A Visit to the Meister Museum in Amsterdam

Karina Meister at the door to the Meister Museum. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

The Meister Museum: A Very Private Wunderkammer

I have known Karina Meister, a calligrapher/graphic designer/artist in Amsterdam, for nearly forty years. We first met in 1983 when she was living in the Kinkerbuurt neighborhood of the city, not far from the Vondelpark. In 1991 she moved to her present apartment in the Transvaalbuurt neighborhood. I don’t remember her first apartment very well, but her second one has fascinated me every time I have visited her over the intervening years.

Karina’s apartment is located on the upper floor of a block-long set of attached red brick two-family row houses that dead end a few doors down. The cul-de-sac makes the street very quiet. From her apartment one can look over the nearby Ringvaart canal. The apartment is small, but sufficient for a single person. It consists of a living room/kitchen area, a bedroom, a compact studio, a bathroom, and shower. The design is Dutch modern. There is nothing about it that is inherently special.

What makes Karina’s apartment special is what she has added to it. Years ago I dubbed it the Meister Museum. It is full of an extraordinary range of things from the aesthetically sublime to the bewilderingly mundane. They include dried plants and flowers, leaves and seed pods, branches and sticks, pine cones, pieces of rock, crystals, a dried honeycomb, fossils, dead dried frogs, pigeon and peacock feathers, chicken wishbones, hollow dyed eggs, a rooster made of baked bread, shells, artificial silk flowers, glass bottles of various colors and shapes, neon tube letters, pebbles and stones, ceramic shards and chunks of red brick, fragments of mirrors, clay pots and jugs, Mason jars, porcelain bowls, vases, wine glasses, woven rattan baskets, uncut sheets of stamps, tickets and stickers, circuit boards, license plates, electrical signs, traffic signs, matchboxes, postcards, a white ceramic Clarendon Q, large fiberglass Tuscan letters, a classically carved M in stone, house numbers, folded paper ampersands that look like Möbius strips, blue enamel numbers, wood and metal type, metal stencil letters and plastic alphabets, ceramic and tin Indian elephant figurines, tiny horses, a ceramic chicken, metal and plastic fish, tiny Hindi and Sikh figurines, a yellow origami crane, paper butterflies, a green plastic caterpillar, bright red plastic lips, unclothed dolls with missing limbs, toy cars, a portable typewriter, a bicycle pedal and yellow bicycle reflectors, colored electrical glass insulators, bulldog clips and carabiners, dreidels, dice, marbles, Venetian glass pens, empty ink bottles, an old mezzaluna, pestles, trivets, drain stoppers and corks, thimbles, whisk brushes, blue glass orbs, beaded necklaces, plastic tubing, spools of colored string, an ankh and wax angels, a kite in the form of a smiling jellyfish, a Boston Red Sox cap, combs and coins, indescribable pieces of plastic and metal, and many things whose names I do not know and cannot adequately describe.

These natural and manmade items are strewn about Karina’s apartment—from the stairwell to every one of its rooms to the narrow balcony—in what appears at first glance to be a random manner as if things were placed wherever there was an empty spot. But that impression is misleading. Even where there appears to be disorder, Karina has carefully orchestrated the position and arrangement of items. She has grouped objects based on shape, texture, color, material, transparency, and reflectivity. And she has created visual affinities. These affinities can be beautiful, whimsical, macabre, or all three at once.

Karina’s collection is distributed throughout her apartment. Some things are arranged on bookshelves, others on the tops of cabinets and counters, and still others are carefully placed on the floor. Naturally, her walls are also covered with things. Every surface, whether horizontal or vertical, is an opportunity for Karina to display her sense of joy in the myriad things—from the mundane to the magical—found in the world.

Tuscan E and S with chair and artificial flowers on a landing of the stairwell. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2011).

Tuscan E, O and S in stairwell. The letters came from a bar named O’Henry’s. The apostrophe was hanging on the stairwell wall in 1995, but like the letters has since moved. Photograph by Paul Shaw (1995).

The Stairwell
The wonders of the Meister Museum begin as soon as one enters the row house. The narrow twisting stairwell has several of the large Tuscan capitals (remnants of a defunct Amsterdam bar) leaning against the wall on one landing, several other plastic and wooden letters, a bouquet of artificial silk roses, some calligraphic numbers and an ampersand by Karina on the wall, a circular traffic sign with an arrow appropriately pointing to her floor, and a poster announcing an exhibition of the work of the German calligrapher and type designer F.H.E. Schneidler at the Klingspor Museum.

A view of the hallway from the kitchen toward the studio. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

The Hallway
The various rooms of the apartment branch off of a central hallway. The hallway itself only has a few objects from the Meister collection: three wooden folding chairs hung on pegs, the jellyfish kite and Red Sox cap (a memento of a visit to Boston), a three-dimensional mylar 3, a dried rose, and one of Karina’s calligraphic works.

The Bathroom and Shower
The first room on the right is the bathroom. It contains the best example of Karina’s sense of slyly wicked humor: a tableau in the niche below the bathroom’s tiny window consisting of the headless torso of a naked baby doll that sits, with its right arm upraised and a plastic tube stuck in its top, on the downturned window pane as if on a throne. From the window latch a beaded necklace hangs down below the doll’s feet. The assemblage is simultaneously amusing and creepy. The bathroom also has some small plastic ball-in-a-maze puzzles provided to engage people while on the toilet.

The shower is in a separate room at the opposite end of the hall. It houses one of the most subtly remarkable items Karina owns. It is a white-on-black poster for a 1979 exhibition at the Jan Van Eyck Academie that hangs improbably on the shower wall. It has survived in that humid environment for over forty years because it is printed on vinyl rather than paper.

The shower with the waterproof poster. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

The Studio
On the left is Karina’s bedroom, the one part of the Meister Museum not open to visitors. It is a Gabinetto Segreto. Across from it on the right, though, is her studio. It is the most orderly room in the Museum. Like many artists and designers she has a typecase whose compartments are filled with an array of items. Many of the objects are predictable for a graphic designer—metal type (some Caslon, fifteen ampersands, a wonderful swash Q), woodblocks, zincos, and a photopolymer plate—while others are more unexpected. There is a large key, a pink paperclip, sea shells, a tiny colorful ceramic rooster, acorns, and stones. The typecase hangs on the wall in front of her drawing table where its mix of objects provide a visual respite from whatever job she is working on. On the same wall is a small poster announcing a 1984 exhibition of her calligraphic work, several metal trivets, and an old Heintze & Blanckertz card of pen nibs.

Typecase hanging on the wall of the studio. The swash Q is in the lower left quadrant. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Heintze & Blanckertz card with pen nibs (and added ephemera from nature). Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Various glass bottles and containers on top of a kitchen cabinet. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

The Kitchen
At the end of the hallway is the living room/kitchen area with its own door. The doors and windows of the apartment are painted a soft shade of blue/green (turquoise?) that is beautiful but hard to describe—PMS 3145 comes close—with a darker shade similar to teal for the frames. These soothing colors provide a wonderful backdrop for the Museum’s objects. On top of one of the two kitchen cabinets, both of whose doors are painted in the almost PMS 3145 color, Karina has placed twenty or so glass containers of various kinds and a branch with dried leaves and pods. All of the bottles, jars, jugs, beakers, and retorts are either clear or a shade of bluish-green that harmonizes with the indescribable cabinet color. The branch with its shades of brown, cocoa, cinnamon, and wine red provide a contrasting accent. The whole arrangement reminds me of a Giorgio Morandi still life.

The kitchen area bleeds into the living room. (It is a parlor-kitchen or Wohnküche in German.) The combined space is the heart of the Meister Museum. Sometimes it is difficult to discern whether objects are part of the Museum or simply ordinary household items; that is, whether something is both functional and decorative. On the counter below the leftmost kitchen cabinet are fourteen bread boards organized by shape and size in two groups. The arrangement is both practical and aesthetic. Similarly, the peculiarly shaped wooden utensils stuffed into the nearby tobacco brown crockery jar, is visually pleasing. A cobalt blue colander hanging above  the bread boards, utensils, rolling pins, pepper and nutmeg grinders, and other crockery provides a vivid contrast to their variety of brown and tan hues.

Wedged between the two kitchen cabinets are shelves crammed with spices, herbs, teas, and other dried or powdered foods in clear glass jars of miscellaneous origin. There are no plastic or metal spice containers so the assemblage is colorless. But it functions as a visual breathing space between the PMS 3145-colored cabinets.

Bread boards and other objects near the sink. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Splashback area behind and above sink with brightly colored Indian tin elephants, yellow bicycle pedal reflectors, and stickers. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Fish and enamel signs above the sink. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Display on top of the refrigerator. Note the doll’s leg in the clay jug. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Miele refrigerator front with plastic alphabet magnets. Some of the Hebrew letters are on the freezer door. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Karina is constantly attuned to the nuances of color. The small sink with white splashback ceramic tiles is enlivened with multiple stickers, two enamel signs (one is egg-yolk yellow with writing in both Arabic and Latin; and the other is deep blue with 8 in white), and three small circular wax decorations from Austria and southern Germany. The fronts of the white Miele refrigerator is festooned with colorful plastic alphabet magnets. Ironically, nearly all of them are Cooper Black! (Among those that aren’t are several Hebrew letter magnets that Karina acquired at West End Judaica on Broadway in Manhattan during her 1990s trip to the United States.) The top of the refrigerator is her equivalent of the modern museum’s “white cube”—a white surface that serves as a neutral backdrop to a dizzying array of things: sea shells, ceramic beads, circuit boards, corks, enamel tiles, electrical parts, washers, plastic discs, a large clay pot with a doll’s severed leg poking out of it, a wooden bowl full of whatnot, marbles and gewgaws. Many of the smaller items are covered with clear plastic tops, further amplifying the museological atmosphere.

In front of one of her windows Karina has hung yellow bicycle reflectors, in front of another she has hung a deep blue glass bottle, and in font of a third there are three steel blue glass globes. In the doorway to her small balcony, Karina has created a scrim from cut-up strips of lime green plastic. All of these items filter the light coming into the apartment, brightening it.

Cobalt blue vase in front of window. Photography by Paul Shaw (2011).

Translucent steel blue glass orbs in front of window. There are some raindrops on the windowpane. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

The Living Room
In the living room area, the Museum’s holdings are scattered about on a table, on window sills, on bookshelves, on the mantel behind the radiator, and even on the floor. A gray colored counter top is covered with a fascinating mix of items: pencils, stamps, old PTT cards, small stones, seed pods, artificial butterflies, feathers, music boxes, a partially pink plastic ampersand, and much more. On a table, a doll’s leg ribs up against a scallop sea shell, one half of a pair of dice, and several colored plastic things including a red star and dark green leaf.

Dead objects from nature such as driftwood and conch sea shells dominate the window sills and floor, sitting side by side with a diverse array of living plants in clay and plastic pots. Between two of the window sills there are three wooden drawers of varying sizes, each with compartments filled with bric-a-brac, on a narrow curved sideboard. They are surrounded by more rocks, shells, driftwood, feathers, pine cones, and a wooden board with Japanese calligraphy on it. On the wall above them hang five identical small wooden angels. Karina invites the natural world, both living and dead, into her life—as well as the spiritual one.

Most of the items in the Meister Museum collection reside in the living room, on top of tables and cabinets and in front of books on the bookshelves. Some are hung on the walls or sit on the floor propped up against them. And a few objects hang from the ceiling. Every surface has been commandeered in the service of the Museum with the exception of a small portion of the floor needed for the curator and visitors to walk about. The living room is an immersive experience.

Sideboard with window sill at right and wooden drawers at left. Three dead frogs are at the far right, front. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2011).

Close-up of objects, including a doll’s leg, on a rug. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Counter top with various items from the collection. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Portable typewriter with Wedgwood blue vase of dried branches and bicycle pedal on small cabinet. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2011).

Bookcase shelves with various figurines, many of them from India and Asia. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Bookcase shelves with two colorful Indian ceramic animals in a face-off. Note the counting device on the lower shelf which has been surrounded by different objects since 2006. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2011).

Bookcase shelves with yellow origami crane. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Bookcase shelves with blue doll. The carved M on the lower shelf has moved about several times since. Photograph by Paul Shaw (1995).

Bookcase shelves with a Coca Cola bottle from the Mideast, a calendar from the Zanders paper company, a yellow neon tubing R, and other things. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2011).

Wall with rooster from India made of preserved baked bread. Note also the woven bread peels from India below. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Glass rooster hanging from the ceiling. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2011).

The Balcony
The narrow balcony that runs from the kitchen to the studio appears to be quite ordinary with its planters full of red and pink geraniums, chrysanthemums, and carnations. But even there, one can find a small touch of the Meister curatorial sensibility in the green and blue plastic clothespins hanging on the line used for air drying washed clothes.

Balcony looking from the kitchen door toward the studio door. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Still Lifes, Tableaus, and Assemblages
Some combinations of objects within the Meister Museum are in themselves artworks, along the lines of the objets trouvés of Marcel Duchamp, the mobiles of Alexander Calder, the boxes of Joseph Cornell, or the assemblages of Dada artists such as Raoul Hausmann. These artworks are hidden within the larger collection. They require visitors to recognize the associations and affinities that Karina has carefully concocted.

Still life of natural and manmade found objects. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Mezzaluna, electrical outlet, knitted chain, and beaded chain. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Sculpture of wire with ceramic, metal, and paper spheres. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2006).

Assembling the Collection
Karina is a magpie, but one who notices more than shiny objects. She has built up the Meister Museum through finding things in the street, in rubbish bins, in parks, and along the many waterfronts of Amsterdam. In addition, some artifacts have been gifts and others have been acquired as part of her travels, especially many years ago in India. Several of her seed pods were found in Riverside Park while visiting New York in 1994. She picked up (literally) a traffic sign while we were visiting Antwerp for a day. It was stuck into a mound of sand in the middle of a cobblestoned street undergoing restoration. The circular dark blue sign with a white directional arrow seemed to be serving no functional purpose so, after a quick moment to size up its dimensions, Karina swiftly slipped it inside her ever-present black cloak. And off we went to a cafe for waffeletten mit kriekskes en schlag. The sign is now at the top of the Meister Museum stairwell pointing the way to the treasures inside.

The Museum in Flux
This account of the Meister Museum covers visits from the early 1990s to 2011. Although the collection  seems frozen in time, a close examination of photographs taken over the course of twenty years reveals not only some new additions, but also subtle reinstallations of items. Some of those changes can be seen in the photographs accompanying this article. Karina is constantly rethinking her collection. The changes over time are inevitable, the result of new acquisitions as well as new perspectives on existing objects and how they are juxtaposed. The Meister Museum in 2021 is a different experience—one that I am eager to experience the next time I visit Amsterdam.

Wine bottles with dried leaves. The can of sparkling water, wine bottles, and the glass jar at right all sport Karina’s calligraphy. Photograph by Paul Shaw (2011).

Other Museums of Things
As has been obvious from the beginning, the Meister Museum is not a real museum. There are no captions, wall texts, brochures, or audioguides. One can only visit it as a guest of Karina. But she does not do guided tours. Guests have to figure out the connections between items for themselves, many of which will forever remain inscrutable, only understood by Karina herself. But for those who have the good fortune to visit more than once, there are multiple opportunities to contemplate her curatorial decisions.

The Meister Museum is reminiscent of the Museum der Dinge in Berlin and the Museum of Tiny Things in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City. What sets it apart—other than that it is an imaginary museum—is that its artifacts are not grouped together by category and then carefully arranged in drawers or on shelves in an antiseptic (white cube) setting. Karina’s collection is a museum of the spirit, an outward expression of her perception of the world, a tangible reflection of her aesthetics. Unlike the museums in Berlin and New York, there is no educational or didactic purpose—only the pure pleasure of accumulating objects, making connections among them, and displaying them. It is up to those who are fortunate enough to be invited to see the Meister Museum to derive their own meaning from the objects on display.

Since my last visit to the Meister Museum a decade ago, its contents have continued to shift. Karina, who has been studying Arabic, has added more examples of Arabic lettering (Muslim quotations) and some items have been gifted (deaccessioned) to visitors who have expressed a fondness for them. Other changes have occurred because of the inevitable shifts in the path of her life.

Earlier this year part of the Meister Museum was profiled in Amsterdam verzamelt: Bijzondere verzamelingen en levensverhalen van 11 Amsterdammers by Ansje Visser (Amsterdam: Boekscout, 2021) along with collections of other Amsterdamers. A severely truncated version of this post will appear soon in Alphabet: The Journal of the Friends of Calligraphy (vol. 47, no. 1) edited by Carl Rohrs.