Vintage Botanical Adventures with Dirk Paetzold
| July 13, 2018
It was during a visit to a Troedelmarkt (flea market) in Germany when Dirk Paetzold first locked eyes on a bucket of worn vintage maps and illustrations. Drawn to the stories of adventure and mystery detailed beneath each crackled patina surface, Dirk set out on an adventure of his own – starting a business called Erstwhile – finding, foraging and reproducing maps, illustrations and treasures from the past. We caught up with Dirk to find out all about Erstwhile and his life of adventure.
Can you please tell us about your life with plants. I am a bit of a late bloomer (pun intended). I was brought up near Leipzig in eastern Germany and for the first 26 years of my life I wasn’t really interested in much. I wasn’t into the outdoors, traveling, seeing the world or what to do with my life. I completed an apprenticeship as plumber, got a degree in marketing and communication and worked as a graphic designer but overall I was a bit bored.
A friend of mine was in New Zealand at the time and it sounded just like the change I needed. I packed up my life in Germany and went for what was supposed to be a one year of working holiday in New Zealand. One year became three, and as life happens, I met my now-wife Lillie there. For the last 10 years we have lived in the UK and Australia, and in the last six months we’ve moved back to New Zealand. I love Germany and miss my family back home but I can’t see us living there any time soon.
Please tell us about your business, Erstwhile. I had been looking for a product to develop for a while and during one of our trips back home to Germany, while visiting a so called Troedelmarkt (flea market), I saw a bucket of old wood mounted wall maps and charts. I knew this was it. The traders at the flea markets usually have only one-offs and the really cool ones were all long gone. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to reintroduce a range of reproductions of those old charts to create a steady supply and make sure the cool ones don’t run out?
Those old charts have something special about them. The patina on the prints the small cracks and rips from rolling up and down a 1000 times tells a story from a time long gone.”
I knew I wanted to re-create this feeling and I had to try to get as close as possible to what the old originals would feel like. Scanning and printing the artworks is easy but how would I get the feel of the old wood? After quite a few rounds of experimenting with the aging process of the wood I found a mix of staining the wood, brushing out the soft fibres and then sanding it back to get the worn feel you would usually only get from years of handling. It is a lot of different steps that each wood baton goes through but I love the result.
The first range consisted of only five artworks, the first orders came in and when I got an order of 70 units from one a big online homewares shop in Australia I knew I was onto something. Now in our fourth year, the maps and charts are still printed in Leipzig, closing the loop of where a lot of the originals were printed and all the assembly and wood aging is still done by hand in our small workshop in the outskirts of Leipzig in Germany.
What does the word adventure mean to you? This is a bit cheesy, but my wife and I live by the rule “take the scenic route”. You can apply this to a lot more situations in your daily life than just travel.
If you divert from the fastest way between situation A and B, adventure will find you.”
What is it about maps and vintage treasures that draws you in? Everybody loves a good map and if it is a vintage map, even better. I just love everything about them: the artwork itself, the imperfections, the wear and tear. In today’s time everything is very smooth, shiny and fast lived. Just look at your shiny phone – this slick thing lasts a year or two. Vintage items, may it be a map or an old coffee grinder, have character, and the patina tells you a story.
In your search to discover vintage maps and botanical prints you must have found yourself in some incredible places – secret libraries and hidden antique store gems spring to mind! Can you tell us about some of the memorable places you’ve been? I would love to claim we find our artworks in secret collections and in antique stores under a pile of dust sheets but I have to admit the majority of artworks are from the big archives and libraries. The richest treasure trove is the German National Library, which coincidentally is in my hometown Leipzig. Leipzig was the epicentre of printing back in the day (Gutenberg developed the moving letterpress there). So a lot of the printing houses who published the wall charts and maps back in the day were actually from my hometown and I am quite proud to bring a bit of this old tradition back even if it is only on a very small scale.
The National Library in Leipzig holds an archive of over 4000 large scale wall charts and maps. Many of them have not been unrolled in a very long time and almost none of them have a digital record so it is a matter of unrolling them to see what they actually are.”
We have sourced artworks from the Natural History Museum in London, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and we developed quite a good relationship with the archive of the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney. Once I tell people what we do, I am always impressed about how helpful and appreciative they are about the interest we have in the old artworks.
Do you have a favourite explorer? Sir Francis Younghusband. He was a British military officer and explorer leading the British expedition into Tibet. Younghusband was President of the Royal Geographic Society and a bit of an early hippy, before there were hippies. I was recommended the book, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, by a family friend and I could not put it down. I guess he was what they call a renaissance man.
What are some of your favourite gardens around the world? I love greenhouses and I recently went to the Winter Garden at the Auckland Domain with its two Victorian style glass houses, one for tropical and one for seasonal plants. I can highly recommend it.
The park at the Schloss Sanssouci in Potsdam/Germany is a favorite. The 1745 built, 300 hectare park with baroque ornamental gardens, orangeries and temples was the summer palace of the King of Prussia and is definitely high up there as a recommendation to visit when in Berlin.”
If you could venture back to any period in history, when and where would you be? I would be keen to be part of one of Sir Francis Younghusbands expeditions.
Who is your favourite botanical illustrator? I am in love with the old Dutch masters. I guess they are more like painters than illustrators but the amazingly detailed and super moody works by Jan van Huysum and Jan Davidsz de Heem blow my mind. Everything by Robert John Thornton is amazing, as are the botanicals by Germans Hermann Zippel and Carl Bollmann.
Do you have a garden? Since our move over from our dingy Sydney apartment into our place in Auckland we are really lucky to finally have a house with an amazing garden. We’ve got a lot of fruit trees such as guava, paw paw, feijoa (I think you have to be a Kiwi to enjoy those), plum, mandarine, apple and pear. Our house borders “Le Roys Bush”, a small public reserve with bushwalks, ponds and a waterfall. We can’t see a single house around us and although only we live only ten minutes from Auckland CBD it gives the feel of being somewhere in the countryside.
Where do you go to feel inspired? Inspiration hits in the most unassuming places, but a bush walk in “Le Roys Bush” is a pretty good way to clear the head. If I get stuck, I love the rugged coast line of the Auckland west coast beaches to get some salty air blown in my face.
Where are you adventuring to next? We are right in the middle of our next big adventure. We just had a little girl, Molly Marjorie. She is nine weeks old. Parenthood is the biggest adventure there is!