The chair fits in perfectly amidst the carefully mismatched shabby-chic decor of the Betahaus Café—the Vienna coffeehouse-style lobby of the cooperative-ish workspace loft for creatives called Betahaus in the heart of Kreuzberg.
Though it has a fresh, slick, bright red coat of paint, the chair’s bones hearken back to that 1930s elegant functionality that design types love—the kind of dapper rawness that matches well with exposed brick, beat-up hardwood, and chalkboard menus.
“It’s inspired by the 1930s Frankfurt Stuhl . . . it’s a kind of Bauhaus classic, and you can still buy it for like 150, 200 euros,” Van Bo Le-Mentzel explains to me as I sit on the chair to feel its strength and quality and run my finger along its simple curved edge to the cartoonish neon green sticker plastered on the back.
“BUILD ME!” it reads. Beneath, Le-Mentzel’s web address: www.hartzivmoebel.de.
I look up and Le-Mentzel is smiling. He gestures around the room.
“Everywhere that you see a green sticker, that means that you can build it. This is the Kreuzberg 36 chair. It costs €36 to build.”
It is the perfect illustration of the philosophy Hartz IV Möbel (Möbel = Furniture) embodies: that quality, elegance, and affordability should not be mutually exclusive when it comes to furniture. Beautiful furniture, Le-Mentzel tells me, should not just be for the rich.
Hartz IV Möbel started the way so many things do: in an effort to impress a girl. Le-Mentzel had just moved into a new apartment with his fiancée (now wife—so clearly his efforts worked) and, despite the fact that he is a trained architect, found himself utterly incapable of basic household building. He couldn’t even hang a shelf properly on the wall.
So he registered for a weekend training class in basic construction techniques. He used a saw and hammer for the first time. He learned the basic technique of making dovetail joints. And at the end of the class, after just 24 hours, he had constructed a chair. It had cost him €24, and it was beautiful. He posted the design online, and dubbed it the 24 Euro Chair. His friends went mad. Hartz IV Möbel was born.
In reality Hartz IV Möbel (Hartz IV is the name of German social welfare benefits) is nothing more than a website where Le-Mentzel openly publishes simple, very easy and cheap-to-build design blueprints of practical, classic Bauhaus-inspired furniture. The plans are available to anyone in exchange for nothing but a story after the piece of furniture is built. Most of it can be built at home with very few tools, and can be adapted to specific needs and budgets.
The Piscator Table, for instance, can be one to three and a half meters in length, 70 to 120 centimeters in width, and can cost as little as €30 or as much as €300 to build, depending on how much one can afford to splurge on materials.
The Berliner Hocker, a throw-off of the famous Bauhaus-trained designer Max Bill’s Ulmer Hocker, is a multifunctional boxlike furniture piece that can be used in nearly every room, functioning as a stool or a table or, stacked together, as shelving or storage of various types. It takes ten minutes, ten screws, and ten euros to build.
But Hartz IV Möbel is about much more than the designs, Le-Mentzel tells me: it is a democratic, DIY takeover of the good life.
“When I did the blueprints for the furniture, for me it was clear that the issue of furniture—a chair—this is not an issue of design. This is a social issue,” Le-Mentzel says.
“If you have less money, does it mean that there’s no chance to live largely with nice furniture? My answer to this is no. The smallest apartment can be very fine if you know how to display it, and you know how to put the furniture inside,” he says.
He’s not just talking about aesthetics.
“The question of furniture is always a question of social behavior. Furniture makes you behave in certain ways, and sometimes in a way that you maybe don’t want to,” he says.
If you don’t have a proper table with enough room around it for chairs, for instance, or a good sofa, you will likely forgo inviting friends and family to eat, celebrate, or socialize in your apartment. If you’re living in a single-room apartment and have to hide your bed every time you want to host guests, or move it to make room for them to walk around, chances are that a lot of the time you simply won’t bother.
“There is always a social consequence,” Le-Mentzel says. “In my opinion, the furniture you own should not lead the way you live. It should be the other way around. And what can be better than designing and building the stuff on your own if you want to design the life you want to live the way you want to live it.”
With a day job working as a strategist for an architecture firm, Le-Mentzel knows better than most the transformative impact that well-designed and arranged furniture can have on a floor plan.
To illustrate his point, he even constructed an entire Hartz IV Apartment last June. Within the boundaries of the über-typical tiny (3.6 x 5.8 m) one-room apartment known by its technical name, WBS 70 (designed and built in the thousands, if not millions, by the GDR during the 1970s and 1980s), Le-Mentzel assembled a fully functional, comfortable space entirely out of Hartz IV furniture.
In the Hartz IV Apartment, the SiWo (Single Wohnung, or Single Apartment) Sofa sits in the center of the room. By day, it serves to divide the room in two—one half of it is a couch, which faces into the living-room portion of the space, the other a sitting bench that serves as a seat along one half of the dining-room table or desk. At night, the SiWo Sofa transforms into a full-sized two-person bed.
The cost to furnish the entire apartment, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, everything included? 1,400 euros and 14 days of work.
“You can live really well, and even better than people with a big apartment and a lot of money, and you can do it on your own if you understand the DNA of the furniture, and if you understand the DNA of a floor plan,” Le-Mentzel says.
“It’s really dependent on the furniture: the way you wake up, the way you go to bed, the way you move, you eat, you work, everything,” he says.
“It’s not about furniture. It’s about the quality of life.”