For the Love of Felt
It's a lot more than boiled wool, as far as Berlin fashion and home-accessories designer Christine Birkle is concerned
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 11/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Felt, once relegated to the arts-and-crafts projects of summer camp, has enjoyed something of a design resurgence in recent years. But for Christine Birkle, felt is much, much more than a mere trend. A German fashion and home-accessories designer, she works exclusively in the material. "Felt," she says with very little exaggeration, "is my passion."
Indeed, it takes only a look at her home to get the point. The 37-year-old designer lives on the fourth floor of Berlin's historic Hackmann Höfe, a 19th-century courtyard complex near the better known Hackesche Höfe. Her one-bedroom apartment, though a modest 900 square feet, also includes a small studio.
By the entry, it's practically obligatory to cover one's feet in a pair of the felt slippers laid out in a neat, colorful row. Farther in, Technicolor felt rugs cover the floor, and pop-hued felt hangings adorn the walls. Birkle doesn't stop at floors, walls, and feet, however. Felt, it seems, covers everything. Even a wardrobe in the bedroom is faced in a white felt panel striated in the red, pink, orange, and yellow she demonstrates a particular affinity for. Indeed, what the apartment may lack sizewise it more than makes up for in bright, nonwoven tactility.
Felt consists of fibers, usually wool, that are washed, boiled, steamed, and pressed into a desired form. "The story of the discovery of felt," says Birkle, recalling a popular legend, "is that the animals in Noah's ark shed their winter coats and then trampled them into felt." Perhaps that's why she calls it the "oldest material around."
Nevertheless, it wasn't until Birkle was a student of fashion and product design at the Universität der Künste Berlin that she herself discovered felt. In early forays, she created fantastical, sculptural hats that garnered the attention of Belgian fashion designer Dries van Noten. She soon expanded into both clothing and fashion accessories, showing her collections in Paris, Milan, and London; home accessories followed shortly after. In 1993, she opened a boutique, Hut Up, downstairs in the Hackmann Höfe.
To those who might wonder if limiting oneself to a single material could become monotonous, Birkle offers an unhesitating response: "Felt is very flexible. You can produce any form with it. It can keep you cool as well as warm, and it's substantial, soft, and decorative. The old stereotype of a crude material no longer makes sense today."
The shop aside, Birkle's favorite place to show off her creations is in the comfort of her own apartment. "Felt is a very caressing material, so it helps to transform my home into a cocoon where I can relax and think," she explains. Living with her designs also has pragmatic benefits, she adds: "I use these things myself—from egg cozies to slippers, rugs to cushions—so I can test their usefulness and continually improve them."
In addition to those items, Birkle's handmade home products currently include bedcovers, wall hangings, tea cozies, and vases; she makes teddy bears, too. Everything is shaped and fused, rather than sewn, primarily in merino wool. Occasionally, she blends it with cotton, silk, and linen for summer pieces.
"Each one has its own individual beauty," says John Erik, who began selling Birkle's rugs in 2000 at his New York store, Karkula (formerly Breukelen). "Whether with a rug or a dress, she captures a wonderful artisanal quality. There are no consistent thicknesses, no straight corners, and everything is organic."
Soon, Birkle will be applying that same aesthetic to lamp shades and room dividers. And the designer still can't get enough. She's intent on even grander plans for felt. "I'd like to do something really large," she reveals, "like cover a house with it."
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