Karma capitalist

Berlin as a city is certainly open, but how about open source? We profiled four open source near-exemplars. For Van Bo Le-Mentzel, creator of Hartz IV Möbel and the One-SQM-House, open source isn’t just a fad – it’s a pantheist philosophy.

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Photo by Tania Castellví

For Van Bo Le-Mentzel, creator of Hartz IV Möbel and the One-SQM-House, open source isn’t just a fad – it’s a pantheist philosophy.

It is 1pm and the bustling lunch hour begins… Van Bo Le-Mentzel sits in shorts and a t-shirt with his bare feet dangling over the River Spree at Schlesische Straße, his lunch-time retreat. It is ironic that the brain behind the ever-growing furniture blog Hartz IV Möbel chooses to do his interview whilst sitting on the ground. Asked why Berliners need his €24 Chair, the Laos-born, Berlin-based architect laughs, gestures down and replies, “Honestly, I don’t think that people really need a new chair. If you want to sit, just sit.”

The 35-year-old’s blog provides an array of basic Bauhaus-inspired pieces of furniture and instructions on how to construct them. Hartz IV Möbel caught the attention of thousands, earning Le-Mentzel a book deal and catapulting his workshops into some of the most happening events in Berlin, with approximately 60 eager people from all walks of life showing up to get down and dirty and build their own Berliner Hocker on a weekly basis. He provides them with raw materials and personally guides them through the process.

Hartz IV Möbel has a greater purpose than the purely didactic ways of a DIY furniture blog: “I thought people who Google ‘Hartz-IV’ are obviously very depressed and are the perfect target group for me.” Le-Mentzel claims that the key to happiness comes down to two things: Anerkennung, appreciation, and Abwechslung, change or diversity. His followers gain appreciation when they display their final product and delve into the realm of change “as they learn a lot of skills and try new things”.

Le-Mentzel is a great advocate of the open source movement. “For a lot of people, open source is a trend; for me, it is a paradigmatic shift. You call it open source, I call it ‘Karma Economy’, a new, more humane way of operating our capitalism structures.

One of the motivating factors behind this approach is my belief that everyone who has a talent or a skill has a responsibility to share it.” Le-Mentzel was also curious to push the boundaries of the power of the individual in society – without a secretary, a PR agency or an external party. He started by testing his own potential, creating Hartz IV Möbel after taking a weekend course in carpentry at the Volkshochschule. His prior furniture-building knowledge was pretty scarce.

Le-Mentzel’s most famous product envelopes all concepts of open source in, quite literally, one square meter. The One-SQM-House does exactly what it says on the tin and costs only €1 a night to stay in! Although the trials of living in such a confined space are alarmingly obvious, the freedom to live wherever you like (within the limits of German law) is tempting.

The miniature house precisely reflects Le-Mentzel’s open mind towards open source, though when asked if he has ever lived in one, he laughs and replies “No, I don’t have one! I just have the plans!” Keep your eyes peeled for these white, geometrical structures around Prenzlauer Berg. 

His next project aims to “exploit the issue of property and real estate”. To begin with, he hopes to build a wooden house inspired by German architect Mies van der Rohe that would be a whole 21sqm. Of course in true Hartz IV Möbel style, the plans would be made public. He also aspires to do further research into the ‘Karma Economy’ concept for another book focusing on the way we exchange things and organise money.

He smirks and says, “It sounds like communism, but I am not a communist. I am a karma capitalist!”

Le-Mentzel surveys the world before him as he searches for other ideas for the future. “For me, open source is everything. The street for example, or the ground that we are sitting on, is open source because it is not private. Just like the river, the air that we breathe, and the trees.” A boat passes, and he exclaims, “An open source boat, why not?” The future for Van B Le-Mentzel is bright.

It is 2:05pm and Le-Mentzel snaps out of it and saunters back to his ordinary 9-to-5 job. Time waits for no man, not even a karma capitalist. 

Want to build with Van Bo? Visit for furniture designs and a workshop schedule.