How to Follow Your Passion with Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen
This episode features Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen, a Copenhagen-based architect, designer, art director, and photographer. We cover topics such as positioning as a creative, how Jonas approaches new projects, his advice to young professionals, main challenges of being an architect today, his work routines, the importance of following your passion and much more.
Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen is an architect and founding partner at Norm Architects with over a decade of experience as an architect, designer, art director and photographer. Jonas shares his passion for phenomenology – the philosophical study of human experience – and striking spaces, objects and images with clients that range from established design brands to international magazines and private homeowners.
"Don’t be afraid to expose yourself."
Trained at both The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and Copenhagen Business School, Jonas mixes business-oriented and strategic thinking with the conceptual thoughts and visions that bring creative projects to life. ‘I have a strong vocation for creating thoughtful projects that make a difference and stand out in an understated, refined manner,’ he says of his work, which has won awards including the Red Dot, IF Design Award, Design Plus Award and Good Design Award.
- Introduction [00:00:00]
- Episode Introduction [00:00:52]
- Importance of Following Your Inner Vocation [00:02:16]
- Advice to Young Professionals [00:06:04]
- The Power of Deep, Focused Work [00:09:17]
- Main Challenges of Being an Architect Today [00:17:51]
- Making a Living As an Architect and a Product Designer [00:20:45]
- Short Episode Break – Support the Podcast [00:28:28]
- Jonas’s Best Investment in Himself [00:29:20]
- How to Deal With Creative Criticism [00:32:22]
- How to Position Yourself As a Creative Professional [00:41:15]
- Jonas’s Current Struggles [00:44:51]
- Phenomenological Approach to Creative Work [00:48:51]
- Using Failure As Motivation [00:54:03]
- How to Develop Your Point of View As a Creative [00:59:32]
- Advice for Being a Better Creative Professional [01:04:44]
- Episode Outro [01:06:06]
Jonas: “Getting out there, opening up our ideas, let people challenge them, and then keep on thriving on uncertainty. Once if you get too satisfied, or too settled, or too proud, then maybe you can lose your ability to really evolve.”
This is the Creative Voyage podcast, a long form interview show with the mission to help creative professionals to level up. I’m your host, Mario Depicolzuane. I’m a creative professional myself, active in the fields of graphic design, art direction, and creative consulting, working with companies such as Kinfolk, MENU, and Sonos.
Through Season One of this podcast, I present in-depth interviews with some of the world’s most inspiring creative professionals, revealing the stories that shaped their lives and careers, plus actionable strategies to help take your mindset and skills to the next level. I invite you to join me on this journey.
Mario: This episode is devoted to the co-founder of one of my favorite architecture and design studios.
Jonas: I am Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen. I am Co-Founder and Partner in architectural studio in Copenhagen called Norm Architects. We work within different creative disciplines. We do residential architecture, commercial, interiors, like restaurants, hotels creative, office spaces, then we work a lot with the product design, photography and art direction. We have our studio in the old center of Copenhagen, but we work internationally in most of Europe and the US and in Japan.
Mario: Norm Architects have worked with clients such as &Tradition, Wallpaper Magazine, Reform, Kinfolk, Paper Collective, Menu, The Office Group and Sticks’n’Sushi just to name a few. I’ve been a fan of their work for a long time and I’ve also had a pleasure of collaborating with Jonas in a few different occasions. It was a fantastic opportunity to be able to connect with him in this context as well.
In this final episode of the season one of the podcast, we’re going to listen to the highlights of the conversation I had with Jonas in person, in my apartment in Copenhagen in October of 2018. We covered topics such as positioning as a creative, where Jonas approaches new projects, his advice to young professionals, main challenges of being an architect today, his work routines, the importance of following your passion and much more.
How Jonas developed as a creative professional can at least partly be linked to his upbringing. On one side, his mother was artistic and encouraged creativity in their household. On the other, his father was analytical, business-oriented and worked as an accountant. Partly to keep the family tradition, Jonas started studying business. After one year, he found himself reconsidering the choice and decided to take a break year.
He moved to Rome to his relatives, where he wandered the streets absorbing the life around him and spent time working in a painter’s studio, immersing himself in art, philosophy and architecture. At the time, Jonas was considering becoming a painter. After self-evaluating his work, he concluded that might not be the best choice.
Back in Copenhagen, he gradually started working with his current professional partner, Kasper Von Lotzbeck, who was already enrolled in architecture school. Shortly after, Jonas joined as well. However, he hasn’t abandoned business school, partly due to his nature of not giving up on things, so he studied both business and architecture; alternating them every year and finishing both at the same time. Even though he liked business and he still uses those skills, for example in strategic design development and consulting, during that time he realized he enjoyed creative profession more and that set him off on his career path.
That formative part of his life seems quite intense and naturally, Jonas was readjusting his focus as he went along. I decided to start a conversation, asking him what would he advice his younger self at the start of his career.
Jonas: I think that a lot of advices I could give myself both in life and in terms of my professional career. I also think I considered a lot along the way. I don’t feel that I made any choices that I today regret, or I wish I had to done differently. I think if I would go back and tell myself to really follow my passion in many ways, that I shouldn’t make any career decisions based on ambition, or strategy, but really spend time doing what you love.
Jonas: Then I think if you do that and spend a lot of hours, really becoming good at something that you really like, I think success in some form will follow automatically. You don’t have to be that conscious about where you’re going when you read, help yourself books, or whatever you call. It’s always about setting goals and reaching the goals and finding a path and then follow it.
Jonas: For me, I think it’s much better actually finding a process that you like and then follow the process and see that where it takes you. It’s not about being naïve, or make choices, but live in a good way with uncertainty. I think that keeps you on your toes and bring you in good places if you really work hard for it.
Mario: Yeah, exactly. I guess, you also have this, like an analytical background. For you, it probably makes sense that you need to offset that more with leaning towards for this to find, let’s say a balance, in a way.
Jonas: It’s always about balance. I mean, if you only follow your passion, then you see a lot of people are ending up in the impact basis.
Mario: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Jonas: Because they’re not reasonable. I mean, it’s too much. You also see creatives are artists that have just been too passionate about the things. Then of course, it has a price when it comes to family, or surroundings, or collaborators.
Mario: Or your health going on.
Jonas: Yeah, yeah. Your health, that’s definitely something you need to consider as well. Of course, it’s all about balance. I go back and advise myself to lean more against doing all the things that makes you happy in life and then try to downplay all the things that you should do and ignore the pressure maybe of your surroundings, whether it’s colleagues, fellow students, or parents, or society in general. I think you should follow your inner urge, or your inner vocation.
Following up on my first question, I’ve asked Jonas what advice he would give a young person entering into this work.
Jonas: In school for example, you learn how to learn in many ways. It’s much about thinking and learning how to think how to structure your thoughts and how to be creative in many ways, but you don’t really get experience. That’s in many cases my impression. I would say to younger creatives that it’s a good thing to find kindred spirits, to find people that you can work with and learn from, really to gain that experience. Of course, you can still work with your own things, but I think a lot of creatives, whether it has to do with insecurity, or ego, or protecting their ideas, a lot of people that likes to work very much in solitude to have a closed process of creating something and then bringing out the final result to the world.
Jonas: I like much better the idea of opening up your processes and your thoughts and collaborating, I think in general with people that are like-minded. It’s so easy today, I think to find globally people that are like-minded that can share your views in the world, or your preferences and aesthetics, or your approach to design and architecture in general. I think it’s a really good idea to seek out those people and to just approach them.
Jonas: I mean, there doesn’t need to be any specific goal in mind, or any thought about why you should meet, but just meet them. If you open up all your ideas and your own creative processes and try to give something to those person that appealed to you, it often seems to me that greater results coming out of that, instead of working individually with your own ideas.
Jonas: I see that with a lot of younger creatives and studios that it’s more accepted to collaborate and reach out and do projects together, and also across borders of different disciplines. I mean, maybe I very fascinated with a certain artist, or a musician, or a graphic designer, photographer and I want to learn more about that. I get a lot out of reaching out to people in general and starting up just conversations of a project, and also opening up my own ideas and work in collaboration with them. I think that could be a good advice for anybody starting out.
Mario: Do you do that often? Actually, just being like cold e-mailing, or cold calling people you like?
Jonas: Yeah. I don’t know if often, it’s not that I do it every day, but yeah. I think, I really thrive from meeting new people and working so many disciplines, always changing paths, traveling a lot, working with a lot of different companies, a lot of different creatives. I do that all the time. If there’s a person that I really like, I just reach out and say, “Should we meet, or should we do something together? Or I have this specific idea, I would love for you to do it, or work on this project and could that be a possibility?”
Jonas: Sometimes you’re declined and other times, it just still works out really well. I mean, you shouldn’t be afraid of the uncertainty, or the possible of negative response. I mean, I think in general, you gain much more energy from working in that way, than being afraid of either sharing your ideas, or reaching out.
As a creative professional in many ways, Jonas seems to be out of this world. It can be mind-boggling to understand how he does all that he does; architecture, photography, strategy design. At the same time, he’s generous, kind and down-to-earth. As I’ve mentioned in the intro, I’ve worked with Jonas in some projects and have experienced firsthand his focus and apparent ease with which he solves creative tasks. Still, how he managed to do that remain mostly a mystery. That’s why with a goal of perhaps partial demystifying his process, I’ve used this opportunity to ask him how his days and work habits look like.
Jonas: It does change a lot. Some weeks I’m traveling to different countries. In the same way, it’s a lot about meeting new people, or presenting ideas, or working at a factory with craftspeople, or overseeing the site, or meeting with clients, interviewing them about their needs. Or other weeks, I can be in meetings from Monday to Friday afternoon discussing new projects, or a strategy. Other weeks again, I can be at home working, drawing, shutting the world out completely. Then other weeks can be a mixture of those things.
Jonas: I think I have a certain ability to shut out the rest of the world and focus deeply on one thing at a time. When I was starting out school, I had a tendency to just sit with my mouth open and stare out the window, thinking about other things and what was happening in the classroom. The teachers at that time, they approached my parents because they thought I might be retarded in some way.
Jonas: I still have a that ability too. I can sit in a train station filled with people and be deeply concentrated about work. I should set one way of photographing. I’m so much into creating images that I can have 20 people around me doing things. I’m not aware about what’s going on around me. I’m just focused on my work. I think I have a tendency to whatever I’m doing right here, right now, I think deeply into that. Then I cut off all other things, which also means that I’ve days where I work very creatively where I have hundreds of e-mails ticking in. I have people calling me all the time, but I close my computer, or shut off my phone. It doesn’t stress me. Those things need to wait.
Jonas: I really need to shut out the world and focus on one thing at a time. Even though as you said, I might have a 100 different projects going on at the same time, for me it’s not that much about juggling balls. It’s taking one thing at a time, I think. That’s the way I manage it in many ways.
Mario: You do have a lot of things going on. You must have a certain system to keep yourself on track. Because if you’re zooming in one thing, you probably have to know what’s next. Do you have assistant, or do manage it yourself?
Jonas: I’m really bad at delegating work through others. I don’t think I could work with an assistant. I’m pretty unstructured also. I think in many ways, my passion for the different projects drives me. It’s not like I turn on and off. I can’t shut off my work and do something. The different projects, they are driving me, or by themselves, I know what other next steps and what I need to do.
Jonas: Then as I said, if there are things that are not that important, or that doesn’t preoccupy me that much at a certain time, they’ll have to wait a little bit in-line. It’s not a formal structure, but it’s my brain structuring things for me, very much driven by passion, I think. Very annoying for other people sometimes.
Mario: Yeah, I can envision –
Jonas: Both friends and family and their colleagues and partners and clients and collaborators. That’s how it is.
Mario: You said that even as a child, you were able to focus. Was it just a natural, like innate quality you have?
Jonas: Yeah. I think it’s something that’s part of me in many ways. I’ve also been thinking about it over the years, reflected upon it. It has also at certain times cost problems. I see it as a positive quality now and I try to make it a virtue in many ways. Because I think, if you have many projects and you can easily get stressed, there are so many people getting stressed today, because they want to do so much and there are so many possibilities. People offer potential, really great projects all the time.
Jonas: If you are to accept a lot of these possibilities and dive into all these projects, you need to have routines that will keep your wave from stress and I should say, otherwise it can ruin your health. All the things that were supposed to be enjoyable and fun and they end up just being stressful and it’s not about enjoying the process any more, then it’s about getting the things done and moving on to the next target all the time.
Jonas: If you do that for too long, suddenly you realize that hey, life disappeared. I was just focusing on goals and I didn’t really enjoy all the supposedly enjoyable processes. I mean, as I said before, I chose to work creatively because it made me happy. I wanted that life for myself. If I end up just making it a long list, I need to take off, instead of enjoying what I do every day, then I failed in many ways. I think that’s super important.
Mario: Would you be willing to expand, or talk how much do you work? Because I know that some friends like, “I have so many questions how does he do all these things. He’s working all the time.”
Jonas: Sometimes when I’m too busy, because I also do get stressed sometimes, I wonder why couldn’t I just organize myself in a way that it would be a more nine-to-five job and I would be relaxed and I would have more time to do sports and be with the family and balance out work and your private life better. I don’t think that’s the answer for me. I think it’s more about really working very intensively in periods. Then other periods, pulling the plug and doing nothing.
Jonas: This week for example, it started for me 5:30 Sunday morning, early cheating going in through the week. When I reached Tuesday morning, I had already worked 37 hours, so like a full week. Not much sleep and a lot of work. Then I have periods for example, two times a year I travel and I shut off the phone. I don’t bring my computer and then I don’t work at all. Then it’s all about relaxing, maintaining myself, doing sports, being with my family and really being present in those periods.
Jonas: Then of course, there are periods of the year where it’s more balanced out. I enjoyed that it’s being very intensive at times and then very relaxed at other times. I think something I realized when I started out working for myself 10 years ago is that work doesn’t feel like work anymore. It’s life for me. A lot of people, they have a certain mood, or feeling in their body when it’s weekdays, and another feeling when they reach Friday and they have weekends.
Jonas: Literally, I haven’t had that distinction, or feeling in my body, or between what is work days and what is weekends, or what is work and what’s life. The whole idea of work-life balance, I think when you really do things that are pleasurable that I enjoy that I would do, even though people didn’t pay me money for it, then it’s just life all of it. Then it’s not that hard and it’s not that stressful. It gives you energy. It doesn’t drain you.
Mario: Yeah. That is reoccurring topic with a few people that I talked about. This is more about yeah, integrating both. It’s just like as you said, it’s life.
Jonas: It’s probably very different for different people and everybody has different tempers and different priorities and different values in life, but I think it really works well for me. It also means I need to be very cautious about not accepting too many projects that takes me in a different direction. Both for myself and for the studio, I’m very careful about what type of projects we do.
Jonas: I mean, you can easily go on in a wrong direction. If you do one project successfully, then people will come and ask you for the same type of project. If I accept something, I want to do it well, so even though it’s not my dream project, I will try to do it well. If I do that too many times, then people come and ask me for the same thing. Then if you’re not conscious about it, then suddenly you end up doing something you don’t like.
Jonas: You need to evaluate all the time, was this a pleasurable process along the way? I mean, I like the result, but was the process also nice? Okay, then I can do it again, or I can do something similar. If it was nice, then maybe you need to take that project out of your portfolio and say no the next time somebody come and ask
We live in complex disruptive times. In many ways, we are witnessing most industries including the creative ones being restructured, which can bring struggles to those involved in them. However, by identifying the problems we can attempt to tackle them. I’ve asked Jonas to share what he thinks are the main challenges of being an architect working today.
Jonas: I think there are tons of challenges. I think for us at least, a big challenge is that due to social media communicating with the whole world is much easier, which also means that a lot of the projects we do now are international. I can hear from colleagues, it’s the same thing for them. We work in in the United States, in the Far East, in southern Europe, in Sweden which is very different from Denmark culturally in many ways. There are a lot of challenges understanding different cultures, because you – I think, subconsciously are very driven by your own culture. It’s so hard to step out of that culture and see other cultural values objectively. It’s virtually impossible.
Jonas: I can just see working as an architect you really need to understand the need of your clients. I think, it’s super important for architects to understand that when they work for others, they’re not building their own house. Sometimes a lot of architects, they have the tendency of just doing their thing and then just exporting that idea. I definitely see it as a challenge really deeply profoundly understanding the need of people in totally different cultures, because there are just things that you haven’t learned about, that you maybe don’t understand that are talked about and are understood completely differently from what you used to. I think in that respect, that’s a big challenge.
Jonas: Then another thing that’s cost also buying a globalization and social media is said, a lot of people they tend to do the same things because they’re inspired by the same things. I think a good advice is that you should stop getting inspiration from social media, which a lot of creatives do. I think that you can actually see today that architecture is getting increasingly visual-driven. I mean, so many architects they focus on how things will look in images and not how they would work in reality. That’s a problem there.
Jonas: It seems in many ways that all our other senses, even though the visual sense is the most important in human beings, they’re forgotten, because people are so focused on Instagrammable moments in creating architecture. Maybe to a lesser extent about the haptic tactile qualities of their buildings, or interiors, or products they’re creating. That seemed to be a challenge that is hard to escape, because you’re in this digital world that is more or less only about the visual aspect of human life. That’s definitely a challenge.
For most of us creatives, the dream is to make a living by pursuing our passion. That can be challenging, both when we are just starting, but sometimes even well off in our careers. It can mean that to make it work, we need to change our strategy, marketing, or diversify our offering. I’ve talked to Jonas about how they tackle those financial challenges at Norm Architects.
Jonas: Our businesses in many ways divided in two different ways of running a business; one is doing product design, which is royalty-based work. That’s much being an author, or a musician. You create a work, or piece and then you set it free into the world. Then the financial gain depends very much on how successful the product is in the world. It is all about taking chances and risk. You often do that together with a company and distribute and sell and produce the things that you create.
Jonas: I think starting out, it’s very difficult to make a living from being a product designer, because you need to have so many products out there to actually be able to make a living from it, because you only get two or three or five or maximum 10% of the sales, depending on what type of product you’ve made, or what business you’re dealing with, or how good the contract you made with the ones paying you royalty.
Jonas: I think when we started out 10 years ago, for the first I think, maybe five years, we didn’t make any money. We got a lot of products into production with different companies, so we could see there was light at the end of the tunnel. I experienced because I work with so many young designers when I’m curating design, for example Menu, that they need to have other jobs to be able to do what they like designing products, or they need to take consultancy jobs, or they need to be employed somewhere and then work on the products. Every time, which is a big challenge because it really needs your full attention and it takes a lot of time to do that.
Jonas: I think it took us around five years to be able to make a living of designing products. Now on the other hand, they keep selling because we’ve made it a virtue focusing on very timeless, simple products that can hopefully have a long life in the world, so they keep on selling. Then suddenly, it’s a passive income.
Jonas: I mean, I don’t have to get up in the morning and go to work to earn money. That comes from the sales of all the products that are independent of my involvement, which is very nice. It’s just a very long path and it’s a big investment to make.
Jonas: Then on the other side, we have the architecture business, which is basically a consultancy business. It’s about selling your time. I think the big challenge there is that people, they’re really not that willing to pay for a bright idea, because it’s so airy. I mean, even though it’s often the most important part of architecture, that’s the idea, or the ideas, or how to structure. It’s all mind work. People, they don’t really value it. Also, it’s I think generally for creatives. It’s hard to get paid for all the time and thoughts put into architectural work.
Jonas: Clients, they’re more than willing to pay for technical drawings, or engineer work, or people hammering in nails in the building, because that’s very tangible. It’s but it’s also very generic. There are so many people that can do that, but there’s so few people coming up with extraordinary ideas.
Jonas: I think being paid enough for good ideas is super hard driving that type of business. I can say for our architecture firm, that’s a relatively small firm and we do very selected projects; where we try to do something that’s very holistic where we design everything from the building to the interior to the objects and bespoke pieces and go all the way around. We don’t participate in big competitions and we don’t do hospitals, or cultural buildings; that type of work where there’s years of work of generic architecture work that you can invoice. Then we really need to find the right clients to be able to have a good business from their part.
Jonas: That’s also why I think 80% of our work now is international, because it’s just the fewer people that are willing to build that type of architecture, do that type of interiors. I know from colleagues in the business that also people running bigger architectural studios, they have the same problem. They’re in all their money on technical architects, a young junior architects and all the work, brilliant work being put into competition, or actually designing the building, that’s not where they make their money.
Mario: I guess, how you’re trying to position yourself with approaching it in a holistic way, you’re trying to probably – is that the way you’re trying to get more, or portray more value to the client where you’re, “I can package all that.”
Jonas: I think for some clients, of course it’s very nice to have a one-stop shopping that they don’t have to be the project managers of a project that they need to deal with a builder and an engineer and an architect and a product designer and put all that together. They can come to one place that’s from a practical point of view.
Jonas: From our point of view, it’s more about being able to control the whole universe of what we are creating. I’ve seen so many great buildings that before visiting them, maybe I’ve only seen them in images and the facade was so beautiful. Once I entered the buildings, maybe it was only the public areas that were well-designed, maybe the foyer or entrance, and then the rest was just super standardized, because it was actually the builder deciding on all the details and it was just off-the-shelf details and doors, kitchens, interiors, floors, piping, everything was just nothing really.
Jonas: I think that’s super dissatisfying to architects, because they had a vision about the quality of their work and architecture is not only about the façade, or the statement building. In a big city, it’s just as much about how it’s used and the quality of the interior. Most architects just experienced by people from the inside-out and not only from the outside-in.
Jonas: I think just you know from experience, we really loathe the fact that we couldn’t control all parts of the finished work. We saw all the small details equally important to the bigger gestures of our projects. That’s really why we want to make projects where it’s holistic and we’re involved in all parts of the process.
Jonas: I think that’s very much about pursuing your dreams and not making too many compromises. Of course, you need to make compromises doing product design, because you need to understand the need of people, or the need of the market. You need to understand company you’re working for, their values, their views and design, looking at their existing portfolio. It’s all a collaborative process in that way.
Jonas: I think a lot of designers are pushed to make too many compromises. I think really standing firm on the things that you know will work because you’ve spent a whole lifetime refining and giving thought to product design, I think you need to make fewer compromises and I think that will be a good investment looking at it for the long term and not so much for a short-term gain.
Jonas: It’s better declining a product that you’re not proud of, instead of accepting it just for – to make refilling. In the end, it also turns out to be a better investment and it feeds new work on a higher level, instead of the opposite, which is that it’ll get worse and worse.
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Jonas: I think that a lot of food good investments I’ve made in myself. I think generally, I don’t think so much about the goal, or the gain. I think more about whether I would enjoy something. Often when I start out projects, I mean, I don’t talk about what should be the gain, or the price of things. I often also do things for free if I just feel that this could be good. It always turns out that it’s a good investment, also financially somehow.
Jonas: I think sometimes being more focused on really making good things, instead of that’s a general good investment then I mean, there’s so many investments you can make for yourself in terms of taking breaks, or traveling, or focusing on sports, or getting away from work for a while on a more personal level. I think that’s super important.
Jonas: As I said before, if I work very intensively for a period, I really need to invest in myself physically and timewise and relax for a while and take a longer break. We often also take our work to other places. We do what we call pop-up studios. It’s not that long, but for a month or so we move to some other country to work and it’s both getting away from all the daily routines; that’s one thing. Another thing, getting away from the great cold weather in February in Denmark, which is super important as well. Re-energize tissue in many ways.
Jonas: Then I’ve experienced that when we go abroad, you always meet new people, you create a new network, you get new ideas. I think for you to create something new, something new should come out of you, you need to have something new to come in. It’s all about the importance of inspiration.
Jonas: I don’t think you can sit in your office and have the same stroll, or the same commute to work every day then keep on being creative. I think you need to experience new things in order to evolve all the time, both as a person, as a creative.
Mario: Yeah. How often do you do those pop-up studios? Do you actually take the whole team, or most of the team? How do you –
Jonas: We did it more when we have fewer people now. The office has grown and it’s harder to do the whole team. At least once a year, I need to get away and get new inspiration. then I often combine work with maybe doing photography work for a magazine, or if I come to someplace I haven’t ever been before, maybe I design an architecture guide and that’s a good way to get around to know the place and meet new people. It’s not that we often have a project there, but then the project comes from the childhood itself. I think in that way, it’s a really good investment getting out.
Growth is certainly one of the reoccurring themes in this series. That’s because I believe it’s one of the determining factors for our fulfillment. To grow, we have to challenge ourselves and in some ways embrace uncertainty, which can be hard. I wanted to hear how Jonas is making sure that besides working on client assignments, he also develops as a creative professional.
Jonas: This is a super complex question. I often think about it and I speak with friends about it, because on one hand, I think being ignorant is blessed in many ways. I mean, we had a small house in Italy that I bought with some friends when we just came out of high school as a fun project. It was a small town on the hillside in the middle of Italy. There were people that lived their whole life on that mountainside and they were so proud of their food, of their town, of the country around them and the wine was the best in the world, their soccer team was the best in the world and everything was – they were really so proud. They had never been away. Maybe they had been to Rome one time in their life, but they were so happy and content that I thought, that can be a really good way of leading your life.
Jonas: Once you start to get out and start to experience all the world office, it’s like opening Pandora’s box in many ways. You want more all the time and you can’t really be satisfied just staying in the same place doing the same things over and over again. I’m caught in between those things. I think of course, I really need to evolve as a person and as a creative.
Jonas: When I look at people that had 10 years where they’re really good and then just faded into nothingness, I often wonder can you keep on staying sharp? Can you keep on evolving new ideas? Do you freeze and get stuck at a certain point? I think, the thing I started out talking about was collaborating with people all around the world and with the younger generation and all of that, will put you in a position where people keep on challenging your ideas. I think, that’s a good way to evolve.
Jonas: I think for the creatives that are very closed about their processes, they can often repeat themselves endlessly. For some, it can be good because their work can become very refined. For others, they can get stuck in repetition and never move on. I’m very conscious about getting out there, opening up my ideas and let people challenge them. Then keep on thriving on uncertainty in many ways. I think, it’s uncertainty that also leads you to excel, because you keep on refining your choices, evolving. Once if you get too satisfied, or too settled, or too proud, then maybe you can lose your ability to really evolve.
Mario: Yeah. Do you have any specific resources, or routines, or stuff which just help you with that either, because it does seem that your mindset is in a good place regarding that you’re exposing yourself and it seems that it’s working at least currently. Was there something that helped you with that, or how do –
Jonas: I think maybe it’s a general feel of uncertainty, whether things are good enough. I think early on, I didn’t value it that much. I thought more it was a weakness more than a strength. Now I see that it maybe it is a strength that you all the time ask people for input, opinions, then you do refinements. Once you’re not afraid of the uncertainty, then it’s also easier to jump off the bridge and do things where you maybe think starting out the process that you’re not fit for this job, or that you don’t have the abilities.
Jonas: It is often in those moments hanging in the air before you hit the water that you evolve the most, and that you really learn new things and evolve, both as a person. That can happen in so many situations. I mean, it can be both working with a creative that’s much more experienced than you, but it can definitely also be working with somebody that’s completely young and inexperienced and just see things very differently. That’s just undertaking new technical challenges as well.
Jonas: That was how I started photographing. I knew nothing about photography, but I loved images. Then I just accepted jobs and I didn’t really know how a camera worked at all. I think, some of the first photography work I had ever handed in for a magazine it was really awful and it really probably retouch. Then I got criticism and then I had to go back and work even harder for it and try to hand it in again.
Jonas: I think, this like all others there’s been a lot of failures leading to success. Thriving on that uncertainty I think it’s a good way to keep you on your toes and refining your work. Then of course hard work; putting in a lot of hours, being more skilled.
Mario: Yeah. It does seem to – if you want to learn almost anything, you can have to be fine with just being bad at it. That can be very painful, because you know that it’s bad, but the only way to become better is to be doing bad stuff in a way.
Jonas: Yeah. I have friends that are creatives that maybe like you they play music, but they won’t let anybody listen to it. They say, “I do this for myself,” and all of that but, they are not open to get actually criticism. I think that can be a way where you can go through a whole life with a dream, where you actually never really improve, because you didn’t dare to hear the hard truth about your work. Again, it’s about putting things out there and getting the responses and then improve.
Mario: Then yeah, trying to in a way detach yourself from the result, or from –
Jonas: Learning that criticism is not about people criticizing you as a person, it’s about people giving their opinion about the work. That can always be remade and made better the next time. You shouldn’t take it as a negative thing. I’ve always really appreciated very critical dialogues. Also in my studio, sometimes I’m very candid about what I think about the work being done in the studio. It’s not to be hard, or to be judgmental, or say ugly thing about – the things about the work of my colleagues, or collaborators. It’s more about driving the process forward. It’s only about the work. It’s never about the person. That can easily be misunderstood.
Jonas: I think once people learn that it’s positive thing and not a negative thing, then they actually appreciate being pushed. I remember from my years in the art academy, some of the professors that I today value the most, are definitely the ones that were most critical about my work. Because I could really see now how much they pushed me in the right direction. Whereas, the ones that gave me positive feedback, they haven’t had that much of importance looking back.
Mario: Do you have any, let’s say, tactic or technique when you’re giving critical feedback, like to make sure that people actually hear it in a way that it’s intended? Because it is great once people learn how to relate to it and get that mindset and build that muscle and then it’s like, okay, they can process that information. Then it’s like, okay, it’s not about me, or maybe they feel it for a second, but then they bypass that. Often people, the struggle with managing that. Have you may be found ways of –
Jonas: It’s so hard to say yourself, because it should be other people’s opinion about that. I sense that I’m not the best person at being diplomatic. I try sometimes to do it, but then I often feel that it’s not heard right. I think generally, human’s minds are designed in a way that you try to make the best sense for yourself on what you hear, so you try to structure the world in your head in a way that it comes out in the most positive way for yourself.
Jonas: I think sometimes when I try to be critical in a very diplomatic way, people they just take it as positive feedback and they don’t really change the things that needs to be changed in a project. I feel that the best and most direct way to push people in the right direction and evolve them, it’s not about giving them answers, it’s more about questioning certain choices in a project and it’s always up for discussion. Then I’m often wrong about things, so it’s not like – I like to have the critical debate about it. I think, I come on too strong for many people and then it becomes very direct. They see it as hard criticism.
Jonas: The only way – I’ve found a way to go about it is to try to be a little bit humoristic about it. Talk about it in metaphors that seem a little more light headed and not too serious. Then you can have a great laugh about it instead, but you still get the point that this needs to be reworked in some way. Sometimes that works, but yeah. My professional partner Kasper, that has dealt with me for 15 years, how much is it? It is now, he always just laughs about it. He stood in many ways, but then, it’s something I need to work on.
Norm Architects’ portfolio has an enviable selection of clients and collaborators. Each new project they put out seems to be on point and in some way pushes them forward. It seems that as a creative studio, they’ve done a great job at positioning themselves to attract right clients and to do the work that’s relevant and inspiring. I’ve asked Jonas about how they’ve achieved that.
Jonas: I think it’s been the like a very long process in many ways. I think, for the first years we really had to work extremely hard to get very few results, because it was not so much about just our abilities as architects, or designers, it was a lot to do with the structures around us; working for the right company, working for the right clients that were willing to do the same things as you wanted to do, or that had financial capabilities to actually make certain dreams come true, both for them and for us creatively, and to begin with, that was just not the case.
Jonas: We didn’t start with the coolest design company in the world and we didn’t start out with the richest client that could make whatever. It was fake it until you make it strategy. I think we just did small projects. To begin with, it was for clients in the neighborhood and friends and family and connections you had around.
Jonas: The first design company that approached us, that was the one we started working for. It wasn’t that conscious. It was more about what was possible to begin with. Then as I said before, it was very much about early on choosing the right projects. There were projects we made to begin with just to make a living that we didn’t publish.
Jonas: Then the things that we felt turned out pretty good, we started publishing them. I think had we been a company, design architecture company 20, 30 years ago, we wouldn’t have had the same success as today, because I think we early on were very skilled at telling about, or we’re communicating about our work to put a lot of effort into telling people about our ideas behind what we did and we made a lot of images and we made sure that it came into the world and with all the possibilities you have of communicating today.
Jonas: If you can make great content, you don’t need a lot of money to exercise it. It all happens automatically. Then it reaches kindred spirits in different places and they approach you. Then all the projects, they grow in in the right direction. It’s definitely been hard and long process getting to that point where we are today, where we are very privileged. The work we were able to do has very much to do with also the partners that we do it with, so it’s not something that we can decide on ourselves.
Jonas: I mean, there are architects, or designers that just find the right partner from early on and they’re able to fulfill their dreams much faster. For us, it was quite a long, long journey getting there. As I said before, we also had times where we started doing projects that we didn’t feel were in the right direction, and then was not showcasing them, but choosing other projects and in the presentation of your company clean up all the time, making sure you don’t have old projects that you’re not proud of anymore. Then automatically, it goes in the right direction.
Jonas: It’s interesting now 10 years after, we started that now we can do much better projects, much higher quality and much better details and put much less work into it. That’s the odd thing about how it evolves, but it’s very privileged.
At this point in our conversation, I wanted to hear if there’s anything that Jonas is currently struggling with.
Jonas: I think there are many things. We’ve already touched a little bit about on balance, finding the right balance all the time and maybe accepting that you have intense periods and relaxed periods, instead of finding the right balance through your whole life. That’s often something I struggled with. The more successful you are, the more opportunities you have and the more you also have to say no to people that you really like, or projects that seem interesting. That’s a hard thing that I struggle with all the time.
Jonas: I say yes too much. The one ending up paying the bill is me in many ways, because you just get overloaded at times. I need to remind myself also that even though it’s a great opportunity, maybe it’s just not the right timing for me. That’s definitely one thing.
Jonas: Then another thing I’ve given a lot of thought lately is how to choose new challenges that keeps your work interesting. I mean, if you designed say five chairs, is it interesting to keep on designing new chairs? Or have you done two or three houses, should you move on and try actually to do a competition for a bigger building? Or what could be the next step once you fulfilled all the obvious dreams? What’s next? Or should you change career completely? I mean, I did it five, six years ago when I had worked a lot as a private designer and an architect, then I had the fascination with photography and always dreamt about life of a photographer being in the studio, traveling, doing shoots, working with images that I really like a lot, because I love that process.
Jonas: Then slowly, I just started seeking opportunities that involved photography. For the recent four or five months, I’ve been doing a lot of photography. I’ve for many years, reserved that as a creative free space where I didn’t want to be pushed on making a living from that. I think once you get into a structure with a company where you need to also consider making a living, or paying salaries to people, then maybe you need to accept sometimes jobs where you compromise too much just to keep the studio running.
Jonas: With photography, I decided for myself I wanted to keep that as a free space. For me, it’s never been about making a living or money, it’s just been about making gradient images. Now I’ve been sucked a little bit into also doing more commercial photography and I’m traveling all the time photographing great places and great spaces and all of that. How do I make sure that I don’t end up doing it so much that I eventually hate doing what I love the most right now? That’s also a challenge.
Jonas: I have a very close friend that’s always been a fashion photographer. I never understood why he didn’t take any images on his free time with the family, or traveling. Now that I’ve done so much, I can understand where he comes from; that you do it so much that if you’re on vacation or with your family, maybe that it’s not what you want. For me, it’s always been an integral part of myself photographing, learning about the world, focusing with your lens on details and breaking the whole experience of the world down to parts that you can really understand.
Jonas: I couldn’t not do it, but I’m reaching that point where maybe I need to take a little bit of a break from that to make sure that it’s not too much. Then maybe turn my attention to something else.
Mario: Do you have anything that you’re toying with?
Jonas: Actually, I’ve always loved writing, but I’ve never done that. Maybe that should be a new creative venture at some point. I know it’s another 10 years of putting hard work into. Yeah, that could be interesting definitely at some point.
As Jonas’s biography, or Norm Architect’s website suggests, he shares a passion for phenomenology; the philosophical study of human experience, which I found intriguing. I’ve asked him to expand on that.
Jonas: I’ve started a lot in architecture school actually. I took six months where I wrote a small book trying to examine the bridge between architecture and philosophy. I tried to develop 10 different terms for talking about architecture as the body experiences architecture. Not only considering what can be measured, or quantified, or how you see things, but actually how you have a bodily experience of architecture.
Jonas: I think everybody if they go back in childhood, they can recall the summer house of their grandparents and mentally walk around it; they can look at the different things in their mind and they can taste how all the furniture tastes in the walls, because as children, we all used our mouths as a sensory way of perceiving the world. I mean, you can look at a brick wall you know how it will taste just by looking at it.
Jonas: It’s how can you create architecture that a cares about all those bodily experiences. It’s considering also how things feel and how they smell and how they taste and how they sound, the perception of scale related to your own body. German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, has made great a great essay about his childhood in Berlin that actually in many ways tells about this way of experience or experiencing the world and experiences in architecture. How can you create ways of working with that, so you’re much more conscious about that bodily experience of built environments?
Jonas: I think that’s very important, especially as I talked about before in this time where everything becomes so visually driven. That’s how we try to approach it in architecture. In product design, it’s very much about anthropomorphism; ánthrōpos coming from Greek, meaning human and morphē, meaning shapes, or the human shape in man-made objects.
Jonas: I think it’s because we understand the world from our own perspective, so we read human characteristics, or abilities into everything we see to make sense of it. If you talk about, let’s say a water carafe, you can say it’s feminine, masculine, something that relates to human gender. You can talk about something being very cute, they have in Japan, kawaii, as an essential part of their aesthetic culture. It’s because in many ways, it relates to babies, or children, or that type of proportion in things.
Jonas: I think biologically, we have our brains programmed to nurture and take care and have generous feelings towards objects that are cute or kawaii, or children like. If we talk about, let’s say a design family of carafes and glasses. We talk about the concept of family, which also relates again to human nature, animals, but we read it into dead objects. We do that all the time. I think working with these principles in terms of understanding proportions and how to soften up geometry, which is an artificial thing in our world and make things more anthropomorphic or biomorphic, it’d be fair, it relates to nature, which I think is something that appealed to all humans, regardless of cultural preferences.
Jonas: It’s the same thing. I think in architecture we work a lot with natural materials, or bringing in nature to our built environments. That can be both very literally speaking that we use stone, wood, chalk, clay, concrete, natural materials that makes you relate to nature in many ways, instead of painted surfaces and plastic surfaces and shiny glass surfaces and things that are more alien to us.
Jonas: I think there’s a longing especially in this time of urbanization and digitalization of bringing nature back. We can work with it in this very little way, but also in a more symbolic way, where you can imitate nature in your built structures, or your products, in the way they are shaped and bring that closer to your natural human body experience of architecture and design.
Mario: If somebody would like to explore that more, do we have any resources, like starting points? These are books, or certain authors, or certain movements to look at?
Jonas: There’s a Finnish architecture professor, Juhani Pallasmaa. I don’t know if it’s pronounced correctly, but that’s written a number of really good books on the subjects, both his own considerations and also bringing in thinkers from around the world and has explored this approach to architecture specifically, which are really interesting books. I think that – he’s definitely a good starting point in many ways.
In most cases, we can develop our skills without practicing those skills and we can become good at something before we are quite bad at it. That learning process involves vulnerability and inevitable setbacks. I’ve asked Jonas to share his thoughts of that and the failures he experienced on his professional journey.
Jonas: I definitely made many mistakes within all the creative disciplines where I’ve worked. I’ve designed products that have been mass-produced in thousands of copies that were really awful and didn’t fulfill any needs in the market for anybody. It was just pure waste. Once you’ve done that a couple of times, you get more and more aware of the responsibilities you actually have putting new objects into the world.
Jonas: I remember I was in a panel discussion with design manager of IKEA, we talked about this topic. He said that in IKEA, not only are they making not thousands, but millions of copies and pushing limit to the market worldwide, but for each new product that they decide should go into their collection. They’re also building a factory and maybe employing a whole small village, or city. They really have a social responsibility doing that.
Jonas: I think I’ve become more and more aware of that once you’ve done a few mistakes in that direction. I think it’s been super important to learn those lessons. I think to begin with, I was just so focused on actually making an object and seeing it come to life and seeing it being in people’s homes. Hopefully, you made a difference with it or fulfilled the need, but then once you see a lot of objects that don’t really make sense.
Jonas: I hope I’m getting more and more aware of the things you actually put into the market that they should make sense. I think, for example within photography as we talked about before, it was definitely all the bad pictures that I naively sent to editors and design companies where I got a hard feedback. That was where I really evolved and took myself to a new level. I think it’s in many ways all those mistakes were the ones that pushed me the most.
Mario: Yeah. In those situations, when you have – when you realized a certain mistake, or you experienced a certain failure, how do you manage that? Has that made changes that I assume probably it has over years and as you mature as a creator probably becomes easier.
Jonas: It definitely becomes easier, because you just realized it’s a part of life and that’s how it is and you make them all the time. It’s always a hard blow, but of course the first times you experienced it was really devastating in many ways. I’ve always had the ability to go into war mode and then I really need to –
Mario: Okay, so that’s –
Jonas: - show what I can actually do and just get all the help I can, get back up on the horse and really try your best to move to the next level. I think, my response have never been being depressed, or it’s been the opposite. It’s giving me a lot of energy and invigorated me in many ways.
Mario: Has that just come naturally? Maybe it’s a part of your character?
Jonas: Yes, probably. I think it’s always been like that. If I really wanted to be good at something, whether it was creatively, or personally, or at sports, I just focus on that one thing and just put a lot of hours into it. I think maybe it was five, six years ago I had been practicing tennis for a year and I thought I’ve become fairly good. Then I had an old friend that I knew had been an elite player here in Denmark in tennis, so I invited him up to the tennis court close to my home. He came up there and he spiked with his girlfriend. Then we started out playing and he said, “Well, you can play fairly good.” Then he beat me 6-0, 6-0. I was running around.
Jonas: Then after that time, I decided that now I really wanted to put all my energy into being that good a tennis player that I could to beat him. That was the goal. Was it two weeks ago and played him again since that time for the first time and I beat him.
Mario: Oh, wow.
Jonas: It’s taken a lot of hours of playing tennis as an adult, where you’re a slow learner compared to young children. A lot of private lessons with the different trainers and vacations and back home and a lot of hours just going down to the court by yourself and playing with the machine serving, but it’s there. That’s that battle, war mentality I have, that can also take you to the next level.
Mario: Yeah. Well, and you were just chipping away for years in getting ready.
Jonas: It’s always for the long run.
Mario: Yeah, that’s impressive. It’s a good mindset, because with most of these things, even work creatively is actually that long run.
Jonas: You can never do it super quick. If people think they can do that, they often give up. Then I think it’s also about saying it out loud. I said it out loud that kind of –
Mario: You raise the stakes.
Jonas: If you to enough people than it’s out there, you already promised to – so you need to work hard for it. I think putting your dreams out there, telling friends and family and colleagues and people openly about it, also even though it seems to be utopian ideas, or dreams, I think it’s a good way to drive you.
Mario: Yeah, yeah. You put yourself on a spot –
Jonas: Yeah, exactly.
Mario: Otherwise, it’s easy to hide.
Jonas: Then you have so many dreams and never become anything, other than dreams.
Jonas is involved in a remarkable variety of creative work, but somehow manages to retain a particular feel through all these different outlets he explores. I was curious hear how he approaches new projects and succeeds to keep that continuity throughout most of what he’s doing.
Jonas: It’s just as varied as my work week is very different. Sometimes it’s very structured, strategic in the approach to a project. Of course, it differs very much whether it’s architecture, design, or photography, because there are different processes and different techniques involved in different amounts of clients and things you need to consider. Also within each field, it varies a lot from project-to-project, from client-to-client, but also just depending on how the first idea occurs, what ignites the project.
Jonas: Sometimes it can come from a conversation with somebody that suddenly there’s an idea. It could be anything about culture, or processes, or needs, or other times it can be visit to a factory and you see a manufacturing process that’s super interesting. You don’t know what you want to use it for, but you want to investigate it further and that becomes a project. Other times, it can be a very specific brief from a client that’s very well-structured. Other times, it can just be a collaboration starting off with zero structure, and then you just play around with ideas.
Jonas: I think sometimes it’s very intuitive and other times it’s very conscious. I think in terms of inspiration, we get it from so many different sources. It can be about – or taking a walk in nature and being fascinated with structures in nature, that’s often a good way to get inspiration. It can also be a spinalis, seeing another piece of architecture and then you think, “Oh, I could use this principle in my work as well.”
Jonas: Or maybe you just see a small improvement and you see it as an evolution, or it can be just about creating hybrids. All ideas comes from something. It can be just now putting two ideas together in any way that creates something that’s slightly different from what exists already. Then other times with the architecture, it can be the same thing you do over and over again, but refine it more and more from project to project, so it’s working with something that’s very familiar, very well-known and you just – you have the feel to, or the need to keep on investigating. I think the process is and how they’re structured and how they come to life are extremely different for me. Yeah.
Mario: It seems then the process is quite varied and the types of projects that you’re working on are quite varied, but it does seem that you – in the output of all these different projects and work, there is a certain theme feel to it. I wouldn’t say style, maybe that’s not the best – how do you see that?
Jonas: I’m glad you say that and I hear it quite often that it seems like this, a coherence or connection from our photography, through our products, to our architecture. I wouldn’t say it’s a conscious thing, but I think it’s the output of working with one’s passion. I certainly, like all other people who have a certain perspective on the world and what I see is useful, or what I see is beautiful. I think that in many ways shine through all the different things.
Jonas: I think there’s definitely an aesthetic approach to all the different disciplines, where it’s for us very much about focusing on the essence of things. I think in all other creative processes, I always have this game of balance where I try to take away things until they lose all character. Then I put an element back and then it’s just in the right tipping point, where on one hand it’s so simple, so natural feeling that it becomes timeless. I mean, it could be made – now it could be made thousand years ago, or it can hopefully seem like something that would be made in 20 years. I mean, it has that feeling to it.
Jonas: On the other hand, it needs to have enough character to stand out as something special, or recognizable. That their game of balance is something I also taken to architecture and into photography; if I frame a photo, how much can I take away when I frame the photo to focus on that thing that I feel is essential that I want people to look at and focus on? How strong can I make that image, if there is too much clutter around and too many other things where the eye can wander, then I don’t make a statement about that one thing that I want to tell about in my photography.
Jonas: In architecture again, it’s about how clean and simple can I make the house, so it becomes a really timeless piece that is not bound to a certain period in time. At the same time, make it so cozy and natural feeling and a place that works well for human life unfolding. How can I find that balance? I think, maybe it’s that principle that you can see in the output of our work that connects all the different disciplines.
We’ve come to the very end of the conversation I had with Jonas. I aim to wrap-up every episode with closing takeaways from my guests. Here’s what Jonas shared with me.
Jonas: One good advice would definitely be not to be afraid to expose yourself. I mean, I think a lot of people and that’s also something I dealt with, especially my younger years, it’s vanity in many ways. I mean, that you’re afraid to expose yourself because you’re afraid of failure. I really think a good advice if you can forget about vanity and just expose yourself, put your ideas out there and take the criticism as a positive way of evolving as a creative professional and as a person, that would be a super good advice.
Jonas: I would have loved to have known that much early on in life. Then I think it may be final advice, but make all your choices based on passion on something that feels like a vocation. Don’t be too strategic about the choices you make as a creative professional in life and don’t think too much about the end goal, but focus more on the process and how that will evolve you as a person. Don’t ever see it as a path to reaching something special, but just make sure that you really enjoy waking up every day, starting your daily life with work, or whatever you do.
Hey everyone, I hope you enjoyed listening to this episode as much as I did making it. I believe we touched on a lot of useful information for anybody out there interested in architecture, design and development as creative professional.
I want to thank Jonas for coming onto the show. I find his work, approach and enthusiasm inspiring and I’m grateful for the insights he shared with me. Links to Jonas’s work, as well as to some other things mentioned during our conversation can be found in the show notes at creative.voyage/podcast.
As I’ve already mentioned, this is the last episode of Season 1 of the podcast. After 2 months and 12 episodes in, I’m thankful and humbled by the support and feedback I received. Holidays are ahead, so I’ll be taking a short break before starting with work on Season 2. I welcome all your suggestions. Just hit me up.
You can follow @creative.voyage on Instagram, and you email me directly on email@example.com. It’s the best way to keep in touch while I’m preparing the second season and other exciting initiatives coming in 2019. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe. Until next time my friends, take care.
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