August 1, 2006
Petra Blaisse outfits the Mercedes-Benz Museum with her trademark alchemy—drapes by any other name.
When UN Studio’s Ben van Berkel asked Dutch designer Petra Blaisse two and a half years ago to fashion a set of curtains and an acoustic wall for the Mercedes-Benz Museum he was building in Stuttgart, he might have anticipated his client’s resistance. The $194 million structure—a mass of concrete, glass, and aluminum on the edge of a highway, within spitting distance of the main Mercedes factory—was designed as a spartan temple to cars. Blaisse’s studio, Inside Outside, on the other hand, is known for its mutable curtains and gardenlike glosses on indoor spaces. “I got the impression from Ben van Berkel that if you say ‘curtains’ to people, it’s not immediately what they envision in a car museum,” Blaisse says. After a year’s careful negotiation, Inside Outside got the green light for the project, with one reservation. “We were never allowed to call them curtains with Mercedes,” van Berkel says. “They hate curtains.”
During the delay UN Studio worked with other designers while saving four rooms for Blaisse. The top-floor restaurant, dominated by a 120-foot-long balcony overlooking the exhibition space, needed a darkening wall that would not only protect the downstairs from daylight but would also give curious diners a view of the goings-on below. To accomplish both Blaisse developed acid green curtains with narrow overlapping vertical fins that pull apart to reveal a backing called choucroute (“sauerkraut” in French), a black gossamer of rope and glue that strongly resembles its namesake. The same material lines the mohair-velvet curtain in the ground-floor multipurpose room, which is enclosed by translucent voile that reflects the sun and keeps the interior cool.
For the wall in the espresso bar, Blaisse returned to an idea that had proved too expensive for her work on the Dutch embassy in Berlin—lowly brush bristles. She was captivated by the material’s tactility and how clearly it improves a room’s acoustics. The white hairs are threaded into a gold-colored foil backing and arranged in a rounded pattern along the wall, giving the stark room the illusion of spaciousness. “The wall is not a wall anymore,” Blaisse says. “It’s just some kind of watery veil-like substance.” The synthetic hairs also obliquely reference the nearby collection of cars: a German manufacturer supplied Inside Outside with industrial brushes commonly used in the auto industry. “We tried to make it so refined that it wouldn’t remind anyone of technical things like car washes,” Blaisse says. “It looks very chic, but of course, it’s just a brush.”