The spirit of Berlin keeps attracting expats from around the world to the German capital. Here, budding entrepreneurs found their first start-ups, while creatives enjoy the city’s freedom and diverse input. One of them is Dutch designer Ruben der Kinderen.
It’s mid-morning at Isla Coffee in Berlin’s Neukölln district. At this time of day, the Hermannstrasse thoroughfare is already busy, but the tiny, minimalist coffee shop exudes a supremely laid-back atmosphere. Ruben der Kinderen orders an espresso. Since the product designer from Eindhoven wants to make the world a more livable place, he tends to view and assess his surroundings through his very own filter. So, his favorite spots are not the latest hip hoods or buzzing clubs. Instead, he feels drawn to places that inspire him – or where others are willing to share their inspiration. Places that contribute to changing the world one step at a time: a workshop in Wedding, a Neukölln café, a glass blowing studio on the other side of town. Together, we dive in, and start our tour in a smart forfour.
Ruben, how do you tell a good coffee spot apart? By its espresso?
Ruben der Kinderen: Definitely. Here at Isla Coffee they really know how to get it right. The place is still relatively new, with a Third Wave Coffee philosophy based on gentle, aroma-preserving preparation, so you often get coffee with a stronger acidic flavor profile.
What do you like best about Isla Coffee?
Ruben der Kinderen: Their coffee makes the world a little bit better, since they also follow a zero-waste idea. Bits of left-over fruit from the juicer end up in the cakes, while their cups are not made of porcelain, but of highly compressed coffee grounds. I am intrigued by this emphasis on reuse – the notion that nothing should be considered waste, but that everything doubles as raw material for something new. It’s a good approach.
So, a pleasurable experience leads to sustainable design. Is this typical for Berlin?
Ruben der Kinderen: Berlin constantly tries to reinvent itself and make the world better and more open. Everyone is welcome. Take the refugee project at Neukölln’s Gärtnerei. Here, they teach people German, business, as well as gardening and landscaping skills. What’s more, Berlin is a bottom-up city. Most things start out small. Take the start-up scene – Berlin spawns a huge amount of start-ups since life here is a lot cheaper than in other German cities. It’s relatively easy to start your own business.
Originally, you moved here for an internship. How long did you end up staying?
Ruben der Kinderen: My girlfriend Karen and I had only planned to come for a year to delve into a new adventure. Well, that has turned into four years (laughs). This city won’t let you leave; it’s extremely seductive.
You’re based in Neukölln. Are there any more secret spots nearby we should know about?
Ruben der Kinderen: Sure, I also love Café Fincan in the Körnerkiez neighborhood. I used to dance a lot and even participated in official tournaments. Café Fincan is a great place for dancing the tango, something Karen and I continue to enjoy on a regular basis.
As a product designer, what are you working on at the moment?
Ruben der Kinderen: I produced a range of lamps and vases as part of my BLOW design series. For the manufacturing process, I opted for plastic blanks otherwise used to produce regular PET bottles. I exhibited the finished products at the Vienna and Milan design fairs and had a pretty good reception. Recently, I’ve actually started to focus more on social design. Good design should offer solutions for a better world.
Where do you work?
Ruben der Kinderen: At a workshop in Berlin’s Wedding district, which I share with eight other people – architects, graphic designers, and other creatives. The space has a CNC milling machine, a laser cutter, and a lathe. It’s a co-working space specifically designed for creative crafts.
Does the place also have a 3-D printer?
Ruben der Kinderen: No, and to be honest, I’m not a huge fan. I want to continue working on things by hand and I really value the process. Manufacturing my BLOW lamps and vases involved heating the plastic bottles in an oven and then using an air pump to inflate them, giving each their own unique shape. You can easily do it yourself, but I have to warn you – in the beginning, some of them actually exploded in my hand (laughs). There was a huge bang and my colleagues ran into the basement in a panic to see if I was alright.
What’s a good place for food in Wedding?
Ruben der Kinderen: We are lucky to have one of Berlin’s very best Thai restaurants right next to our workshop: Dan Thai Food. This is where the staff of the Thai embassy in Mitte get their food fix – you will definitely find Berlin’s best curry here. It’s very authentic – and extremely spicy. We tend to order in advance, pick it up, and then enjoy it back in our workshop. The restaurant itself is tiny – almost too small to sit down.
We continue exploring the streets of Berlin, weaving our way to the next stop on our list in a spacious smart forfour with a cadmium red finish. It’s a pleasant afternoon, so our sunroof is wide open. We stop at an old factory in Berlin’s Reinickendorf district. Here, in an unassuming building, two ovens can heat glass to several hundred degrees Celsius. Many figurines, handspun out of colored glass, as well as vessels and other glassware and objects demonstrate the makers’ prolific skill and diligence.
What’s the story behind this place?
Ruben der Kinderen: I’ve always wanted to explore and learn a traditional craft. Something like woodworking, blacksmithing – or glass blowing. Nowadays, we tend to consume so much that we are actually losing the knowledge of how to make things. At the same time, this also enriches my product design skills and materials expertise, so I decided to take two glass blowing courses here at Berlin Glas. It took me just under 80 hours to learn how to make a wine glass or tumbler. It’s very tricky and pretty expensive, but I’ll enjoy the skills and insights for the rest of my life.
In Berlin, exceptionally creative spaces like these seem to be well-hidden. Any other discoveries you’d like to share with us?
Ruben der Kinderen: Take the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien at Mariannenplatz in Kreuzberg. Since it’s composed of many nested, interlocking apartment buildings, there are countless of inner courtyards where you’re bound to stumble across something new whenever or wherever you go – you’ll come across things and people you’d never encounter if you didn’t pick up the courage to open that first door. My recommendation would be: Don’t follow the beaten paths, but leave them to explore what’s beyond. It’s always good to use your own sense of adventure as a compass.
Where do you go when you want to venture further afield?
Ruben der Kinderen: Then I’ll take a plane to Sweden and go out into the wilderness, armed with nothing but a tent. I’ll start a fire, forage for edible plants, and make my own rope. We tend to forget those things and skills because of living in cities. On a recent trip, I landed at Gothenburg Airport and simply started walking – about 25 miles in one direction – to look for inspiration. Naturally, that’s not something I can really do in Berlin. Here, I’ll head out to one of the parks like Hasenheide or Körnerpark, where they stage free gigs during the summer. And if you’re looking for somewhere a bit more tranquil, I usually recommend the Tempelhof Airfield. Or one of the many beautiful spots on the banks of the river Spree.
Being close to nature is probably a great counterbalance to your work at ITR8?
Ruben der Kinderen: Absolutely. Then again, they’re not really opposed to each other. At ITR8, I work with some incredibly great people on exciting projects and apps. I’m responsible for UX, meaning user-oriented design, which actually has strong parallels to product design. Bringing physical and digital aspects together is a fascinating challenge.
Are you part of a generation that cares less about possessions and owning things?
Ruben der Kinderen: I guess that’s true. While I need music, I certainly don’t need a huge CD collection. In Berlin, you tend to move a lot, so possessions are more of a hindrance. And while, in terms of furniture, there are plenty of incredibly well-designed chairs, beautiful design is simply not enough for me – I care more about whether a product has a positive impact. To me, more possessions and ownership are not likely to improve the world. Luckily, the number of good concepts for sharing things and services like carsharing keeps growing.
What would be your ideal city car?
Ruben der Kinderen: I’d definitely like to test-drive the new smart electric drive.
Ruben der Kinderen is a man of many talents. The Dutch product designer first intrigued the design scene with the vases and lamps of his BLOW series. He now designs interactive products for Berlin-based agency ITR8. Yet whatever the task: His work invariably places people and sustainability center stage.
Local Secrets Berlin:
Hermannstr. 37, 12049 Berlin
Raumlabor / Die Gärtnerei
Hermannstr. 84, 12051 Berlin
Altenbrakerstr. 26, 12051 Berlin
Dan Thai Food
Reinickendorfer Str. 96, 13347 Berlin
Berlin Glas e.V.
Provinzstr. 42a, 13409 Berlin
Kunstraum Kreuzberg/ Bethanien
Mariannenplatz 2, 10997 Berlin
Schierker Str., 12051 Berlin
Columbiadamm, 12101 Berlin
Müggelstr. 26, 10247 Berlin