We owe the stylish interior design of our museum with its minimalist yet very open black and white design to Carsten, who works as a freelance architect in Berlin and holds a professorship at the Detmold School of Design. Luckily for us, he is also a volunteer on the board of the Schwules Museum, once before from 2011 to 2015, and currently again since 2021. We spoke to Carsten about his work on the board, the consistent design of a museum and queer, human-centered architecture.
Dear Carsten, we are delighted to finally have a board member! You work more in the background – can you briefly come to the fore and introduce yourself?
Well, I feel like a Berliner because I’ve been here most of my life, I’ve always been in contact with the Schwules Museum, but I’ve also been out in between because I do a lot of other things as an architect and interior designer. Not only in Berlin, so I commute a lot. A lot of people ask me why I do so much, but I’m also interested in so many things.
It’s pretty great that we have an architect on the board who has a plan for the building itself. You developed the spatial concept and the design when we moved to Lützowstraße ten years ago, and now there are already plans for us to move on again, so you’re needed again… Did you actually join the board as an architect, or was there another point of contact with the Gay Museum?
I was actually asked quite explicitly as an architect to apply for the board, that was around 2010. Before that, I was already looking at new potential locations. As a board member, I was able to take on the task on a voluntary basis, but I also had a better standing with those who made us offers. And because the issue remained acute and we were looking for a new location again, I went back on the board…
And just been re-elected, congratulations…
Thank you! Of course, I also know what that means. There are always a lot of things to do here, and we are actually less here for the day-to-day work, but rather to think about the direction of the house, to maintain the networks, to be able to ask for funds again in order to secure and raise them for the house. We have already stabilized a lot of things, but it is not as self-evident as we always think. The change of government in Berlin unsettled us at first, but ultimately there was a lot of support. And as a museum, we perhaps have it a little easier than other queer institutions because people immediately understand “museum”, even if you have nothing to do with “queer” at all. But of course, the main reason why I’m here has to do with the fact that I think what we do here is important. For our community, and by that I really mean everyone. If anyone thinks that a gay museum is a given in this world…
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Has your view of the museum actually changed during your time on the board of directors?
I wasn’t aware of all the facets of what actually happens here. And also how many people work here at the museum. And what reputation we have externally. When you grow into it, you see where things don’t work, where there is not enough staff. But the view from the outside is: hey, great institution, totally important, unique in the world, you put on great exhibitions, you have a library, an archive. This is also reflected in the architecture: the archive is fully functional, although we have a completely improvised air conditioning system. We try to make the most of the price-performance ratio with what is available to us. And that’s a balancing act, but one that seems to succeed time and time again
You once coined the phrase that “a consistent building needs a consistent design”. What is consistent about the Schwules Museum?
Perhaps that nothing here is consistent at all (laughs). Or rather: it’s consistent that we remain flexible. And the consistent thing about the strategy and the design is that we have a line that holds it all together. We have opted for black and white contrasts, which can be found in every chair and every coat of wall paint, but this line actually only sets a framework in which everything can and may be very colorful.
Like the pink unisex toilets…
(laughs) Exactly. I love breaks and also playing with clichés…
Black and white is actually something binary, kind of unqueer…
The nuances are missing from the concept, it’s almost like a cliché again, the world isn’t black and white. Well, I’m wearing something black now, but you’re wearing something colorful, and there’s a red blanket in the back. The shades in between are filled in, there’s a lot in between.
You can admire the colorful Christmas decorations in the café right now…
Yes, everything that comes into the house is colorful – we just set the framework for it. And that is also the concept of the entire museum.
When we moved to Lützowstraße, it was all about professionalization, which led away from the hodgepodge and improvisation of the early days. Would you change the concept for a new location?
I think it’s good to have a line. Of course, we are challenged to do things differently. More event rooms, for example, which we didn’t have the money for ten years ago. And also to go further in terms of inclusion, which was already a quantum leap back then – not to hinder people, but to be low-threshold, including in the exhibitions and in the texts. Also so that perhaps those who don’t have much to do with “queer” come in here. Which is what happens. We’ve moved from the backyard to the street – and now it might be a matter of finding and creating a place where even more different people can come together.
Keyword location search. Why are we looking again?
We haven’t yet found a place here where we can stay securely. That has to do with the rents. But a new location also means new potential. And unlike ten years ago, a lot of providers are interested in us. There is hardly anyone who turns us away. On the contrary: great, we want it, come on! So it’s ‘only’ about the conditions that are offered to us. And if we’re already moving, why not move to a prime city location where there’s a lot more going on? It doesn’t have to be Unter den Linden, but somewhere where there’s also a neighborhood.
Do we have to get bigger?
We no longer think so. Of course we need more space for the archive, the collection is getting bigger and needs better conditions. And we need event rooms. Otherwise, we have to stabilize what we have. No larger exhibition spaces, otherwise we won’t be able to keep up with our resources. And professionalization is good, but we don’t want to become the Prussian Cultural Heritage. It’s good that we are an association, that we can decide some things more spontaneously, work more flexibly, be different. So: no over-professionalization!
Now let’s talk about the little treasure you brought with you. What connects you to it?
I brought my little treasure here myself, it’s a book about gay architects…
Is it also about women?
Exactly, important question, I have also been learning since I joined the museum, and I also asked the editors: where are the queer, the female architects? In fact, there is only one lesbian woman mentioned in the book, Emilie Winkelmann, and Hildegard Schirmacher, a trans woman. That got me thinking about my profession myself: of course I can be successful as a gay man, I can teach, and I thought that everything in architecture and especially in interior design was generally very open, but the book taught me that that’s not true, the pension fund only recently started accepting same-sex marriage for pensions. It was only in November that the name “Bund deutscher Innenarchitekten” was changed to “-architektinnen und -architekten”!
But there is at least the cliché that there are many gay interior designers?
There are also many gay architects. And in the book you can see how personal stories are reflected in design, which I think is so great. For example, Helmut Hentrich, one of the defining architects of German post-war modernism, who rebuilt a ruined castle in the liberal Netherlands for himself in a very playful way. Women were only admitted to university very late; Emilie Winkelmann was only able to work as an architect because she came from a family of building contractors.
What could you call queer architecture? How are personal experiences reflected in the design?
There are a few very remote houses on a cliff on the Côte d’Azur that make you think: how dreamlike! But it’s actually about the fact that nobody can see who lives there and how. Or I think of floor plans where three bedrooms with connecting doors were designed for a ménage-à-trois. Or penthouses with hidden rooms, or bedrooms where, if someone was checking, the shared bed could be quickly divided into separate ones and pushed into different rooms.
But you can also see that queer architects who have to prove themselves in a field that is structured in a heteronormative way, and that can also mean: brilliant interiors, crazy things, totally over the top! You want to set yourself apart, do things differently from the normative mainstream and perhaps even be better and more innovative.
Exercise creative control over your own safe space! Can you describe your darling in three words?
Exciting, interesting, queer cultural history! Unfortunately, that’s four words…
That doesn’t matter. What’s queer about your own designs?
(laughs) Well, to use the cliché: I’ve become more and more of an interior designer. I love the freedom of designing interiors. Outside, everyone talks you into it, you design in an urban context, inside you design for very different people, it has a scale, you touch it, not like a façade. In the interior, the human element is the most important thing.
I’ve never thought about that before. Thank you very much for this exciting insight!
(Interview: Jan Künemund)