- Rosie Flanagan
Leaving behind the bustle of Berlin, we traveled two and a half hours north to catch up with Matthias Birkholz at his most recent project NewHaus; a modern interpretation of the traditional ‘Datsche’ that is set amongst the pines, just a short barefoot stroll from the beach in Dierhagen.
Matthias and Stephanie work full time in the corporate law world, a far cry from the vibrant creative scene of Berlin — at least, you’d think. In addition to litigation and transactions, the couple run gallery and project space SMAC, and in 2016 launched NewHaus — a design and architecture driven holiday home by the Baltic Sea. In collaboration with Samsung The Frame TV, we spoke to Matthias about finding balance by the sea, the art of collecting, and how he thinks technology is changing how people make and view art.
You’re a lawyer by trade, but an art collector, founder of a gallery and exhibition space, and owner of the design-dream NewHaus too. How did all this come about?
We live in the center of Berlin. Getting to know artists and gallerists and becoming friends with them, I think that is basically what triggered our interest in art. Maybe 15 or 20 years ago we began collecting art and started to become active parts of the Berlin art eco-system. But I only have one profession, which is being a lawyer. That is what I mainly do, and it’s where I earn my living. Stephanie, is also a corporate lawyer. So we are both corporate lawyers who are active in art.
How, and why did you decide to open SMAC?
A couple of years ago we founded SMAC with the aim of supporting young Berlin artists. This project space and its exhibition program is all about artists that we like, some of whom we have collected, and whom we find worth supporting.Carla Chan is a very good example, she is an artist from Hong Kong who is based in Berlin, and we did an exhibition with her last year in January — her first solo exhibition in Europe. That was the initial exposure that she had in Berlin, and that lead to her finding a gallery and having very successful shows there, and then to winning the Berlin art prize a couple of months ago. So that is a good example of what we are trying to do with SMAC. We also look at the point of his or her career that the artist is at: How important to them is it to have an exhibition or an additional exhibition, in a space like ours? Does it fit into the other stuff that they’re doing? Is it their first exhibition? Could it be a springboard for them?
The houses kind of came about more-or-less by accident… I grew up at the Baltic Sea, so I’ve always liked being close to that area, and when a couple of years ago we saw that a plot of land immediately adjacent to the sea was for sale, we thought it would be a great idea to build something there.
Do you think it is important to have space outside of Berlin to retreat to?
Yes, definitely. Liking the sea — the atmosphere of the wind, the salty smell in the air…that is, and has, always been familiar to me. Even better is to have such a spot that is reachable from Berlin. NewHaus is an easy drive of two and a half hours from the city. You could almost go back and forth in one day. So finding that perfect escape from the city was one of the great advantages of having found that space close to the sea.
“So finding that perfect escape from the city was one of the great advantages of having found that space close to the sea.”
When you purchased the property, was it just a plot of land?
The houses are in an area which used to be a holiday spot for the former political elite in Eastern Germany. They all had their Dastches there — and the plot of land we bought had two little Datsches on it, which used to belong to, I think, the District Police Chief and his bodyguards.
And what exactly is a Datsche?
Traditionally, a Dastche is a rather small holiday home with a more-or-less rustic charm. While there may now be Russian Datsches that are very big and very fancy, traditionally they were wooden shacks set in a nice place. We were lucky to obtain a building permit that allowed us to realize this project. The old buildings were very small and not made for winter.
Who did you work with for the architectural design of the spaces?
We worked with the young Berlin architect, Herbert Hussman, who had been recommended to us by an artist friend — Philip Grözinger — and thought this would be a perfect project to develop something in collaboration with such a young emerging talent. We had built other houses before — but then, of course, lack true architectural knowledge. We also worked with Friederike Tebbe, another artist. She advised us on the color scheme of the houses and the interior, her design ideas were vital to us. Among other things, she chose the colors for the customized Eames Chairs in one of the houses.
There is a strong art presence in NewHaus — could you tell us a bit about the artists whose work is on show here and their connection to SMAC?
They’re all pieces from our own collection. Some, like Amélie and Philip Grözinger, and Jens Haussman, have done exhibitions at SMAC. There are also some big names represented like Tony Cragg, Martin Eder and Isa Genzgen. Generally, we concentrate on younger talent, but it’s not a strictly curated setting. In our collection we don’t have a specific focus, we don’t collect only works by five artists, or only female artists, or anything like that. We buy what we like, and what strikes or touches us, and in this context, we are much too opportunistic to limit ourselves to specific genres or artists. I mean, if the game was to build a truly great collection one should have probably a more concrete collection focus — but that is not our aim, so we don’t really care. It’s the same with the art that we chose for the NewHaus; these are pieces that we personally like very much, they also have to fit into the houses, into the general atmosphere of the space, and the location. By that I don’t mean the color scheme or anything like that…art for us is not an interior decoration, it is more about creating the right feeling. So a lot of the art has to do with nature: it has to do with the sea, and maybe a vacation, maybe to do with the weekend, with relaxing, with winding down, and contemplating about one’s life. Overall, this is an evolving thing! The whole project is not something that we see as finished, so I think if I use a trend word [laughs] it’s a more agile approach that we’re experimenting with in the houses. We just try things out.
And the area itself has quite a historical connection to art too?
Yes, there is a link between the area and art — traditionally it was known as a retreat area for artists. There is an artist colony in Ahrenshoop, roughly 15 km away, which originally drew a creative crowd of painters in the ’20s and ’30s. There is a growing lively art scene again here, there are a couple of good galleries, also from Berlin, that have opened up shop in Ahrenshoop, and there is a very good newly-founded private initiative art museum too. Myself and a couple of others, we are organizing a classical music festival in Ahrenshoop in fall for a week each year, the Kammermusiktage Ahrenshoop. This area of the Baltic Sea — because it is so close to Berlin and Hamburg, and being close to Rostock too — is more than just a vacation spot, it has an intellectual beauty too.
How do you and Stephanie manage these extra projects?
Well, basically we do it in our free time, but as with everything, I think it is a matter of being organized or being disorganized. Not doing things beyond your work I think is often an excuse for being lazy and for not being innovative enough. I think in reality most people have more time to do interesting stuff, and/or engage in political or charity work, they just don’t do it. Often people say ‘I don’t have time to read a book’, or ‘I don’t have time to care for a refugee family’, I do not buy that. Maybe some people do work so much that they cannot do anything else, but most people definitely have more time. Generally, it’s more about focusing and finding the right things to do and having the right ideas and finding the right partners to put them on the street with. I am sometimes surprised to see that it is possible to get quite far with a rather limited amount of input but some creativity.
“It’s more about focusing and finding the right things to do and having the right ideas and finding the right partners to put them on the street with.”
How have you incorporated design into NewHaus?
I once saw a book about Long Island vacation houses with the title, Weekend Utopia, that was our leitmotiv. We tried to make the houses the perfect place to spend a weekend or a holiday. It was not only important that the location was special, and that the architecture was convincing, but we also wanted to have a really nice interior, including design classics as furniture. Vacations shouldn’t be a step down from what people are used to — and that is too often the case at the Baltic Sea. We wanted something that would live up to the standard that people would normally be used to, or would be higher than the standard that people are used to. Also, we feel that holiday houses should be equipped with everything that you need. Especially technology-wise, nothing is worse than coming into a hotel room where the TV is outdated, or where there is no proper stereo or no Bluetooth — it should all be state of the art. So at NewHaus — we also have high-end stereo and Bluetooth systems, and high-end televisions.
Do you have much digital art in your collection?
We don’t have too many pieces of digital art — but at SMAC we have done a couple of video shows, for example, Carla Chan did a fabulous video installation in the upper room. Honestly, one of the reasons we have been reluctant to buy digital art in the past probably was because it used to be so difficult to display properly. Digital art has always been a bit cumbersome and awkward to show: The TV sets used to look odd, and it was sometimes difficult to combine digital art with your normal life, particularly if your collection is part of your normal life. I think new technology is bringing a different future to digital art. The Samsung The Frame TV is a perfect way to display digital art in a gallery setting, but obviously also in your home. What I find particularly interesting about digital art is that you can display your whole collection, basically, on just a couple of screens. You can easily change what you display.
Finally, the all-important question, when should we visit NewHaus?
The Baltic is a year-round thing. Personally, I like it best during winter. I like spending an afternoon in winter in front of the open fire, and going to the sauna and then jumping into the ice-cold Baltic. That is unbeatable. That is better than spending a weekend in summer there.
“I like spending an afternoon in winter in front of the open fire, and going to the sauna and then jumping into the ice-cold Baltic. That is unbeatable.”
The Samsung The Frame TV is indistinguishable from a modern picture frame, designed to blend seamlessly with the contemporary home. In TV Mode, The Frame is a 4K UHD Television, but when you turn it off, it enters Art Mode — where it will elegantly present art or your own photos.