Berlin’s Bohemian Boom

For the past decade, Berlin has cultivated a reputation as one of Europe’s last bastions of bohemia, an affordable playground for artists, students and 24-hour party people looking to extend their final gasp of youthful fun. The mixture of inexpensive lodging and studio space, a welcoming ex-pat scene and an enthusiastic audience for all kinds of creative expression have made it irresistible to a generation of Europeans and Americans that works within the arts—or are just unprepared to make a full-on transition into adulthood.

Visual artists, in particular, have helped to solidify the city’s reputation as Europe’s creative epicenter—though commercial consumption of artwork is stronger in Germany’s more prosperous cities, such as Frankfurt and Munich, Berlin’s strict rent controls, small year-round population and laidback vibe make it particularly appealing to artists in search of a production base.

Andro Wekua, for instance, set up his studio in Berlin two years ago because “Berlin gives you space to work, in every sense of the word, space that other big cities do not offer. But you have to come here with your own energy, because Berlin doesn’t give it to you.” Wekua’s characterization is apt—the city is a blank canvas that creatives can use to their own advantage, but only if they’re self-motivated. The same laidback atmosphere that is initially attractive can prove paralyzing if artists aren’t intent on making their own progress.

Writers are drawn to the city’s liberating energy as well. Ana Finel Honigman, an Oxford doctoral canidate and regular contributor to Art in America, and V, has lived in Berlin since last Spring. Honigman observes that “Berlin isn’t glamorous, but it provides a delightful style of living, where it’s possible to survive on a freelancer’s income. There are relaxed, charming, cheap cafés to work from; it’s green and incredibly easy to navigate by bicycle; and there is enough happening here that I can mostly exist covering Berlin cultural events for international publications.” The city’s loosely structured social scene lends itself to introspective writers who need to regularly go into hibernation, but who also need to be able to easily plug into a social network.

When it comes to fashion, Berlin’s aesthetic is grounded in a tradition of influential street style—brands, such C.Neeon, have successfully exported this aesthetic, and tastemakers like Hedi Slimane have made the city an essential source of inspiration. But the challenging economic climate poses a problem for brands looking to build a more adult-oriented, sophisticated image. A selection of progressive labels, such as Mongrels in Common and Marcel Ostertag, have put down roots here, while IMG operates the well-organized bi-annual Berlin Fashion Week, which provides an international platform for regional talents. But for the same reason that rents are so low and the cost of living is so reasonable, there isn’t a huge market for high-end luxury goods—more prosperous cities like Munich, Frankfurt and Hamburg have hungrier appetites when it comes to bourgeois tastes. Still, as Fern Mallis, Senior VP Fashion IMG, observes, “Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin has been steadily gaining steam and earning its place on the world’s fashion week calendars. [Berlin] is on the leading edge of much of the art, culture and architecture in Germany…[and] fashion has an important place in this.”

Berlin has much to offer as a short-term lifestyle solution, but making it work in the long-term is a trickier proposition. The city’s massive unemployment rate, by some estimates topping 20%, makes it difficult to procure a job (and a visa) unless you offer a specialized skill set that can’t be found in the German population at large. For the self-employed, or those who work on a freelance basis, it remains a viable option for a protracted visit, provided one arrives with a strong sense of perseverance. For everyone else, it’s unlikely that there exists a more ideal urban destination for an escapist jaunt. The media, financial and manufacturing worlds might all be facing bankruptcy, but no matter how dire the forecasts get, we’ll always have Berlin.

—Sameer Reddy