Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen is the CEO of Norm, a design and architecture practice he founded in Copenhagen in 2008. In the years since, Norm has created a portfolio of residential and commercial projects, produced all over the world, that celebrate simplicity and the use of quality natural materials. In this conversation, he discusses the concept of Soft Minimalism, the healing power of nature, and what makes one of his projects a success.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell us about the Norm ethos.
Our approach is based entirely on the idea that spaces and furniture should, first and foremost, service their users rather than be a means of artistic expression. We call it Soft Minimalism, the idea of eliminating the irrelevant to emphasis the important, through streamlined shapes, and tactile designs and interiors that invite you to engage with them. We design spaces that welcome you, and products that don’t just fulfil a function, but which also fill you with joy. We consider Soft Minimalism an ongoing study of ours: how to spark human contentment by creating wholesome, lasting environments. We have this uncompromising commitment to accommodate people, rather than have them be spectators. In the end we ask the question, “What makes the framework for a good life?”
You’re driving the Soft Minimalism revolution?
It’s not really a revolution, it’s a subtle rebellion against everything trend-driven. We’re not aiming to invent something new. We think of design in evolutionary terms. We hold onto traditions, and then slowly and thoughtfully apply slight improvements, to match the needs of modern society. Soft Minimalism is characterised by a more delicate attention to materials, to scale, to sound, and to people. We aren’t just architects and designers, we’re storytellers. Our job consists of listening to and understanding the needs of people.
Quality natural materials – woods particularly – are important in your work. Why? And how do materials shape a space?
Nature’s artistry and imperfection is a humble reminder of old and new, of purity and impermanence. It speaks to all of us! And our longing to connect with it is reflected in the sense of calm we feel when we’re surrounded by it, our positive response to surroundings composed by natural materials and living surfaces, and the way we crave natural light. From a human-centric point of view, working with nature, rather than against it, is a given when composing frameworks to support the daily lives of people.
Nature, and the materials we draw from it, possess narratives and timeless beauty: wood has grown as trees before arriving at the skilful hands of a carpenter, a stone tells a story through its profound geological origins. Natural materials are patient and adaptable. They don’t require much care or maintenance and are more likely to patinate beautifully than develop unflattering signs of wear and tear. Living, breathing fibres have character and are flexible and adaptable to varied use and environments. Leather and natural fibres like cotton, linen and wool, also derived from nature, bring warmth and richness to interiors, and possess the aesthetically pleasing feature of gaining beauty with time.
The materials we surround ourselves with impact our mood and behaviour, and we think working with natural materials in architecture and design is a way to enrich our surroundings and enhance quality of life in a simple way. Architecture is experienced on a multi-sensory level; our vision works with our other senses, and through our stored collection of sensory memories – knowing how certain things feel, smell, taste, or what they sound like – we’re familiar with the feel of a surface before having even touched it. In other words, the naked eye can tell materials apart and identify their characteristics; if they’re hard or soft, light, or heavy.
Much of your work is pared back and often uncomplicated or unfussy in form. How do you define simplicity?
Simplicity can carry big ideas if guided by body and mind rather than by trends or technology. It can be a mental form of luxury in a world that has reached a state of visual bulimia, where impressions, images and messages are consumed both physically and digitally in an ever-growing pace. As architects and designers, we consider our work an ongoing exercise in restraint. While it might seem that simple design and minimal spaces are easy to design – they seem straightforward and clear-cut – the journey to simplicity is often complex. How do we create spaces and designs that will embody timeless intrigue and contemporary relevance? When does simplicity not only look good, but feel good, too?
We don’t think that function and aesthetics should be considered separate entities – they’re part of the same whole. From a Scandinavian point of view, simplicity goes beyond Mies van der Rohe’s dictum ‘Less is More’, which really means trimming design and architecture down to its bare essentials. We consider details and material composition a way to take the product beyond that. As Charles Eames put it: ‘The details are not the details; they make the design,’ which rings true to the Scandinavian design tradition.
When is a new project a success for you?
Only time can tell. It’s too early for us to say if any of our projects have been successful at all. Timeless design and architecture should serve a purpose. A chair should be comfortable to sit in, a spoon should feel good against a lip, and a space should hold features and functions to make everyday life as pleasant as possible. The material composition of our architecture must be given due consideration in terms of wear and tear. How will the wood facade age; will it need considerable care to maintain its beauty?
Interiors are more likely to stand the test of time when a space and the objects within it correlate, and when all elements reflect our needs, the given spatial proportions, quality, and craftsmanship. That’s when everything comes together to form a balanced space. When objects hold connections to one another and define the spaces between them; when design mirrors the architecture and vice-versa.
What advice would you offer to someone building their own home?
In Denmark and beyond, we seek simple comforts and soft-spoken luxuries in our homes and daily lives: welcoming spaces and tranquil settings where we can feel at ease and find room to celebrate what is truly important in life. Unhurried moments with loved ones, sanctuaries for contemplation in a world of distraction and hyperstimulation.
The speed in which we consume imagery and visual content has accelerated heavily. The information perceived by the eye is digested within moments, and we immediately proceed in our search for new input, new visuals. The issue here is that we end up shaping the world around us to please the eye. If it looks good, that’s all that matters. But architecture and design talk to the entire body and all its sensory realms. Visually, tactilely and auditory. Design touches us, physically. Hence, good design must not only look good, but also feel good, sound good, even smell good.
The fact that humans are inseparable from nature makes it all the more vital to have nature be part of our indoor environments – living surfaces, soft and calming nuances that makes us feel at ease. How we act or behave is largely influenced by how we perceive our surroundings, the same way we’re likely to act differently wearing a suit and tie or dress and heels from when we wear soft sweaters and knitted socks; our how we’re uncomfortable wearing clothes that don’t fit or are made of itchy materials that don’t feel nice against our skin.
What projects have you got going on at the moment?
We’re working on more than 40 projects right now, spread out all over the globe, from Tokyo to New York, Mexico, Tel Aviv and many cities all over Europe. The projects span from residential new-builds to commercial co-working spaces, retail spaces, restaurants and hotels, furniture and private yachts. We’re not very bored at the moment.
Words: Editorial Board
Photography: Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen