Autoban Empire

Michael James O'Brien

The firm that’s redesigning Istanbul inside and out.

Istanbul is a city of layers, with each successive period of Byzantine and Ottoman prosperity reflected in its architecture. Now a new period of dynamism is adding another layer, one that reflects the Turkish city’s affinity for sophisticated and contemporary design. At the head of this movement is Autoban, which draws heavily on the past while making the most of the present. Walk into some of the city’s most fashionable spots—clubs, hotels, boutiques, restaurants—and you’re bound to notice the design firm’s touch: mixing traditional Turkish motifs with the high modernism of Mies van der Rohe and Eileen Gray, then adding a 21st-century twist.

“We’re not just designing spaces,” says architect Seyhan Özdemir, who founded the firm in 2003 with Sefer Çaglar, “we’re designing how a generation wants to live.” At 37, Özdemir is at the forefront of that generation, often dancing into the wee hours at Münferit (Yeni Çarsi Caddesi No. 19; 90-212/252-5067; munferit.com.tr), the Autoban-designed restaurant run by her husband, chef Ferit Sarper. In her tight designer jeans and tailored jacket, she may be the best advertisement for Autoban’s Turkish-inflected brand of modernism.

The rise of the firm has coincided with the success of clients such as Kitchenette (kitchenette.com.tr), a local chain of brasseries filled with furnishings created by Autoban, and Vakko (vakko.com.tr), Turkey’s leading fashion house, which has commissioned Autoban to create boutiques for several of its lines. The House Hotels, a trio of luxury lodgings designed by Autoban, have done much to introduce the firm to a global clientele. One of them, overlooking the Bosporus in Ortaköy (rooms, from $200; Salhane Sokak No. 1; 90-212/244-3400; thehousehotel.com), is a 19th-century building in which Autoban has made small rooms feel almost palatial. (The others are in Galatasaray and Nisantasi.) Not surprisingly, guests often ask where they can buy the furniture they see in the hotel rooms, says Antony Doucet, the group’s director of marketing.

Doucet directs them to Autoban’s chic emporium in Besiktas, which is filled with pieces that are quickly becoming new classics, in Turkey and abroad. There is the Box sofa (from $6,775): plush, tufted leather inside what looks like a wooden crate. There are the Daisy tables (from $5,935), with a riot of bases providing extra support—and extra whimsy. And there is the Sledge chair (from $1,645), recalling van der Rohe’s famous Barcelona chair but with curved edges and softer materials. Many of the pieces employ brass, not the steel or aluminum typically used in contemporary furniture. When Özdemir was a child, brass accessories were everywhere in her and her friends’ houses. “It’s part of our history,” she says. “It contains memories.”

“The firm’s success rests on its ability to take ideas from the world around us, which is rich in visual cues, and then blend them all skillfully with modern ideas,” says Luis De Oliveira, owner of De La Espada, the Portuguese manufacturer that markets Autoban products around the globe.

These days Autoban is expanding at breakneck pace. Last year it inaugurated its first high-rise building, Nef Flats 163, in the bustling Levent neighborhood; its loft-style condos, intended for young professionals, are compact spaces with a lot of style. Autoban designed the striking plywood surfaces of the restaurant Gaspar, which opened in the Karaköy neighborhood earlier this year. The firm is also building student housing in three locations around Istanbul, and it is designing a new airport interior for Baku, Azerbaijan.

Airports are a natural focus for Autoban now that the firm has won raves for the sprawling Turkish Airlines CIP lounge at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. There Autoban created a Grand Bazaar–meets–Buckminster Fuller environment: a series of bubble-like pavilions suggesting a modern Moorish arcade, containing a music room, library, screening room and prayer room—all showcasing the firm’s ingenious furniture. There’s only one downside to the CIP lounge: If you’re there, you’re leaving Istanbul.

The Autoban emporium is located at Sinanpasa Mah. Süleyman Seba Cad. No. 16–20; autoban212.com.

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