The Feuerle Collection
agobay MT 0029 FEUERLECOLLECTION-46 header-mobile


to Katherine Kennard
reading this story



The Feuerle Collection

It’s 10 o’clock in Berlin and the soft morning clouds still hang low, seamlessly blending with a concrete building along a busy street in Kreuzberg, one of the city’s central districts. The building appears so inconspicuous that we nearly walk past it. From the outside, it looks sealed off, as if nothing is hidden behind its metre-thick walls. Only upon closer inspection do we discover the delicate black and red letters subtly embedded in the light grey wall, confirming that we are in the right place: ‘The Feuerle Collection’, they spell out.

agobay MT 0029 FEUERLECOLLECTION-124-1
agobay MT 0029 FEUERLECOLLECTION-122-1
agobay MT 0029 FEUERLECOLLECTION-125-1

As we press the doorbell, a friendly female employee, elegantly dressed in all black, opens the dark grey entrance door and invites us in. First, we walk down a warmly lit corridor, then we descend a flight of concrete stairs. We notice some faded graffiti here and there on the walls, bearing witness to decade-long neglect and unobserved creativity. The employee explains that for years this building – a former telecommunications bunker built during World War II – sat vacant, only home to occasional adventurers who left their marks with inconspicuous scribblings, not unlike an autograph by a performer.


Our curiosity and expectation rise with every step we take. On the lower level, the employee retrieves a keychain and opens another heavy door. As it closes behind us, we are enveloped in pitch darkness. We have arrived at the place where the exhibition starts, with an obligatory ceremony at its entrance.

Our first impression is that we are standing in a time capsule. This does not mean a journey into the past but rather a standstill in the present. The air-conditioning system hums gently in the dark environment. After a while, a three-minute piece of piano music by John Cage resounds from the loudspeakers. With each of the distinct chords the room brightens up a little. The feeling of dawn is slowly shuffling towards us. Frightening? Exciting? Something in between. Shadows emerge. “Do you see the light?” asks the employee. “Can you walk slowly towards it?”

agobay MT 0029 FEUERLECOLLECTION-97 high-res

As soon as we turn the corner, we enter a staged performance space. Thousand-year-old Khmer gods parade in a sparsely lit hall beneath a 3.5-metre-high ceiling, while contemporary black and white photographs hanging along the walls engage in a silent dialogue with them. There is an artificial lake, an almost invisible cube for incense ceremonies and plenty of room for our own imagination. No signs explain the busts or sculptures, no outside light disturbs our attention, and no mobile phone reception distracts us from the here and now.

agobay MT 0029 FEUERLECOLLECTION-109-1

We step closer to a place where two spotlights illuminate the head of a Khmer warrior. He wears a braid that modern men would identify as a manbun. His ears are worn out from heavy jewellery, his eyes washed out over the centuries. We gaze upon this testimony to a bygone era, studying the facial features of a man whose character seems to have survived in the sculpture. More busts fill the space, each sculpture resting majestically on a pedestal, positioned at a perfect distance to each other and illuminated with such precision that their shadows on the floor themselves become a piece of art. The whole floor could be a snapshot of gods and soldiers, frozen in time.


I feel Asia.


A slender gentleman in his sixties, wearing thick-rimmed glasses, a black silk jacket made in Taiwan, as he remarks later, and a friendly smile approaches from the other end of the hall. This is Désiré Feuerle, co-founder of the Feuerle Collection.

Born in Stuttgart, Feuerle studied art history in London and New York and worked in galleries in Cologne before opening his collection, co-founded with his wife Sara Puig, in this unusual location in 2016. He is based in Bangkok, and often travels through China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and Myanmar. “I feel Asia,” he says about himself.


Désiré Feuerle’s fascination with Asia began in the late 1970s, he explains, as we take our seats in the light and shadow of an art piece. Is it an ancient tree, preserved in time, or a Chinese dragon ready to emerge? Like all of the pieces at the Feuerle Collection, it leaves room for the imagination and nicely frames our conversation. When Feuerle was a teenager, he visited China for the first time with his parents. The first night is still vivid in his memory. “We arrived at our Beijing hotel in the evening. It was already late, but my curiosity prompted me to go outside and take a look at the surroundings. Before long, I was surrounded by about 20 Chinese people who asked me in English where I was from and then had some very specific questions about the works of Goethe and Schiller. I was amazed by their curiosity and impressed by their hunger for knowledge.”


At that time, only a few tourists travelled to the country. There were hardly any cars on the roads, but thousands of bicycles. “I remember a crossroads in Beijing where a policeman was sitting in a little house,” Feuerle says. “When a car came along, he pressed a button to turn the lights green.” Feuerle liked the different approach to thinking that he perceived in Chinese culture. “The art is very much shaped by the mind, whereas Thai or Burmese art comes more from the gut. In the eighth century, during the Sung dynasty, for example, a fish was depicted in such a way that you could recognise its essence. When you look at such sculptures, you can imagine how a fish moved or what was going on inside it.” We involuntarily think of the Khmer warrior at the beginning of the tour. Is it perhaps his essence that we have recognised in the centuries-old stone?

Feuerle’s taste in art has been greatly influenced by the Far East, and the same is true of his manners. He maintains a constant smile, speaks calmly but never too quietly, and his treatment of his own employees shows mutual respect. The collector appreciates Japanese politeness, loves Thai openness – “It’s a bit like Berlin, people are given the freedom to lead their lives the way they want to” – and understands Vietnamese reserve. “I sometimes sense a passive aggressiveness; the people seem very busy, they are tough, somewhat marked by history.”


Feuerle has been to the Asian continent numerous times. However, his first visit to the ruins of Angkor Wat, the huge temple district in Cambodia, conjures up the most vivid memories, with a mixture of dramatic and absurd elements. “I went to the country at the end of the 1980s, when there was still a war going on. No tourists visited the country; only reporters from the BBC and Cambodian military personnel used to stay in the hotel where I was based. When I went to see a temple, I paid three soldiers to protect me – and ten more just came along. We rode in convoy on motorcycles, along the potholed road, but as soon as I entered a ruined temple, the young men left me alone. I sat there for an hour, feeling the silence, dreaming, looking at nature.”

Désiré Feuerle seems to feel the world around him very deeply. Intuition appears to be more important to him than rationality. His unusual sensitivity that made him a passionate expert manifested itself early on in his life. His father, a doctor, encouraged his son to collect small historical artefacts and introduced him to art history. On every vacation to Italy, the family visited chapels and churches. “I enjoyed it,” Feuerle remembers today.


At the end of the 1980s, he began his career in New York, working for the auction house Sotheby’s. There he had the opportunity to visit collectors such as Ronald Lauder. The young Feuerle learned the importance of buying quality, not quantity. At the weekend, he made it a habit to visit the Metropolitan Museum. He would look at just one work of art, then go to Central Park and think about it. “I wanted to feel the art,” he says.

Back in Cologne, Feuerle started working for gallery owner Michael Werner, appraising works by the German painters Georg Baselitz and Sigmar Polke, and finally founded his own gallery in 1990. He met artists; and if they didn’t come to him, he would go to them. One day, he rang Francis Bacon’s doorbell in London. The grumpy painter peered out of the window on the second floor. “I felt his honesty, his extremity,” Feuerle recalls. The collaboration never came to fruition; Francis Bacon died in 1992.

I’m interested in the feeling that an object triggers in me. That I can sense why this piece was important to someone 100 or 500 years ago.

Désiré Feuerle played the market game for eight years, but his passion seemed to slowly shift. It became clear to him that his vocation in life was collecting. He constantly travelled to Asia, looking around for new objects that turn a whim into a serious matter. At the age of 15, he had acquired his first object from the Khmer period – a small goddess head, which can now be seen on the lower floor of the exhibition and forms a robust contrast to the infinity mirror by Anish Kapoor a few metres away. After 1998, Feuerle concentrated entirely on expanding his array of Asian art. He was already familiar with the methodology, having collected things since childhood and sorted them according to beauty and value.

“I used to go to farms when I was about eight years old,” Feuerle remembers, “and ask the owners if they still had old sets of keys in their drawers. I was attracted by the shape, because I could see big differences in such a small object. A monastery key is purist and archaic, while one for a court cabinet looks pompous and almost complicated.” In those early years, he was discovering how form determined function.

When he was a teenager, he started collecting silver jugs because he liked fairytales such as ‘Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves’ – stories with an idea of a treasure in the cave, which included silver jewellery. “For me, this precious metal had a cool shine, a festive light, a noble aura,” Feuerle says. “I no longer actively collect silver jugs, but even today I pour water from a baroque Augsburg jug from the 18th century for a special meal”, he says, adding with a laugh: “It’s wonderful!”

Désiré Feuerle invites us to ascend to the upper floor together. As we reach the final step of the staircase, another spacious hall opens up, warmly lit. We first find ourselves standing in front of a canopy scholar bed from the Ming Dynasty. The 17th-century piece has a fragile frame made out of elm wood. Its delicate appearance suggests that it could fly off at any second. Looking at the whole room, exquisite pieces from the Han to the Qing Dynasty, from 200 BC to the 18th century, we wonder if Feuerle is a history buff, if his desire is to re-enact the environment when the lacquered and stone tables or chairs were made? “No, I’m not interested in the historical era,” he says, rejecting the assumption. “I’m interested in the feeling that an object triggers in me. That I can sense why this piece was important to someone 100 or 500 years ago.”

agobay MT 0029 FEUERLECOLLECTION-113-1

The theatre of life is what fascinates him, expressed in handmade masterpieces. That clearly gives him joy, judging by the sparkle in his eyes whenever he talks about his collection or looks at one of his art pieces. “But I’m not addicted to these emotions. I love looking at an Italian palazzo, admiring the blue of the Giotto frescoes on the ceiling, but after a while I’ve had enough – so I go and sit outside at a bar and have a coffee in today’s world. That’s just as much of a treat for me.”

The statement “I am an aesthete” describes Feuerle’s attitude in a nutshell. The smallest detail can cause him the greatest pain. He openly admits that he tried out at least a dozen air conditioning systems until he found the right one with the most pleasant sound for his collection. He placed the mandatory fire-exit signs right above giant photographs as if they were part of his arrangement. For his East-West cultural transfer he created a special feature that borders on eccentricity: a cube containing a room for Chinese incense ceremonies.


Again, the friendly employee guides us towards the cube. Its mirrored outer walls blend so seamlessly into the space that it’s almost imperceptible from the outside. Ascending a few steps, the employee retrieves her key chain and unlocks the door. We stand in this pleasantly minimalist room, where only a wooden Khmer throne and a Chinese chest of drawers embellish the stark interior, a vase with two elegant blue feathers standing on top of it. To the left we see a round table with five chairs and a recessed opening in the middle. This is where the incense master places a bowl with wafer-thin agar wood splinters and carefully lights them, inviting the guests to inhale the resinous scent. We ask what it smells like. “Like rainbows, gold and sunshine,” replies the employee, with a conspiratorial smile. Normally, this 2000-year-old tradition is reserved for dignitaries, but in Berlin up to four people can book it for private purposes. The master of ceremonies must have practised cutting the wood with a special knife for at least 300 hours before he is allowed to perform this ritual.

Like any man of conviction, Feuerle is surrounded by an aura of stubbornness. Who else would build a room for this extremely intricate Chinese incense ceremony in a bunker – or an underground lake, comprised of a body of water that is more likely to be glimpsed than clearly seen through thick armoured glass? Feuerle smiles when he thinks about this undertaking. Craftsmen had painstakingly drained the building, tried to erase decades-old traces of penetrating rainfall and rising water, when one day the collector saw the reflections of the illuminated exhibition space. He realized: “The entire room needs to be flooded! It’s a work of art in itself!” Now we look over with fascination “into another world”, as Feuerle says, and you can’t help but think of the river Acheron, which for the ancient Greeks was the border between the realm of the dead and the living.

The Feuerle Collection is a gentle provocation for the senses.

Why Berlin, we ask. “The city is rough,” Feuerle admits, “but also free of conventions. This extreme contrast to my fine art appeals to me. At first, I didn’t even think of Berlin for my collection. I looked at old palazzi in Venice, around London and Istanbul. I considered exhibiting my objects in an abandoned monastery in the mountains, thought about designing a room in the Metropolitan Museum, and I even got an offer to install the collection in a Spanish palace. Some of those places I found too saturated, while others felt like normal museums.”

agobay MT 0029 FEUERLECOLLECTION-103-1
agobay MT 0029 FEUERLECOLLECTION-105-2
agobay MT 0029 FEUERLECOLLECTION-112-2

Like a movie director looking for the perfect cast, Feuerle searched for years to find the right place to showcase his labour of love. “I asked people in many cities to show me potential buildings. In Berlin, for example, I also looked at a crematorium, but I only felt negative vibes there. I didn’t like the idea of disturbing the peace of the dead.”

When he finally saw the former bunker for the first time he felt nothing. He had the same sensation we had when we wondered outside whether this was the right location. Only when he entered was he overwhelmed by the vastness of the space. “Normally, bunkers have an oppressive feel because they consist of small, nested rooms. This one, however, has high ceilings and no interior walls; it was intended for telecommunications, but was never put into operation.” Feuerle prefers not to use the word ‘bunker’ but rather ‘building’, and praises it for its dreamlike qualities. “Take a look at these ceilings, their texture, the stalactites that have formed over time.” He points upwards, and as our eyes follow his finger we see the beautiful formations that water and time have left over the years in the stone, creating an almost marble-like look. “If this section were a photograph, I might buy it. And the furniture underneath is not under glass, but displayed in the open space. That fills me with delight.”

His partner in crime was the renowned British architect John Pawson, who oversaw the renovations of the building. Like Feuerle, Pawson is fascinated by Asian culture and raw materials and – unlike many other architects who Feuerle talked to – immediately shared his vision of preserving the building’s structure while seamlessly transforming it into a distinctive and sensory art experience.


The result of Feuerle and Pawson’s collaboration is nothing short of breathtaking, and not just for the creative minds behind the project. Feuerle talks about how businessmen sometimes enter the exhibition. “First, they say they only have a short amount of time – and then they stay forever.” He talks about the emotion that overcomes people when they move through the rooms, that they forget the demands of the present and cast off the burden of their schedule. Guests should experience beauty in this special place, “a gentle provocation for the senses,” hopes the collector. Perhaps this is why the setting is also popular for other events. The Berlin Film Festival organises dinners on the upper floor, and the Feuerle Collection occasionally shows curated films or hosts special exhibitions during Fashion Week.


Deeply immersed in this captivating world of Asian art, hidden amidst Berlin’s city centre, we too have lost any sense of time by now. It must be late afternoon, so we ask a final question: What makes the Feuerle Collection so magical for visitors, Mr Feuerle? “The inner radiance works its magic on them. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to feel that.” Enlightenment, it seems, can be found in the darkest corners.



Related Stories