Uli Mayer-Johanssen

Through impressively dwarfing windows, rooms drenched with sunlight, highlight the carefully selected furniture and artworks in a special glow. In this historic house there is one particular room that is a favorite for branding-agency MetaDesign boss: the breakfast room. It is here where Uli Mayer-Johanssen enjoys a perfect view of the tall trees and her garden and enjoys the sound of birds chirping. Within this home a journey of discovery is conveyed via a range of significant antiques and a custom designed parlor inspired by many Summer’s spent in South Tyrol.

The location of her company within Leibnizstraße is equally awe-inspiring. The so-called MetaHaus is an old transformer station and serves as a landmark that bares many hidden treasures. Eleven years ago the building was reconstructed by MetaDesign. Today people instead of machines now work across the six floors and fourteen levels, becoming a house of high creative voltage.

Considered as one of Germany’s leading agencies for integrated and holistic branding, Uli founded MetaDesign over twenty years ago. Since then the designer and brand expert is not only responsible for the strategic direction of the company, but has also worked as a lecturer at universities such as the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK). Despite her busy agenda as an entrepreneur, advisor, and columnist, Uli Mayer-Johanssen took the time to guide us through her home and company.

This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who present a special curation of our pictures on their site.

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How did you find such a wonderful house?
Back then, we were searching for a long time for a place that would at least fulfil half of our expectations. In Berlin it is much more difficult than in Hamburg or Munich. Berlin not only suffered a lot during the war but also afterwards as well. This was reason enough for people not to invest in it for centuries. Most houses were split up, demolished, or essentially given to fate of decay.

This house is hundreds of years old and has an interesting history: it was built in 1912 by a general, then followed by a baroness, and then during the war it was used as a casino like many buildings here. As soon as we entered the rooms, we were enamoured. The tall ceilings, the wonderfully old windows, parquetry flooring, view to the garden and the big old trees – everything radiated so much beauty and warmth that it was impossible not to fall in love with the place.

How would you describe your interior?
I think that one is able to feel the personal history of each item here. When I met my husband almost twelve years ago, it seemed to be quite the task to combine two worlds. But surprisingly enough things complemented each other and an interesting combination of new and old was created. For instance my husband used to love antique kilims and sofrehs.

As a young student he visited relatives several times in Turkey, who worked at the German embassy in Istanbul. During this time, he developed a love for Turkey’s culture: its mosques, ornaments, world of forms and color. I wasn’t very fond of carpets at the beginning, but kilims just possess such a blinding beauty. I would not decorate the rooms differently if I was given the chance.

Is it difficult for you to be here after your husband’s passing?
I certainly didn’t know how it would be to stay here without him. Whether it would be a sentiment possible to bare. We often spent hours together figuring out what place would be best for each object. With time, it turned out that this intense contemplation gave the rooms its special charisma. He is everywhere, present in every corner of the house. It is still our home.

There are two portraits of your husband and yourself…
…Yes, they are by Nikolai Makarov. One Saturday afternoon we were sitting at Paris Bar, above which my office was housed in the rooms of Carl von Ossietzky for many years. It was one of those afternoons where time seemed to stand still, as if the entire day had been a sunset. I discovered a catalogue and was going through it when the bartender arrived and mentioned that Nikolai had just arrived. He sat down at our table and just like that an afternoon turned into a wonderful evening.

Soon after we visited Nikolai’s atelier and immediately fell in love with his profound, almost meditative paintings. Later on I asked Nikolai if he could do a portrait of my husband which would serve as a birthday present. That is how the paintings were created. In recent years Nikolai has used Paris Bar as a motif over and over again, and in the course of this he cited the famous motif by Kippenberger that he re-interpreted. That is also how the last supper citation of Peter, our friends, and myself came into existence. We have been friends for a long time which gives the work an even deeper significance. I wouldn’t describe myself as a collector but art is an important part of my life.

What are your favorite pieces?
Almost every piece contains a story. Whether it is the Murano glass work by Pedrosa – it was one of the first objects my husband and I discovered together – the beautiful crystal chandelier, sculptures, paintings, or the wonderful sofrehs. I could talk about my fascination for these objects for hours, so it is quite hard to choose one favorite object.

Why did you decide on a South Tyrolean parlor within your home in Berlin?
South Tyrol was almost like our second home. For many years we tried to spent as much time as possible in the mountains during the Summer. During that time, many places and people grew close to our hearts. In our favorite hotel ‘Berghofer’ in Radein stands a fantastic gothic parlour. The scent of the Swiss pine, warmth, and safety provides a wonderful feeling.

While we were sitting together with Zeno Bampi, a great friend and architect and his wife Judith, on a terrace and looking at the panorama (the sensation of wrench almost present), I suddenly said out loud: “I would like to have a parlor like that,” and Zeno just replied: “We will make one!” My husband and I just looked at each other and quickly considered it absurd, but then realised how wonderful it would be. A long story was born that ended with this beautiful parlor actually existing within our home.

The feeling of being in Berlin is almost forgotten, just like it is on our terrace or in our garden. During the summer the leaves on the trees get so thick that everything on the exterior magically vanishes. I love being here. As I am away very often, I can find peace and strength here. There is no better place to spend the mornings than in the small breakfast room where a painting of Spring scenery with blossoming trees hangs, while the sun shines and the birds chirp. It always reminds me of Tschechow’s Cherry Garden.

Tell us about the film posters ‘Der Himmel über Berlin’ (Wings of Desire) by Wim Wenders?
I was fortunate to design the posters for Wim Wender’s ‘Der Himmel über Berlin’ in 1989. It was fascinating to see the development of the film. As there was no concrete script and Wim and Peter Handke would continue to create each scene with spontaneity and intuition, there were many versions until the film received its final form. I sat next to Peter Przygodda and Wim Wenders a few times in the cutting room and was able to take part in this tentative search. This took great importance within my work and the posters. I gave many of them away to people involved, but some of them I still own. Particularly the poster in French, ‘ Les Ailes du Desire,’ which I really like.

You also own many sculptures. Where does this passion come from?
Even though my grandfather was a sculptor and stone carver, it took me sometime to get close to that particular field. After journeys to Italy, specifically during and after my studies at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK), I developed a strong interest and love for it. ‘Prinzessinnengruppe’ (Princesses’ Group), a copy of the plaster mould of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, basically forms an opening to a new world which to this day is full of fascinating discoveries. We got the baroque frame of the mirror renovated and completed, after having used its broken parts as a doorframe for a long time. A restorer designed and carved the missing part and that is how this wonderful mirror came into existence.

It is amazing to see how objects receive a new life. It is also fascinating to see the art of handwork. Every object begins to narrate its own tale and develops a detectable aura. I appreciate that about Berlin. The city doesn’t want to be discovered and won’t form itself. It doesn’t offer an imposition, but it is simply up to you to make the first step. Berlin doesn’t wish to instruct or dominate, it simply lets you be. This often leads to discovering things on one’s own.

How did you end up in Berlin?
Originally I come from a small town in Baden-Württemberg and I studied graphic design at the Merz-Akademie in Stuttgart. At that time my brother had just moved from Würzburg to Berlin in order to pursue his diploma. He gave me a ticket to Berlin for my 16th birthday. I considered Berlin really exciting and interesting, even though the city was still quite grey and marked by the war in 1974. After my studies, I considered moving to Munich in order to study art. By coincidence my brother asked me if I wanted to come to Berlin for a while. That was the beginning of a long friendship. I like the open spaces here that one is able to fill. However, Berlin was never an easy city. It had such Prussian strength, like an old aunt with her hair tightly knotted in a bun. The valuable and loveable comes with time.

How did you master your path?
I studied visual communication at the former HdK – today the UdK – with emphasis in painting and philosophy. As I had to finance my studies, I worked as a graphic designer directly after having arrived in the city. I was fortunate enough to meet wonderful people who gave me great support and courage in the most difficult times. For a while I couldn’t decide between painting and graphic design. At times I am still confused about it even now. But as I have always liked to work with other people and considered it almost always as an enrichment, I chose communication and design in 1989.

Out of this decision you established MetaDesign?
Yes. After having worked together with Günter Fannei in an office above Paris Bar, I realised, as the agency was moving more towards advertisement, that I was extremely fascinated and interested by the conceptual and strategic dimensions of visual communication.

My function as a student representative mainly consisted of committee work. That is how I met Erik Spiekermann, who during that time was applying for a position as a professor in our field at HdK. Furthermore, my classmate Hans-Werner Holzwarth worked in his office in Motztstraße. It happened like it was supposed to happen. We had our first conversation about a possible collaboration alongside espresso and chocolate ice cream. ‘Der Himmel über Berlin’ playing at the theatres at that time, something that seemed to awaken Erik’s typographical interest. We both agreed that the conceptual dimension of design in Germany had not yet reached its potential.

We saw immense opportunity within the areas of corporate design and corporate identity. Essentially that is how the foundation of the agency MetaDesign came together with Hannes Krüger, which, many years later was transformed into a corporation.

According to you, what is strategic-visual communication?
The visual always contains a strategic dimension. The question is whether this potential is being recognised, applied, and reasonably used. Throughout history, just like within the catholic church, paintings, writings, culture, and forms have been used since the very beginning. Every symbol and every painting transports messages and content contextually. This is most clear, for example, when we try to decipher characters of a foreign, obliterated culture. The biggest problem here is the displacement of meaning and interpretation of forgotten characters or images. We must first understand how people used to live and think in order to decipher the significance of the character’s messages.

Transferring this premise to different contemporary working contexts is exactly what strategic-visual communication is about. To produce satisfactory work, we must understand how signs transport and convey messages, so we can create adequate forms and provide unique and concise appearances. The aim is to connect this work via different contacts, channels, and media as much as possible. The holistic perception of a brand goes beyond the design of the logo, print and online media.

Speaking of this, it is utterly important that companies understand what they stand for, as well as their visions and goals. People won’t be able to tell them what makes them unique and competitively viable otherwise. They can only formulate what they already know. Rarely something new or unique comes out of that, which could be developed further.

Where does MetaDesign stand nowadays?
Since its establishment, many things have shifted. In the last 23 years not only has the market changed but so have the demands expected from the company. Naturally, this cannot be ignored. The projects are becoming more fractal, the holistic view with regards to impact within work with brands becomes increasingly lost, which in the long-run will have fatal consequences for the company and its brands. Our goal is to lead brands strategically with holistic and creative communications.

How did you build this confidence and experience to advise others?
Principally, we offer action and decision options. Alongside the client we acquire the fundamentals. In the end they have to convert whatever they discuss with the employees and clients, in particular, the visual.

In this respect, we are strategic visual-sensual companions. We reflect the company’s reality and offer our clients the opportunity to understand the consequences of their actions. We try to make the brand become the very innovation within the company. We supervise many of our clients for a longer amount of time. For example, we have worked with Audi and Volkswagen for almost twenty years. In situations like these a certain trust and effectiveness is developed from which both sides profit and are constantly being nourished.

What is the secret of a successful corporate identity?
As we are part of a world that increasingly becomes faster, more global and inconsistent, as well as increasingly shaped by technology, media, and channels, it is necessary to establish an equally concise appearance and a clear anchorage in order to expose recognisable features. We are in a world that increasingly becomes more complex and has a demand for easy questions that are often the hardest to present and resolve. Nowadays everybody can make a film. But to create something consciously and strategically that orients itself around the values and self-image of the company is much more complex

Sending constantly changing impulses and messages isn’t an answer either. We must find ways in order to replace frequency with something concise. People love variety and independence, which simultaneously overstimulates, eventually leading to unhappiness. So the question remains: what creates consistency? The visual is invincible here. Only through the content do the messages receive relevancy.

Speaking of visual: MetaHaus is housed in quite an impressive building. Why?
Since 1987 we have been looking for a building that would suit our expectations and future work process. When we discovered the transformer station, we all agreed that this would be the perfect place. However, we severely underestimated the difficulties in transforming an industrial construction into an office building – in which people instead of machines would be working. We bought the building and created a team that would follow the entire process, alongside the architect Kahlfeld helped to awaken this sleeping beauty.

There are so many peculiarities in this landmarked building. For instance, the observatory reminds me of a control centre inside a spaceship. The room basically anti-seismically floats within the building. It was the only place where both people who managed the machine would actually be working.

After various challenges it was finalised in 2001. That combination of new and old, industrial architecture meeting modern work process, goes perfectly with our work as brand specialists. When there is nice weather the terrace offers a beautiful view over the city and many of our employees use it for their short breaks. Our library, a big conference room and the imposing atrium are extremely beautiful and act as a perfect frame for what we do here on a daily basis.

You are a successful woman – do you commit yourself to women being in leading positions?
Basically MetaDesign made that happen. From early on we had women in positions of responsibility. Women cannot be dismissed. They do a great job, are amazing creatives, extremely responsible, and reliable. For some time now it is not about who is better. It has become increasingly more important to concentrate on different abilities and skills and avoid that silo thinking. Our projects exist through our interdisciplinary work and the creation of qualitative synergies – women would be indispensable here.

Many thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us Uli Mayer-Johanssen and welcoming us to your unique home. Find out more about Uli’s company MetaDesign here.

This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who present a special curation of our pictures on their site. Have a look here.

Interview & Text: David Torcasso
Photos: Philipp Langenheim