A Letter From Istanbul

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The drive from Istanbul Ataturk airport in to the city must be one of the most scenic of all such journeys. The road traces the shoreline of the shimmering Marmara sea, an expanse of blue dotted with the rusty red hulks of shipping containers: picturesque, but also a reminder of the significance of trade in Istanbul’s long and complicated history. I’m visiting the city to attend the annual home textiles trade fair, the showcase event for one of the country’s biggest exports. I’m also hoping, in between meeting textile manufacturers and being mini-bussed from hotel to fairground to restaurant, to get an impression of a city I have never visited before.

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Given that Istanbul has been pivotal on the silk route for hundreds of years, it is surprising to learn that Turkey’s homegrown textile industry, as it exists today, is a 20th century creation, borne of vast cotton fields and industrialisation. Far from the teeming souk I was, perhaps naively, hoping for, this trade fair looked much like any other, overwhelming in scale and uninspiring in its business park setting. And the outlook of the textile manufacturers showcasing in the vast exhibition halls for ‘EVTEKS 09’ is decidedly global. As primarily an export industry, most designs pander to foreign tastes: the English like heavy cottons, the Greeks prefer lightweight sheers, the Russians go for bright colours – whatever you’re looking for, you can find it here.

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In the entrance hall is the Trend Forum. This year, presumably in a bid to seem open and Europe-friendly, they invited Dutch ‘Concept Designer’ Inkrit Berbee to forecast (invent?) some trends for 2010. So Berbee, in a floral kaftan and designer glasses, guided us round the pop-up pavilion displaying her predictions for the future direction of home textiles, which comprised six ‘moods’ – with names like ‘Emotion’, ‘Erosion’ and the ‘English Dandy’. It will be interesting to see if any of these ‘moods’ turn up in Habitat or Homebase next year.

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For a more ‘authentically’ Turkish experience I had to wait until our scheduled stop at the Grand Bazaar, which, in spite, or perhaps because of, the onslaught of haggling and heckling, seems to be a popular shopping destination for locals and tourists alike. It is here that you will find the more traditional handwoven textiles. ‘Kilim’ are one such – the making of these carpets is the winter pastime of shepherds in Anatolia, woven from their sheeps’ wool and coloured with natural dyes. The production process hasn’t changed for centuries. A pleasing irony that, overlooked by industrialisation, the scarcity of the shepherds’ handiwork has now rendered it a highly prized commodity.

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The Turkish economy has seen an unprecedented rate of growth since 2002 and the cotton empire has played its part. The EVTEKS fair is the second largest globally, after Heimtextil in Frankfurt, and the sense of national pride here is tangible. Sponsored by the Textile Exporters’ Association, the fair is viewed as a chance to demonstrate to an international audience that the Turkish economy, in contrast to the rest of flagging Europe, is doing just fine. As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the fair in an elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony, the national anthem was belted out. Perhaps not something that is conceivable at the opening of 100% Design… Still, amongst producers there is a definite sense of unease, and talk of ‘innovating to stay ahead’, in the face of the growing competition from China and India.

But there is a conflict here. Despite these forward-looking postures, the business model is undeniably traditional. Turkey has been a secular state for a long time now, but there were very few women in evidence anywhere: business decisions in an industry where the customers must predominantly be female are still left to the men. Even the biggest players seem to keep it in the family – brothers are now joint-CEOs of companies started by their fathers in the 50s. And transactions were conducted (if that is indeed what they were doing) in a very relaxed manner: every stall had its complement of suits with expanding waistlines and receding hairlines lounging over Turkish coffee and syrupy baclava. And of course, surrounded by a milky haze of cigarette smoke. That can’t be good for the fabric.

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As is probably typical of such trips, after two days I realised I had still seen very little except the inside of a glorified tin shed and some – admittedly very nice – restaurants. So I took the bold step of going off-itinerary and after one terrifying taxi ride found myself in Istanbul proper. The plan was to visit a design practice – Autoban – who first came to British attention when they won a Blueprint Award at 100% Design in 2006. A twenty-strong team led by two architects turned interior and product designers, Autoban are a relatively young practice who have risen to the top of the competition, and are the designer of choice for top fashion brand Vakko and coffee chain The House Café. Later that afternoon I went for a cup of Turkish Apple Tea in one such café on the buzzing Istiklai Caddesi. And I’ll be honest – it was just really cool. The people, the food, and probably most importantly, the décor courtesy of Autoban. A carelessly stylish café for a very hip part of town.

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Their refurbished warehouse gallery is in the same area – the Pera/Tunel quarter, which holds some of the last, elegantly decaying, buildings of the Ottoman empire, and is now undergoing a slow process of gentrification. Not far from the ancient Galata tower, it is populated by workshops and artisans’ studios, and Autoban rely on their old-time expertise in crafting their distinctively contemporary products. The influence of paired down Scandinavian design is clear, but as is endemic to Istanbul, it has been blended with something more distinctively Eastern – brass, rich woods, ornamental tracery all lend a more luxurious flavour.

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On rejoining the itinerary I discovered I hadn’t missed much, just a visit to a shiny new shopping mall, one of an increasing number worryingly sprouting all over the city. Turks are clearly keen to be citizens of the EU – far from being a taboo subject, the failed membership bid frequently comes up in conversation. But at the moment it seems they have such a clear and proud sense of self, it would be a tragedy to see any kind of homogenisation creeping in. Istanbul is a fascinating city because of the blend of influences that have informed its development. It has somehow managed to retain an authentically exotic flavour that is rare nowadays in the face of tourism opportunities – perhaps because it has always been a city full of visitors. And this is one visitor who can’t wait to go back.

This article first appeared in the August 2009 issue of Blueprint. Many thanks to UIB for their hospitality.

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