The Birth of a Tradition

With more than twelve million inhabitants, two constituent continents, and a dense overlay of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern Turkish cultures, Istanbul has everything—everything, that is, except a contemporary-design movement to call its own. Now Barbar, a cooperative of primarily mid-career industrial and graphic designers, is trying to change that by finding inspiration in remote corners of the city’s three-millennium history. The group’s distinctive forms recall the medieval ceramics of pre-Ottoman Seljuk tribes, or rare Anatolian flora, or the old-fashioned doilies placed underneath typical Turkish tea glasses. “You really have to understand your roots to produce an identity,” says Defne Koz, a Barbar member who believes that Turkish industrial design, for all its advances in the last few years, is still a tradition waiting to be born.

Barbar’s stated purpose is to combine the futuristic with the archaic, and its latest exhibition, BarbarLight, which will appear at Istanbul Design Week in June 2009, presents more than a dozen pieces, from table lamps to wall sculptures, in identical solid-white nylon. The elegant designs were made using the same high-tech rapid-manufacturing technology as those in the group’s 2007 inaugural show, Barbarians’ Banquet, which set an imaginary table with objects like cups, trays, and even a bird feeder. Taner Şekercioğlu, an architect and a founding member, describes the exhibitions as an attempt “to find the thing that makes [Turks] different.”

Barbar traces its origins to 2002, when Gamze Güven, a Design Observeur–award winner known for her raki-liqueur bottles, attended the Milan Furniture Fair. “I was thinking of the special identity related to our culture and suddenly had an inspiration: Why don’t we make a movement?” she recalls. Largely composed of friends who met in the 1980s at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, Barbar originally wanted to explore various aspects of Turkishness through a collective design process. “In rural areas of Turkey,” Güven says, “people come together to do farming and cook. It’s called imece and it’s a typical cultural thing for Turks, so we wanted to design together.” Though working collaboratively didn’t pan out, Barbar remains free of hierarchies and mandated styles.

Şekercioğlu, who has worked with the Belgian firm Materialise, spread the word about rapid manufacturing, which allows Barbar members to exercise their individual ideas while giving the group’s work a material unity, but the technology holds different appeal for each designer. “There is a clean progression from mathematics to a finished object,” Gökhan Karakuş¸ says of the ability to take a design from the computer screen to the shelf without an intermediate molding stage. Meanwhile, Koz is drawn to the aesthetics of the material and even proposed preserving the look of the prototype cutlery she designed for Banquet by using porcelain for the blades and high-quality plastic for the handles if it went into production. “I like this completely white aspect,” she says.

Raised in Ankara, educated in Italy, and based in Chicago, Koz (the only member living outside of Turkey) uses Skype to join Barbar’s often contentious Istanbul meetings. As is fitting for a group closer to a debating society than a design label, she applauds Barbar’s products while disagreeing with its reliance on historical motifs—and possibly even its mission. Arguing that she uses the past strictly as a point of departure, she says, “The role of design is to bring civilization into everyday life.”

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