Hans Ulrich Obrist, renowned critic, art historian and curator at the Serpentine Galleries in London, tells us how he assembles the objects next to his bed and shares a few of his early-bird rituals.
I like morning rituals: They’re a way of liberating time when you’re not online yet. The artist Paul Chan calls it “delinking,” which is super-important in an ever-connected world. Every morning when I wake up I read the late French Martinican writer Édouard Glissant for 15 minutes. He is a great inspiration. The morning hours and the moments before sleeping are the best moments to read.
“I like morning rituals: They’re a way of liberating time when you’re not online yet”
I don’t sleep very much. I once tried the da Vinci sleep schedule (also known as the polyphasic method), which means sleeping for 15 minutes every 3 to 4 hours 7 to 8 times a day, but it didn’t prove to be sustainable or productive. Now I always go to bed at midnight and get up really, really, really early, around 5 a.m.
When I moved to London in 2006, I introduced one more morning ritual with urbanist Markus Miessen: It’s called the Brutally Early Club. It can be difficult to find time to gather with friends—artists, architects, scientists—so we’d meet in a café at 6:30 a.m. to talk. Nobody can say they have a prior engagement at that time! It’s a way to get everybody together when the city is completely empty.
Another one of my rituals is going to a bookstore and buying a book every day, so there are always books everywhere: on the bedside table, in the kitchen, piled in the office, even at my parents’ house. There are at least 15 of them in my bedroom at one time.
I spend quite a lot of time in hotels. I was a freelance curator in the ’90s and traveled the world living a nomadic existence. The curation of a bedroom is still very important, even when traveling. When you’re basically never home, you start thinking about bedside tables differently. I always have magazines and books piled on them, and I love hotel stationery: It gets put in a suitcase, goes to the next city, then to the next city, and then ends up at home. I sometimes even go to a hotel to work in my own city because I can get distracted if I’m surrounded by too many things. Hotels give me new constraints.
Wherever I am, I always seem to have Post-it notes nearby. Curating is about junction-making and bringing things, people and objects together. So I put ideas on Post-its and put them all over the place—windows, furniture, wherever—so that they somehow enter new junctions. They help me sort out my own thoughts. I’ve started writing a diary, and I record myself for 10 or 15 minutes on a voice recorder too, so I always have one of them near me. I often lose pens and pencils, so the ones I have are always changing.
Apart from that, I have very little by my bed. I used to have an alarm clock, but now I use my phone for that. I don’t have a specific reading light, but I do have one of Olafur Eliasson’s Little Suns, which are small solar lamps that he helped design.
I’ve always thought I have a good work-life balance because I’ve always done the work I’ve wanted to do. But it’s not all about work. There’s a lot of liberated time in the day: a time for reading, writing, conversation and for being with friends.
Kinfolk’s take on Hans’ bedside table: 90° Wall Lamp by Frama. Sandy Gray Bedspread Fabric by Tapet Café. Bed frame and step stool by IKEA, both painted in Farrow & Ball’s color Mole’s Breath. Wall drawing by Auguste Rodin. Photograph by Christian Brunnström. Books by Wolfgang Tillmans, Nan Goldin, Egon Schiele, Daniel Graham and Francesco Clemente.
Special thanks to the Serpentine Galleries.