Space Copenhagen talks Nordic Design and Poetic Modernism

During Salone del Mobile earlier this month, we sat down with Peter Bundgaard Rützou and Signe Bindslev Henriksen, founders of the multi-disciplinary design studio, for an illuminating conversation about their influences, practice and philosophy

Peter Bundgaard Rützou and Signe Bindslev Henriksen. Image courtesy of Space Copenhagen.

Peter Bundgaard Rützou and Signe Bindslev Henriksen. Image courtesy of Space Copenhagen.

Suzy Annetta: Space Copenhagen seems to be going from strength to strength; has your studio and practice changed since you started in 2005?

Peter Bundgaard Rützou: The simple answer is yes, it’s changed a lot. It's probably a natural progression in a way – when we started it was just the two of us, and aside from the design we also handled all other aspects of the company. And now, there are about 20 of us, so naturally it means that the whole structure and method of working has needed to change. We’re very engaged in all the projects, but we also have the fortune of having an incredible crew and an amazing group of project managers who are assigned to each project. So Signe and I sort of drift between all the projects and develop the concepts, and then we very much depend on having a great staff to help us move through these sometimes very long processes of getting from A to B. Some of the hospitality projects especially can take anything from two to seven years to complete, and it takes a lot of effort and quite build-up of momentum to keep focus throughout such long projects.

Signe Bindslev Henriksen: Having said that, we also promised each other from the beginning that we really, sincerely wanted to go for the right projects, sharing a mutual energy and passion with our clients, rather than just focusing on growing the studio and becoming bigger. And that means that even though we’ve grown a lot, we’re also very aware that it's at a size that we can handle, and that still allows us to be fully engaged in every project. Even though our daily routines and structures are more organised, it actually still allows us to stay as intimately involved with the projects as we have been from the beginning.

Rützou: Signe touched on something quite essential: we have the fortune of being two designers working together, so very often you'll find us debating, or nurturing our curiosities, or trying to tackle real-life issues that we need to somehow get a grip on. And one of the things we realise is that as designers, the final product isn’t really ours. The projects we work on always belong to someone else, and part of our job is to make the end result flow smoothly into the hands of whoever commissioned it. In terms of a product, the purpose of it is that somebody other than us is going to use it or attach emotions to it.

We come from a long tradition of Scandinavian design, and I think one of its most successful approaches is this longevity. It results in objects that become like members of the family, that you attach emotions to and that are passed from one generation to the other. If even a few of our projects can achieve that, I think we'll consider it work well done.

That actually leads nicely into to my next question, which is about Danish design heritage. I wonder whether there is any pressure that comes from being from a country with such a long tradition and history of design, and whether that informs your work. Is it more of a burden or do you feel that it's a strength that you can draw from?

Henriksen: I think it's a little bit of all of that. I think it probably feels more natural for us because that's how it used to be – it’s sort of in our genes. It was a part of our childhood, even though we didn't know what we wanted to do professionally at that time, but it's also a part of our upbringing as designers. So, it kind of rests on your perception of life, and I think from a very early point we decided that it should be a strength rather than a burden. We feel very proud to come from such a respected tradition, but when you actually start analysing all of the old masters, you realise that they were very different, their expressions were very different, and they drew inspiration from all over the world. They were extremely curious. They wanted to travel and be inspired, be it by Japanese culture, or by African or American industrialism, and they would seek out that inspiration and then go back and somehow filter it into a Nordic design language. And I think more than anything we tried to copy that – copy that curiosity, and the urge to move constantly, which keeps us awake and open to the world – and not necessarily look back at a certain way of doing things but rather examine where those ideas came from, and then make our own story.

Rützou: I think you can definitely say, though, that there is an element of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ syndrome. I think our timing has something to do with it, because it was something of a dense impact period that was shaped in the 20th century and then for some reason, into the 70s and 80s that whole way of working, that sense of being unintimidated and on the contrary combining architecture and design in a natural way, got separated somehow. It sort of disappeared, the whole way of working with spatial aspects and the detail of the craft. But it was a very natural appetite for the both of us – without having any plan actually, we were just drawn to the approach of regarding architecture and design as one. And I think it has been our fortune – it’s natural that when something really amazing happens it takes time to digest. I think after leaving it for a couple of decades, perceptions of Scandinavian design have resurfaced or been reinvented, especially in the past 10 years – and that has certainly been in our favour.

I feel like there has certainly been a resurgence in that kind of aesthetic around the world. I don't know if you perceive it in the same ways as we do from the outside, but I feel like that fascination is definitely back again.

Henriksen: You know, we discuss what makes good design and what is beautiful, and we all have our own subjective ways of perceiving depending on where we come from. We often debate this, because our studio is filled with wonderful colleagues from all over the world. People come to Scandinavia not just because of the design tradition, but also because the design tradition relates so directly to the way we live. Our democracy and being a small country makes it easier to design a well-organised society, and we definitely have a reputation for having good work-life balance. All these things relate to the lives we live, our preferences, our needs, and how we’re engaged in both our social and work lives, and all these things come together somehow. I think people perceive Scandinavian design through these values.

Rützou: I mean, you could probably label design and aesthetics in general as a feedback system. It’s also a derivative of being exposed to cultures outside your home, and it's a sort of give-and-take process. You could certainly say, as Signe said a little bit earlier, that our design masters were influenced by different cultures, and the urge to travel is sort of the implicit consequence of being from a very small place. I think what we do when we go back home is use our travels well, nurture our curiosities and strip them from their origin to see if we can use them somehow in our part of the world – how we can use them to define the choices that we make, the value packages that we represent. And I think people can see that. I think they can see an honesty in that, there's a sort of resonance between an intuitive understanding of something and the choices that have been made by the design tradition that sort of embodies Scandinavia as such.

You've described your approach as ‘poetic modernism’. How would you explain what that means, and how do you interpret it as a philosophy or an approach?

Henriksen: We feel like our generation is somewhat detached from the previous generations, but at the same time we were also born and raised through the academy in a very theoretical manner. Very early on when we started working together, we also felt that at the end of the day it's also about the human being as a sensory organism. We would have these long conversations about what happens when you walk into a space and actually just feel embraced or at home, even though it might not be what you would normally choose aesthetics-wise; or what happens when you find a random stone that just has this amazing, beautiful shape that you can't define. There's something about the human species, across cultures, that holds us together, and it’s not linked to anything else but the intuitive perception of the world, and you know, things that have a more fluid nature and a more poetic nature. This is what we’re seeking. We're also seeking the answers, and being able to say that at the end of the day, it's just beautiful. And you don't have to put all these words into it and describe the entire design process, the function, all the detailing and dimensions and so on. The thing is, ultimately you perceive everything in a split second, whether you like it or not.

I think we’re very attracted to this weird condition, and that’s also what it's about. It's about understanding that there's something extremely ancient in our way of perceiving the world, and we find that fascinating.

Rützou: It’s a very intentional,  constructed package of words. And it's also a belief that some things are very difficult to explain. Through industry and geometry, modernism strove to put an honesty and explanation to things, allowing them to be without any middle equation, and almost stripped from decorative aspects. However, in literature the ability to be poetic actually enables you to understand concepts that are difficult to describe objectively. Yes, design is defined by function, which links us to modernism, and we grew up that way, there's no escape. But it also should be understood that it’s object as metaphor. It's object as something that transcends the cognitive approach to things, it's intuition. It's the curve of something that touches somewhere deep in your memory and reminds you of something, it's transcending nature. These qualities are what we aim to embody. A piece should fulfil its purpose as a design object, otherwise it wouldn't be design, but then it should transcend into something else – it should have sculptural values that define its attachment to space.

As told to / Suzy Annetta


Read the rest of this interview in the Design Anthology Fair Report: Milan Design Week 2019

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Space Copenhagen designed the 11 Howard hotel in New York’s Soho neighbourhood, which combines Danish design with New York attitude. Image courtesy of 11 Howard.

Space Copenhagen designed the 11 Howard hotel in New York’s Soho neighbourhood, which combines Danish design with New York attitude. Image courtesy of 11 Howard.

Image courtesy of 11 Howard.

Image courtesy of 11 Howard.

Image courtesy of 11 Howard.

Image courtesy of 11 Howard.

Image courtesy of 11 Howard.

Image courtesy of 11 Howard.

Having designed Rene Redzepi’s noma, the studio was called upon to design restaurant 108 in Copenhagen. Image courtesy of 108.

Having designed Rene Redzepi’s noma, the studio was called upon to design restaurant 108 in Copenhagen. Image courtesy of 108.

Image courtesy of 108.

Image courtesy of 108.

Image courtesy of 108.

Image courtesy of 108.

Image courtesy of 108.

Image courtesy of 108.

Image courtesy of 108.

Image courtesy of 108.

Image courtesy of 108.

Image courtesy of 108.