Arkitektura Assembly:  Bringing together the world of Design

DESIGN IN MIND: Space Copenhagen

Signe Bindslev Henriksen and Peter Bundgaard Rützou have been working together and been inspired by each other since they met in University over 20 years ago. In 2005, they turned their inspiration into a design studio, Space Copenhagen, working across a variety of disciplines from architecture to interior design, lighting to objects. Working both in the public and private spheres, Space Copenhagen consistently produces elegant and refined work, founded upon what they call “poetic modernism”, an approach that carried them through all the work they create across the world.

Arkitektura:
The word “Copenhagen” is in your name, which is a bold statement, because it says that that’s … It implies that that’s what defines you. Do you think that’s true? Why did you choose to have “Copenhagen” in the way in which you describe yourselves, or the way in which you branded yourselves?

Peter:
When we started out, when you’re two and you can’t just use your name, it’s always a very tricky thing, finding a title for a constellation that you find appropriate that you like. And I think we spent quite a long time debating endless combinations. We also had the very obvious combination of our last names as the type for our studio, and it just seemed so very dry.

Peter:
So I think, first of all, the word “space” came because with the word “space,” kind of seek to set ourselves free a little bit in terms of what our direction was, that it was more the holistic approach to the phenomena of space that would allow us to go in different directions from the beginning, but then it was also, with the combination “Copenhagen,” it was to certify that we belong, that we originate from somewhere. So it’s this resonance with a point of origin that, combined with a more open format of the word “space,” those two, that definite and that very open format seemed very suitable as to what we are doing.

Signe:
I think our origin, and we found out more and more over the years. Even though we worked internationally, that we somehow have, as you mentioned the accent before, we definitely have some kind of Scandinavian accent, which is a part of our genes, which we don’t even hear or see ourselves actually, but I think is more obvious to people from outside Copenhagen, or outside Scandinavia.

Peter:
In fact, this whole idea about origin is something that we speak quite a lot about, and as Signe puts it, the real benefit of travel, the real benefit of putting your curiosity at the front seat, and leaving where you come from behind, and go and look at other places is that, funny enough, one of the strongest source of that is that you become much more aware of where you come from. It gets outlined by the act of going somewhere else.

Peter:
As you put it, the accent as such is just an example and pointing to that point of origin, but it is something that is very important for us, that our set of values is something that we both treasure, but also try to not be too comfortable about. And that highlighting about what it means to come from somewhere is something that is very implicit in our approach to design and such.

Arkitektura:
I completely agree with that, and I think it is really interesting how, rather than diluting our identity, it enforces our identity in a way when we explore and see other places because we become more aware of what makes us who we are. You said “set of values.” What comes to mind when you think of what those values are?

Signe:
I think that a lot of values in different categories, but it’s becomes more and more obvious to us that also just the fact that we live in a small, very privileged society also blends into the way that we live our lives. We are now a small, international studio in the sense that more than half of the people in our studio come from a lot of different places in the world, and what they seek here is, of course, and very obviously when you work in architecture and design, the whole heritage that we are very well known for, but it’s just as much the work/life balance, the easiness of getting around, the smoothness, in a way, which is very much an identity of being a small society. But even more definite here, because we, in many ways, we’re a small, rich, and privileged society for many, many years.

Peter:
I think there’s this element of transparency that we have quite an obsession about in our design tradition, and the design tradition only just an emblematic representation of our social structures as well. And by transparency, it’s this connectivity between the reason for something and the articulation of something. It is also why that we are obsessed with a piece of wood and what you can do with it, and that design is a way of combining those two elements into something that is completely easily observable, easily enjoyable. There’s a directness implied in it that we have become so accustomed of thinking design and design process in that nature that it’s second hand for us. We don’t really think about it. This filtering down information packages to a simplified yet obsessive aesthetic that is a derivative of the craft and the application of the qualities in a material.

Arkitektura:
Did you start as a craftsperson? Did you have a hands-on experience with materials?

Signe:
No, not in the sense that we were educated craftsmen, but I think it’s been one of the things that, from the very beginning, has been our mutual both passion and interest, and also the reason why we both chose from the beginning of our careers and our working life to work in a small scale environment where these details and the attention to all the layers of what creates a room could be put forward or put center of focus. And it’s very much also a part of our upbringing, both at the academy but also in general. Living in this country, having grandparents who worked and in also creative fields or crafts fields.

Signe:
So I think, in many ways, we always shared that passion, and also felt, for some strange reason, that it was something that was disappearing a little bit, that attention or that interest. So when we started out working in this area or this gray zone between architecture and design, it was very rare at that time. And that time was what, 20 years ago, which also meant that we could explore a field again, or revive a field which was forgotten a little bit also here.

Peter:
To your question as to whether we had skills relating to craft, I very much agree with Signe that I think it’s also something to do with the generation that we belong to, is that our childhood was very much an analog run, and being borne out of the 70s in a Nordic context. There is a lot of real applicable skills that you don’t really think about as skills, but you confront it. You are around it. Your childhood, your school upbringing implies this.

Peter:
And as Signe puts it, I think, first of all, when you take our mutual upbringing, they are amazingly parallel in a way. We have a lot of the same reference points and experiences, and I think one of the things, at least for me, but something we speak about so we share is there’s something about the crafts that are not just the intellectual skill of knowing what to do with a material and how to transform it, there’s also this century package that moves you. And when you look at a blacksmith or a carpenter, the smell of the act, the visual representation of it, the both very tender but at times very masculine and brutal implicament of it is amazing. It has a sense of magic that actually draws you towards it, and you want to know something about it.

Peter:
And I think the real, fascinating privilege of being a designer or an architect is that you’re not confined to one material. You’re not confined to iron mongery or carpentry. You have the privilege of knowing all these people, and enjoying their skills, and being in a position where you facilitate the encounter between them. I think it’s something that we sincerely enjoy, and keep going back to, this wonder, this century package that applies to the craft in itself, and ultimately becomes an object or a space or both.

Arkitektura:
You mentioned that your grandparents were involved in not necessarily design, but in craft, and that must mean that design had a role early on in your life. Or is that true? Did you become aware of aesthetics quite early on?

Signe:
Yes. That’s a part of both our upbringings. It was two different conditions, but we grew up together, very close by but didn’t know each other at that point. We just met at the academy. But I grew up in a family where my grandmother was an architect and also worked with some of these, before she became a housewife, she worked with Kay Fisker and all these. That was her generation, but that meant that that house, which was also a big part of my childhood, was a small museum of all these beautiful pieces that she had collected, and it was her passion. It was her way of bringing her education further in life when she stopped working.

Signe:
And also the next generation was also creative in many ways, but it was different from Peter’s, which was definitely more hands-on in terms of craftsmanship, but maybe he should explain it a little bit more thoroughly than I can.

Peter:
From my side, from my grandparents’ generation was, first of all, growing up like that, it was … Me and my brother used to spend my summers at my grandparents’ house, so we would be there a month or two at a time. My grandfather on one side was a blacksmith. He had this factory that made agricultural machines, so it was metal works as such. Now, looking back, I actually related it to design. It was design, but it was a social context. It was the blacksmith was like the baker. There was a symbolism associated to a set of skills that had the role of filling a position in a social context, and I think that was what I really noticed.

Peter:
I remember that for the surroundings, people would come with their horses, and he would shoe the horses. And that’s a very lively piece of theater to see a horse getting shoed. It’s a big animal, really strong, and requires a lot of people. And then my grandfather was in the middle, taking the old shoe off and applying the new shoe, and in the middle of that, they would weld the shoe. They would go about it. So there was a huge drama about it. And that, of course, had a huge effect, but it was only years later that I related it to design. I think it was a different set of impulses that drew me to the whole dynamics of it in a sense.

Arkitektura:
It’s so fascinating. You can really feel the theater and the drama when you said it that way. I wondered if there’s that sensibility that comes up in a design studio, because when I think of a design studio, I think of very calm, very, to a certain extent, process oriented, very beautiful. Not necessarily dramatic. But do you find there’s a way that drama comes into your professional lives?

Peter:
As you put it, it is a tricky question, and it depends on the definition of theater and drama. I think in our tradition that we pivot towards a certain set of materials that are natural and have longevity and stuff is not to seek theater as the frame of our story. On the other hand, all creative solutions are borne without any empirical argument. It’s a matter of telling a story and transmitting that story to someone else, because we don’t own our projects. Someone else does. And they have asked us to help them out. 

Peter:
So the act of transmitting an idea to someone else does imply a sense of drama. It implies a story, a narrative of some kind, but then again, there are degrees of how you do that, and that puts us back to theater, because we strive to try not to have too fantastic titles on our narratives, that they are not senography in that sense. That there is a sense, as we very early on in this conversation said, this directness between the argument of something and the solution of something.

Signe:
But I also think one of the important things that we very often discuss in our work is that our tool is that we are architects, and that’s how we are educated, that’s how we are raised, and that means that we have a toolbox of a lot of different functions. But the thing is I think also that we share mutual interest in the lives that we live. When we start up a project, for instance, we are very often asked what is your inspiration, and that would very rarely be something very definite. It would very rarely have one liner narrative which is what we aspire from when we get started on a project. 

Signe:
But what we are inspired by is what kind of atmosphere, what feeling. How should people engage in this space? What is the location? What is the purpose? How is the chef or the hotel owner or the people who are living here, what is the ways that they live, or what is the purpose of the experience here? And then we start building up a puzzle which consists of sound, and light and dark, and materials, and colors or contrasts, or a combination of all of them. And, of course, it’s a puzzle that goes on even after we have finished our work with the service or the way that the private client embraces this space and makes it his or her own.

Signe:
So we feel that it’s a very layered experience to create architecture because it consists of so many abstract or sensory inputs that somehow needs to find its balance.

Peter:
I think that’s, in a sense, when we have this framing of our own approach when we name it poetic modernism is a summary of what Signe just said. It’s saying that by being modern, you’re rationalizing, summarizing the capability of what civilization can do at a certain point in time. But then also realizing that, disregarding that, that we are emotional creatures, and a lot of our most important choices are, in fact, based on intuition. They are based on what we feel, what we sense, and our ability to pick up on that is something that’s pretty unchanged through our whole evolution span. It’s our sensory confrontation with the world and how it transmits into feelings is something that binds us together across cultural platforms, across geographical regions and such.

Peter:
So we like the combination of that systemized, categorizing sense of modernism as it may be with all the facilities of production and logistics of what else is implied. And then we like this more versatile, fragile component that almost works best described as metaphor. We even say that it’s like when you do a chair or a piece of furniture, it is a derivative of a function. It should do something. You sit it or you lie in it or you use it, you drink from it, whatever it may be, but the true success of it is that if it at some point transcends that program and becomes something that is embedded with a lot of personal emotion from whoever owns it, and then the object transcends into becoming a metaphor. And then you really succeeded, then you really achieved something out of the ordinary. And, of course, this doesn’t really happen very often, but sometimes it does.

Arkitektura:
You’re both so very articulate about your work, which is wonderful. Thinking about how that articulation has become distilled and probably reexamined over time, and I know your studio has changed a tremendous amount since you started in 2005, but how would you describe the ways in which the feelings you have towards what you do have changed, the value that you see in the work that you do has changed since you started? I’ve been a journalist for almost 20 years, and I think about what I felt when I first started. The ways in which some of those things have remained and how they’ve completely changed now almost 20 years later. So I’m asking you the same way. How do you see its value now that you’ve been doing it for some time?

Signe:
Well, I think we feel a certain comfort in … Architecture is relatively complicated because it’s an enfold of a creative mindset and a creative process, but at the same time, it’s also a package which somehow needs also skills in many other areas. Of course, there’s the processing and the administration, but it’s also communication, the interest in the psychology of the human being you both work with, but also your clients and your, in the end, also the people who will be your users somehow. And I think we build up a vocabulary which we feel very comfortable about.

Signe:
But at the same time, I think what’s interesting is that we were born and raised in this very minimalist architectural approach, and very early on, we decided that we felt that it somehow was not really enough to support our curiosity. So every time we start up a project, we spend a lot of time analyzing it, going into dialogue with whoever is involved in the project. Of course, the client, but also all the other components and people who are involved. And it somehow also becomes a constant inspiration to us. It becomes a tool for us to keep moving, not to feel too comfortable about. Applicable solutions that you repeat or apply because you feel safe about them, but also the fact that we are two, that we can keep each other strong and keep each other moving, and test things both on each other but also in real life. That is definitely something that we’ve found and keep finding strengthened somehow.

Peter:
As we speak, I never really thought about it this way before, but it just occurs to me that in some way having the privilege to survive in architecture, and dealing with and working with it along the lines that Signe just spoke of, it’s a kind of self-therapy in a way because it provides you a very rare opportunity to ask these very existential questions over and over again all the time. And you get them tested, reflected, resonated, confronted with different people who are skilled people with different abilities.

Peter:
So, essentially, it’s what you do all the time. You keep going back to questions unanswered, but life is a question where we spend most of our lives looking for something. We’re not even completely sure what it is. 

Peter:
And the reason that you still have an appetite of looking for that chair, even though you might have done 50 or 100, is that it still seems you’re looking for this. This one, this one, and then this one. And each time, you peel off small facets of something unknown. You apply experience. You look at those patterns within things, and I think looking back at life already spent as a designer and architect, I really find true pleasure in that. 

Peter:
Our office, which we’re sitting in now, we have our desk. We’re looking at each other, and we basically talk about this all day. And it’s really hard to distinguish between when we are me talking to Signe or Signe talking to me, or whether we are one professional to another. It’s sort of a seamless flow between these ingredients, and it merges together, and at this point, it’s almost imperceivable to live life differently.

Arkitektura:
It’s such a beautiful answer. I’d love to envision that process.

Arkitektura:
Now, I think this is pretty obvious, but for some reason in the different articles I read, you’re obviously a couple as well, right?

Signe:
No.

Arkitektura:
Oh, so you’re not a couple? That’s why. I just assumed. 

Signe:
But everybody thinks we are a couple.

Arkitektura:
Yeah. I’m sure. 

Peter:
We even did a lecture once where we, just to be up front in that question, we raised it as everybody could vote whether we should actually get married or not. 

Arkitektura:
I know. I feel like voting on that, too.

Peter:
The thing is I think partnerships, for one, we’ve seen a lot of partnerships come and go, and I think we have something fortunate in that we are a tested format. We’ve had lots of quarrels and stuff, and it’s not without that, but we seem to grow at a parallel pace. I don’t know for what reason, but it seems so, and we’ve known each other since we were out of adolescence and started our grown up existence. So we’ve known each other so long, and, again, I think we can still surprise each other, but there’s also an immense amount of trust implied. It’s sort of saying that when Signe does something, she usually is within the boundary of my perception, and I think vice versa. And this masculine/feminine vice versa approach to it has proven very beneficial for us. 

Arkitektura:
Are you aware of the masculine and feminine within Space Copenhagen? I kind of thought of this question. I’m female. I feel very female, and I identify as very much a female, but I don’t necessarily like to genderize things, so to speak. That being said, I know that my feminine sensibilities come into the work. I’m also a male/female duo in my company, but we’re married. So how do you feel like those gender roles play out? Not gender roles as in what you’re each responsible for, but gender sensibilities.

Signe:
I think it’s a very modern question, and I think it can be answered in many ways. The very banal masculine/feminine, I don’t think that we think so much about to be honest. As Peter mentioned, we’ve been friends for 25 years, and had a partnership for a long time, and no doubt that we have different roles that might also link up to our gender, but I think the partnership is much more based and relevant in terms of inspiring each other, giving strength, being able to cover more skills better. To have something to share a very complicated field with and very difficult conversations. As we just spoke about, architecture is a set of skills, but it’s definitely also a value package which relates a lot to life and psychology and human beings and culture and age and different times in our lives, and all these things. I think that there’s an enormous both attraction but also comfort in being able to have somebody qualified to have an ongoing conversation about all these things. 

Signe:
And we spend more time together than we do with anybody else in the world, and that’s somehow also a part of the story. And, of course, we are two different sexes, but that goes without saying. I’m not the feminine and Peter is not the masculine always. It can also change sometimes, and of course, it’s also sometimes exactly like that. But, yeah, it’s more a partnership and a friendship than it’s a balance act between two genders.

Peter:
You might call it something else. It’s a duality that works beneficial both ways, and who represents what is not set. It’s something where the poles change, like they sometimes do. But the notion of duality, if you have this measure, you need a counterbalance. This yin yang structural from an emotional side is something we strive to do in a lot of aspects. In color, in texture, in context.

Peter:
I agree with Signe saying masculine/feminine is too old fashioned a way of explaining it, but it’s perhaps more the duality of describing the completeness of something, that it needs contrast, that it needs complimentary values. And we work with that all the time, very insistently. And I think this ability to change poles within our conversation, that it’s unpredictable who has what argument, but that we take these roles for the act of complementation is something that is instrumental for our sense of conversation, and ultimately seeks into the solutions we supply.

Arkitektura:
I, too, don’t think that my femininity or Philip’s masculinity necessarily shows up in the projects that we do, and I’m not sure it should. I don’t feel like it needs to be so bifurcated. They overlap, those things, often, and now we’re seeing that a tremendous amount.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, but I love the fact that you did a presentation where you invited the audience to vote on whether you should be married because that’s another very big traditional idea that we have, that a male and female who spend a tremendous amount of time together should be in an intimate relationship together, or intimately physical relationship together. That also is an old idea.

Arkitektura:
So there are several things we’ve spoken about today. We’ve spoken about curiosity and beauty and poetry. Not necessarily written poetry, but the poetry of life and finding poetry and creating poetry in life. These are such wonderful and necessary things, and we’re, particularly in America, living in a strange environment with Trump as president, and lots of very uglinesses going on around us. So how can design maintain a sense of curiosity in someone, a sense of valuing beauty? Of course, by it inherently being beautiful, it moves you. How can this be a tool to really remind people that the world isn’t as messy as it might look at times, and is full of curiosity, beauty, and poetry?

Signe:
That’s exactly why we need beauty in architecture, and moods or atmospheres that somehow link up to the things that we very strongly believe in and that the world needs. Something that we also very often discuss is that we live at a time of the world going bananas, and people losing faith in both family structures and religion and society and all these things. At the same time, we have this feeling of a huge movement that wants to somehow reinvent or reassure each other that we somehow should find some other components where we can share belief. This whole wave of gastronomy and public spaces and gathering and social life is also … Yoga and self-development and all these things somehow become some of the new values in our societies because everybody needs each other somehow. We need somewhere to anchor. We need places for feeling reassured that we people belong together, and that we still share mutual dreams, et cetera.

Signe:
So we probably feel that it’s more important than ever, but it’s also becoming more and more complicated not to replicate a certain expression of authenticity, which can be just as hollow as all the other things that we just spoke about. It’s how we keep on investigating and challenging the aspect of beauty and the aspect of creating spaces and items and surroundings that we benefit from as human beings without it becoming just as commercial and hollow as everything else.

Peter:
I think there is an implicate dilemma in it because the past century has provided a technological discourse that is hard to grasp. If you look back at society, the growth of civilization, even though it has always evolved, then the predicament has been that all kinds of revolution happen in a more analog balance in terms of change adapted into deviations of patterns and mindsets. But these days, we have this growing sense of alienation. We’re alienated from a lot of the things that we surround ourselves with. We love their qualities, but we have almost no access to how they really work. And it leaves, without even knowing, this hole inside of us that creates anxiety.

Peter:
And the current political discourse you see not only in the States but certainly also here in Europe, it is borne out of that anxiety, that unknownness, that alienation towards what is going to come. 

Peter:
On the other hand, evolution, the success of survival, is singularly based on the ability to adapt. So there is no going back. Going back is regression, and that’s just slowly dying. So there is only going forward. We clearly think that not only the solutions of the design but the actual argument of design, that it should be taken in to a much broader context. Conversations about why do we need things, what should they do for us is something that needs to be much more open. It needs to be addressed in a much broader context because that will indeed serve the purpose of diminishing this sensation that currently is a flowing and growing anxiety about who we are and what is all of this. We need to demystify that and build wonder instead, build this hopefulness for the future that the day for tomorrow is not something we fear but something we want to go and see what happens.

Peter:
And design and articulation debates of design, all these things, celebrations of craft, they are beneficial for that dialogue. And we are all about giving our contribution to that. We’re very strong believers in that being a part of what it is we do, and we are very happy to speak about it. We are very happy about taking part in interviews like this, and we are really in admiration for you also facilitating questions of this nature because they need to be asked, they need to be addressed, and they need to be addressed in a manner where they’re not inaccessible. That they are, in fact, just questions about life, that everyone has this question mark that we are all trying to address.

Peter:
So we need it in larger forums for more people.

Arkitektura:
That’s wonderful. I want to ask more, but I think we should end there because it’s just perfect. That was very special. Thank you so much for taking the time today. I really appreciate it.

Peter:
It was a pleasure, and to all of you listening over there, you should actually go to Greenland. It is very beautiful even though it’s not for sale.