In Conversation: Ufuk Barış Mutlu

Exploring Ufuk Barış Mutlu's design process and sources of inspiration.

While Ufuk Barış Mutlu continues to work with brands under the name StudioMutlu, he also stays in the game through his personal art projects and publications. We visited the designer, whose PostaKit collection is available at OMM Shop, at his home and studio in Istanbul; we talked about the sources that inspire him and the details he has archived.

Credits: Ekincan Şener

We know that you have a multidisciplinary approach to design which encompasses moving installations, printed publications, paper model kits, and digital projects. Could you briefly tell us about yourself, your creative works, and StudioMutlu?

My mother tells a story that I asked for paper and a pencil so I could draw carpet patterns after visiting the carpet museum in Sultanahmet when I was young. From my earliest memories, I have always had an inclination to draw and create. I wanted to have tangible forms that I could examine and play with as I wished. My biggest supporters in pursuing art were my mother and father. My grandparents' house, where my grandmother and grandfather lived, also played a significant role in this. My grandfather was a customs officer who served at various border crossings. My grandmother was a chemical engineer working at Tekel during that time. She kept recipe books, instructions for brewing beer and wine, tobacco recipes, guides, notes, and formulas—everything. My grandfather used to bring all sorts of samples from the customs office to our home. As a child, rummaging through that house had a profound impact on me. I still use my grandmother's coffee grinder, my grandfather's wallet, files, and stationery supplies. Due to the enduring quality of the designs from that era, those items never age, and you can preserve them with proper care.

Barış's grandmother, Muazzez Yılmaz, is working at Tekel.
Barış's grandmother, Muazzez Yılmaz, is working at Tekel.

When you become a designer, it becomes possible to create products that can find a place in people's homes. It was the first turning point in my life when I realized that my creations were also appreciated not only by my family but also by others. Later on, I decided to combine my artistic ambitions with technical knowledge and started the Visual Communication Design department at Istanbul Bilgi University. Our assignments always revolved around specific themes, and the idea of developing my practice based on the subject matter began to take shape during my time at school. I started to focus on creating kinetic sculptures and installations. Towards the end of university, contemplating my professional future led me to delve into brand identity design.

I started my career as a designer at ATÖLYE, which was both my first and last office job. It was a fresh and vibrant environment where I had the opportunity to work alongside Ece Çiftçi, who later became a dear friend of mine. In a short span of time, I gained significant experience in various aspects, reaching a point where I felt confident in pursuing brand identities and projects independently under the name StudioMutlu. However, I continue to actively engage in the art as well because I miss my creative playground. Although not as intense as before, I strive to strike a balance by creating personal publications such as PostaKit. This journey involves making money, investing in myself, experiencing financial setbacks, and then gradually gaining more. I was curious about the academic experience, so I recently started teaching as an industry partner at Kadir Has University. In the first term, I focused on "Interaction Design," and currently, I am teaching "Brand Identity Design."

As a designer who draws inspiration from diverse fields, how do you structure your production process? Is your priority to identify potential playgrounds where you can create? Do you focus on the outlines and technical stages of the design, or is it about contemplating the subjects that the design explores?

During my time in school, my teachers criticized me a lot about my approach: I usually start by choosing the technique first and then build the project around it. For instance, I want to work with aluminum on a CNC machine and a whole new project comes out of it. I used to enjoy interpreting the paper models given by newspapers and experimenting with offset printing knives, which led to the creation of PostaKit. This is the right method for me; I should create what excites me. If the product and its story complement each other well, it is not important whether I start with the technique or not.

The same happened with "Balta, makas, çekiç" (“Axe, scissors, hammer”). I found an axe on my grandmother's balcony and thought, "This has a great form.” There's a unique shape in Anatolia, and how can I preserve it?" So I decided to prepare a research publication. Almost every project in my life begins in a similar manner. The material excites me, and I set out on a journey.

“The production process can modernize, but the essence of form can be preserved before it completely dies. This is one of my biggest endeavours.”

The book "Balta, makas, çekiç" ("Axe, scissors, hammer") centers around traditional hand tools from Anatolia, while versions of PostaKit like "1961 Devrim" and "1966 Anadol" incorporate nostalgic elements from popular culture. As a new media artist, what is the relationship between the past, analog culture, and your designs?

There are two aspects to this relationship for me. The first is connected to archival culture and documentation, while the second is a more personal aspect tied to my longing for certain elements from the past.

I'm not actually a nostalgia enthusiast, as technology is an integral part of my life. My passion for the past is solely related to the aesthetic perception of those eras. Trends come and go very quickly, and planned obsolescence plays a role in that. We often find ourselves returning to fashion trends from specific periods for various reasons. Personally, I enjoy maintaining that sense of minimalism in my designs.

From an archival and documentation perspective, Anatolia has an immense and eclectic culture. However, our archival practices are quite weak. During the process of creating PostaKit, I extensively researched the technical drawings of the Devrim car and realized that when the project was canceled, the models and plans were “buried”, effectively erasing their existence. If Devrim were in another country, it could have become a cultural icon. As someone from the younger generation, I struggle to possess something from the past and it's a significant problem.

Anatolia houses numerous unique forms, crafts, and the specialized tools associated with them. For instance, sheep shearing scissors may still exist, but they will disappear when the craftsmen are gone. Often, the children and grandchildren of these craftsmen do not continue working in these fields. Rather than solely aiming to revive these tools from an emotional standpoint, my intention is to embrace their existing forms. While we focus on preserving the craftsman and their craftsmanship, the form itself is dying. Yet, we could easily adapt these designs to modern molds. For example, axes are considered cultural heritage in Norway and are produced using modern machinery. By successfully preserving the form, they achieve a higher cultural value. The production process can modernize, but the essence of form can be preserved before it completely dies. This is one of my biggest endeavours.

You have both personal and commercial projects. While working in two different fields, what challenges do you face, and what are your sources of motivation or inspiration?

When I decided to become a designer, I wasn't aware that I would be right in the middle of the service industry. Over time, I realized that unless you become a "superstar," there will always be someone saying, "This should be red, not blue." However, it's important to make a distinction here. When creating with your artistic identity, you don't have to explain anything. My most enjoyable projects are usually the ones I create without informing anyone. I believe that the reason I can do good work in the field of design is because I can experience the satisfaction of this artistic freedom.

One of the concerns I have in this field is that design education generally focuses on working in agencies. No one talks about freelancing, starting your own agency, or how to prepare proposals or invoices for clients. These experiences are gained through long and arduous paths, but it shouldn't be that hard. These are the most common topics I receive invitations to speak about on school panels.

Credits: Ekincan Şener

Let's talk about your future projects. What is currently on your agenda? Would you like to share your upcoming projects, expectations for the future, plans, and your dreams?

Alongside my studio work, I want to focus more on the artistic side, complete my pending books, and delve into product development. While my digital projects continue, I deeply miss the physical production I experienced during my university years. My goal is to merge my personal projects with client relationships in brand work, collaborating with organizations to explore the interplay of design details and product narratives.

I recently launched a new brand called "Gray Label" with my high school friend Erdem Kahraman, where we design and produce textile products. Additionally, I am preparing for two exhibitions in Istanbul and Barcelona, where I will showcase a new sculpture series with a blockchain theme.

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