Design Milk Travels to… Berlin

Berlin’s edgy and artistic reputation often precedes any first time visitor’s trip to the German capital, either tainting or painting expectations, depending upon who you’ve spoken with. And no doubt, Berlin’s nightlife and avant garde scenes remain as vibrant as ever, ready to reward nearly any curiosity with an intensity found nowhere else. But Berlin is also an UNESCO City of Design, with its storied hedonistic appetites matched by the city’s glorious palette of design and architecture spanning the Baroque to the Bauhaus, with a little Postmodern and Brutalist thrown in for good measure.

Photo: Gregory Han

With just under 3.5 million people calling Berlin home – the second most populous city in the European Union – the city is wonderfully diverse and also is recognized as one of the greatest contemporary art destinations in the world. In fact, it can be hard to tell where the galleries end and the city begins, with the graffiti-embellished streets and walls operating as a continuation of the population’s throbbing creative output.

It’s not a city for the faint of heart, nor for those who tread lightly across the fragments of change (though the city shares its darker past as both reminder and warning). But for anyone seeking the exciting, Berlin will most definitely not disappoint.


Hotels in Berlin seem to be making up for lost time for the years when the city was separated into two blocs, divided by the physical and ideological divide of a concrete wall which still haunts the city. Many of the newest hotels exhibit a passionate vigor inviting guests and nightlife through their front doors to partake in bewildering expressions of luxury, glamor, and occasional moments of audacity. Hotel hopping here comes highly recommended.

25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin

25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin is gifted with arguably the best name for a hotel we’ve ever heard, a peculiar and playful accommodations nowhere shy about its eclectic and funky personality. Decorated by German furniture designer, Werner Aisslinger – whose work is represented by the vibrant modular furniture system remembered for its same bikini-themed name – the Hotel Bikini is decorated to surprise. We definitely didn’t expect a hotel with its own hammock lounge in the heart of Berlin, that’s for sure.

25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin

25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin

25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin

Soho House Berlin

The graffiti of Berlin’s streets and past seem to be spill into the lobby of the Soho House Berlin, greeting guests with unfinished concrete detailing and spray painted signage inside this landmark building designed in the Neues Bauen style by architects Georg Bauer and Siegfried Friedlander. It’s a provocative entrance into a deceptively design-forward hotel with 65 rooms, 20 apartments, and 4 lofts decorated with a juxtaposition of contemporary and antique furnishings. And yes, that is a Damien Hirst piece staring back at you as you climb up the spiral staircase.

Soho House Berlin

Soho House Berlin

Soho House Berlin

Soho House Berlin

Echoes of Berlin’s cabaret years seem to haunt the sumptuous halls of the Hotel Zoo Berlin, one of the grande dames of the Kurfürstendamm lining one of the city’s most famous avenues. Its front facing exterior inspires imagining auteur Wes Anderson illuminating its staid facade with a pastel glow at night in miniature.

Hotel Zoo Berlin

Redone by designers Dayna Lee and Ted Berner, the 1891-built building survived the onslaught of WWII bombings to eventually dust itself off to see itself remade as an opulent and glamorous hotel today, decorated with just enough contemporary details to remind you Berlin is always moving forward even when glancing back.

Hotel Zoo Berlin

Hotel Zoo Berlin

Hotel Zoo Berlin

Michelberger Hotel

Notable mentions: The Propeller Island City Lodge is possibly the weirdest hotel on earth, the creation of German artist Lars Stroschen, but it’s been left in a state of limbo “for repairs and a new concept” \\\ Hüttenpalast Caravan Hotel Berlin \\\ Michelberger Hotel


The Berlin Wall. Photo: Gregory Han

Rufina Valsky, founder of Berlin Art Guide, describes the city as such: “If New York is the front, Berlin is where everything is happening. It’s the backstage.” The analogy doesn’t seem so far fetched considering the cultural connection between the two cities historically. Berlin is indeed a contemporary art mecca, dotted throughout with more museums and galleries than can be mentioned here.

Start with the Brücke Museum, a favorite haunt of David Bowie, and an outpost of early 20th century modern art founded by four students of architecture dedicated to pure expression through color and form.

Brücke Museum

What trip to Berlin would really be complete for any design-minded traveler without a few hours inside the Gropius-designed halls of the Bauhaus Archive / Museum for Design? In 2019 the museum will see the addition of a new museum in celebration of the 100th year of the Bauhaus (additional information below).

The Bauhaus Archive and Museum. Photo: Colleen Elizabeth/(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Don’t be intimidated by the imposing architectural footprint of Sammlung Boros. Within the enormous block – a former wartime bunker and more recently, the site of a techno club – is arguably housed Berlin’s finest private collection of contemporary artwork ( belonging to Christian and Karen Boros). Works from artists like Ai Weiwei, Olafur Eliasson, and Uwe Henneken all find a home within. The foreboding setting is further enhanced by the warning, “For safety reasons, the bunker can only be visited in small groups”. In other words, reservations are required.

Sammlung Boros

Appel Design Gallery is located at Torstraße, in the Mitte district, and has showcased the works of luminaries of design, like Dieter Rams’ rarely seen sets of stackable plastic outdoor furniture (inspired by zafu, Japanese sitting mats).

Appel Design Gallery

The hulking remains of the former Berlin-Hamburg Railway train terminal now house the Museum für Gegenwart – the Museum of the Present. The vast exhibition space is now dedicated exclusively to contemporary art representing artists from the 1950s till the present, including Katharina Fritsch, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Cindy Sherman, and John Cage.

Buchstaben Museum, aka the Alphabet Museum will appeal to lovers of the letter – aka graphic designers and typographers. The museum’s collection is comprised of more than 1,000 examples of letters, logos and signs, most salvaged from Berlin’s neon city signage. Just look for the neon blue display spelling out the sesquipedalian, “Buchstabenmuseum”.

Architect Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial immerses visitors amongst the presence of 2,711 concrete slabs, a metaphorical landscape commemorating the deaths of six million Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Photo: Gregory Han

Notable mentions: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe \\\ Reichstag \\\ Berlin Wall \\\ Trabi Safari



of/Berlin is a retail offspring born of three mothers: Vesna the architect who likes straight lines, form, and structure. Karo the interior designer with an affinity for fine materials and colors. And Catrin, the business woman with an appreciation for timeless design and functionality. Gifts specifically designed and/or made in Berlin are represented within. The shop’s focus on local designers and manufacturers extends to even offering various design tours and workshops, a hyper-local way to get to know the city.

R.S.V.P. in Berlin’s central borough of Mitte.

R.S.V.P is all about stationery goods from around the globe, including pens and mechanical pencils from the likes of Caran d’Ache from Switzerland, OHTO from Japan, Koh-I-Noor representing the Czech Republic, and Kaweco and Usus. It’s the sort of shop ideal for using those last few spare coins or dollars for a gift before heading back home.

Paper and Tea

Tea isn’t necessarily the first thing one might equate with wild and anything goes Berlin. But walk into Paper and Tea’s serene and minimalist showroom dedicated to the act of sipping artisanal teas – all of the the accoutrements related to its preparation showcased in beautifully orderly fashion – and even the most frantic of souls might stop for a tasting.

Amodo Berlin

Amodo calls itself a “Cosy Concept Store for the whole family”, a claim verified by even a quick browse through their selection of tastefully quirky gifts, homewares, and objects for wee ones. Like most boutiques across Europe, the wares within are not limited to Germany, but represent talents across the continent.

Notable mentions: Kollwitzplatz Market \\\ Hallesches Haus \\\ Kaufhaus des Westens \\\ District Six \\\ A Kind of Guise

The House of Small Wonder in Berlin-Mitte near Friedrichstraße is an American + Japanese fusion restaurant housed inside a vintage garden themed café. The jungle-bohemian decor is a favorite spot for a late breakfast. Photo: Gregory Han


Next year marks the 100th year since Berlin architect Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus Art School in 1919, making it an ideal time to visit Berlin (and the rest of Germany, where additional celebrations and events honoring the Bauhaus are scheduled). Berlin is preparing a variety of events and celebrations for the Bauhaus Centenary, including an Opening Festival event in January and a finale/homecoming of the international exhibition titled, Bauhaus Imaginista.

Architecture buffs note: six housing estates in Berlin have been added to the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, including the Hufeisensiedlung, the city’s first large-scale housing estate designed by the avant-garde architecture collective, “Der Ring”. It joins the Weiße Sadt (White City), the Schillerpark Estate, the garden city Falkenberg, and the residential city Carl Legien as UNESCO-World Heritage sites.

Gregory Han is a Senior Editor at Design Milk. A Los Angeles native with a profound love and curiosity for design, hiking, tide pools, and road trips, a selection of his adventures and musings can be found at