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When the design world's top talent descended on London in September for the 100% Design show (see BW Online, 9/30/05, "Blueprints for Quirky Design"), it was a small, relatively unknown firm -- from Turkey, of all places! -- that walked away with the buzz. Based in Istanbul, a city known more for its ancient minarets than for its world-class modern design, Autoban was awarded the show's Blueprint award for best newcomer. Underscoring its exceptional combination of furniture design and marketing material, 100% Design judges deemed Autoban "one to watch."
Just two-and-a-half years old, the company has earned a reputation for edgy-but-functional creations, ranging from furniture to lighting to the interior design of restaurants like the House Café -- a happening spot that opened last summer in Ortaköy, a seaside neighborhood of narrow cobblestone streets and waterfront teahouses, basking in the shadow of the 150-year-old Mecidye Mosque.
FORM AND FUNCTION. With its ornately carved wooden bar, frescoed walls, signature one-armed chairs, and stainless-steel Octopus-shaped chandeliers, the House Café is emblematic of the many contrasts and paradigms that define Istanbul. The look is patently modern, but it pays homage to the city's history as the seat of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires.
Like other designs in Autoban's growing portfolio, the House Café manages to balance the old with the modern, drawing attention to a dynamic city poised to storm the global design stage much as Spain has in recent years. Istanbul is in the full throes of a cultural and design rebirth. The Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian mall that had fallen on hard times, is filled with art galleries, hip stores, and trendy cafés, while the once-faded mansions that line the Bosphorous strait are being remodeled. Adding to the city's reemergence, the Istanbul Modern opened last December in a former waterfront warehouse with a collection of modern Turkish art.
Autoban was founded by Seyhan Özdemir, 30, an architect, and Sefer Çaglar, 33, an interior designer. They met as students at Istanbul's Mimar Sinan University Fine Arts Academy and shared an interest in timeless, functional, and streamlined yet original design, using natural materials that contrast with industrial looks.
LIFE IS A HIGHWAY. At first, Özdemir and Çaglar collaborated on small-scale projects -- like the Spider lamp, a stainless-steel circle of convex rods around a covered bulb -- for themselves and for friends. They installed the Spider in a popular, 100-year-old Istanbul patisserie, where it attracted so much attention that the pair ended up selling 150 units of the original design.
The Spider wasn't their only project to generate buzz. So, in 2002, they turned the fledgling partnership into a full-time design firm, taking the name Autoban because they liked the association of a highway. "On the autobahn, you always have to choose something," says Özdemir. "Go this way or that. It's like life."
Autoban -- currently numbering 10 employees, including industrial, textile, and graphic designers -- occupies a 150-year-old building with views of the Bosphorus and the Genovese-built Galata Tower, originally constructed in 1348. The walls are peeled back to expose original frescoes, and the floors are marble. To date, Autoban has created some 20 pieces of furniture and lighting, and has been commissioned to design the interiors of a number of restaurants and retail spaces.
ROAD TO SUCCESS. The concepts, prototypes, and full-fledged products on display at their design studio-cum-showroom reflect Turkish culture with a contemporary twist. Autoban's Bergere armchair is a whimsical and efficient version of a classical French armchair. The metal-rod Pumpkin coffee table, inspired by the Ottoman kavuk, doubles as a stool or chair. The King lamp is made of lacquered wood and resembles a life-size chess piece.
"There is something really unique and striking about their work," says Sheri Caso, owner of Ray20, a Manhattan design store that has begun selling several Autoban products, including the Bergere sofa. "Our company tries to find unique things that will distinguish a project from the same staples you see flipping through the furniture-design magazines. And we like to find small up-and-coming designers. Autoban is perfect for both."
Autoban is now in discussions to sell the copyright of its best-selling Spider lamp to a British company and in six months will open a combination showroom, gallery, and store -- perhaps the first of many. The team has been commissioned to design restaurants in the Sabanci Museum and continues to collaborate with Changi, a London-based restaurant with outposts in Istanbul.
HOMETOWN PRIDE. Özdemir and Çaglar insist that, despite their growing success and global acclaim, they'll stay true to their Istanbul roots. "We want to focus on design, and by manufacturing with local techniques and products, it gives us a different feel," says Özdemir. Adds Çaglar: "We have some products that can only be manufactured here," such as the firm's textiles and craftwork. "We don't want to lose that and have our products produced in China."
It's too soon to tell whether Autoban will be able to establish the kind of international brand identity achieved by the Dutch firm Moooi, or whether Istanbul will sweep onto the scene as Spanish designers did several years ago. But, clearly, the studio is one to watch.