Esen Karol


John Burns


Ekin Özbiçer


‘I can’t have something that doesn’t have a use for me – even if I like it a lot,’ says Esen Karol, describing her utilitarian approach to her home. ‘Every decision about the house is pragmatically made on the basis of how easy it will make life, not on the basis of how it will make the house look.’

Karol lives in Anadoluhisarı, an Anatolian neighbourhood of Istanbul, with her husband Bülent and her two Norwegian forest cats, Pipo (‘meaning pipe, the one you smoke with’) and Uno. The nice things in the house, she says, either belong to her husband or were gifts.

As long as I have a computer and an ashtray, and the proportions are correct, I can be anywhere

From a makeshift desk, currently stationed on the mezzanine, Karol runs a one-woman editorial design studio from home, creating books, posters and printed supplements with a focus on art and architecture.

Though her lack of enthusiasm for homemaking might seem at odds with her profession, Karol thinks it’s precisely because she is a designer that she aspires to such spartanism.

‘If someone wants to work with me,’ she says, ‘first we talk about whether a book or magazine is necessary or relevant. We want to be sure that this thing we are making has the right to exist. If you put an object out into the world, and if you make it well, it will exist for at least 100 years. So you need to be sure.’

At 47, it is a thought process that she now applies to her personal belongings, too. ‘I love archives and I like documenting stuff,’ she explains, ‘but somehow it’s so weird that, at the moment someone dies, all of these things become meaningless. Since I don’t have children, I keep thinking, “If I die in the next hour, what would happen to the things I have?” My friends say, “Who cares what happens?” But maybe because I’m a designer, I have to think about the next step.’

Karol is therefore not quite sure why she keeps a personal archive of her work, meticulously arranged in plastic storage boxes, upstairs.

‘I tried to change the way I dressed, the way I moved, the notebook I carried, my business card, where my office was, my neighbourhood,’ she says, recalling her career beginnings. ‘Somehow it felt like this was how a designer should behave – a code of conduct, like the military has.’

But, starting with her business card, Karol slowly began to liberate herself from the expectations her profession can carry. ‘Little by little, I managed to get rid of things,’ she says. ‘I don’t need a studio. I don’t need a business card. It took almost 15 years for me to realise that.’

The archival storage boxes, however, are what she calls the ‘last trace’. ‘If there were a criminal investigation, that would be the only corner. You would say, “Yeah, there is a graphic designer living in this house.”’

Karol was born in Ankara and grew up in Istanbul, spending many years living in Taksim as an adult. When her father passed away a few years ago, the couple moved to Anadoluhisarı to be closer to her mother.

Although she describes Anadoluhisarı as ‘a depressing suburbia kind of place’ and a neighbourhood in which she had never dreamt of living, she now finds its fresh air, silence and proximity to the city centre refreshing. ‘It feels like I live in a different town,’ she says.

The house sits within a gated community, a piece of land gifted from an ex-mayor to graduates of İstanbul Üniversitesi Devlet Konservatuvarı.

‘It wasn’t built by a rich developer, but by a cooperative,’ Karol explains. ‘Musicians and composers came together and built this community. But they didn’t have too much money, so they left the houses raw. You just buy the four walls and have to finish it on your own.

Karol didn’t have much input into the blueprints of the home, though, leaving it to her mother instead, who she describes as a ‘closeted architect’. ‘Some of the things my mother had already done were great. So, for example, my mother doesn’t like doors. We don’t like doors, either. So right now only the bathroom has a door.

Despite having a garden and a terrace, from which she can see the Bosphorus, Karol’s favourite place in the house is wherever her computer is. Right now, she is designing several projects – another publication for Arter, a modern art gallery in Beyoğlu, a catalogue for Galeri Nev and the cookbook of Didem Şenol, a young and respected Turkish chef.

Most of her clients, she says, are cultural institutions, artists and architects, for whom she can produce anything from posters and books to magazines and catalogues. ‘I am fortunate. They are interesting people and you learn a lot. But for an editorial designer, it’s very limited,’ she says.

Karol works alone on most projects, often handling all aspects of the publication. ‘I try to be active in producing all the ingredients of a publication, as well as bringing them together. When I design something for a project, my aim is that the idea can’t be transferred to any other project. I definitely don’t have a signature style.’

There are a few rules of thumb that Karol sticks to, however: never using fonts that were produced before digital technology, staying away from historical references and sticking to primitive colours. ‘I am like a child,’ she says. ‘I work with Lego colours – blue, yellow, green, red.’

As part of her quest to pare down her personal inventory, Karol recently donated 200 design books from her own library to that of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, where she once taught typography and publication design. ‘I taught for 14 years, every Wednesday for eight hours. I’ve had more than 600 students so far.’

After giving up teaching herself, she now occasionally accompanies her husband, an architect and professor at Mardin Artuklu University, on his field trips. Next week, they will take a group of students to the International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

‘It’s so interesting to be middle-aged,’ she says. ‘It’s my first time and I am trying to discover it. I am still not old, obviously. I have a lot of experience, but I still have my curiosity and energy. When I was young, I thought that older people didn’t understand young people. But at this point, it’s totally the opposite. I’ve started to feel like a tourist. You can’t even make a joke without having to explain it. It’s like I am in a foreign land.’

Karol realises that she will never truly be able to get rid of all of her possessions, though. ‘That was my ambition two years ago. I realise I can’t, but I am quite close,’ she says. ‘As long as I have a computer in front of me and an ashtray, and the proportions are correct, I can be anywhere.’

This article can be found in Brownbook’s November/December 2014 Issue. 

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