Centre of attention

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 December, 2011, 12:00am


ON an unseasonably warm day last winter, the tap-tap of a jewellers' hammer mingled with the clink of espresso cups in Istanbul's Galata neighbourhood.

Just a few strides from the neo-bohemians idling at tables outside the cafe-cum-boutique Mavra, the jewellery designer Janset Bilgin hunched over a workbench in her atelier fusing silver, gray labradorite and silk into a bold, chunky necklace.

Artisans are nothing new in this cosmopolitan district wedged between the pedestrian shopping street Istiklal Caddesi and the shores of the Golden Horn. From the 14th through the early 20th centuries, Galata was the city's centre of trade with the West, home to European merchants and industrialists.

In September 1955 riots directed against Istanbul's Greek population led to an exodus of many residents; the vacated buildings were taken up by the workshops of woodworkers, instrument makers, cobblers, neon fabricators and other craftsmen.

In recent years, contemporary artisans such as Bilgin of Janset Bilgin Design (jansetbilgin.com) have begun setting up shop alongside practitioners of traditional trades. Late 19th-century Art Nouveau apartment buildings have been refurbished; restaurants, bars, boutiques and galleries have opened; and the area, with its prime location, drop-dead views of the Bosporus and cheap rents, has gotten cleaner and safer. As of five years ago 'you wouldn't have felt safe walking here at night,' says Bilgin, who occupies an apartment seven floors above her atelier. 'Now I wouldn't live anywhere else.'

Galata's au courant ateliers are clustered around Serdar-I Ekrem Street, a typically narrow lane that begins at the base of the neighbourhoods' namesake stone watchtower. Half a block downhill from Bilgin's shop is Lightwork (lightwork-design.com), a narrow brick-walled shop that opened in 2008, displaying spare sculptural lamps by Huseyin Turgut. 'The past of Istanbul is here,' says Turgut, a painter turned lighting designer, explaining the neighborhood's newfound allure.

'Consciousness is changing. People are realising the value of old buildings and old furniture,' says Fulya Balli, who opened Stock 60/70 (38/a Serdar-I Ekrem Sokak; 90-212-252-6870) with her architecture and restoration business partner, Ilic Kirtas, in 2009. The store overflows with mid 20th-century furniture and housewares from Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, and furniture made from wood salvaged on Turkey's Black Sea coast.

Upstairs in an open workshop behind his store SIR (sircini.com), the ceramics artist Sadullah Cekmece creates decorative pendulums and tableware with traditional Ottoman motifs in turquoise, black and white.

'First the artists came to Galata,' Cekmece says. 'Then the actresses, singers and fashion designers followed.'