interview :: ilse crawford (pt 1)

Katie | August 14, 2012

Ilse Crawford's collection for Georg Jensen, metallic tableware set against a grey background

“A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study.” or so the Chinese proverb goes. I recently had the privilege of spending an hour talking to Ilse Crawford and I couldn’t agree more – well, if we can paraphrase: “a wise woman”.

Founding editor of British Elle Decoration at just 27, she is now Head of the Department of Man and Wellbeing at the Eindhoven Design Academy and runs her own design studio and consultancy, Studio Ilse. She is considered, fascinated and fascinating in equal measure, and most definitely wise.

I’ve split our conversation across three posts, because there was far too much good stuff to fit into one and I couldn’t bring myself to leave very much of it out! This post mostly covers her Danish roots and her work with Studio Ilse – and I’ll follow up with another one on her time at Elle Decoration and the role of communication in design, and a final one on design for wellbeing and her work at Eindhoven.

How would you define good design?

I think: if it makes a difference.

Does it need to make a big difference?

No. I think it can make a small difference, but today there is so much stuff, that the only reason to do something is if it makes a difference… if it’s made differently… if it improves the conditions in a certain way… There are many reasons why design can make a difference, but also there’s a reality, isn’t there? Which is that life never stands still, we always need to respond to the changing conditions of the world and I think design is three-dimensional language. It will always continue to evolve and change with that – it just shouldn’t be gratuitous. It needs to have integrity and if it does, then it probably will make a difference. It needs to have a reason to be.

Which although it sounds obvious, actually isn’t, which if you’ve ever sat in product development rooms of many a retailer, actually, there’s an awful lot of stuff that’s being made that isn’t made with that in mind.

Georg Jensen Ilse Crawford Mama vase - a bulbous proud looking vase

You’ve said that design can influence the way we behave and feel – can you give me an example of this working in practice?

This is what I’ve been obsessed with ever since I’ve been in the world of design. I think at all scales it does, massively it does. You can see how differently people behave in Heathrow Airport than people behave in Copenhagen airport. Because materially, physically, the space just makes you respond quite differently. Certainly in the older terminals, one is just somewhere you feel people don’t care, whereas Copenhagen feels completely different… the wooden floor, the flow, the way it’s so open, it’s a completely different feeling… and you behave differently.

On an urban level it clearly works that way, but you can take that right down to how people behave in different environments, in different rooms, in different buildings and with different objects. It immediately changes the way you behave and feel.

If you look at a hammock, the messaging of a hammock is so strong, I mean it even gets grown men to jump in it – it’s a completely compelling thing, and yet what is it? A piece of fabric stretched between two verticals. But it seems to embody fun: no matter who you are, no matter what culture you come from.

And you can use that emotional connection in products. Take the Georg Jensen range: on one level, yes, they’re containers, but I don’t see them as that. I think that the things that we start the day with, that we put away at the end of the day are generally things that matter to us. Or they’re rubbishy stuff, like toothbrushes, and it’s nice to surround those things with a sense of ritual so they become somehow pleasurable.

And you can do that with design, if you think about it that way, instead of immediately thinking “oh it’s a container – I’ll make it this shape.” It’s about thinking about how you feel at those moments in the day, how that works, and then how you can then bring the visual to it, but that for me is very much the last stage.

Design is a three dimensional language and it’s far more important to work out what you’re trying to say, and how you are trying to affect people, rather than simply trying to reflect a series of aesthetics.

The range looks very tactile – they seem like they would be lovely to hold.

Yes, for sure I care about that, and I think first about the person and the physical connection between us and the world. I’m always fascinated by how no matter what age, culture or gender, tactility is the first thing clients respond to. We’re in a world where renderings are supposed to be how we can convince the clients and of course they’re useful, but they’re not emotional in any way. Whereas materials we all respond to, we all know what they’re trying to say.

More metal tableware set against a grey background, include stack of containers and candle

You talk a lot about the design process starting with the human being at the centre, what does that mean in practical terms – how do you do that when you’re designing something?

Whatever scale of project we’re working on, we always think in terms of the place and the person who might use it – who they are, how they would respond to certain things, how they live their day, 24 hours a day, what their real needs are… in really quite a plonky way.

It’s funny, because we had one client who was really well to do and we asked a whole series of questions, and she said afterwards: “He’s never been asked where he puts his toothbrush before…”

I actually think it really matters. I’ve stayed in so many hotels where you go into the bathroom and there’s nowhere to put your stuff, so it’s either on the floor or always falling on the floor. I mean it’s small stuff, but if you’re going to do it, do it right. It becomes really irritating.

In the long run, if we don’t do it right, design becomes seen as a not important, as a disposable thing, rather than making new realities that make sense. If we all constantly do things that become the equivalent of those shoes that look fantastic but are completely unwearable then they become disposable.

I’ve got no problem with things having a poetic content – having an aesthetic content, but I just think that design also needs to work. It’s something that is a part of our lives – it needs to function. How you define function, depends on the thing, but if you’ve decided to do something, then you need to do it.

I wanted to talk to you about hygge. How have your Danish roots and this philosophy affected your work?

My mother she was Chelsea Art School educated, so she had that too, but growing up, we definitely had an attitude to life which my English school friends didn’t have – that everything matters, nothing is too small to care about, and actually those are the things you care about more than the big things, so it was always that, even if we didn’t have money, we would get together and make an event where we were all together.

I come from quite a big family, and it was always: “Let’s make this special,” whether it was candles, or adventures; it was never a case of: “Don’t bring little Johnny round to supper because we don’t have enough.” It was always about being together around the table – a sense of warmth, which I think is a very Danish thing. Probably because it was dark and wet and cold over there and not very urban!

And many other things – I think modernity in Denmark has never lost the connection with domesticity, whereas in Britain it became an intellectual thing and it became an industrial thing, whereas that was not the case in Denmark. It was actually never disconnected, possibly because it didn’t urbanise in that brutal way that Britain did in the early 19th century. I mean modern obviously arrived in Scandinavia in the 20s and 30s, but it was a natural evolution from a country that was essentially rather practical, based on sea and agriculture, so it became just an extension of that, rather than an urban thing that went straight into mass production and had nothing to do with the countryside and practical skills.

Britain was disconnected from food, from craft, from utility… It was so urban. I was talking to someone Finnish about this and they said every Finnish person, no matter how much money they have, has a connection to a simple hut in the forest where they have to chop wood. It’s basic but you have a connection to nature in Scandinavia – Sweden slightly less so, it has to be said, but Finland and Denmark absolutely. It means that there’s a tie that’s never been broken. Hans Wegner was a coffin maker before he became a cabinetmaker and a modernist, whereas for so many of the British architects and modernists, it was a very intellectual thing and a utopian thing and it had nothing to do with practicality. It was head knowledge not hand knowledge.

So what do you think of British design at the moment versus Scandinavian design?

I’m not the best person to ask, because I look at individuals not nations and through teaching in Holland, my focus is there.

I’ve met some extremely good British designers. Generally speaking, compared to the Dutch certainly, if I can compare and contrast with the occasional British student I get, they’re not as outward looking. There is quite an island mentality, and they’re certainly not pragmatic. What’s interesting about the Dutch is as much as they’re often celebrated for being conceptual, they’re very “make it happen, roll your sleeves up, turn it into a business.”

They [the British] are much more wrapped up in the world of design as a world in itself rather than as connected to the rest of the world, whereas I think the Dutch are much more “make it happen” people, but that’s also because of the opportunities they have there. There are more industries, the industries are more open to working with designers, there’s certainly more government initiatives in that respect, more encouragement, because Holland is very much a country that has made itself and it knows it – and it knows it has to make its future, so there’s more dynamic in that sense. [Design] is not seen as a fashionable thing, it’s seen as an essential thing.

Georg Jensen Ilse Crawford triptyc

Tell me about your collection for Georg Jenson that has recently launched in the UK at Skandium. It seems quiet, understated, something that puts materials at the centre… what was your inspiration for this collection?

You’re right in way, because I really want it to be things that just naturally fit into people’s lives, so they’re intimate, they’re not supposed to be centre pieces or attention grabbers. In an ideal world, I’d like to people to have them all – just dotted around where they need them.

It was a many layered conversation we had with Georg Jensen, because you’re probably familiar with the classics, the stainless steel and so on, but historically they did have other metals, particularly the brass, and historically it was an arts and crafts company is wasn’t just the streamline Arne Jacobsen thing, which we’ve come to associate them with today, so I was very interested in bringing back some of those layers.

Also, if you look at Copenhagen, if you look at the Danish streetscape, copper and brass are very much a part of it, you know door handles, detailing on bannisters… That combination of silver and yellow metals is very much a part of Danish culture, so it was about bringing that together, and Danish culture, the hygge thing, or even The Bridge. It’s a shadowy world, so the idea of having glowing moments in the shadows really appealed to me.

I think also brings some sort of warmth and intimacy to the Georg Jensen line because it’s a little chilly, beautiful, but chilly.

What are you most proud of?

That’s a very tricky question. My husband would say: “Me?”! But in a way its true, I’m most proud of my relationships. I’m proud of having a very happy studio. We work as a team. I like to make sure they are confident, happy, well trained individuals, and I want to give them a place where they’re free to be that, because I think that’s where you get the best work. If I can rely on their judgment as apposed to it just being about me. My name’s on the door, but it is about all of us being able to connect with other people with integrity, so I want to make sure that everybody who works with me can function that way. I trust people rather than control them.

Yes, I think that’s what I’m most proud of because if I can create that feeling, then the work we produce will be good.

How do you achieve that feeling?

I don’t know! I’m not sure I can give it to you in a formula. I think it is about developing people. It’s about coaching people for their strengths. And working with them, and developing them and giving them the confidence and the skills they need, but working around the people that they are, and committing to them. It works very well, because they’re all very confident and independent, so I can trust them to work on projects and know that the result will be one I’m happy with.

It’s interesting that you talk about starting design with the human and the centre and it seems to be that you start managing a team with the human at the centre too.

Yes, I think, you can’t separate the two. You can’t hope to have a happy building if you don’t have a happy team. You have to be consistent. If you want to do that, you have to do it all the way through. We do it with our clients too. You need to work together to achieve a great result.

You’ve designed so many incredible spaces; Soho House NY, Babington House, the Electric Cinema. Do you ever get time to spend enjoying them?

Sadly, when you make spaces, you don’t ever get time to spend in them, because you’re so busy making them!

And finally, what’s your favourite colour?!

Well, I don’t have a favourite colour, because colours all relate together, and they’re all about how they relate to the place and the light and so on, so that would be my answer.

But… when I grew up there were girls who liked pink and I wasn’t one of them.

Metal tableware against a grey background including bulbous Mama vase with two dried flowers in it

Further reading for the especially geeky:

Further Reading for the Especially Geeky ::

Founding Editor – Katie Treggiden

Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.

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