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Union Sozialer Brushes

Cheeky, artisan-made grooming tools from Berlin's Institute for the Blind

by Kat Herriman in Design on 24 September 2012

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The Institute for the Blind in Berlin workshop produces a line of grooming brushes demonstrative of both their rich heritage and sense of humor, using the same materials and techniques passed down for the last 120 years. Housed in the former Home for the Blind in Berlin, the factory was revamped in 1998 when German designers Vogt and Weizenegger took an interest in the workshop and helped them cleverly redesign their brushes, all the while preserving the workshop's traditional methods. We first spotted the finely built brushes at the New York Gift Fair, where our friends at Sweet Bella were displaying the line as the exclusive US distributor.

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The brushes are made by a staff of about 15 blind artisans, who are responsible for sanding, oiling and assembling each brush by hand, as part of the program funded by the German government. Besides their humorous design, what makes the brushes truly special is the way that the bristles are anchored in the wood by hidden wires that prevent them from slipping out. Using a pedal-operated Bundelabteilmaschine (translated as a "bundle and divide machine"), the craftsmen are able to separate smaller bundles of bristles from larger ones so that they may be attached into the individual wells in the wood. The type of bristle is dependent on the brush's function, and the workshop uses everything from horse hair to goat hair.

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The relatively small workshop produces a wide range of brushes from their cheeky nail brush to their gold-capped toothbrush. Functional and playful, brushes like the Limbo, part brush and part eraser, exemplify the clever quality of the artisans' wares. The products are available at Sweet Bella's NYC shop, Top Hat and online at Smith & Chang. Those in Berlin may also visit the workshop to learn more.

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