Words Kirk Truman
Photography Paul Vickery
The sweet and tender rebel. She sips at her coffee and says, “What makes people want to make magazines in a day and age as we have now?”
“Astrid wants to meet you! She saw your hair and wants to photograph you.” I recall hearing these opaque words from my first girlfriend. It was summer 2011, the first time I met her was a matter of coincidence – a rather odd hair-style of mine was central to our meeting. She was putting together a new series titled ‘hairdressers’ and wanted to photograph me. I sat in the barber’s chair; my hair in curls, nervous, and so came forth a creative with a camera in hand. She said, from behind the lens, “Nothing is real, everything is fake, we are not really changing your hair, we are just pretending for the photograph.” Snap! Astrid shot me, the frame was done. Devout to Grafton Mews, Astrid Schulz tells me about her quiet area, her creative endeavours, the Berlin Wall coming down, and the death of the house next door.
Astrid was born in Hamburg, 1963. There is an uncertainty about her family tree; though she would regard herself as nothing short of purely German, she will always be uncertain of her true routes, a global citizen at heart. “There is an unknown factor in my family tree, but let’s not go there. From my upbringing, and the people that brought me up, I would say that I am purely German.” Whilst being raised in Hamburg, she was quite the sweet and tender rebel. As a teenager, in the early 1980s, she would escape to West Berlin, often hitchhiking in total secrecy from her guardians. Eventually, she moved away from her hometown to the capital, Berlin, and worked part-time as a tailor to fund her two years of study. “After my studies, my employers asked me if I wanted to become a partner in their fashion business. The wall came down, and suddenly our outgoing expenditures were doubled and we struggled to make it work.” With the fall of the Berlin Wall new life and energy was injected into the culture and the arts of the city, though in contrast the infrastructure of the entire city was at stake at the end of the Cold War. “When the wall came down it was fascinating, East Berlin was quite down and the infrastructure was rotten. There were a lot of derelict houses and nobody had put any money into the area. West Berlin had to cope with its vast amount of potential. It was very exciting after the wall came down, suddenly you had all of these pop up clubs that came about, they quietened down and then closed.”
A time came when Astrid knew it was time to leave Berlin and start fresh. During the 1980s she was a punk: “London was everything I was looking up to. I was a punk; I was out clubbing with other creatives and musicians at the time.” Making a friend in London, the two slowly began to allow their friendship sink further and the title of friend drift further afar, unnoticed under the carpets. She was a very young girl who felt a connection to the city, though moving didn’t feel possible to her. They fell in love, in time the two knew something had to give. “Would you like the long story, or the short story?” she laughs, “I met somebody who became my boyfriend, we had a long distance relationship. One knew the other had to move to the other city. My business in Berlin was in crisis after the wall came down. I felt like it was time to move on.” And so it was, she moved to London. She felt as if costume inspired her more so than fashion and decided to enrol in a course at Wimbledon School of Art and move down the creative path she wanted to follow. “That was the tipping point! I came over. That relationship didn’t work out, but I’m still here so something must’ve been right about all of this!” laughs Astrid, oddly our stories relate.
The entirety of her work is freelance; she is not in full time employment and hasn’t been since her days in Berlin. “There are good times, and bad times. January is a bad time. If I had to, because I couldn’t even buy the milk for my tea anymore, I might consider looking for a permanent job. However, I think that by now I am quite unemployable, after having had a life like this! The only time I have ever worked 9 to 5 was when I had my fashion business back in Berlin,” she says. From costume to photography, Astrid’s work is a reflection of herself stylistically; pure quirk, satirical, often humorous, loud and eccentric. “A lot of my life is actually based on projects, but sometimes I need to think about how personal projects are great, but don’t bring me any money. Sometimes I just have to turn around and do something else instead.” Astrid spent some time teaching Photoshop to clients, though now only occasionally hosts private one-to-one sessions. She regards herself as a designer and photographer by title: “My costume design is still present, sadly irregular, but it still happens.” Until very recently she was away for exactly 3 months in Vietnam, starting a new project for which she is hoping to progress within the next year or so. “I have started a project in Vietnam about textile and wallpaper design which I am now writing a business plan for, it is in development but I’m hoping to push it next year. It’s a slow process. The time in Vietnam was nice because I could focus solely on design. Other than dealing with typhoons, It was really productive.”
Since moving to London 20 years ago, it is fair to say that Astrid has lived all over the city; from living on a friend’s floor, to a studio flat opposite Clapham South tube station, to living on Columbia Road in Tower Hamlets. She describes herself as always having been lucky with finding flats. She moved to Fitzrovia about 10 years ago and hasn’t looked back since arriving at her blue building on Grafton Mews. “I’ve lived here for 10 years now, and always on my mews. It’s very German of me, when we find a good place we like to hang on to it,” she smirks, “I am very, very proud to live in Fitzrovia, and I’d like to protect it in some way. I want to make it happen.” Since 2008, Astrid has been fighting alongside her neighbours to prevent the demolition of a building next door to her own. Finally, the developers won the battle to knock down the house and demolition began in 2013. At present, all that remains of the former building is a missing tooth on Grafton Mews and muddy hole in the ground. She tells me, “When they knocked the house down next door… it was unbearable, let’s not go there! Because I’m working at home so much, I’m now thinking of renting a shared office space somewhere. I’m terrified thinking about when the new building site appears. It’s quite an issue for people who live in that quiet place. What they’re putting there instead is a house that attaches to the house in front in the square.” She expresses an attachment to the local area and how she has found home in the neighbourhood. She describes how Warren Street has become more contemporary from when she moved here, 10 years ago: “I enjoy some of the funny developments, especially the new gallery at the corner of Whitfield Street. Fitzrovia is quite conservative, and suddenly you have these things sprouting; they’re completely mismatched to the area, it’s what was missing for me. Let’s have some diversity here and keep it!” She exclaims, referring to the buzz, the shops and the supermarkets in the area. She walks out of her quiet mews street and everything is at her doorstep. “It’s how I lived before – Hamburg is a big city, Berlin is a big city. I really have what I like.”
Astrid describes the area as having become very noisy in recent years, for an area that she would regard as being so quiet. I sense that she battles to remain focused in her work, with the crashing and banging next to her building, as she sits at her computer working from home. What is a certainty is that there is nothing loud enough to taint the spirit of a woman I would regard so strong. She is passionate, incredibly opened minded to faith, to creation and change, to new ideas and innovation. As she steps about the cobbles of her mews onto Warren Street, or in reverse past her haunt, The Grafton Arms, onto Grafton Way, her golden hair and loud coat dragging in the breeze, she is always keen to promote her positivity and energy wherever she goes and travels. So, “what makes people want to make magazines in a day and age as we have now?” Well, the grace and positivity of a rare person like you, the sweet and tender rebel. Astrid Schulz is home.