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A day in Louise Campbell’s “Das Haus”

“Das Haus” only stood for seven days. From the outside, it was recognisable by its classic dimensions, topped by a low-pitched gable roof, constructed on a timber frame, clad with wooden shingles and curtains. Inside a single large, almost bare space, an end wall full of tools, a huge long table in the middle, and on the side an extremely large bed space constructed out of platforms and thick mattresses – a unique, very personal vision of a home interior, created for the imm cologne 2014 by Danish designer Louise Campbell. The whole thing was bathed in soft light and really did look a little like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

The Design Guides enlisted to provide visitors with information and ensure the exhibition didn’t come to any harm accompanied the project right from the start. They had seen it slowly start to take shape in the week before the fair, had watched as the trade fair construction team built and painted it, and as Louise and her assistants, the three “Alices”, worked to the point of exhaustion, hand-finishing walls, hanging fabric and adding intricately cut openwork patterns. They had seen carpets being laid and watched a 300-kg, hundred-year-old stoneware bathtub from an almost forgotten Villeroy & Boch warehouse being heaved inside. They had equipped it with furniture, cushions and no fewer than 573 tools and instruments. And they knew how, the night before the opening, Louise had lovingly decorated it with all sorts of little gems and treasures.

Then, on the Monday, it was time to face the baptism of fire. First the press, then the trade visitors and finally the consumers were shown around the 240 m² space. Like mother hens, the Design Guides endeavoured to keep their flock safe from flying darts and the fragile, lantern-like lamps safe from bold and inquisitive fingers.

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The visitors were particularly taken with the Tool Wall. They often spent hours standing in front of it and were thrilled to bits with the abundance of kitchen utensils, measuring implements, tools and knives displayed. The cast-iron pots seemed to hold a magical attraction for visitors’ eyes and hands, and the lid with the wooden handle probably got moved around more than any other object in “Das Haus”. What might be inside? The temptation to make the cowbell chime proved no less irresistible. Like in a “Can you find it?” book, there were lovingly arranged accessories waiting to be discovered everywhere – books stacked on joists, tin toys dangling from the ceiling or a canoe that had been stored on top of the beams at the last minute. The Design Guides were constantly restoring the seemingly randomly arranged objects and signs of authentic life to their rightful places. A hammer that had been put on a joist turned into the Beuysian grease stain of “Das Haus”. One well-meaning visitor wanted to return it to the Tool Wall! Louise, however, wanted to leave it where it was – the beam was the perfect place for it, she said.

Those who spotted the unusual way “Das Haus” was constructed were surprised at the strangely converging arrangement of the uprights that structured the timber frame. A member of a Russian delegation even interpreted “Das Haus” as a plea for the revival of half-timbering – a mission that he evidently devoted his own considerable expertise to, as he explained in excellent German.

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More than anything else, however, it was the hand-made lamps that proved the ultimate temptation. They had been suspended over the lounging area in clusters so as to bathe the “soft space” in an appropriately soft. As for the mattress ensemble that served as a 16-metre-long sofa, many a visitor sat down hesitantly at first, gradually becoming bolder and sometimes even removing his shoes from his aching feet and snuggling down amongst the covers and cushions to chill out for a while. Virtually everybody, however, paused in front of the Tool Wall. Initially perplexed and then increasingly enthusiastic, visitors allowed their gaze to wander upwards and sideways, discovering some detail or other that they owned themselves or would like to own, so that they could pin it to a wall and keep it handy, just like in “Das Haus”. Needless to say, there were those who felt obliged to point out that it’s rather impractical to hang wooden spoons up quite so high. Those who took “Das Haus” too literally even criticised the perforated roof covering. But imagine “Das Haus” with proper doors and windows – now that would be something!

It was in the quiet hours that “Das Haus” cast its spell on us. Then it became the haven of calm it was meant to be. But there were some who just couldn’t figure it out. Like the Russian gentlemen who, thrusting the curtain purposefully aside, stepped into the space, took it all in at a single glance and wanted to know “What you sell here?” Unwavering in his plan to take something concrete home from Cologne with him, he responded to our attempts to explain that nothing was for sale here, it was the presentation of an interior concept by Danish designer Louise Campbell, with the stoic enquiry: “And where is the camping?”

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Then there was the expert who provocatively enquired about the purpose of this no doubt expensive scenography, which in his opinion wasn’t the slightest bit visionary. “Das Haus” wasn’t modern at all, he said, in fact it was downright old-fashioned and offered no comforts whatsoever in the form of the domestic technology that will simplify our lives in future. He looked around indignantly for an opponent but couldn’t find one. For at the end of the day, it was perfectly obvious (and there was plenty of information around for anybody who wanted to read it) that a low-tech house was precisely what Louise wanted: a house where you still have to stretch a little to get something off the top shelf, an interior culture that provides a ‘physical’ antithesis to our overly cerebral day-to-day lives – a place for stretching out, sewing, cooking, repairing, hitting a punchball or repotting plants. In the end, Louise took pity on him, introduced herself politely and energetically explained that she simply didn’t want a high-tech house, that we are already alienated enough from life as it is, and that what she needs is a home, not a robot vacuum cleaner. An old-fashioned house, she said, was exactly what she wanted.

She evidently shares this desire with the vast majority of the visitors. They loved the laid-back atmosphere that reminded them of easygoing holidays, the familiar materials and the archetypal forms, just as much as they loved the unconventionally measure-less but enormously inviting beds and tables and the puristic, workshop-like kitchen facilities. A house for being hands-on and letting go, for getting together and leaving each other alone. Because the concept materialised Louise’s conviction that the masculine and feminine, man and woman, each need their own space – both within the same room and within any relationship (and within every individual too for that matter – or as two poles of design).

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And so she created two houses in one, embodied by the two different-coloured house structures that were pushed one inside the other like a telescope: one of them pale grey, active, for the Scandinavian, rational principle, where she can work with her hands, cook, kick a ball, canoe, throw darts at pictures of prey; and the other white, with a pink/red colour spectrum for the emotional principle of the decorative, where patterns, abundance and softness prevail, and where he/she can relax so wonderfully. Being together sometimes works better in an open space, Louise thinks, because each person learns to let the other have their space. Even without walls.

The only high-tech appliance in “Das Haus” was a coffee maker. A chosen few learned how to operate it perfectly and spoiled us residents, Louise and her many guests with frothy black-and-white concoctions. It made us almost as addicted to the “Haus” as the space we had for dancing and swinging in the mornings, the sight of children playing on the bed-sofa, and the adults during the afternoon rush, who were fascinated by the magnetic doors on the little desk cabinet and kept opening and closing them, opening and closing them, click-clack, click-clack. But more than anything else it was the relaxed mood of the evening hours we loved, when the ‘soft space’ was almost totally occupied by visitors finishing the day off with their eyes gazing at the ceiling and their feet dangling over the edge of the giant divan.

Louise would have loved to take her “Haus” home to Denmark with her too. Looking back, the feminine side of things probably predominated after all, she said.
It was a good house. And it’s going to a new home – in the little village of Welzin in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where it will serve an association that organises excursions for Berlin youngsters as a new venue. But not until it’s been fitted with decent doors, windows and a roof, of course. However, not quite everything will be making the move: before “Das Haus” was dismantled, the booth constructor popped back for his hammer.

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