This paper will present an analysis of the interior design of Restaurant Nolle located in central Berlin. As this paper will argue, the historically influenced interior design of the restaurant exemplifies something that could be a rather complex use of history. The analysis will be linked to the concepts memory, historical consciousness and historical culture to afford a theoretical background to the analysis.
What Is a Historical Monument?
One could argue that a Berlin restaurant does not qualify as a historic monument, since it is in fact a restaurant and not a monument dedicated to the memory of something historic. If one, however, regards monuments not as much as dedications to history, but as tributes to things past one could argue that the restaurant could be counted as a monument.# The fact that the restaurant mimics a French brasserie from the 1920’s seems to be essential, at least for the proprietors of the restaurant (more about this later). One could also imagine that some of the frequenting public go there to get a feeling of history and things past. Furthermore, as James E. Young notes, more or less anything can be used as a monument, it is the use that determines what is and what is not a monument.#
Restaurant Nolle’s website greets its visitors by inviting them to “bask in 1920’s elegance.”# Accordingly, the interior design of the restaurant, located in Berlin Mitte, immediatey brings the visitor into what is perceived as a classy Paris brasserie in the early 20th century. You are welcomed by servants dressed in white shirts and aprons. If you have ever visited the famous Brasserie La Coupole in the Montparnasse region of Paris, you will recognise the high, well lit, arched and art deco-adorned ceiling as well as the art-decorated walls and the font used on the signs in the restaurant. Throughout the restaurant there are palm trees and the walls are decorated with paintings by French art deco painter George Barbier. Furthermore, to enhance the classic and genuine atmosphere the walls are paved with what seems to be marble pillars and boards and mahogany wood boards. The lamps used to light the walls and ceiling are also what could be classified as early 20th century in style. In other words, a lot of care seems to have gone into making sure that the details are historically correct to lend the visitor the impression of visiting something genuine and historic, something that is confirmed at the restaurants homepage: it claims that the restaurant offers a “unique and historical setting” and that its walls are “full of history.”# It seems to be and claims to be the real thing, more or less.
Pictures describing details of the dining room at Restaurant Nolle. Photography by the author of this text.
“Seems” is an important word here, however, since the more you inspect the interior of the restaurant, the more you will recognise that it is not as genuinely historical as one might suspect considering the information given at the restarurant’s web page. The walls are not covered with marble pillars and mahogany, but rather plywood painted to look like marble and mahogany. The palm trees are made of plastic and I would not be surprised if the heavy lamps were made of a cheaper less durable material as well. Everything about Restaurant Nolle is new: in fact there has never been a restaurant in its place; the site hosted one of Berlin’s first beer halls according to the restaurant’s web page. After a while the restaurant and its decorations take on the appearance of a façade, something which is accentuated when you enter the restaurant’s rest rooms. The door to the toilets seems to be of a sturdy wooden material and the sign stating “Toiletten” seems highly authentic. The moment you touch the door, however, you sense that there is something amiss: instead of having to push heavily to open the door, it opens quite easily and as soon as you pass it you find yourself in a very typical 21st century lavatory. You get the sensation of having walked through a time machine when you enter the rest rooms. Hopefully the images below can illustrate something of this.
Pictures describing the entrance to the toilets at Restaurant Nolle and the view from the interior of the restrooms. Photography by the author of this text.
Analysis of Restaurant Nolle’s Use of History
What I have presented above is interesting for two reasons: the things that Restaurant Nolle eplicitly presents, and what can be derived implicitly from the explicit uses of history in the choice of decoration. Let us begin with the explicit things.
To choose to decorate and market the restaurant as a 1920’s French-style brasserie in the heart of Berlin invites us to muse on the historical implications. Germany in the 1920’s was the Germany of the Weimar republic, perhaps idealised as a short period of democratic splendour, in between two horrendous examples of dictatorial rule: Kaiser Wilhelm’s appetite for personal glory that led Germany to a brutal defeat in World War I and then when Adolf Hitler seized power and made life a lot more difficult for German generations to come. The Weimar republic is sometimes portrayed as a liberal period when Germans danced to Jazz music and, of course, visited fashionable restaurants similar in style to Restaurant Nolle. This is one side of the story, and presumably the story that the proprietors of the restaurant want to portray.
The other perspective would simply be to view the Weimar republic and its liberal ideals, as what ultimately paved the way for Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP. Germany in the 1920’s was not exactly a care free place where Germans in general listened to Jazz music and visited places like Restaurant Nolle. Life in 1920’s Germany was hard with massive inflation, unemployment and political instability. Furthermore, one of the things that the Nazis were protesting againt was in fact the negative influence of foreign culture on Germany and its culture. Jazz music was American and brasseries were French, and these were symbols of two of the countries that delivered Germany the harsh peace treaty at Versailles. To dig Jazz music and visit French restaurants was thus not just an innocent pastime, but could be regarded as a rather controversial political act. We must also remember that Hitler seized power through democratic elections, which tells us something of the political atmosphere in Germany at the time, even though a lot a Hitler’s success can be accredited the financial difficulties and threats of a communist revolution.
There are at least two ways of looking at this. Firstly, one can regard the restaurant’s choice of historical era as some kind of vindication of the liberal ideals of the Weimar republic: it was not, after all, the Nazis that got the last word. Here we are in the 21st century celebrating the liberal democracy. The other way of looking at it is as some kind of historical ignorance: one could argue that the style of the restaurant is just what happens to be trendy at the moment, and that the other stuff is just irrelevant. Restaurant Nolle is just about hav ing a good time in a nice environment.
If one chooses to view the restaurant as some kind of tribute to liberal Western ideals, there are some disturbing details about the decoration of the restaurant: the poor quality of the decoration itself and the art on its walls. The poor quality of the decoration can give you the impression that it is in fact not Western liberal ideals that are being honoured here, but rather plain commercialism. If it was a homage to Western liberal democracy, we might wish that more funds had gone into the quality of the decoration. Furthermore, the fact that it is not a genuine 1920’s decoration that we meet strengthens this point of view.
The only things that are in fact genuine are the paintings by French late 19th and early 20th century painter George Barbier. Or rather they are reproductions of original paintings by Barbier. Anyway, some of the paintings portray men and women smoking, drinking, and dancing to music, and these are generally quite unproblematic. However, some of the paintings have what could be labelled as an imperial or colonial theme. It is especially one painting that I want to focus on:
What we see here is something that would hardly have been controversial to a regular German, or European, visitor in the 1920’s: it displays a white, presumably European woman, being served by two Negro waiters. Today, however, the image tells us of the injustices of the colonial era and of the deprecating view many Westerners had of black people. The choice to reproduce the painting is interesting: it could either be to obtain historical accuracy (at the price of presenting an outdated stereotype of white and black people), or just plain ignorance; it is merely a nice painting. Both alternatives are problematic for obvious reasons.
Memory, Historical Culture and Historical Consciousness
Memory can be regarded as an active reconstructive process.# What we remember is not simply what we experience, but rather what fits into our conceptions of the world, and by this same process what we remember might not be exactly what once took place. This can explain why some things we experience stick with us and others not, and why memory seems to be a dynamic ever-changing process, instead of a static reproduction of everything that has passed. James E. Young writes that “memory is never seamless, but always a montage of collected fragments, recomposed by each person and generation.”# This view turns Restaurant Nolle into a prime example of how historical significance and meaning is always constructed. Human beings possessing historical consciousnesses (i.e. abilities to construct meaning using their historical knowledge#) try to make sense of what they see, and in doing so are determined by the historical culture that surrounds them (i.e. the public or societal interpretation or perception of history#).
This complicates our analysis of historical monuments: it is as Young writes the context of all historical representations that give them meaning.# Hence, an analysis like the one in this text is very complex and multilayered, and the view presented in this text is just one view determined by my individual historical consciousness and perception of history and historical significance. Ask someone else of the guests at the restaurant, and you will probably get a different answer. This could be regarded as a problem, but at the same time the subject experiencing and reflecting on its experiences is essential in creating meaning in a historical monument (and in written assignments on historical monuments). Everything, more or less, is open to interpretation: the seemingly trendy (and perhaps innocent) decoration of the restaurant becomes full of political and historical implications to one observer, and my guess is that some of the conclusions I have drawn in this paper were not anticipated by the proprietors of restaurant. Instead of basking in 1920’s elegance, I found myself scrutinising the interior design and critically engaging with the motives behind it.
This paper has tried to show through examples how a restaurant can in fact be a historical monument. It has also analysed the explicit and implicit uses of history in the interior decoration of the same restaurant, and has tried to link these uses of history to history didactial concepts such as memory, historical consciousness and historical culture. The most striking result of the argument presented in the paper, is perhaps that historical meaning is a complex matter, and that the context, both the individual and the societal one, plays a crucial role in how historical meaning is constructed.
Aronsson, Peter. ‘Historiekultur, Politik Och Historievetenskap i Norden’. Historisk Tidskrift 122, no. 2 (June 6, 2002): 189–208.
———. Makten Över Minnet: Historiekultur i Förändring. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 2000.
Schechtman, Marya. The Constitution of Selves. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007.
Young, James E. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Zander, Ulf. ‘Läroböcker i Sten. Historiedidaktiska Aspekter På Monument Och Minnesmärken’. In Historien Är Nu: En Introduktion till Historiedidaktiken, edited by Ulf Zander and Klas-Göran Karlsson, 107–129. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 2009.
‘Restaurant Nolle’ Home page. Restaurant Nolle, 20130214. http://www.berliner-antikmarkt.de/index.php?id=109&L=1.