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I work at a creative development firm. The first big project I worked on from start to finish was a residence for students in Berlin. We aimed to create a place where students could flourish while studying abroad and not be treated like children, as they are in many American dorms. After months of searching, we finally found a beautiful old factory where car console buttons and switches were made — a family business that was moving to another location after many generations.

We thought we might be able to incorporate some remnants of the building’s previous life into our design, so we asked the family not to throw anything away that they didn’t want. We probably should have been a little more specific — there were piles of chairs on every floor, radios still plugged into the wall (one was even playing!), and endless ceiling-high columns of metal boxes packed with car switches.

It was overwhelming, but we worked through it, marveling at this grand space that was now our responsibility. The doorknobs were iron, the signs were tin, everything was much more solid and monolithic-seeming than their typical American equivalents. The only thing I took for myself was a brass tab that essentially served as the key fob for a storage closet — a big, shiny, engraved slab of metal. Every storage closet had one of these. It has a small hole drilled through one side (that’s the one I threaded through my key ring) and a large hole on the other side for the key to the closet, so a janitor could easily thread all of the closets’ keys onto one large ring.

It’s the kind of substantial special detail that we try to create or preserve in all of our work. I keep it as a reminder of that wonderful first day in the building.