- Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen
We gather inspiration that sets the scene—not only on the products we are working towards, but also moods and feelings we want to introduce.
Known for their considered, calm, and minimal aesthetic, Norm Architects embodies the cream of Danish design rhetoric, combined with a particular global vision. The studio, founded in 2008, comprises a multitude of designers from varied design disciplines and backgrounds, collaborating on a plethora of typologies. One in particular, Associated Partner and Designer Frederik Werner, has been a key contributor to the cumulated rigour behind the studio’s success. Also sidelining as a design consultant at Georg Jensen, Werner’s passion in design is multi-disciplinary, influencing diversity through his inspiration sources. We had the privilege of engaging in some of Werner’s philosophies, his view on design today, and predictions for the future of our conceived worlds.
What has been the journey that led you to Norm Architects?
I applied for and started an internship at the studio in 2012. At that point the practice consisted of only the two partners Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen and Kasper Rønn and three other interns. The studio was actually quite new—4 years old at that point—but with a lot of projects at hand, meaning that we all got a lot of say in the projects. The first product we designed together was the Flip-Around Table/Stool for Menu. When the internship ended we chose to continue our relationship through my projects at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design, and going in as a student worker for a couple of hours a week to help on various projects.
I saw it as the perfect opportunity to get professional input on my projects, a better understanding of the processes outside the school and the possibility to actually get something out there and in production.
How do you stay inspired?
I don‘t have a specific formula as such, but I do see an ongoing development and progress in my general approach. I used to focus a lot on going through as many books, magazines, design museums and websites as possible, finding reference products that resembled what I was working on in order to lean on something before presenting it to anybody. Today I see my design process more as a dialogue between the people I come across and the places I visit.
Over the past couple of years we’ve been attending more workshops throughout the world, where we initiate new projects or concepts with other designers and companies from around the world, getting input from everybody we meet along the way. This helps us better understand the many and diverse design heritages, cultural differences, craftsmanships and production methods—that, in turn, inspires me and establishes a network I would have never imagined. Suddenly inspiration is not a thing I sit down to find, but a natural thing that flows in my everyday life.
How is your work with Georg Jensen integrated or influenced by your work at Norm?
It’s two completely different companies. At Norm we design for clients—clients that could in fact be Georg Jensen—but we don‘t produce anything ourselves, so the product development has to be a dialogue across factory, brand and designer. At Georg Jensen we both design and manufacture, meaning that every single part of the process is done in-house. This also means that changes can be handled on-site according to production methods. I am sure this adds to a better material and production understanding. And then, of course, we have the long history and archive at Georg Jensen, where one can dig into the designs and details created by some of the earlier masters. It’s a unique place that gives you insights to how design communication was done before everything was done digitally—it goes to show that lines, curves and shapes from the hand often seem more appealing to the eye. A philosophy that I integrate in my work at Norm.
Norm holds the idea of ‘balance‘ as part of their design ethos. In what ways is this implemented in the studio?
This approach actually applies to everything that we do—and I think it works best for us when it reaches a point in the process where we don‘t work with it consciously, but instead occurs as a natural part of the process. You might say that our aim is not to compromise but to balance all of the elements that go into a project—and that is also an important factor in building a functional studio where everybody feels confident in pitching in on a project. I strive to be honest about my own weaknesses and instead seek to find the help and solutions through my fellow creatives, which I believe creates a balance in a studio such as ours, and also one that should be treasured and remembered when things are prospering.
The majority of Norm Architects‘ work is incredibly minimal and well-executed. Can you describe the lead-up to this end result?
We work with the term “Soft Minimalism”, which basically is an investigation into what creates a product, interior or overall feeling, that holds the basic needs but a warm richness in the use of materials and details. This creates a higher tactility within a concept, and it’s our belief that this, in turn, brings it closer to the human body and therefore a longer lasting relationship between the two. This is the starting point for all our projects.
As a Lead Designer, can you explain a little about Norm Architects‘ approach to a new project and brief?
In our studio we have the privilege of working across different areas such as architecture, interior, products, furniture and photography. This means that we have a team of people who see the project or brief from various angles, which makes us understand the needs and demands within a project much better. Some see it from a residential perspective, some from a contract market, some as a single standing object and some in repetitive patterns and so on. When we begin on a new project, this is the “machine” it goes into.
When it comes to further development, we always encourage the clients to free up time to work on a product on-site with the manufacturers. At this point, it doesn‘t mean creating well-executed pieces with a high degree of detailing—this is just the prototype phase that helps us understand the capabilities of the factory and how we, in the best possible way, can make use of this. Spending one-on-one time is definitely the most effective way of working and it helps us to better understand the culture and work ethics in the country we work in.
How does your specific approach to design, add to the diversity of the Norm Architects team?
It‘s hard to analyse yourself, especially using one’s coworkers as an example. But I really do hope that I add pragmatism to our projects and demonstrate the notion that work and play can be combined—by that I do not mean that the rest of the team doesn‘t already feel that way, but during busy times it’s easy to forget.
I would like to believe that I don‘t have one specific approach, just like I don‘t have one favourite design piece, but that it is constantly evolving and that lessons you learn along the way are what gives you the tools needed to find your style.
What are the ways you would define a project as being successful?
We often talk about design objects being sustainable, and besides all the aspects that go into the production methods and materials we use, we truly strive to create pieces that have the longest life possible. I believe that a “soft minimalist” approach to design builds a strong foundation for products that stand the test of time and if you reach that point where the next generation want to take over a product, it has to be considered a successful project. From a more personal perspective, I feel that a project is successful if it helps me to better understand the world surrounding me—when it opens up doors that give me insight into a culture or way of living that I would not have been introduced to by sitting on the school bench; it suddenly feels like I have found a shortcut in life.
How does your work differentiate from other Danish designers?
I would say that striving towards a more thoughtful and soft minimalist universe that‘s not driven by trend, and not basing it on personal preferences but instead being honest and finding that exact balance where there is nothing more to add or take away. This sets us apart and is done with the goal of evoking the human senses in the most natural way.
Can you elaborate on your process, the software programmes, and design techniques you use?
I don‘t know that our process will be that surprising, as it is pretty intuitive. We break down the briefs we get, analyse what can set them apart and create something new for the client. We gather inspiration that sets the scene—not only on the products we are working towards, but also moods and feelings we want to introduce. Then I personally have a long sketching phase—maybe because I enjoy it, but also because most people can relate to a sketch in a more holistic way, rather than showing a render where most people tend to hold on to details and materials which most of the time are not finalised at that point. Then we go into 3D modelling using a range of different programmes such a Solidworks, Fusion360, KeyShot and Adobe, alongside making 1:1 models of cardboard and paper. Simple models that show the scale but not the final materials, which we instead create material boards from.
Laura Bilde from our studio is constantly building on our in-house material library which is a great resource to have close by. We present the different phases to the clients as we go and when we go into the prototype phase we, as mentioned before, always try to visit the client or factory to build these together, making changes to optimise the process to their production capabilities and making sure that we fail fast and while we can.
What are the biggest changes you have seen in the industry in recent years?
Probably 3D printing and VR universe. But I would say that the materials people tend to use and buy within my field of work does not seem to change that drastically, even though new production techniques are getting better and better. And especially at Norm we do not follow trends, but stick to honest, natural materials. The most important thing is to have the tools at hand necessary to design and present one’s ideas.
What do you see emerging in design thinking/rigour?
I can see a tendency of designers wanting to know more about the craftsmanship and traditions that lie before a product and how the people producing it work and think. I know that this may seem simple, but you have to keep in mind the toolbox of a designer has evolved at a super-quick pace, meaning that you can visualise and build almost everything on your laptop from the local café. An impressive and effective way of working, but also a way that takes your hands out of the process, undermines the quality of the tactility within materials and how these speak to us. There are pros and cons of course, but to me it doesn‘t seem like the right balance has been found yet. Solving a problem through design most often means being there on the spot, testing and sharing ideas.
How do you see Norm Architects growing over the next few years?
We are in a time of growth, that’s for sure. We have more than doubled our team over the past year meaning that the studio consists of 12 people as we speak... and counting. This is mainly within the architectural part of the business, but from next year we are hiring within the design team as well, as we are getting more and more work abroad in the US and Asia.
Is there a particular area of design you enjoy focusing on?
I love working on our furniture projects, and what I like the most is that we often work within an area that‘s more low-tech and in a scale that you can relate to even from the first cardboard mock-up. This makes it more intuitive to work with, and making changes and tests can often be done hands-on. It is like working with characters; their expression can change so drastically and I think it’s because the elements of a piece of furniture often speak directly to the human scale in a 1:1 ratio.
What is your advice to young inspiring architects and designers on success?
Be open and share your ideas—use your project to create the experiences you seek and don‘t be scared of using the people you meet on your way, the network you build, and staying constantly curious will get you more projects than just sending out design proposals. Often the great idea will only become better once it is discussed with others.
This interview was originally published in Minimalissimo Nº3