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Natural Born Leader

With winter rosy cheeks on a cold November morning, I show up at the doorstep of brand and design director of Menu, Joachim Engell-Kornbek Hansen, eager to get a peek inside the life and apartment of the successful 25-year-old.

Joachim, with assistance from the multidisciplinary design studio Norm, has spent the last couple of years rebranding Menu, successfully joining the minimal, Scandinavian design movement with viable, timeless pieces of furniture and accessories for the home. Fittingly, I’m meeting him in his new apartment on Frederiksberg to talk about successful leadership and current projects, including the newly opened Menu Space in Copenhagen.

I fiddle with my coat a little bit as I’m invited in, and Joachim tells me to drop it on the couch in the living room.That’s one of those things … when you move in somewhere new, I mean,” he says, smiling, referring to the lack of coat racks. As Joachim prepares the coffee in the kitchen, I take a seat by the stunning centerpiece of the dining room; a round marble table.

“This was actually custom-made for the apartment. Similar marble was used for Menu space,” Joachim tells me.

The marble has beautiful rosy shades, and Joachim explains how architect Danielle Siggerud helped bring out more feminine aesthetics in the newly opened Menu Space:

“We had Danielle help design the café, and she brought something slightly feminine to it, which we think compliments Norm’s somewhat harsher appeal. As a rule, we only want colour through materials, you know, we don’t want five different spray-painted colours, because it’s important for us to always stay true to that classic take on all that we do and make. Danielle wanted to bring the colour red into the space, and the marble made that possible, while still keeping it very subtle and natural. Natural, clean and clever are three words that we aim to apply to everything that we do.”

Joachim presses the plunger on the French press and pours the coffee. Before we go on to talk more about Menu Space, I’m curious about Joachim’s vision for the space we’re currently in.

Can you tell me a little bit about the apartment we’re sitting in?
“I lived in a thoroughly renovated apartment on Nørrebro before, and since I’m from Hellerup that was kind of my city project. I stripped it completely; removed the floors, stuccos and made it completely sharp with concrete floors and all. Then, after getting married in February last year, the opportunity to move into this apartment, which was my mother in law’s, came along. It’s larger and brighter, more elegant, and we’re sort of just refurbishing bits here and there without changing much else. The kitchen is our next project. But in this apartment, I wanted to play around with a more classic look rather than giving it a full renovation.”

The apartment sports beautiful wooden floors, tall, stucco ceilings and large, open rooms with lots of light coming in from the paned windows. 120 square meters, 4 rooms. The place radiates hygge, and that, I suppose, is what a home is all about. And what a lovely home this is.

Tell me about Menu Space what’s the idea behind it?
“We’ve been working from Fredensborg for many years, and in the process of rebranding Menu we’ve been very aware that we wanted to eventually move into the city. Many of us live in here, too, so it made sense. We partnered with Norm Architects, and Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen especially, on the design part, as they helped form the identity of Menu with my father. Instead of just opening offices and a showroom we wanted a place where we could invite people into the universe of Menu, and ideally a place where people could interact with it rather than just come in and see our new couch or lamp, but somehow take part.”

The space is lounge-like, making it less stiff for meetings and such, which was a conscious decision on Joachim’s part.

“In rebranding Menu we’ve really focused on building a universe around the brand. Sort of like many magazines do these days: BRYGG, Kinfolk and so on, who’ve been good at claiming ownership of a certain identity, to which brands like us have supplemented. As a brand, we’d like to create and be part of a community to which we can bring something more than just a chair or table so that people can relate to it on another level. I think you’ll find, on our Instagram account for example, that our universe is more narrative. We want to invite people in.”

Joachim stops for a while. I see he’s struggling to remember what he was going to say.
 Menu Space Images: Ruben Huhges

“I don’t believe we’re given this life, any of us, to make the best couch every year, you know, but to contribute; to provide something for other people. That’s why we’re out there; not to make a beautiful space, but to do something unexpected.”

So, talking about the unexpected, what’s next?
“Menu Space is only really the pilot project to what we’re planning next. In a year and a half, we’re moving into the oldest place out there (on Nordhavnen, Copenhagen), called den røde by” (the red town), where we’ll be opening a mini-hotel, a restaurant and a café, where different activities and events will take place sort of like Soho House. Around the world, we see how popular it is to gather and connect, and we think it’s exciting to see how people interact with our designs when we provide the framework. It’s a lot funnier to work with design that way.” 

How are people using the space so far?
“Nordhavnen is sort of an area in growth, so it’ll take some time before we see lots and lots of people, but we’re already seeing a couple of regulars, as well as people from other companies taking meetings there job interviews as well. To begin with, the idea was to have it be one large, open space, so that, in theory, visitors could accidentally sit next to our employees, but we then realized that it would look too office-like for regular by-passers to spontaneously pop in, which is why we isolated the café-part somewhat.”

I’m curious, what does your spare time look like?
I love to exercise; running, being in nature. Right now we’re looking to get a proper off-road car so that we can take trips. I’m not really a city person, which is why I’m so happy to be living a bit out of the busy city centre. The city inspires me, but I feel just as or more inspired by nature. So I like to spend my time outdoors when possible. And then, of course, I spend a lot of time keeping myself updated and inspired by entrepreneur stories and leadership podcasts. I listen to more leadership podcasts than design podcasts, and I find it insanely motivating to be inspired by other people. I barely read any books, but when I do, I read autobiographies. It’s inspiring to hear how other people do things.”
Who are the most inspiring people to you right now?
“Bill Hybles, who’s very personal in his leadership, is a person I look up to. He preaches compassion while also understanding how to be a leader to other people. Then there’s John Maxwell, who gives useful leader definitions for people to identify with based on their approach to work and how people act around them.”
Has it been difficult for you to take on the role as leader”?
“It has. When you’re this young in such an important job where people depend on you to make things work. I’m only 25, so when I started 7 years ago I came directly from the gymnasium. I’m still doing my graduate diploma from Copenhagen Business School, which takes time.”
I find that leaders are often associated with outgoing personalities, but do you find that you’re outgoing or introverted as a person?
“I have that switch I can turn on/off. When we have visitors the press or something I don’t go hide in a corner. I don’t, like more extroverted people, recharge in the company of other people, however, except my family. Then, of course, I’ve been to trade fairs with my father since I was 5 years old, so I was always used to greeting people and being surrounded by grown-ups.”
I wonder, will you be awfully tired once we leave here, assuming there’s a bit of an introvert in you?
No, not at all. I don’t need much recovery”; I don’t need to take a long walk to empty my head or anything like that. Often after a long day at work, I still come home and I’m like: OK, so now what?”
Joachim demonstrates the eager restlessness he’s referring to by snapping his fingers excitedly.
As I head back to the metro I list my mental to-do list, which includes finding and listening to leadership podcasts. A classic payoff from an inspiring conversation.