It’s important to sometimes slow down and review the process and product carefully, especially with furniture, because there’s so many parameters you need to fulfil to make it a great design. And I think it’s extremely important to communicate that to students studying design.
Spending time perusing Hee Welling’s incredible portfolio of modern furnishings is to understand the power of creative restraint. Dieter Rams once said that “Simplicity is the key to excellence” and it’s difficult to think of a designer who embodies this candid exclamation more than Hee Welling. Every curve and every line seems intentional and controlled, resulting in objects that are at once useful yet elegant in stature.
Hee has a master’s degree in furniture design from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts—an institution that has the distinction of being one of the world’s oldest schools of architecture. In this interview, we discuss Hee’s education, design aesthetic, his collaboration with Gudmundur Ludvik, his work with HAY, and the future of sustainable design.
Let’s talk about the foundation of your interest in design. I understand that your father was a cabinet maker. What was it like to grow up in an artisanal environment?
For me, it was like paradise. Ever since I was a small kid, I went to his workshop to just play around. Actually, in the beginning I had no intention of being a designer or to do anything with carpentry, I just loved to build different things from the leftovers I could find in the workshop. Besides that, I drew a lot. I didn’t play much football, actually. I sat indoors and then drew everyday for hours. So maybe I was a little bit of an odd kid, but for me, it just made sense. When I look back at my career path, it’s clear there was an interest in creating, ever since I was a kid, really. My father is a very delicate man when it comes to details and construction, so he taught me that things should be made right. He had the attitude that you should never look for the easy solution, but for the right solution. I really admire that about him and I have tried to adopt that attitude as much as possible.
It was the attention to detail that spoke to you.
The details are so important. And even though sometimes it can be a struggle to find the right solution, I think every time it’s worth it. The amount of time and effort you put into making something, the better the results. I can see the same fascination in my father’s work actually. Although design-wise he was not fantastic, there was always good craftsmanship. He really made the effort to make things comfortable, long-lasting, and using the right materials.
One of your earliest successes saw you working with steel. How did you transition from working with wood to metal? Why stainless steel?
Yeah. It was a very important part of my studies. And when I went to the Royal Academy of Design I realised how steel rod is a fantastic material because it’s more or less like drawing three-dimensional. For example, you can create an outline that defines the construction in a very simple and very precise way. And ever since then, I have worked a lot with the steel rod both in prototyping and in different projects.
You received your master’s degree at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. What kind of impact has your time at this institution had on your career as a designer and your approach to the work you do today?
When I was there it was actually called the Danish Design School, but has since merged with the Academy of Architecture. At that time, the design school was a very open-minded place. Meaning you could pretty much define your own projects. And for some people that was amazing, but for others a disaster if you needed a defined structural way of learning, but we had a fantastic team in the furniture department. It was a small group where everyone helped each other and we basically lived there 24/7. We even bought a couch so we could sleep there on shifts. It was a fantastic time. Those people are still some of my good friends, actually. And at that time there was a lot of focus on craftsmanship with various workshops in design. It was like a huge collective of crafts, from ceramics, to fashion, to interior architecture. You were able to move around each area and use what you needed for a particular project. And it gave me the opportunity to try lots of different things, like glass blowing and pottery, for example.
It was like your creative paradise.
It really was. There has been a huge change over the past 5–10 years with many design educations, which is now much more focused on theory rather than craftsmanship. For some, that makes a lot sense, and for others it’s a disaster. I think this shift does alienate some creative people who are extremely skilled within the practical issues, but not within the written ones. You certainly need a balance of these two types of people to create the perfect creative environment, but I do think over time we have been moving education too much towards a more theoretical direction. Not just in Denmark, but all over the world we are seeing this.
If you’re an individual designer, it must be very tough to be mindful of the balance between theory and practicality.
Yeah, and this can be a problem in Denmark, as most of the people who graduate from the academy start their own studio. I think probably 80% of studios in Denmark is just one or two people. You can be a very skilled designer, making beautiful products, but you also have to be able to make money from it, so you can survive, otherwise you will have a very short career. So it’s important to understand the business side of it as well as design. I have been lucky to actually have a degree in sales, which I never thought would be particularly useful, but it helped me learn about marketing, investments, and business development, which has ended up being a huge help to me in my career as a designer.
What role does education play in the future of modern design?
Design is changing a lot at the moment. We are working a lot more digitally. Everyone has 3D printers in the studio now, so we can process design to a far greater extent than before. At the same time however, we need to be aware and careful of this because it can also be too easy and fast to produce things, and there’s a risk that not enough attention is being paid to the details, resulting in some designs appearing more ready than they actually are. So it’s important to sometimes slow down and review the process and product carefully, especially with furniture, because there’s so many parameters you need to fulfil to make it a great design. And I think it’s extremely important to communicate that to students studying design. There are still some traditional rules that need to be adhered in order to make great design. Not everything can be digital. You need to test things out physically and feel it in your fingers. With technology today, there are so many possibilities to create meaningful design. We can make things much better, much smarter, cheaper, and easier, but only if it’s done the right way.
Do you think mass production and consumer demand plays a role delivering things faster, almost forcing designers and manufacturers to cut corners?
If you look at the fashion industry for example, designers used to create two collections per year, and now they have up to 8 in a single year. That’s not healthy. Staff involved in that are incredibly stressed, where you have the pressure of coming up with new ideas constantly. There’re no time to stop, reflect, and find out how to do things better. Although it’s not quite like that in the furniture industry, I am beginning to see this way of working, presenting more frequently new collections, in a lot of different design areas. And if you are working in constant pressure all the time, you will only be able to live like that for a couple of years before you finally burn out. It doesn’t make sense. So for us, we have found out it works best if we pause the projects we are working on for at least a week or two, and then return to it with a fresh and renewed perspective and see how even small details can be optimised. If you fully immerse yourself in a project and you’re working on it 24/7, you actually start to go a little bit blind. You develop tunnel vision.
From conception to production, can you describe your creative process?
Our working process is very classic. The first part is always the research and sketching part—the inspiration part. I am not the type who needs to go into the forest to find inspiration. Instead, I like to play with different constructions, materials, and production methods. And often, a lot of the ideas are based on the client’s needs, where they have a particular kind of product in mind. So we start sketching by hand, and researching the market, for usable materials, and in which environment those materials will be used. In my studio, we have a very low hierarchy, so everyone is heard and everyone is equal to one another.
We also work very closely with the manufacturer from the beginning. We try to involve them as a much as possible because if you can involve people in the product development, they start to feel that it’s also their product, giving them the opportunity to contribute ideas, thoughts, and advice based on years of experience, and together we can create much better products. So it is very much about everyone having ownership of the product.
Then there is the production process and we love being a part of that. To be at the factory to do the first round of testing and see how we can modify and improve. It makes so much sense for us. It’s the part of the process we enjoy most. And even if you’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years, you still feel like a child, when you stand there and the first prototype is produced. It’s fantastic.
Looking at your current portfolio, I am struck by the diversity of your designs. Yet, it’s clear that you have a definitive Scandinavian aesthetic. How has it evolved over time?
You always want to do better than you did the last time—that’s human nature. I think we also pay more attention to the smaller details, trying to find a better way of constructing something while always addressing the basic needs of a design. A chair, for instance, must always be created strong enough to be safe and comfortable enough to be used over a long period of time. When we receive a brief that specifies a particular material, we want to optimise that material in the best way and often the shape is actually determined by that. You really need to dig into the essence of the material. Find its strengths and weaknesses. This is actually the traditional way of doing Scandinavian design, much like they did 60 or 70 years ago—basing design on the logical way of using materials and constructions—using local subcontractors, local materials, and making the construction as long-lasting as possible. Scandinavian design has never been about trends, it’s just about doing things the right way.
Do you have a lot of creative freedom when you receive a design brief?
It’s important for us to get a useful and precise brief, that gives us a full understanding of what kind of product the client wants and how the product is going to be used. The purpose of it. The more you know about the end result from the client, the better chance a designer has to achieve that result. Actually, the kind of briefs we struggle the most with are when a client comes to us and says, “please come up with something yourself”, and often when we propose something, they come back and say, “No, that’s not really the type of product we’re looking for.” It can be a complete waste of time in some cases.
Yes, I’m sure that can be frustrating when they come to you and say, “Well, you’re the designer. You can come up with something creative.” But in reality, you always need a foundation to work from.
You’re right, and many manufactures don’t think that way. They think that if they give us freedom, we can come up with something brilliant. But actually, we need limits.
Limitations breeds creativity and real creativity sits within those boundaries.
Yeah, I completely agree. I think also that you need to push those boundaries, but that can easily be done with the limitations of a good design brief, otherwise it’s difficult to push anywhere.
One of my favourite designs of yours is the Roll Cart. It’s ingenious. What was the inspiration?
This type of movable trolley is actually part of a long tradition in Denmark. You could move it easily from the dining room to the living room. So we wanted to create an updated version of that. And once again, it’s all about the small detailing. For instance, if you look at the handle you’ll notice a small indentation designed to make it easier to grip and then lift it. And the construction with the four tubes allows the trays to be removed and clicked back into place. It’s the small details like these that make the difference. It’s made of aluminium, so it’s 100% recyclable. Another good thing about aluminium is that even if you get a small scratch in the paint, it doesn’t start to rust. It actually just looks more beautiful over time, the more it is used.
You’ve collaborated with a number of companies such as HAY, and now you have a partnership with Gudmundur Ludvik. What governs your design approach while collaborating?
Yes, well the Roll Cart was actually a project made together with Icelandic designer Gudmundur Ludvik. Gudmundur and I have known each other from our days at the academy. I’m a huge fan of his, because he’s really good at understanding materials and using them in the right way, and he’s got a great attention to details as well. He likes to push the boundaries, always looking to work a little bit smarter, a little bit better, and a little bit more eco-friendly. And we talked many years ago that it would be fun to do something together. So at a time when my studio was extremely busy, I asked if he wanted to join us, and from there we started our shared studio together as equals. Now we have worked together for around 10 years. And how it works is that we both have two studios; our own studio and our shared studio. For me, that makes so much sense, to have two different ways of working through the week. I wouldn’t give up one for the other. It makes my days so much more interesting, knowing I am not doing the same thing everyday.
Are there any designs of yours that you admire and take pride in more than others?
Each design is almost like one of my children. I have spent so much time on all of them. So it would be almost impossible to choose one over the other. But if I look back on them career wise, there have been some game changers. For example, if you take the Wire Chair (the Hee Chair) for HAY, that was my first product that went into mass production on a large scale.
That was an amazing start to my career, because of the way it works in Denmark, where we are paid in royalties. The problem with that though, is when you have just graduated as a designer, you have almost no income the first couple of years, so you need to have a job on the side—to hustle through these years. For the first years in my career I worked maybe 80 hours per week with almost no income at all, so without an external job, you are not able to survive. But I was very lucky with the Hee Chair because when I first exhibited it at the Copenhagen design fair, the founders of HAY, Mette and Rolf came by. Actually, within a few hours Rolf came by four times, and told me, ”We want to produce that chair together with you.” And at that time, HAY had just started and was a very small company. So compared to some of the larger and more well-known manufactures in the market, who were also interested in the chair, it probably seemed like the wrong choice, but I just felt a great chemistry with Mette and Rolf. They came with so much energy, drive, and enthusiasm, that immediately I felt HAY was the home for that chair.
We talked before about limitations, and with the Hee Chair I set myself some limitations. So I could only use one material and it should be 100% recyclable.
In hindsight, that was certainly one of the best decisions you could have made considering how your work has evolved with them over the years.
It has been amazing. And having the chance to evolve a design like the About A Chair collection, it rarely happens in the furniture industry; maybe only once every 10 years. So I have been so lucky that I have had the chance to do that project together with HAY. It has been a very close collaboration with Rolf and their development team and we are actually still working on new pieces for this collection.
Sustainability is a necessary topic. What steps should designers take to become more environmentally prescient?
Well, we’re going to have to change the way we do things today completely if we want to make a big difference. And I think it’s important that all of us are focused on the same goal. The environmental issues that we’re experiencing globally are not going to go away. As an industry we need to make this change together. If designers, manufacturers, and subcontractors work in a more unified way, we can design things much better and smarter. I have three kids and I really feel ashamed when I think about how little we have done so far to make a better future for them in this world. So we really need to speed up that process. It’s a common global interest. There’s only one earth that we all share, so we need to take care of this one. And within mass production, it is possible to make a huge difference, if we can optimise the use of materials and produce things more environmentally-friendly and recyclable.
The way we are working right now in the studio, our main priority is to design with the environment in mind.
Why do you think some manufacturers aren’t treating sustainability as a priority? Is it simply down to money?
Some manufactures have done things the same way for decades, so it takes a change of the mindset, to start to do things differently. So making changes is very much a mental issue. To some, if is operational today, it works, so why change it? Maybe they feel there is too much risk to change things, even if in the long term it is a much better way.
We have focused a lot on having our things produced locally, convincing the manufactures to use local workforce and materials. Sometimes it is not possible, due to certain limitations of materials or production facilities, but if you are able to make some very minor adjustments to fit the machinery of a local manufacturer it often results in a more controlled production, shorter transportation time, and a much smaller carbon footprint.
If you take this approach, you discover that it is just a mindset and attitude, and that it doesn’t actually take much effort to change the way we produce things in order to become more eco-friendly. Of course, there’s no guarantee that this is the best approach. We might wake up 5 years from now and realise there was actually an even better way, but as long as we are always looking to do things the right way with the best intentions, we have hope.
Are there any areas of design you’d like to work on in the future?
I think everyone has a dream project. We have actually been working more in product design, such as lightning and tableware during the last couple of years. But a childhood dream of mine was to design a bridge. I think it’s because bridges are very much about constriction and every single little piece used is there for a reason. Every nut and bolt. If you remove anything, it can fall apart. I just like the idea of constructing something where every part of it has a purpose. And looking at a bridge as a concept, the way it can connect people, it’s just a fantastic thing. I’ll probably never make one of course, I’m certainly not working on a bridge at the moment, but you never know.
How do you like to spend your time away from work? Are you able to disconnect from it? And where do you find your sense of escapism?
I have a wife and three kids aged 7, 9, and 11, so all my time outside of the studio is pretty much spent with them and our friends. Family for me is very important. I really love the time with the kids. Especially with the ages they are. People always say be there for your kids when they are small because very soon you will wake up and they will be adults and they won’t need you anymore. It’s so true. But you know, even when I’m not working, mentally there is always a project or detail on my mind. And actually, I always keep a sketch book at the side of my bed, so if I wake up in the night with an idea I can note it down.
I think also because of the nature of design, you can see challenges everywhere. And for me, design is more than a job, it’s also my hobby. Everyday when I come into the studio, I arrive with a smile on my face. I love what I do and I wouldn’t change it for the world.