An accomplished creator of holistically designed spaces, Danish designer Johannes Torpe started his own design business at just fourteen years of age. By seventeen, he was one of the most sought-after lighting designers in Denmark. Having gone from entertaining large audiences on the stage as a musician, to designing multi-faceted interior spaces, it was very fitting when he was chosen as the first ever Creative Director of luxury electronic brand Bang & Olufsen. Known for his high-octane energy and eclectic personality, Johannes divides his time between his role with B & O and his own personal design work at his studios in Denmark, China and Italy.
Johannes very kindly took time out from his busy schedule to answer these questions for us today. Hugely talented, what shines through is his intelligence and humour, and I'm sure like me, you'll find his story so far, truly inspiring.
Bang & Olufsen Store Concept Design, Copenhagen
Tell us a bit about your upbringing, your time as a musician, and the path that led you to where you are today.
When I was a child I was always seen carrying a drumstick in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. It all came about in a very natural way – my mum was a painter and my dad was a musician. I grew up in a hippy commune in north Denmark where creativity was a huge part of life. Showing talent in both drumming and designing, I wished to continue down that path, but it quickly became apparent that the countryside did not have much to offer a kid with such an abundance of energy and zest for life. The city (Copenhagen) was the place for me to develop my skills.
My design career began as a lighting designer for concerts and smaller festivals. Word quickly spread and soon I was responsible for all of the stage lights at all the larger festivals around Denmark. Gradually I began designing interiors, and in 1997 my first big project- the nightclub 'NASA' in Copenhagen was launched (no pun intended). Meanwhile I was still making music with my brother; DJ and music producer Rune RK.
Your Copenhagen Design Studio has been in operation for 16 years, with an expansion in recent years to China and into Italy. How did this growth come about, and how do you manage your time between the different studios?
Another big passion of mine, besides designing and music, is travelling. I am incredibly intrigued by different cultures and the people that occupy them; I believe there is so much to be learnt from them. I am especially interested in developing an understanding of a particular culture and translating that into design. These, for me, have always been the ideas that break boundaries, not only within the sphere of the brand, but also the way in which cultural dispositions shape the nature of a design experience. The private rooms in the Chinese culture are one example of a design element that has been created through a need within this culture. The Chinese area very private people, particularly when it comes to business, so this design is a direct result of their lifestyle and habits.
In 2011, after having worked in China for quite some time, I decided to open a Chinese studio in Beijing. The existence of a native Chinese speaking team was truly game-changing for us; it enabled a much smoother communication process with our Chinese clients. Neither of the international studios would have come into existence without my overseas adventures. They were born through the connections and friends I made along the way.
I have some very talented co-workers in each office whom I trust in completely and rely on their skills to execute and develop the projects. My role is to art direct and curate these projects. The depth in which I get into the project varies from client to client, but I am involved in and overseeing every project that leaves our hands.
Lauras Bakery | Branded Space
You specialise in spatial design, or 'branded space'. What exactly does this term mean?
The work we do in the studio is prominently focused on branding, and creating personal experiences for each unique brand that approaches us.
Brands are like people; they possess an individuality yet still want to appeal to the masses. A 'branded space' incorporates the design of multiple dimensions and elements, which together provide holistic sensory experiences for the consumer. It is a synergy of many of the different design fields; graphic design, interior design, furniture design, product design and architecture, and evolves through the profound understanding of the consumer experience from beginning to end.
A branded space is the creation of an elevated experience of a brand. It is a space constituted of conceptual dispositions that reflect a particular symbology and tell a particular story. The result is a holistically designed environment. It moves away from the representation of a brand as merely a symbol, to that which is much more complex- a dynamic, interactive, intuitively driven experience. It is a place where the brand lives and breathes, where it touches people, and it’s ever-changing nature evolves in accordance to the subjective responses of the user.
How does this fit in with your product design, and collaboration with such brands as Haworth and HAY?
We almost always create custom designed furniture and products for our branded spaces. This is something we believe in, to create all elements from scratch and ensure that the space is truly one of a kind. If given the opportunity to create the 'perfect' chair or lamp for a space, the total experience of the design will inevitably be stronger. In these instances however, we have found it to be a shame to only have these pieces produced in such small quantities, which is why over the years we have also collaborated with production companies to sell our products to the end consumer.
This specific division of the company is actually one we will be focusing on more in 2014. We aim to specifically develop our product and design portfolio, and have created a whole new department within the company in order to realise this goal.
What branded space or product design projects have you most enjoyed working on, and why?
I have different favourite projects for many different reasons but I will choose to highlight the most recent; The Bang & Olufsen store concept design. Being part of B&O has been a fantastic journey, which thankfully is not nearly over yet. I was hired as their Creative Director and that has, amongst many other things, lead to the redesign of their retail experience. We are currently in the process of rolling-out the new retail experience worldwide, and will continue to do so over the next two years. The company truly has some exciting times ahead and with such positive results so far, I think we have the ability to effectively re-position B&O and breathe some fresh air into the eighty-eight year old brand.
Tell us about your role as the first ever creative director of Bang & Olufsen. You must be incredibly busy! How do you juggle this job with running your design studios?
I have cloned myself in a Russian laboratory. There was no other way that it possible for me to be in so many places at the same time (haha).
No, as I said before, I always surround myself with the most competent people within my studio, and this certainly also applies with B&O. Without a huge team effort and cross-collaborations between the our two companies, this would not be possible. My role in the company gives me the opportunity to explore the essence of beautiful sound in creating magical consumer experiences. I am basically overseeing all of the creative decisions, processes and strategies within the company. I commend B&O for their openness toward this change in the company's long-adhered to structure, with a role that has never existed before. They have accommodated me as a part of their brand, and not just a designer. I have had a life-long passion for this brand so it’s a title that I wear proudly.
What have been your career highlights to date?
The first is the design of NASA nightclub, it was highly coveted in books and won several design awards. Next was my design debut in China with SUBU restaurant and our year-long collaboration with the restaurant chain South Beauty Group, which lead to the opening of our Beijing office in 2011. In between this we have been working on a portable laptop table produced by Haworth. When Apple store released it for sale there under the name My Table, I knew that product design has a huge relevance in this company. Then there is my role as Creative Director for Bang & Olufsen which was announced two and a half years ago. A life-long goal was realised for me in that moment. Finally, last year AD China put us on their list of the 100 best design companies in the world.
You also carry out keynote speeches at design events around the world. Where have you been most recently and what did you talk about?
This month I have three speeches at different events and conferences. It is everything from speaking at the Danish Design and Architecture school for their orientation speech, speaking about branded space and experience design at Architect @ Work in London, to sharing the retail experience of the new Bang & Olufsen concept at an industry conference.
What I enjoy about the speeches is spreading the word about the current nature of Danish design. Denmark have a very strong design heritage; Fritz Hansen, Børge Mogensen, Wegner and Georg Jensen, but my passion lies in more current design. Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for these giants. However I also believe that it is the new generation of Danish designers’ most important task to show the rest of the world that we can do just as well and that Denmark, design wise, has kept evolving and remains at the forefront of design worldwide.
Where you do draw inspiration from?
I suppose my inspiration is drawn from random parts of my mind, which have been formed over time through my creative up-bringing and my constant overseas travels. Experiences inspire me, people inspire me. In other instances I also draw inspiration from a fairly pragmatic point of view. I like to turn mundane experiences in the daily grind into something extra-ordinary by imagining ways in which it could be improved in my head. Often these crazy ideas are the ones to hold on to and remember.
What are you currently working on?
We are working on a wide range of projects in all studios and at Bang & Olufsen. However a lot of it is obviously classified and therefore 'hush-hush'. It is a little like working at NASA! We cannot reveal anything before we are ready to open a new store or reveal a new product design. Currently, we have a lot in the pipeline, but nothing to share with you without getting myself into some serious trouble! Well, I guess I could tell you… but then I would have to kill you (haha).
If there was one piece of advice you would give to aspiring designers, what would it be?
Our purity lies in our originality. I read that on a teabag once! Honestly though, don’t get too engrossed with mainstream trends that represent the commercial design industry. Make sure your product has the potential be sold to an end-consumer and not just a little group of 'feinschmeckers'. The business case of a design is just as important as the originality, combine these two and you are in a very good position.
Thank you so much Johannes!
Have a great start to the week everyone, and be sure to check out the Johannes Torpe website and follow along on Facebook.