The California Dream is alive and well in the global cultural capital of Berlin. Not only because 22 ArtCenter students were immersed in two Study Away studios this past summer, but because “California” itself is a coveted idea, an enduring brand that represents a unique spirit of creativity and an optimistic sense of possibility. In June, Dot dropped in for a visit with faculty and students in the studios Californication (hosted by the Graduate Graphic Design department) and The Future of Sport (hosted by Product Design and sponsored by Adidas).
For far longer than its 50 years as a sister city of Los Angeles, Berlin has been in a perpetual process of self-reinvention. Simultaneously steeped in history and powering toward the future, the city has faced many challenges including, during WWII, Allied bombings, severe food shortages, and the destruction of its Jewish community; and later, the cleaving of the city into East and West halves by the Berlin Wall. More recently, since the migrant crisis that began in 2015, Germany has welcomed more refugees than any other European country. Fleeing war and grim conditions in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, many now live in Berlin, struggling to build a new life.
While recognizing that their own temporary migration to Berlin was in no way forced upon them—that they are there to learn—ArtCenter students in the multidisciplinary studio dubbed Californication nevertheless see themselves as “creative asylum-seekers” whose own “homeland conditions” shifted radically in the past year. Their brief: “How do we define a creative landscape for people to thrive in?” explains Product Design student Duncan S. Bonar. Collectively, he and his fellow students are investigating how “place” becomes, variously, a mirror, a projection, a foil, a field, a catalyst, a lens—and how the city of Berlin, with its dynamism and diversity, can stimulate new design thinking.
A sample assignment early in the term: Design a sign inspired by the U.S. military warnings that were once posted at checkpoints, “You are now leaving the American zone,” but re-imagine it for leaving California.
Testlab Berlin—whereby the entire city becomes a vibrant laboratory for young designers—is now in its eighth year, the brainchild of Nik Hafermaas, chair of ArtCenter’s graduate and undergraduate Graphic Design departments. The Californication studio is hosted by Hafermaas and graduate Graphic Design Executive Director Sean Adams; and is taught by Ming Tai as lead faculty, supported by Chris Hacker; and Dirk-Mario Boltz, a Berlin-based professor of communications who specializes in branding strategies.
The studio’s visiting mentors include design leaders like Wired co-founder Louis Rossetto. Rossetto impressed upon the students that the “California Dream” may no longer be accessible in California because places like San Francisco and L.A. have simply gotten too expensive. The cost of living in Berlin is much lower by comparison, says Graphic Design major Alicia Zheng. “Here, if you’re an innovator, you can get by with a lot less, you can take risks.”
During their 12-week stay, ArtCenter students rely on the city’s public transportation, an extensive network of buses, streetcars, and the underground U-Bahn. They also walk a lot. And while some students miss having their cars, others are glad for the change. For instructor Boltz, there’s no question it’s a good thing. “Especially at the beginning, when they are in sponge mode,” he says, “it means more real contact with real people.”
Students divide their time among home, studio, and the city’s bustling streets, cafes, parks and clubs.
Home is a long-stay hotel in the leafy, upscale neighborhood of Charlottenburg, known for its eponymous palace and handsome pre-war apartment buildings, along with the fashionable commercial district called the “Ku’damm.” The ArtCenter studios are located within walking distance, in mixed-use complex Bikini Berlin. Like an errant but well-preserved passenger ship from the 1950s grounded in the heart of West Berlin, this fully renovated concept shopping mall and office spaces showcase design-focused entrepreneurs, projecting a funky, vintage vibe. Originally separated by columns into distinct upper and lower levels, the unusual structure led people in the neighborhood to give it the nickname “bikini.”
Bikini Berlin is embedded within a dense, dynamic urban fabric anchored by the bustling Zoologischer Garten train station named for the nearby zoo, whose outdoor monkey exhibit provides a quirky live soundtrack that drifts into the Californication studio when the windows are open. On the opposite side of the complex, a pedestrian plaza and the dramatic broken tower of a 19th–century church damaged in WWII dominate the view from the Adidas studio.
Adidas, one of the world’s leading sports lifestyle brands and a long-time educational partner of ArtCenter’s Product Design department chaired by Karen Hofmann (BS 97 Product), gave the students in its sponsored studio in Berlin an unusually broad brief. As Product Design major Nish Gupta explains it, “They are not looking for a shoe or a shirt design, but for a bigger picture to create a bigger system to design future brands.” The Adidas studio is co-taught by Product Design faculty Rob Ball (BS 83 Environmental) and ArtCenter’s Bikini Berlin satellite studio managing director Michael Sans (BS 97 Product).
In both studio spaces the set-up is minimal—a few tables and chairs, and lots of idea boards pinned to the walls—intentionally emulating the atmosphere of a pop-up design office and run like a professional creative agency. The students spend much of their time out in the city, conducting ethnographic research and developing the creative strategies and case studies that will inform their final projects. A serious endeavor that can also be fun, it involves hanging out in different places and striking up conversations with other young people. “Because we ourselves are in the target demographic, we can collect more authentic stories and insights than if a corporation went out and did it,” says Julie (Yu-Chia) Chang in the Adidas studio. “It also makes our concepts stronger.”
Having to work without the resources that ArtCenter’s campuses are known for—state-of-the-art computers, large-format color printers, laser cutters—turns out to be a plus, says Gupta. “As a designer, you can get so lost in all that digital work. This brings us back to the core.”
While the initial research phase might seem relaxed, in both studios the ArtCenter work ethic remains high, the standards demanding. The emphasis, says instructor Boltz, is “not just about parroting efficiency. I tell them, ‘You are in the driver’s seat now. You have to come up with the ideas, you have to believe in them.'”
Students testify that this approach is working. “I’m being more experimental, more expressive," says Graphic Design major Alicia Rangel. “Every week I wake up with another idea of how to be.” For example, in Germany she has a new-found appreciation: punctuality. “California is so laid back, people are always running late. But here it’s a big deal, people get upset with you. Punctuality is professional, but really it comes out of respect.”
Another difference from home? In L.A. County, Asians make up more than 13 percent of the population; in Berlin, only three percent. Graphic Design major Diana Chuong says this can be challenging. “Here I always feel like an Asian. On the bus, I am the only one. And I get more questions—'Where are you from?'—insinuating I don’t belong here. But here,” she adds, “I can be more confident about how I react.”
Students work together in faculty-assigned teams, and adjusting to each other’s styles is part of the lesson, preparation for the professional world they will soon be entering. “Teams are never easy,” says Chuong. “We’re all so different, how we think, how we execute.”
For instructor Ball, those very differences are “one of the treasures” of a study away program. “Creative people are different, they have different personalities,” he says, adding that he’s committed to fostering a collaborative process that works for everyone. “I tell them, ‘You can’t get rid of me! I am going to sit here with you till we figure it out.’”
Ming agrees, and sees the bonding that takes place among the students as an essential component of the design education process. “They live together, they work together, they cook together, they invite us [faculty] over for dinner,” he says.
That kind of deep interpersonal engagement means passions can run high. “The Berlin studio takes the same intensity and rigor of ArtCenter and puts it in this place,” says instructor Ball. “So every day is like the stock market—it crashes to a disaster level, then rebounds. In that way it’s a test lab not only for students but also for us as faculty. We can try things here that we can’t do at ArtCenter.”
Beyond their official classes, including twice-weekly German lessons to hone their conversation skills, students immerse themselves in Berlin’s world-class museums and galleries, cultural events and the club scene. On one occasion, students spent over four hours waiting to get into The Haus, a sprawling exhibition on the Ku’damm inside an abandoned five-story bank building scheduled for demolition—an experience literally created to be destroyed.
Tito (Nathanael) Gonzalez, a student in the Adidas studio, loves to dance and the all-night clubs have been an energizing feature of his life here. However, he’s discovered that many clubs suffer from a surprising strain of conservativism. “If you try to do your own moves, it’s going to attract stares,” he says. “Getting in is a whole process, too. In L.A., I can go to any bar and get in, but here I’ve been rejected. They partially open the door and ask, ‘Where is the leather?’ That’s the uniform,” he chuckles.
Female students note one pronounced difference that has had a highly positive effect on their daily experience in Germany: “Everything’s more sexualized in California,” says Adidas studio participant Phylicia Leinweber. “Here there are no cat callers. Nobody pays attention.”
Nobody paying attention is one definition of freedom, one that artists and designers of any gender would find valuable in their creative process. But there are many definitions of freedom in Berlin, a city of constant reinvention that allows ArtCenter students to take new risks with their work and with each other, and return home with fresh inspiration, expanded skills, boosted confidence and, yes, the occasional craving for Currywurst und Bier.
Sylvia Sukop, former editorial director at ArtCenter, is a writer and photographer currently based in St. Louis. She lived in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar, and her writing explores the intersection of history and memory.