Oke Hauser, creative lead for MINI LIVING, has many happy childhood memories of living in small spaces. As a kid, he experienced van life before it became a hashtag, traveling through Europe with his family during the summer. In fact, he still taps into these memories when designing small spaces. "I will never forget that feeling of absolute flexibility and the freedom to choose where to wake up the next day," says Hauser. "Even on wheels, the van felt like home and provided coziness and comfort thanks to its compact spatial design. It was definitely a big life on a small footprint—and that is the spirit we try to incorporate into each MINI LIVING project."
Hauser and MINI LIVING experience designer Corinna Natter are the driving force behind MINI LIVING’s design team. Their recently completed Urban Cabin has been on view in the courtyard at A/D/O, a design incubator in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The MINI LIVING Urban Cabin concept was first launched this past September during the London Design Festival, with a cabin that paid homage to the historic richness of London. Hauser and Natter took charge of the New York counterpart, which takes on a very current angle, celebrating immigration and cultural diversity. The project explores how to best design for life on a small footprint—and starts the conversation on what the future may hold for the lifestyle of urban dwellers.
Interestingly, Natter also taps into her childhood memories for small-space design inspiration. Growing up in a small village in the Austrian Alps, she used a tree house as a hide-out. "I’d register all sorts of sounds and smells," she says. "It was private, yet somehow permeable at the same time. Since then I have been intuitively drawn to snug, cozy corners with a connection to nature in every urban apartment that I have moved to."
Natter’s desire to incorporate nature into urban life can be seen in the cabin’s privacy-building green wall, lined with small house plants. "You cannot put enough nature into cities," she explains. The design for the cabin includes a green space for relaxing—complete with a hammock. The structure’s iridescent exterior allows light to enter while maintaining a sense of privacy.
Essentially a tiny house, the Urban Cabin may seem like a surprising solution for urban housing; we tend to think of building vertically as the logical way to go. But MINI LIVING doesn’t believe in "stacking people," so-to-speak. "We feel that density isn't always the answer when it comes to urban living—it's more the idea of recognizing the potential and value in underutilized urban spaces, and turning them into desirable, attractive places to live," says Natter. "There are so many of these places that exist in modern cities, if we just utilized them we could actually relieve a lot of pressure instead of just going vertical. For example, turning an old church into a library or a roof-top into a jogging track."
"MINI is quintessentially an urban brand," says Hauser. "Starting back in 1959 with the first Mini, we approached urban challenges with the viewpoint that we could offer the maximum experience on a minimal footprint. This approach to the creative use of space and human-centric design informs everything we do."
In a natural progression, the company has applied its small-space concept for automobile design to the tiny house design trend. "We are translating our core principle regarding the creative use of space to challenge architectural conventions and to contribute authentic solutions to improving urban life and urban housing problems," says Hauser. Freed from the "rules" of design, the team sought to include what they felt was missing from urban design.
"We all want to live inside of vibrant cities—full of life, serendipity, and inspiration. Unfortunately, this comes with certain challenges such as rising rents, cramped living conditions, and lack of personal space," says Hauser.
Reflecting their specific locales, elements of the Urban Cabin will be tailored to fit the cities they’re in. Says Hauser, "In a world of streamlined design, we want to create localized, specific atmospheres and experiences. We embrace design that really connects you to a place and feels like home." Natter adds, "Whenever I travel to different cities, I am impressed by how the differences shape your experience, the way you organize your days, and ultimately the way they make you feel. This has a tremendous effect on our lives and our societies. With MINI LIVING, we immerse ourselves into these various urban fabrics before starting to create."
The designers name Tokyo as a model for small-space living. "There’s an incredible balance, beauty, and depth to everything," says Natter. "You find the craziest, lit-up, 24-hour neighborhoods right next to low-rise, leafy, quiet corners. Despite its size, Tokyo has a distinct warmth and coziness."
"Japan has also led the downsizing movement, creating the minimalist lifestyle necessary for life in small spaces," says Natter, "We need to look at what we accumulate and use urban space wisely. Space is a commodity that you have to use consciously, like energy or heating."
The luxury of space has been ingrained in the way American cities have been built, and the way we think about small spaces. European cities like London and Paris, on the other hand, have grown organically over the centuries—inspiring a different attitude towards living together. "I feel like Europeans find comfort in the certain sense of compactness in their cities," says Hauser.
In this sense, the Urban Cabin has become a testing ground to see how visitors in different locations react to the design. "In London, people could interact with louvers and decide how public or private they wanted to feel. Visitors in New York could open up one part of the Urban Cabin and share their private garden with friends and family. However, we want to encourage interaction, not force it," explains Natter.
Joyful, interactive, and innovative, the Urban Cabin represents a healthier, more compassionate community. "We try to learn from different cultures, traditions, and the habits that are linked to them," says Natter. "We have to take a closer look into what makes a city unique, and how we can be a good neighbor within this system. You can't underestimate how important the way we live—and the way we live together—is for our societies. MINI LIVING really wants to contribute to create more livable environments with every single one of our projects."
Oke Hauser finished his architectural studies at the University of Stuttgart, Germany, with first class honors and won the prestigious Bruno Taut Award for his thesis. After working at Rem Koolhaas’ office OMA in New York and Herzog & De Meuron in Basel, he joined MINI as the Creative Lead for MINI LIVING.
Corinna Natter studied Interior Design & Architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. She previously worked as Editor of Architecture & Design at ELLE Decoration and on concept vehicles design in the MINI Design Studio. Today she is an Experience Designer for MINI LIVING.