Craft & Symbol: A Turkish Collection Curated by Gökhan Karakuş

“…we have a younger generation of designers with a more global view of design who are using local culture to their advantage to create unique designs. These designers are working with craft and craftsmen from Turkey in a way that allows them to be more experimental and [they] are now freer in their use of symbols and icons in their work.”

– Gökhan Karakuş, curator of “Craft & Symbol”

All images courtesy of the designers; 3D renders by Cielo Alejandra, styled by Martin Clausen.

View the full “Craft & Symbol” collection

Set against the wood and stone of a traditional apartment, “Craft & Symbol” focuses on the vitality of craft and the presence of the imperfect gesture in contemporary Turkish design. Process takes centre stage, with collaboration between designer and craftspeople foregrounded to highlight the physical and symbolic acts of making. In his third collection for Adorno, Istanbul-based designer, curator, business strategist, historian, architecture critic, and theorist Gökhan Karakuş builds on “The Hidden Hand” and “The Istanbul Collection” to illustrate the ways that contemporary makers have developed their approaches in line with the design scene’s extensive craft heritage. His interests for this collection lie the work of the new generation of designers, whose work inspired Karakuş “[to] reassess the role of symbol, representation, and iconography in design from Turkey”.

“Gestures ranging from the perfect to the imperfect are an important factor in the final form of an object. They determine the shape and contours of objects in their realization, and have an underlying iconic potency. For thousands of years, the performance of the hand in cutting, shaping, molding, and chiseling materials was the key factor in the final form of many objects. The hand’s capabilities and limitations guided the process in which function was realized, and also resulted in the aesthetics and stylization of the object, generating what can be described as ‘latent symbolic force’.” 

Through the work of ten designers, this collection visualises the continuation of craft techniques and illustrates how symbolism is infused through process in contemporary Turkish design. Their pops of colour, use of local materials, and unexpected forms highlight the ways that these makers acknowledge the design scene’s extensive craft heritage, while making space for their own identities in collectible design. Collaboration – with craftspeople, artisans, and other designers – has played an integral part in developing this contemporary view of design, foregrounding the merging of skills and knowledges in a single piece.

“Craft & Symbol” features the work of Antrepo Istanbul, Buket Hoşcan Bazman, Buşra Tunç, Errin Kancal, Ethnicloom, Mesut Öztürk, Sema Topaloğlu, StudioFER, Studio TimTim, Urban Atölye, and Zoya.

Interview with collection curator Gökhan Karakuş:

Which three words would you use to describe the contemporary design scene in Turkey?

Fractured. Vibrant. Hands-on

With your background as a designer, historian, and curator, which aspects of a designer’s practice draw your attention? Why?

As a curator, I use my background in the history of design to assess the value of a designers work. Many designers, especially in Turkey, have the idea that their work exists outside of cultural and historical continuums, in a sort of vacuum, but this is not the case. Design, like architecture, comes out of many, many years of developments in social taste, economic reality, and cultural views. That is why I try to select and work with designers that are aware of from where and how their work arises. I make it a point to speak and work with these designers in relationships that are now spanning – in some cases like Sema Topaloğlu and Nilufer Kozikoğlu – almost a decade.

Design in Turkey is a relatively new activity and profession dating about 50-60 years. I think we are still trying to understand what “design from Turkey” is about. As a designer, I have made a point to focus on issues such as pattern, geometry, materiality, and craft which I have seen as central to design in Turkey and have applied these features in the work of my own design studio, Emedya Design. For example, at Emedya Design, we have a particular design focus on natural stone, creating marble mosaic panels and tables over the years.

In parallel, I have looked for these same features of pattern, geometry, and craft in other designers over the years in the work of Elif Gonensay of Ethnicloom and, most recently, Ozge Caglayan of Antrepo Istanbul and Hulya Oz of Zoya. Craft is still central to the material culture of everyday life in Turkey and has dynamics in form and style that these designers have readily adopted and worked with, [this is what] has drawn my attention because these are the unique aspects of contemporary culture in Turkey that make them “Turkish Design”.


Top, L-R: Buşra Tunç & Jenny Nordberg, “LIFE CABIN” Vase A & “LIFE CABIN” Vase D // Bottom: Zoya, “Arch of Sinan” Coffee Cups

How have you approached the curation of “Craft & Symbol”?

This was an interesting process that started about two years ago with my collection for Adorno that appeared at the London Design Fair. There, I introduced designers – especially younger maker-designers – that were overtly using symbols and icons. It made me reassess the role of symbol, representation, and iconography in design from Turkey.

As the historian of post-War design in Turkey, I knew that the use of symbols of the past – especially from the Ottoman past – were taboo, which made the use of symbols overall largely taboo in most design from the 1960s on. All designers in Turkey, especially those graduating from the newly formed Industrial Design departments in universities, were discouraged from using overt symbols of Turkishness in favor of more abstract modernist forms. This was largely the case until the 2000s when there were more direct references to Turkish culture, history, and craft in design.

But now, we have a younger generation of designers with a more global view of design who are using local culture to their advantage to create unique designs. These designers are working with craft and craftsmen from Turkey in a way that allows them to be more experimental and [they] are now freer in their use of symbols and icons in their work. I started to see this in the work of, for example, Studio TimTim, Errin Kancal, and Buket Hoscan Bazman and felt that I needed to take this desire for the integration of this more “latent symbolism” in design into account.

I want to be clear in saying that this use of symbols by these designers is not intended to be overt in expressing any direct reference to the historic past or other cultural contexts. Rather, the interest in the design seems to have a loose and latent presence of symbolism interwoven with materials and processes. These younger designers are clearly expressing this desire for meaning in their work.

This collection features a diverse range of practices: from the detailed stone work of Errin Kancal, to the playful vision of Studio TimTim, to the experimental and atmospheric approach of Buşra Tunç. What does this range of approaches say about the larger contemporary design scene in Turkey?

Contemporary design in Turkey is fractured along lines determined by economy in the sources of revenue for design practice. We have, for example, the very established interior design sector. Most designers work here creating interiors in the constant churn of taste and needs where there is always demand. This type of design tends to be executed along the lines of global interior trends and clients’ stylistic tastes and, in particular, is not an area of high minded ideas. We also have the academic world of design existing in between universities and other institutions who programmatically support idea-driven design based on research and experimentation. In Turkey, for example, we have the Istanbul Design Biennial where, over the years, many academy-based designers have pursued experimental work in parallel to global themes. The funding and timing of these intellectual pursuits tends to mean that most of this design is focused on a smaller audience of students and enthusiasts in urban centers such as Istanbul. These designs are divorced from Turkish society at large. You wouldn’t see many of these designs in people’s homes or offices.

Which gets me to the answer to your question about the range of designers in this collection. These designers are a small group that exist between the economies of interior design and academically funded design. Each of the designers is pursuing experiments in process, material, and symbolism, but with the goal of placing these designs in spaces for living in Turkey today. In other words, there is a broad range of approaches in this collection, but they all share the goal of creating something new from experimentation and thought, but with the idea that this design can live comfortably and have purpose in someone’s house or office, etc. In this way, the designers in this collection are creating an interesting middle ground between interior design and academic views where they can sell objects with high minded concepts to a clientele that wants these kinds of unique ideas and objects in their daily lives. This, I think, is an extremely important development for design in Turkey, showing that our design community and designers can pursue interesting ideas and have a way to sell these designs as objects to local Turkish society as a grassroots effort.

As the curator of this collection, I have worked with many of these designers over many years to fine tune their ideas and designs with this goal in mind, that is commercially viable, high minded design grown out of Turkey’s material reality and cultural context. “Craft & Symbol” is the culmination of my efforts over the last decade as a curator to “grow” this kind of design in a sustainable way in Turkey.


Buşra Tunç, “ÄTHER”

Both “Craft & Symbol” and your previous collection, “The Hidden Hand”, highlight the continuation of craft traditions by designers, artisans, and craftspeople. In what ways do you see contemporary designers revitalising and/or adapting these techniques to their current practices?

I think each of the designers respects the time and effort that goes into making a fine quality object by hand and craft, they are all very hands on. Some of them work directly with craftspeople, co-creating designs, [while] others make these pieces themselves by using craft traditions. In each case, technique, craft, and design are developed together to make something new, yet with respect to tradition.

In Turkey, we have many traditional handcrafts, such as carpet weaving or ceramics. Unfortunately, most of these traditions have not developed and are mired in kitsch or static forms of bygone eras. The challenge that these designers have undertaken has been to work with traditions and means of hand craft and production to update them in terms of design and forms, to make them living traditions. For example, Ozge Çağlayan’s means of woodworking or Buşra Tunç’s work with steel and industrial materials by hand updates each of these practices beyond craft, [while] still retaining handwork as a design aesthetic. Mesut Öztürk’s ceramics take the long standing traditions of Turkish ceramics into a completely different direction as ceramic furniture. Elif Gonensay’s hemp rugs modernize this tradition by emphasizing the texture of the weaving pattern over an overt use of symbols and geometries normally found in Turkish rugs. [And] STUDIOFER’s use of leather textures embedded elegantly by hand into a wood stool takes Turkey’s craft traditions in leather craft and fashion into the furniture design realm.


Top: Mesut Öztürk, “Arch Stool Square White” // Bottom: Errin Kancal, “Ala” Solo Table

What do you see – beginning, changing, or continuing – in the future of contemporary Turkish design?

The change I see is a vibrancy in terms of making and designing in a sustainable economic process. Through social media and the digital realm, designers now can sell their self-produced works to a wider world. This has produced a means to create interesting objects at small scales. Adorno is very much at the center of this realm of giving designers access to a global perspective.

For contemporary Turkish design, this is an important step for access to a global market. It will mean that our Turkish designers will be on the international market by their own means and with their own names or brands. There will be an identity for Turkish design where previously there was almost none. Interestingly, I think our local Turkish market will see that these designers are getting international attention and will take our local designers more seriously. Right now, the market for the type of collectible design shown in the “Craft & Symbol” collection is non-existent in Turkey.

I think a local Turkish market for collectible design will be created as local Turkish collectors will understand the value accorded to these designs internationally and will want to take advantage of the creativity found in Turkish contemporary design created by designer makers. I myself, as a curator, hope to do more exhibitions in Turkey with this group found on Adorno including those designers from previous exhibitions.

Also, many of these designers cannot be found in international design biennials and events. I hope that through exhibitions such as “Craft & Symbol”, we can see Turkish design in more visible places in these circles. As a curator, I will be actively working to achieve this goal, also of placing Turkish design in international design biennials, exhibitions, and museums.

I think this will be a two pronged dynamic: 1) the development of a local Turkish market and collector base for collectible Turkish design, and 2) Contemporary Turkish Design collectively on the international stage will reshape design in Turkey. There will be an extension of the place for design in Turkish society in general – currently design taste in Turkey is sketchy, and importantly there will be a larger more sustainable economy around Turkish design meaning more opportunities for all of us in design in Turkey.

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