Two pioneers in profile: Fiona Bennett and Hans-Joachim Böhme
“Individuality is when you give shape to what does you personally good …” That is her answer to one of my first questions in Café Baier. Our interview takes place in a classic, somewhat careworn café on a first floor in Berlin-Steglitz, with home-made cakes, bread and pastries, real cocoa, and a suspicion that coffee is only served by the pot outside.
A milliner* meets contact POINTS. I recognise her immediately – she is probably the only person in this conservative space wearing a stylish and flattering hat. We only have 35 minutes. In spite of her hectic schedule, she is friendly, focused and radiant. Her face is striking, with a pale, youthful complexion, red lips and dark hair framed by a classic black beret; her words are carefully chosen and very clear as she continues her first sentence: “… and what you like. If you have the courage to stick with something – unswayed by the influences of fashion, the mainstream and any movements, simply to find your position – visually and spiritually.” The milliner tells of her time in 1980s Berlin, the pioneering spirit she inherited from her father and her competitive streak that allowed her to save millinery. “The craft was in danger of extinction. And that is where my pioneering spirit came in. I always have to be fighting for something – like a lioness. That is what makes me happy: dragging things back from the edge of oblivion and breathing new life into them. Our teachers were all over 80 years old, could hardly walk, customers were dying out, there was no new generation, there was no innovation.
*The original German word for milliner was Putzmacherin, and millinery was an officially recognised vocational training profession; milliners created headgear of all kinds for general attire and costumes. Until the 20th century, milliners served female customers only, while hatters made headgear for men.
Fiona Bennett then simply modernised the profession fundamentally, questioned all of the old ways, took an entirely new direction and followed her unabated curiosity into uncharted territories. After her vocational training, she opened a cellar atelier in Kreuzberg and moved into a small apartment – she was not really sure that she could afford both premises. Reading her biography written by Eva Sichelschmidt (published by Knesebeck-Verlag in 2013 and entitled “Allure of the Feather”), one thing is clear above all: there was never a real concept, a superordinate goal, a clear path … there were chance encounters that led to rapid developments, circumstances that forced her to her knees and yet offered enough to pull herself up by. Also: She wanted to do things differently to everything that had come before.
Early in her career, Fiona Bennett and her friend, the like-minded fashion designer Lisa D., wanted audiences to experience her fashions live, to become part of a performance, a greater whole – and not just sit back and look on passively. If you take the time to read up on her – the wonderfully narrated biography makes it genuinely easy – it is no wonder that the two ladies chose a ghost train as the venue for their “show” – once again with the firm vision and volition to do things differently, firmly convinced that it will work.
With Bennett, individuality does not feel like a craving for recognition, the desire to stand out from the crowd, like pomposity … It is an authentic characteristic that she wears well, that is infectious and radiates joy. No matter what period of her life we study, it is always the awareness with which she set about doing things particularly alertly and creatively, with which she opened herself to new people or allowed companions to accompany her on part of her life’s journey.
My visit to Berlin began in Steglitz and led me on to Potsdamer Strasse in the Tiergarten-Schöneberg district – where the hat shop that Fiona Bennett has run with her partner Hans-Joachim Böhme since 2012 is located. It is the first project that the two have conceived together. It is harmonious, bears a single signature but is the work of two hands that work well together. Around the former Tagesspiegel building, galleries are popping up, fashion labels present themselves to customers in logical minimalism; bars and restaurants, from Asian and Austrian to cocktail bars – everything blends together in typical Berlin fashion and for outsiders, it is impossible to tell whether something new is being developed or something old has been modernised.
It is impossible not to peer in through the 20 metre long shop window. People strolling by for the first time often take a few steps back again to try and understand what they are seeing – Gallery? Hats? Art? Furniture design? A workshop – but for what? It is a showroom and a workshop covering 96 m2. The colour white is predominant – an appropriate backdrop for hats and wearers. The colour white is nothing new in the retail sector, nor is the principle of using monochrome backgrounds to showcase the colourful forms and hues of the exhibits… – but like this? Once again, unique is the best word for it. Unique, if only because the various components that make up the space and shape are not used arbitrarily, off the rack, for their original function. The floor was created by artist Barbara Caveng, who interspersed pieces of wood from old furniture and dissected wooden heads of disused hat moulds into the whitewashed timber boards as inlays. The wool-white, natural linen curtains were also simply whitewashed two thirds of the way up – as was the counter, sculptures of heads crowned with chandeliers, wing-backed chairs and all of the smooth walls, where the hats are displayed in rounded alcoves or on hooks.
When I ask her this question, Fiona Bennett replies: “Individuals – people who are not afraid of standing out from the crowd, who love the finer details and who like to dress up in style. By the way, more and more men are exploring the opportunities they afford. My customers are really great, direct and upstanding people and working for them is great fun.“ It is Hans-Joachim Böhme who gives me a sneak peek into their new joint project. The “Wintergarten” Theatre (Conservatory) is diagonally opposite. Its owners have been great admirers of the couple from across the road, impressed by their boutique and their special ability to make use of space.
The Wintergarten was originally a vaudeville stage south of the Friedrichstrasse Railway Station in Berlin-Mitte, built in 1887 based on a Viennese theatre. The development as a vaudeville theatre ended after an air raid in 1944. A music hall cinema with the same name, steeped in tradition, opened in 1946 at Hasenheide in Berlin, and another vaudeville theatre opened in 1992 – replacing the “Quartier Latin” on Potsdamer Strasse. It still bears the hallmark of André Heller, who designed it 25 years ago. Business is booming, visitor numbers are increasing all the time and the cloakroom and toilets are reaching their capacity limits. The brief was to make the functional areas more spacious and more of an experience. They didn’t just want sanitary facilities to modern standards – with an anteroom, tiles, wash basins, toilets – they wanted them to be vaudeville, a world of dreams and enchantment. So a cellar was excavated retrospectively under part of the inner courtyard, in a labour-intensive process – giving the creative couple 270 m2 to play with. And they made the most of it. The milliner and exhibition designer used all of their inspiration, ideas, abilities to conceptualise spaces differently and worked together, as equal partners, complementing one another. They planned everything down to the last detail, the stairs, a central room, the distribution to the men, women and transgender areas. The staircase is elegantly curved, with a petrified column of drops (upside down) as a reception, the floor is decorated with hand-cut mosaics, glass lamps resemble giant bubbles. Nothing here is arbitrary, has been seen before or is familiar. Everything is unique, hand-crafted and specially developed. Red velvet seats invite guests to sit, linger and wonder, and increase expectations of the actual functional areas: the WCs. “The developer’s openness and trust truly allowed us to develop things that do not exist yet – we invented a lot,” say Fiona Bennett, not without a hint of pride.
Hand-cast and extremely heavyweight bronze wash basins perch on drop-shaped feet, huge cobalt blue aluminium leaves separate areas and cast shadows – or at least appear to do so. Irritations are permitted and intentional, everything is a little over the top. This attention, this lifeblood they poured into every detail is tangible in the stories the two pioneers tell, and already apparent on the construction site and in the renderings.
Renderings are more Hans-Joachim Böhme’s medium – after all, he has been designing temporary spaces with architectural experience since 1985. He entered the trade fair construction sector as a career changer – he began his professional life by training to become a reproduction photographer. Among many other things, he built award-winning trade fair pavilions for the King of Thailand. He has worked largely domestically since 2003, and side-by-side with Fiona Bennett in Berlin since 2012. The two approached the building project, which they envisioned as a “functional space with grace and poetry”, using models. In many interior models of a variety of scales, they mapped the rooms, getting an impression of their proportions, dimensions and potential. Fiona Bennett uses the same vocabulary – structures, materials, shapes – in architecture as she does in her hat designs. As she is surrounded by images of birds (previously also of shoes) for her hat designs, which influenced her work, letting herself be carried away by them, it is the quest for changing perspectives and subtlety that inspired her creativity in the Wintergarten cellar.
It is blatantly obvious how important the need for uniqueness and individuality is to Fiona Bennett and Hans-Joachim Böhme when you realise that it took 15 different companies to create the Wintergarten extension. 15 craft businesses that developed implementation ideas in close consultation with the responsible planners, sought solutions and tried to implement the concept they developed as uncompromisingly as possible. A mosaic atelier, a sculpture workshop, a smith and a stucco artist, a glass and metal foundry, a shadow printing artist and many others are making this space so special with their craft, their expertise and passion – and the specialness will be tangible (even if the question of good or bad taste will be answered in the end by the visitors’ final assessment).
“Individuality is when you lend shape to what does you good personally …” And, in keeping with this motto, Fiona Bennett and Hans-Joachim Böhme are doing themselves, the owners of the Wintergarten and all involved a lot of good. So they did everything right!
Editor: Ann-Kristin Masjoshusmann – 17.2.2017 in Berlin.
Images: © Joachim Gern
Renderings: billboard Design – Hans-Joachim Böhme, Berlin