sedir led to jobs that became their bread and butter: Istanbul’s trendy House Café, now a chain with ten locations and growing, and Vakko, Turkey’s biggest fashion retailer. "You have to get people to believe in you," says Özdemir, "and your crazy world."
Autoban’s world is crazy enough to involve a bit of droll imagery attached to otherwise sturdy, stately furniture. At their office, they’ve festooned the furniture with black silhouettes: a puffin perched on the Woody chair; a giraffe nibbling a plant atop the Ladder bookcase; a mustached man in an apron, holding a big knife and staring down a duck on the Bergère chair. The silhouettes double as ideal environments: two-tone, contoured worlds where the designers’ imaginations have total control. This might be why they so love designing furniture—–their limitations don’t involve multiple clients, site issues, or the sapping effect of never-ending logistical questions.
Their product work has grown apace with interiors. Their wares won quick acclaim in 2004 at the tony furniture fair Salon du Meuble in Paris, and a display two years later at London’s 100% Design led to a contract with De La Espada, the Portuguese-Spanish furniture retailer that now produces, markets, and distributes Autoban’s products and furniture.
Before De La Espada came calling, Autoban was manufacturing its furniture in the many workshops in the bohemian neighborhoods Galata and Tünel near the firm’s studio. Production quality was high, and long-term relationships with certain craftsmen meant good communication. But higher volumes, marketing, and distribution were beyond the scope of the small office, now a team of 32, which is
still overwhelmed with interior design projects. Freed from the burden of selling, Autoban can focus on total control of the design and production of goods. Rather than send drawings to De La Espada, they go beyond the drafting board and send them whole pieces of finished furniture. "We have the products made, and we sand them ourselves," Özdemir says. "Two centimeters of thickness is something, but 2.5 is something different."
New product concepts are sometimes spontaneous—–ideas from found objects or childhood memories—–but often deliberate, defined by specific interior needs. For instance, the design of the Mushroom family of stools was function driven: They can be seats or tables. The rectilinear Box sofa was specifically intended to create "architectural product design," which Özdemir says harks back to her favorite designers—–Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Eameses. "We use lots of organic and experimental forms in our interiors," she adds, "so sometimes we need strong, sharp, geometric shapes for contrast."
As Autoban has grown, Western media has made much of its Turkishness, tending to exoticize its product line, pointing out mosque motifs like minaret-shaped curves and backlit perforations. This line of inquiry too often misses what’s most compelling about the duo’s work: In less than a decade, Autoban has become an instrumental force in Istanbul—–almost single-handedly injecting a design scene into the city. Turkey was well represented in Milan recently, with young designers like Erdem Akan and Serhan Gürkan showing furniture in Zona Tortona. The annual Istanbul Design Week launched in 2005, and creative studios have been popping up all over town. "You can see Istanbul changing day by day," says Özdemir.
So what’s next for Autoban? "We want to do some big architectural projects," says Özdemir. "The whole building from the ground up. If we do the whole building, the design can create a whole new experience. The story will be complete."
Our "Process" queen Virginia Gardiner currently lives in London, where she is finishing up a master's degree in industrial design engineering. "It has been fun but also tiring," she reports. "I spend a lot of time in the workshop with glue and other stuff on my hands and have recently been casting lots of shapes in horse poo from the horses that trot around Buckingham Palace. But we have to make stuff with a market, so I'm working on a new waterless toilet.