‘There’s an open-sesame effect with an old wooden door,’ says Payam Sharifi, referring to the traditional Moroccan design that is squeezed into his 19th-century Berlin home. At first, it doesn’t seem to fit in this environment – a decorative interloper from another time and place – but this blurring of the lines between the past and the present is something that occupies Slavs and Tatars, the art collective he founded in 2006 with Kasia Korczak.
One of many delights, this door was part of the couple’s renovation plans from the very beginning. ‘The first time we walked into the space, it was already lying on the floor,’ recalls architect Marc Benjamin Drewes, who, in collaboration with architecture firm Schneideroelsen, worked with Payam and Kasia to create their vision.
Situated between the dining area and kitchen in the ‘Berliner zimmer’ (a long connecting room typical of homes in the German capital) and the bedrooms and bathroom beyond, the door acts as a portal, with rooms featuring restored original features on one side and those with a far more modern feel on the other.
For Kasia, originally from Łódź in central Poland, and Payam, an American-Iranian writer, researcher and artist from Texas, moving into this apartment in the city’s multicultural Moabit district was a major milestone.
The pair had been working together from different places in the world for seven years. Important to both was that their first shared home and studio include interesting original features. This apartment’s high ceilings and their ornate mouldings certainly ticked that box.
‘Modernity has made ceilings blank slates,’ says Payam, ‘but until the turn of the 20th century, people around the world invested their wealth in their ceilings.’ From wood carvings in Central European medieval houses to the Muslim world, they were invested with ‘a certain indulgence of assets’.
‘A nice ceiling,’ he continues, ‘elevates you and makes you look up, like you do in a cathedral.’ The details were present here, but years of paint had obscured their beauty. A lot of painstaking effort was applied to peeling back those layers.
For the most part, explains Marc, ‘the task was not to destroy anything’ because, for Kasia and Payam, the work of the craftspeople who created their ceiling is as worthy of protection as the many pieces of art and furniture that make their home unique.
Theirs is an inclusive approach to decoration that sees an Iranian takht or daybed (often seen at roadside stops, as well as the entrances to mosques and tea houses) used as a sofa and paired with mid-century Polish pieces, inherited from Kasia’s family.
When it comes to explaining Slavs and Tatars’ relationship with the past, Payam likes to cite French literary critic Antoine Compagnon, who argued that ‘the true modernists were actually the likes of Baudelaire who were ambivalent about the passing of the pre-modern era’. He called them ‘people with one eye in the rear-view mirror, moving forward…’
It’s a description that could also be used for Payam and Kasia’s home – an interior that opens up a friendly conversation between the historic and the contemporary. A very personal space that invites interaction and interpretation. A place that builds bridges. slavsandtatars.com; marcdrewes.com