Daniel Heer, manufacturer of horsehair mattresses in Berlin, is starting a charity project. He is going to teach five refugees his traditional craft. Under his guidance they will learn how to manufacture mattresses. The workshop will hopefully lead to a long-term collaboration, with the aim of enabling refugees to earn a living with the skills they have acquired.
Daniel Heer is a saddlemaker like three generations of his family before him; the family is of Swiss origin. His great-grandfather manufactured horsehair mattresses in the town of Lucerne. The mattress is neither a Swiss nor a European invention. The word ‘mattress’ derives from Arabic ‘matrah’. It denotes the spot where something is put down, a ground cushion on which you may lie down, your foundation. The project matrah is meant to build bridges. It connects artisan traditions of the West with those of the Middle East. People with different backgrounds come together to manufacture a product which is utilized in closer physical proximity to our human body than most other objects.
— Why start up the project matrah? What is the aim?
Daniel Heer: I have met refugees who live in the neighborhood. I see that they are condemned to a life of idleness. No perspective, little advisory service, uncertainty concerning their residence permit. At the same time I realize that the amount of work I have to cope with is increasing beyond my capacity. So I thought that I might combine the good with the useful. The project matrah is good for both sides: I teach some refugees my craft, in the future I may have one or two skilled workers helping me in my business.
— Luxury mattresses and refugees—do the two go together?
Daniel Heer: I teach the refugees the noble art of making mattresses. The mattresses are filled with horsehair and covered with very fine material. They are as perfect as handicraft objects can be. Somebody might argue that the refugees don’t even have a room of their own and that they probably don’t mind what sort of mattress they sleep on provided there is one. And now they are supposed to learn a craft in the luxury category? Isn’t that cynical? I don’t share that view. I open my workshop in order to offer practical aid. The refugees learn a craft which may be of good use to them when they start making mattresses themselves which may be less luxurious and nevertheless as perfect and original as artisanal work. A number of my customers are philanthropists and support sustainable production and social commitment. Why not make the two worlds meet? Integration also happens when people work together.
— What does ‘building bridges’ mean?
Daniel Heer: The mattress originates from the Middle East. I think that there must be many skilled craftsmen there who may teach us a lot. It is important to make it known to the refugees that the craft skills of their own tradition may be successful in our Western job market. I am looking forward to a mingling of our traditions; I want to teach them and to learn from them. Moreover I think that it may be helpful for a person who has fled from war and persecution to manufacture something in full concentration and in peaceful surroundings, something which by itself conveys the sense of peace and security – and what other product could do this better than a mattress?