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Ayse Birsel On Istanbul’s Best Design Secrets

The award-winning designer walks us through her favorite destinations in this city of contrasts.

Ayse Birsel On Istanbul’s Best Design Secrets

Welcome to Wanderlust, a weekly series on Co.Design where some of our favorite designers share their secret picks and insider tips for the best design cities on the planet. Today, Ayse Birsel of the award-winning innovation and design studio Birsel + Seck takes us on a tour of Istanbul.

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What’s your favorite design city, and why?

Istanbul is an incredible place–I’ve never seen any place like it. It’s so full of contrasts, and as a designer, I’m really interested in dichotomy. There’s a combination of old and new, beautiful and ugly, Asian and European, Muslim and secular. You name it. It’s very clean and very dirty; very organized and incredibly chaotic. But most of all, it’s incredibly beautiful. Istanbul sits on seven hills and on two sides of the Bosphorus. You’re in Europe one moment and in Asia the other. Centuries-old architecture is intermixed with modern architecture. And it’s full of surprises–even for people who have lived in Istanbul forever. In the recent years, a lot more designers have taken notice. There are more and more art and design events happening in Istanbul.

Where do you like to stay when you’re there?

My parents’ house. I love staying there because it’s home, but also because my mother prepares the best breakfast: 8 a.m. and it feels like a feast, set beautifully with so much love. Their house is like a museum of sorts. My mom loves antique objects, and she has an excellent eye and a great sense of space. My [New York] house, we live in a loft, and it’s midcentury modern with a lot of things from Herman Miller because I work with them. My parents’ house is at the other end of the spectrum–Rococo and Louis XIV furniture.

Where do you like to eat?


Karaköy Lokantasi and Hünkar. They’re both traditional Turkish mezzes, which are Turkish tapas. So it’s a lot of small vegetable dishes with olive oil, followed by a main dish, like a meat stew of some kind or lamb with rice. Hünkar is more traditional. You walk in, and all the food is on a counter in hot dishes, like a buffet. Lots of vegetable dishes, lots of stews, things that are time-consuming and elaborate. Hünkar is kind of like a neighborhood restaurant in Nişantaşı, one of the more well-off neighborhoods. It’s a lot of locals and intellectuals, journalists, lawyers and doctors, artists. It’s really family-style. Karaköy [in Kemankeş] is a modern and better designed version of it, with beautiful tiles on the walls and silken tablecloths. Kemankeş is the new up-and-coming neighborhood in Istanbul. There are lots of young designers who are opening up stores, so its milieu is quite different.

What design destinations do you visit?

In the space of a day, you would definitely start with the old palace and the old portion of the city, which is Topkapi and Haga Sophia. In that neighborhood, there’s the old Byzantine palace, which has incredible mosaics still intact. There’s the archaeological museums, that’s amazing. There’s the Blue Mosque. I don’t go into those because they’re almost endless! Then go have lunch, go through Nişantaşı. Gönül Paksoy in Tesvikiye is a fashion designer who takes Ottoman textiles and reuses them and has an incredible visual sense. And then Ela Cindoruk and Nazan Pak just opened a jewelry store. They’ve been in business more than 20 years, and it’s an amazing collection of contemporary jewelry. And then House Cafe. That’s what I would do.

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