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Hartz IV Möbel: “It’s Not About Furniture. It’s About the Quality of Life.”

Van Bo Le-Mentzel in the Hartz IV Apartment prototype

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.”

Kreuzberg 36 Chair

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.

24 Euro Chair

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 Piscator Table

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.

The Hartz IV Apartment

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.

Various uses of the SiWo Sofa in different floorplans

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.”

  • fjr

    A presentation on this furnishings idea might make a useful submission to TED, if it has not yet arrived there. It would fit in with the TED design and architecture features as well as with the collaboration to collect a small group of plans for DIY farm equipment.

    • Van Bo

      Hi fjr, I would really love to join TED. But how do I get there?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002127797648 Joel Cairo

         Hi Le,

        http://www.ted.com…das dürfte die Seite sein, die Du suchst. Ich liebe deine Ideen und würde sie gerne in NRW publik machen. Als Kurse für Arbeitslose

        viele Grüße

        Britta Löther

        • Van Bo

          Hallo Britta, schreib mir einfach, wenn ich Dir helfen kann prime@web.de Mir ist sehr wichtig, dass es keine Aktion nur FÜR Arbeitslose ist, sondern MIT Arbeitslosen. Viele Gestalter machen sich zu viele gedanken für Menschen, die sie nicht gefragt haben. Oft wollen es die Menschen dann doch anders, als man denkt. Ich zähle mich selbst dazu. Van Bo

      • fjr

        Anyone can join TED simply by signing up at the website at http://www.ted.com. If you mean you would like to submit a talk for consideration, I do not know the process, but I am sure the site is clear about it.

  • http://www.bespokewardrobessurrey.com/ Bespoke Wooden Furniture

    Ooh, I’m not sure. I love minimalist style and believe in substance and craftmanship over a reliance on style…but these pieces aren’t my cup of cocoa. Love the effort that’s clearly gone into them though and can imagine them looking excellent in a home with that style or maybe as an eclectic contrast with another, more opulent style. Thanks for reading.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adrian-Johnson/100002117620278 Adrian Johnson

      I agree with you on style; however you could upholster or hang cosy or airy draperies on the walls, then  paint this furniture with Norwegian rosmaling,  tolle, or Pennsylvania Dutch, or even oriental designs, not forgetting the walls of course — using the furniture and walls merely as a canvas for colors and moods an occupant really likes. 
      Color is the cheapest way to make a major decorating change–and painting the furniture to match the walls would make any design issues you have with the furniture “disappear” into the color scheme.  

      It would be instructive to people like us to have several interior decorators and artists paint these room layouts to appeal to traditional, folkloric, and conservative or even fantasy tastes.

  • Puppenheim

    wie viele hartzer sind denn mitintegriert? schöne heile welt aufm pfefferberg!

    bin froh wenn ihr wieder weg seid!

    • Angelika Thiele

      Wir sollten offen sein für jede Art von Diskussion und bereit sein dazuzulernen.
      Diese Veranstaltung wird Berlin gut tun. Vielleicht trägt sie dazu bei, den Politiker
      auf die Sprünge zu helfen und Vorurteile abzubauen.

  • bike driver

    Unfortunately I do not use four-letter words but that`s the only thing that comes into my mind if I really think about what kind of participants might discuss this important issue. Art, Design and philosophy-filled discussions are nice to have but never solved real life problems. But what does Guggenheim know about Berlin…

    • http://twitter.com/csgmclaren Christine McLaren

      I suppose it depends on the level you’re looking at in terms of problem solving. Will something like this save the world on a massive scale, and eradicate all the colossal global problems out there? No, of course not. But there are several scales of problem solving, and I would argue that each is equally important. 

      Yes, of course we have to tackle problems on a large scale. But the small scale matters too, because when it comes down to it, that’s how we live our lives. If someone with a cool idea that could make a small but potentially important difference in a few individuals lives wants to put it out there for everyone who wants it to have, I say, great. I think it would be short sighted to say that we should ignore the needs people have that might seem trivial, but actually have a large impact on day to day quality of life, and to ignore those in the pursuit of solving larger, more important problems. I don’t think we need to choose between finding solutions for small or large scale problems. I think there’s plenty of room out there for good ideas on both sides.

      That said, it sounds like you know something I don’t. I am very open to hearing any ideas you yourself might have. Do you have something you want to get out there? Is there a real life problem that you have specifically in mind, for which you have the solution but is being ignored? 

  • ber

    Hmm, I am still unsure if I like that project or not.

    I find the connection of east german plattenbauten and hartz4-recipients a bit difficult. It is too much of a klischee. Like THEY belong THERE. Which shouldn’t be the case.

    A lot of hartz4er are forced to move into those areas due to rising rents in inner-city areas. And with this project one could easily argue “whats the problem – small flat, hardly any money but with the right furniture everything is cool”.

    This kind of “designification” of poverty is something I feel uncomfortable with.

    • http://twitter.com/csgmclaren Christine McLaren

      I see where you’re coming from. At the same time, though, I think when you’re dealing with a very large, systematic problem to which the large-scale solution will be a long time in the works, there’s no reason why the day to day difficulties associated with the problem shouldn’t receive attention as well as the root of it. 

      People who work on ways to deal with the symptoms of an illness, for instance, are pretty likely not doing so to suggest that the cure shouldn’t also be found, but rather to help people deal with it better until that cure has been found. Similarly, I don’t personally think that one person’s project (who, coincidentally, is no stranger to tougher times himself: http://www.welt.de/print/welt_kompakt/print_lifestyle/article13873034/Tschuess-Ikea-Hallo-Hartz-IV-Moebel.html ) with the goal of empowering people – whoever they may be, in poverty or not – to improve their current living situation a little bit if it happens to fit what they need at that moment, and if they so choose, in any way suggests we shouldn’t also addressing the issue of poverty in it’s larger context.

  • genova
  • Mvgermain07

    This is a great idea. Hartz IV Model would work well in NY where some apartment are small. I really like the SiWoSofa for small apartment. It is so creative to make a piece of furniture that can be one side sofa, that can be converted to two people bed at night, and the other side used as a bench around a dinner table.
    Great work!
    Where can I purchase your furniture?

  • Gabr1elg

    Über coo

  • levia jack

    excellent, I like :D Bespoke Bedroom Furniture