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There’s no escaping history in the capital of Latvia, Riga. Beautiful art nouveau buildings stand side-by-side with simple, wooden houses, both telling a tale of past times in the wear and tear of the bricks and colours. As the largest of the three Baltic capitals, Riga combines past splendours and tragedies with a flourishing youth and art scene. In the midst of that, we meet Agnese Kleina, the inspired and inspiring editor-in-chief of the award-winning conceptual magazine Benji Knewman and a central figure in the Latvian art scene.
She greets us on the street, as there’s no entry telephone, leaving her with no options but climbing down from her penthouse apartment on the sixth floor, overlooking the city about to burst into bloom in time for spring. A wide staircase leading up to an iron gate, reminding us of the aristocratic times in which this building was erected. As she tells us how shy and quiet creatures the Latvian people are, she leads us through her home, giving us a detailed and poetic account of her life and how she composed a personal museum of her impressive art, plant, shoe, and hat collections.
How did you end up in this gem of an apartment?
Once, I read this interview with Art Garfunkel of Simon & Garfunkel, who walks around Europe each year. He said this one thing, which stuck in my head: It’s important never to get bored of yourself. A few years back I was living a life that I didn’t love, so one day I decided to change it. Quit my job, find a new apartment and do something I love. I was fortunate to find this place. It was just a listing on the Latvian Craig’s List, but the images were so bad that no one bothered to stop by and check it out. The minute I walked through the doors, I saw the beautiful details it offered. I knew the man, who took the pictures and I thanked him a million times for making such crappy images because otherwise, someone else would live here now.
Tell us a bit about what you do today
I was working at a brand consulting agency, and I wasn’t at all content with the situation. One day, working late with Madara, who’s a graphic designer, I simply said: We could keep doing this for others the rest of our lives and stay dissatisfied, or we could make our own magazine. She immediately said yes, and what was at the time a dream quickly transformed into a promise to change our lives. Not long after that, I quit my job and started building up my magazine from the ground. Benji Knewman is a bilingual bookazine, which is published twice a year with personal accounts and features, mainly from Latvia by Latvians. Madara was the one to introduce me to the indie magazine scene, which was still at an early stage five years ago. She has been with me from the beginning working on conceptualising the layout, but other than that, I do most of the things myself; from editing to shipping. I never planned to get here today, so I’m equally surprised and proud of where we’ve ended up.
How did you get into writing and publishing in the first place?
In fact, I’ve been writing since I was 16. Growing up, I was living with my parents in Liepāja, right next to the Baltic Sea. When I was 18, I went on exchange in Hiroshima in Japan for a year, and that was a real eye-opening experience. It was before the Internet really happened, so I wrote actual letters and had conversations with my family over the phone. But there I experienced for the first time in my life that there isn’t just one way to do things. Now, whenever I visit my parents, I like going there with the bus and observe the people. Even though they’re often just on their phones, I love watching how people live, and these stories about people are at the centre of Benji Knewman.
Benji Knewman is internationally praised, and you visit fairs and stores all over the world. Yet, you stayed in Riga for most of your life?
Well, after Japan, I started studying French at the Academy of Culture, and in that relation, I did a year in France as well. But then I moved here, and I never thought of leaving. Today, I work with the mindset of Latvia, and that’s much better when I’m here. The thing about the world today is that I can now go to New York or London and bring back the New York’y or London’y lifestyle to Riga, without actually having to live there.
Your home is decorated a bit like you would a museum. Do you choose things by how they look or their function?
Oh, I’m looking very much to the practical side. But then again, how many practical things do you need? I guess, a bed, a table, a chair, and a desk. When I was younger, I was very much into fashion, and I think it goes like that. First, you start with yourself, and it’s all clothes, clothes, clothes. Then later in life, you start focusing on your surroundings. The thing I really like about interior design is that furniture doesn’t wear off the same way clothes do. Actually, some only get better in time when they get patina. So, I do think it’s important how things look. It may look a bit like a museum, but I need a place where everything is in order when I have so many things in my head every day.
You’ve lived in this place for six years, has it looked like this always?
Haha, not at all. I redecorated everything last year. Every time spring comes, I want new stuff, and I’m always looking for a good excuse to look for things. I have always loved compositions and creating little islands of things. Even in my fridge, it’s important to me how things are arranged and that everything is in the exact right place.
What does the word home mean to you today?
I’ve lived in four different places in Riga, one of which were my aunt’s where I lived for four years, sharing a bed with a friend of mine. But the thing about homes is that home is wherever you are the rest is just a nice frame, but you’re the image.
Thank you for having us, Agnese!