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Kitsch is so over!

Melanie Sevcenko February 27, 2013

Move over snow globes and Ampelmännchen! The city of Berlin has launched the Design Souvenir Award. The contest is open to any designer wanting to give the capital's kitschy souvenirs a cutting-edge makeover.

Berlin (West) © visitBerlin | Scholvien
Image: visitBerlin/Scholvien

As the UNESCO City of Design, Berlin has long been one of Europe's design capitals. Home to over 2,000 design studios, a unique blend of fashion, architecture and product design concepts skillfully reflect the zeitgeist of the city.

Running east to west from Alexanderplatz to the Brandenburg Gate, Unter den Linden is the city's main tourist artery. Here, sightseers can dip into any number of souvenir shops and purchase a selection of decorative plates, "I heart Berlin" T-shirts, Ampelmännchen paraphernalia, beer steins, key chains and lighters.

Ampelmännchen Copyright: Hans Dahlgren
Bye, bye Ampelmännchen? Berlin's image is getting a revampImage: DW

But it appears that these old dust collectors will soon have to make room for a new generation. In February, the city launched the competition Design Souvenir Award inviting designers to create a contemporary, quintessentially "Berlin" souvenir.

Out with kitsch!

With big plans to revamp the city's image, the idea behind the contest is to offer visitors a fresh, more sophisticated keepsake to commemorate their stay in the capital.

Entries will be judged on creativity and design standards, plus the marketability and the manufacturability of the idea. Berlin residents will also have the opportunity to vote for the winner in the Public's Choice category and there's the promise of prize money totaling 5,000 euros for the winner.

Fashion designer Michael Michalsky
'Souvenirs are little ambassadors for a city,' according to Michael MichalskyImage: Oliver Reetz

The Design Souvenir Award is under the patronage of celebrated fashion designer Michael Michalsky. He'll be deciding the winner together in a jury of 12, comprised of city officials and professionals from the tourism, marketing and design sectors.

"Souvenirs are symbols - they represent the place where you found them. They're sweet, like little ambassadors. The new designs should reflect the current status and image of our city," Michalsky told DW.

Crazy for replicas

From Berliner teddy bears and Ampelmännchen trinkets, to snow globes of the TV tower or Brandenburg Gate, a plethora of assembly line souvenirs are available in almost every tourist shop in Berlin. Yet they all recall a particular idea of Berlin, namely a historic one, using the same stock of textbook clichés.

Situated on Unter den Linden, the Berlin Story shop houses row upon row of the usual brand of kitsch trinkets, where the hottest sellers are any replica objects from the GDR period - and of course those tiny, sprayed-painted pieces of the Berlin Wall.

a piece of the Berlin Wall boxed as a souvenir for tourists. copyright: Ani Ruci, August 2012
Painted pieces of the Berlin Wall still sell like hot cakes in souvenir shopsImage: DW

Amid the various paraphernalia on sale in Berlin Story, a young employee named Emine pointed to a small lightweight tin with a paper label depicting a montage of Berlin icons with the words "Berliner Luft," or "Berlin air." That's right, an empty can. "So many people buy these," Emine said. "I don't get it. It's literally nothing!"

When asked about the Design Souvenir Award contest, Emine laughed. "There's already so much 'Berlin' stuff to buy. Why make more?"

Personalized keepsakes of a city

One person who certainly doesn't agree is Katharina Dreger, the head of Berlin Tourism & Marketing GmbH which goes under the brand name visitBerlin.

"Berlin's range of souvenirs is as diverse as the city itself. But personally, I'm looking forward to a souvenir that represents the diversity of this ever-changing city more clearly," Dreger said.

Caroline Kurze, designer and editor-in-chief of iGNANT, a Berlin-based interdisciplinary blog featuring photography, arts, architecture and design, also believes that the design potential of Berlin originates from its diversity.

For Kurze and iGNANT, "the most valuable things are the ones that are loaded with memories. It can be the dumbest things, but you'll keep them if a good friend gave them to you, or if it reminds you of a fun night out."

Caroline Kurze, 2012, Berlin, Deutschland.
'The most valuable things are loaded with memories,' says Caroline KurzeImage: Caroline Kurze

As for Michael Michalsky, he's looking forward to the crazy ideas. "Of course we would need the usual cutie things. But the surprising ideas are what I am looking for. Berlin is moving forward very quickly - so should the souvenirs of our city."

A presentation of the nominated ideas, along with an exhibition and the ceremony for the winners of Design Souvenir Award will take place in September 2013.