Alexandra Martini

Alexandra Martini interviewed by Rory MacLean

Copyright Alexandra Martini
Copyright Alexandra Martini
Rory MacLean and Alexandra Martini
Design is big in Berlin. The city was the first in Europe to be recognised as a UNESCO ‘City of Design’. It’s home to 6,000 visual artists, 2,700 architects, 400 photographers and 1,300 design studios. As Berlin has constantly reinvented itself over the last century – in the Golden Twenties, in 1933, after the war, with and then without the Wall – its identity has come to be based not on stability but on change. No surprise then that it’s now the design capital of Germany.

“Design is about the pursuit of change,” said Alexandra Martini, curving her arm under her distended belly. “Good design thinks and implies an onward movement, considering functionality, aesthetics, tradition, processes and cultural context.”

Berlin Bending Tower. Copyright Alexandra MartiniMartini, aged 36, is one of Berlin’s most dynamic designers. Working alone and in her Martini, Meyer partnership, she has created the iconic BerlinBendingTower, designed the first post-unification New Berlin campaign, conjured up ergonomic office interiors and built a sky-watching Yellow Room high above London. Now she is three days away from giving birth and bursting with ideas.

“I’m a designer, not an artist,” she insisted, her intense blue eyes flecked with green. “A designer is a team player, working with partners to find a solution to a specific problem.”

Her journey began in Ingolstadt, the Bavarian city on the banks of the Danube where she was raised. Ingolstadt is home to Audi and Martini grew up watching the car maker succeed – in part – due to good design. For her, Audi’s corporate tagline ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ could well have meant ‘Advantage through Innovation’ rather than the literal translation ‘Advantage through Technology’.

The Yellow Room. Copyright Alexandra Martini“When I finished school I started travelling. I loved it so much - seeing new places, meeting new people, communicating in other languages – that for a time I was away from home for up to six months a year. My parents were very supportive but they were concerned about my further education. Once, just after I’d bought a one-way ticket to Caracas, my father said, ‘Why not think about what you’ll do after this journey to Venezuela.’ So I did, and applied to Berlin’s UdK (University of the Arts). They offered me a place immediately. I never made it to Caracas.”

Instead she developed her gift for design and the passionate communication of ideas. After graduation she went on to do an MA under Ron Arad at the Royal College of Art in London. She kept travelling too, working at MOMA and Ecco Design in New York, teaching in Barcelona and Athens. Her work began attract international attention. She won awards as she created designs for the Goethe Institut, habitat UK, DaimlerChrysler, even Audi.

“There was a pioneering spirit in Berlin at the start of the new century,” she recalled. “The big companies were open to experimentation. My clients simply trusted me and gave me time to develop each individual creative project.”

Over the last decade Martini has focused on interiors, design and communication. Her interior work moved I.D. magazine to write that she and Henrike Meyer were reinventing the workplace. Her imaginative designs transformed traditional objects while cocking-a-snook at cliché. For example, when Philippe Starck created his dwarf stool, Martini set about designing its German equivalent. The result was the hilarious and award-winning Landlord, a solid wooden seat in the shape of a gable roofed house. With it she asked, is there anyone in Germany who does not want to own their home?

Landlord. Copyright Alexandra MartiniMartini’s communications work is best encapsulated in Litter Only, her book about dustbins.

“Germans typically are aware of litter and recycling. I grew up learning to separate different types of rubbish and to sort them in the right bin. It made me aware of the importance of the container.”

Martini photographed public dustbins in 30 countries around the world in order to capture their differences and similarities, and encourage us to look at the world in a new way.

“Perhaps you will be inspired by this little book to devote an uneveryday look at the everyday,” she wrote in its introduction. “There are surprising things to be found everywhere.”

Martini may deny being an artist but she shares with artists a desire to offer us a different way of seeing the world… and of course that’s the main role of art. She also admitted that “designers – like artists – want to change the world. They want to make it a better place.”

Werk Suite Henry. Copyright Alexandra Martini“I have a personal law of energy physics,” she confessed. “If you invest your energy and passion into a project or in a certain direction, that energy will come back to you. It won’t necessarily come back in the way you expected, but it will be returned. Nothing grows without work, and part of ones work is to constantly question yourself and your goals.”

As well as producing new designs and children, Martini is a professor at the Braunschweig Hoschschule für Bildende Künste. She has served as Berlin’s ‘design ambassador’ in Buenos Aires and Montreal. She also advocates for political support for designers. She serves on the board of the Create Berlin network and has acted as a jurist for the International Forum concept award.

“One of the most positive changes in the design world over the last fifteen years has been the increase in institutional support. Local and federal government now work to support the media, IT and creative industries.”

This institutional support, along with the city’s dynamic cultural mix and comparatively low living costs, have made Berlin a good place for creative individuals.

“In Berlin designers can find the time to do good work,” said Martini. “Good design grows from design quality time.”

postscript: Since we met Alexandra has given birth to Antonia – yet another remarkable creation.

Rory MacLean
July 2009
Related links

Dossier: Media Art in Germany

History, tendencies, names and institutions