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The Making of a Berlin House for Two Devout Minimalists

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The Making of a Berlin House for Two Devout Minimalists

June 27, 2017

Karen Ong and Michael Reich met as students at Harvard Business School. She grew up in Manila, Philippines, he grew up in Bavaria, Germany, and, in addition to sharing a love of travel and learning languages, the two are devout minimalists: “We are mad about keeping everything clean and serene in all aspects of our life,” says Karen.

Shortly after graduating, the couple launched the language-school clearinghouse Language International, and when they decided to move their company from Boston to Berlin, they had very specific ideas about their new living quarters.

Karen and Michael found what they were looking for minutes from their Mitte headquarters: a newly constructed garden house set in a green courtyard in Prenzlauer Berg, “the best-preserved prewar neighborhood in Germany,” Karen says. A developer project designed by Eike Becker Architekten, the structure was merely a concrete shell—and that was one of its biggest appeals. There was an option to continue working with Eike Becker on the finish, or to purchase it as is and fill in the details, such as walls and flooring, as they wished. The couple opted for plan B (“Eike Becker’s proposed layout was very standard; we wanted something different”). Here’s the story of what unfolded—and a look at the results (scroll down to see the exterior and before shots).

Photography by Karolina Bak, courtesy of Loft Kolasińki.

after purchasing the construction site, the couple interviewed interior archite 9
Above: After purchasing the construction site, the couple interviewed interior architects and went with Mathis Malchow and Sebastian Gmelin of DesignYouGo: “They understood our vision perfectly,” says Karen. Her brief—retrieved from her first email to them—was fittingly succinct: “Extreme minimalism. Emphasis on nothingness and empty space to reveal the beauty of simplicity. Exposed raw concrete ceiling. Monochrome interior.”

DesignYouGo responded by creating open-plan spaces entirely devoid of hardware and decoration, but finely detailed: The white glow of the polished concrete floors, for instance, was achieved by adding Carrara marble to the mix. There are three stories—a total of 155 square meters (approximately 1,668 square feet)—and the ground floor, shown here, is devoted to a dining/kitchen/hangout room.

as instructed, the designyougo team created a celebration of simplicity: &# 10
Above: As instructed, the DesignYouGo team created a celebration of simplicity: “Functional elements, like doorknobs and shelves, are nowhere to be seen,” they note. “Smooth edges and uninterrupted surfaces are decorated only by the light that falls on them.”

The interior work took 10 months. Thrilled with the results, Karen and Michael furnished the spaces very sparingly and in all white. But even minimalists don’t like chilly. And so, realizing they needed a new tack, the couple called in a third crew, Loft Kolasińki led by interior designer and Eastern European vintage specialist Jacek Kolasińki, to perform the final finish: “We asked Jacek to add warmth to the house without losing its purity.”

like all of the doors and drawers in the house, the kitchen cabinets and fridge 11
Above: Like all of the doors and drawers in the house, the kitchen cabinets and fridge have hidden touch-latch handles that open with a push.

The cabinets and counter are faced with Corian in Telegrey 4, and the walls throughout are painted the same soft gray. The table and chairs were originally white (to see, scroll to the end) and the windows curtain-free. Loft Kolasińki swept in: two months after Jacek’s first meeting with the couple, all of the new furnishings arrived, including this Oak Table with Bench (one of his own originals) and a set of Swiss designer Willy Guhl’s 1960 oak chairs, plus gray linen curtains.

based in szczecin, poland, loft kolasińki supplied this set of matte black tab 12
Above: Based in Szczecin, Poland, Loft Kolasińki supplied this set of matte black tableware, which they say is a traditional style from eastern Poland.
&#8\2\20;to michael and me, minimalism is a lifestyle,&#8\2\2\1; says k 13
Above: “To Michael and me, minimalism is a lifestyle,” says Karen, adding that they both wear only black in winter and white or gray in summer. “We wanted to edit out the extraneous, so we can focus on what matters. Spending less time on cleaning and shopping means we have more time to do things we love.”

The two so enjoyed the process of pulling together the house that in their spare time, they’ve also started buying and furnishing apartments in Berlin and renting them.

a glass enclosed concrete stair is an arresting element introduced by designy 14
Above: A glass-enclosed concrete stair is an arresting element introduced by DesignYouGo. It enables natural light to filter from skylights on the top floor all the way through the house.

“Aesthetically, the glass stair visually connects the floors of the house into one unified space,” says Karen. Finding the right glass, she notes, was tricky: “The thicker glass gets, the more it takes on a green hue. DesignYouGo helped us select the best lead-free, low-iron, crystal-clear glass—with no green hues to it.”

the second floor&#8\2\17;s long sectional sofa, the only piece preserved fr 15
Above: The second floor’s long sectional sofa, the only piece preserved from the house’s white period, has integrated speakers that work with a drop-down screen to turn the living room into a screening room.

It’s here that Loft Kolasińki introduced some color to the house: the bentwood chair (with its original red caning meticulously preserved) and pale-pink-topped table are rare 1960s pieces by Czech modernist Miroslav Navratil designed in collaboration with architect Zdeněk Plesník for Plesník’s own flat. The green rug is a vintage Antonin Kybal design.

hardware free doors off the living room blend into the wall panels and open wit 16
Above: Hardware-free doors off the living room blend into the wall panels and open with a push. They lead to a guest room, bath, and laundry.
the guest room has a \1967 chair by ton, a czech company founded by michael tho 17
Above: The guest room has a 1967 chair by Ton, a Czech company founded by Michael Thonet. The copper standing lamp is a fifties piece by Czech designer Josef Hurka.
the entire top floor is devoted to the master bedroom. a small version of loft  18
Above: The entire top floor is devoted to the master bedroom. A small version of Loft Kolasińki’s L2 Chaise Longue, made of Polish oil-finished oak, anchors the angular stair landing.
the low oak bed frame is the b\2 bed, another loft kolasińki original. the ra 19
Above: The low oak bed frame is the B2 Bed, another Loft Kolasińki original. The raw-edged linen coverlet is from Swedish shop Granit.
headrest cushions of linen, cotton, and viscose—the same fabric used on the c 20
Above: Headrest cushions of linen, cotton, and viscose—the same fabric used on the chaise—are cleverly tied onto the bed frame for easy removal and cleaning.
 karen and micheal requested &#8\2\20;a bathroom without borders&#8\2 21
Above: Karen and Micheal requested “a bathroom without borders”: The toilet is enclosed behind a door, but the shower, bathtub, and sink are all part of the bedroom. “We wanted to turn the room into a spa-like sanctuary,” says Karen.

The DesignYouGo team fitted out the room with a concrete tub and sink of their own design. Creating it involved building an acrylic mold on site and then pouring the concrete, a job done by Jonas Kock and crew of Accidental Concrete: Check out DesignYouGo’s video of the process.

the couple say the concrete tub is one of their favorite elements in the house 22
Above: The couple say the concrete tub is one of their favorite elements in the house—and “super comfortable: In the winter, we use it most nights before bedtime.”
the oak knobs, each with a different cross section, are a loft kolasińki desi 23
Above: The oak knobs, each with a different cross section, are a Loft Kolasińki design.
a jean prouvé tabouret solvay stool, still in production by vitra, is perched 24
Above: A Jean Prouvé Tabouret Solvay Stool, still in production by Vitra, is perched between the sink and tub.
the cube shaped, lintel patterned house is set in a green courtyard and has a  25
Above: The cube-shaped, lintel-patterned house is set in a green courtyard and has a roof terrace.

Floor Plans

floor plan: ground floor kitchen dining room minimalist berlin house designed b 26

floor plan: living room floor in a minimalist berlin house designed by designyo 27

the house was designed, say the designyougo team, &#8\2\20;to grant its own 28
Above: The house was designed, say the DesignYouGo team, “to grant its owners precious peace of mind.”

Before

at purchase, the house was a frame awaiting walls, flooring, and a design for t 29
Above: At purchase, the house was a frame awaiting walls, flooring, and a design for the skeleton stair.

“The purchase price included a certain allowance for renovation to get it to a finished state (a per-square-meter budget for the floor and other elements),” says Karen. “But we had the flexibility to choose anything we wanted. If the price exceeded the budget, we just needed to pay extra. The developer worked with our architects on the finish.”

The Initial Furnishings

at first, the couple embraced a monochrome look: &#8\2\20;we went with the 30
Above: At first, the couple embraced a monochrome look: “We went with the bare minimum: a bed, sofa, dining table, chairs, and nothing more.” Ultimate verdict for them? Too stark.

Go to A Sexy, Minimalist Remodel to see another Berlin project by Loft Kolasińki. And browse our Minimalist Archives for more.

Thinking of living with concrete? Learn all the pros and cons in:

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