For this week’s Time Well Spent, the interview series exploring how Bulbul friends, partners and affiliates spend their time well, we’ve caught up with Danish design heavyweight, Johannes Torpe, the award-winning, prolific and thoroughly versatile Creative Director at multidisciplinary design studio, Johannes Torpe studios.
With an upbringing in a Danish hippie commune, zero formal education to speak of and a background in drumming, lighting and nightclub management, Johannes Torpe’s road to success has been fairly unorthodox. Nevertheless, his characteristically bold and personal design signature is detectable across the design spectrum. From ‘third spaces’ like legendary Copenhagen nightclub Nasa to Creative Direction at national, Danish design institution B&O, Johannes has had a hand in realizing projects for some of world’s most prestigious clients through his own, critically acclaimed, eponymous enterprise.
Unreservedly confident that Johannes could teach us a thing or two about spending time to the best of our ability, we sat down with him for an outspoken conversation about skipping stones and the Johannes Torpe approach to creativity.
Could you start out by explaining the idea behind your holistic approach and ‘the skipping stone?’
I think the skipping stone is a really cool metaphor. In terms of fertilizing story-telling, it’s awesome. What it means is that you throw a stone at the water at a certain angle to make It skip, and hit the water again and again, causing ripples where it comes into contact with the water. You don’t know how it’s going to hit, at what angle and how big the ripples will be. That's how life works and how my approach to creativity works. You never know what sort of impact your work will have, how it affects people and how it can take you further. At the moment, I’m actually doing a PHD entitled The Skipping Stone. I don’t have any formal education, so on some levels doing a PHD is kind of idiotic. But what I’ve always been good at it translating complexity to a wider audience in a simple way, so that people can go: ‘Ah ok, so that’s what that means. I thought it was complicated.’ The point of doing this PHD is to make it so universally understandable that anyone can pick it up and get inspired.
It sounds like you’re also driven by rendering complexity simple and mediating it to the wider public?
Yes, definitely. And trying to look ahead of the curve to see what’s going to be relevant in 3-5 years.
How do you go about doing that? Is it in an intuitive hunch?
It’s all very intuitive. Either it works or it doesn’t. Adding to that, for me, it’s about balance. About balancing the good things with the bad things. Recently, an Australian journalist asked me how I coped with all the pressures of directing major design projects. I told her: ‘Well, I’m extremely comfortable being uncomfortable.’ I don’t have a problem asking all the unpleasant questions.
Brand installation for the Nike office in Beijing by Johannes Torpe Studios.
It sounds like you thrive under pressure?
Yes, well, there are times when I can feel that I’m getting a lot more sensitive to certain influences. That’s when I go for one of my mountain retreats where I have no contact with the surrounding world.
Interesting. That brings us to our next question: How does Johannes Torpe spend his time well?
I’ve actually changed my attitude quite a bit in that respect. Previously, I would just go full steam ahead and travel constantly. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that all we really have is time. When I was younger, I would easily get distracted and constantly busy myself with other things than the matter at hand. I had an office in Beijing and I would go there three times a month. Think about that for a second: flying to China from Europe three times a month. You never really land. You’re constantly on-the-go.
The Mandarin Chair by Johannes Torpe Studios.
When I go to the mountain, I do it because I’m convinced that human beings need to be alone sometimes. Going somewhere where no one expects anything – and you actually have to readjust your own expectations of yourself to be there - that’s a powerful thing. In a culture where everyone runs around with the grown-up pacifiers that is their smartphones, I for one need to spend some time in solitude in order to reconnect with myself. I need to be in a place where I don’t have to relate to the surrounding world in any way. A place where stuff just doesn’t work. There’s no TV, no wi-fi, no anything. There’s you and a bunch of other people. People that you don’t necessarily have to speak to. That’s time well spent.
It seems like that uncompromising spirit – if you can call it that – is something that permeates you work? Has your perception of design changed since you first started out?
My design perception hasn’t changed. And I wouldn’t necessarily say that ‘uncompromising’ is the right word for it. Because design and architecture and all other kinds of creativity are actually about the art of the compromise. If you’re uncompromising you won’t get anything done.
On a personal note, I’d like to ask you about the nightclub NASA here in Copenhagen that I used to go to when I was younger. How did you go about designing that place?
Nasa nightclub (1997).
With NASA, it was actually fairly easy since it was my nightclub. If you’re the owner as well as the client, you automatically bypass a lot of trouble. And you answer to yourself if it fails. I knew that my concept would work and the idea was to create an amazing place that took you out of your daily grind. You went into the elevator and into space.
If you had to give one piece of advice to aspiring designers and entrepreneurs, what would it be?
Retail design concept for Bang & Olufsen.
That’s an extremely hard question. I’d say that it’s ultimately down to the individual. But if there’s one thing that’s worked in my favor, it’s being authentic. It reminds me of Anne Sophia Hermansen, who said: ’I love getting older. When I was younger and I walked into a room, I would worry what everyone thought of me. Now my main concern is what I think of them.’ If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, if you have an idea, something you want to do, the most important thing is to be authentic. Be authentic in your idea. Be authentic as a person. That makes everything so much easier.
For more of Johannes Torpe's creative skipping stones, go to: