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Pure Creativity – a Conversation with Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen

“Norm Architects” says the golden plaque above the doorbell. I’ve arrived early, like I tend to, so I wait outside the gate for a couple of minutes, people-watching and Insta-browsing, before I go ahead and ring the bell. As I’m buzzed in, I realise I’m still 5 minutes early. Oh well. I see two men, whom I quickly figure to be Jonas and Kasper, sitting on a wooden plank in the opposite end of the cobblestoned yard, eating salads out of plastic containers. I approach them and apologize for being early, walking in on their lunch break. They both insist that it’s no bother, and go on to ask about my work. They must have sensed my subtle discomfort. I woke up with an awful headache, and the painkillers have left me feeling kind of uneasy.

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Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen and Kasper Rønn von Lotzbeck founded Norm Architects back in 2008. The multidisciplinary design studio works with minimal design solutions and timeless aesthetics – the kind that fits right into a minimalist’s interior-board on Pinterest. Any sucker for Scandinavian design is likely to swoon over their work. I certainly did.

The studio is situated in the old town of Copenhagen, minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. The space is bright and minimal with high ceilings and tall panels. I ask them how long they’ve had this place. “We moved here about 3 years ago”, says Jonas, “it’s really nice and quiet”. I can already agree to that statement. As we make our way into the office space, Linda, another partner at the firm, points to my tote bag from the Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company and says “nice bag!”, while Jonas goes to the kitchen to prepare the coffee.

He returns with a French press and two mugs. “Now you can test our new mugs”. The grey and sand-coloured mugs have raw ceramic glaze, and are quite nice to hold. Perfectly sized.

He slowly presses the plunger, then pours the coffee.

I start by asking him what he’s been up to over the holidays.

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“We have a house in a little town in Provence. There’s hardly any people living there, and no tourists passing through. When we go there, I keep my phone and my screens turned off. And then I do nothing for the entirety of our stay. I sleep 10 hours a day, go for long walks and read books that have nothing to do with architecture or design. All I worry about is what’s for dinner, really.”

It’s already clear to me that Jonas is 100% dedicated to his craft and creative practice. I guess that’s also why it comes as a bit of a surprise that he manages to leave work behind when he goes to his house in the south of France.

“All of us here are very passionate about what we do, which means we end up investing a whole lot of time at work. Evenings, weekends … I can’t just go home after a long day and sit in front of the TV. Work stays with me all the time. So vacations are quite important.”

Working within the creative field often means not being able to turn work on and off – I can totally relate. It’s a funny thing.

Norm Studio

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We go on to bond over our love for Viennese coffeehouses as Jonas tells me that he just visited Vienna with his family after their trip to Provence. “It seems like a lot of people skip Vienna as a destination, which is a shame.” I went to Vienna twice within one year, and can only agree. I, too, don’t know a lot of people who’ve been to Vienna. And I have no clue as to why that is.

“I quite like some of the newly developed neighbourhoods there, such as Leopoldstadt, where I find the vibe to resemble that of Berlin. There we stumbled upon the only remaining polaroid-laboratory in Vienna that also had a recording studio, a café and a graphic design shop with prints, books and various tools and stationery. Super cool.”

That does sound cool, I think to myself, and make a mental note to go there on my next trip to the city.

I’m dying to ask him something that I ask all successful creatives whenever I get the chance, and after chatting about Vienna for a little while, I allow myself to change the subject: “What do your rituals and routines look like?”

Norm Stack glasses

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Jonas smiles and answers: “No two days are the same in this job. Sometimes I begin my day at 7am at a meeting, and on other days I take a long time to wake up, have my coffee and retouch some photos. I – or we – have different approaches to the work that we do. You might find that a lot of our work is quite similar to one another, but how we get there changes each time.”

Upon reflection, he adds: “Besides, I try to break habits whenever they occur.”

I nod excitedly, as I signify being a habit-breaker myself.

“If you repeat an experience a certain amount of times, your brain will automatically economise and only store the memory of one time you had that experience. Like going for the same walk with your dog each day, or going on vacation the same place each year.”

It’s truly amazing how the brain works. And in that moment I realise how privileged I, too, am to do what I do for a living. To have the freedom – and the pressure – to experience new things most days.

“You know how, upon returning home after a short trip, it can almost feel as if though you’ve been away for a month, whereas a month of working the same hours, sitting in the same, old office, can seem like a week. Your perception of time is different when you do the same things over and over again. So I think it’s healthy to break habits, and I like that my job is more or less free of routine.”

“That’s kind of terrifying that your brain has the power to just sort of weed out certain memories”, I say rather stunned.

“Yeah, it’s tragic, isn’t it?”

Norm Snaregade tables

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It’s a question of balance though. Most people, however adventurous and thrill-seeking, need time to dwell in their comfort zone as well.

“If you’re constantly exposed to new things, you’re less likely to enjoy and be present in the moment. Then you’re constantly searching for the next thing to impress or excite you.”

What he says makes perfect sense, and although I consider myself a person who treasures the little things in life, and absorb each destination I go to, I often find myself on one trip planning the next.

“Is it hard to balance many projects at a time?”, I ask.

“It is. I think we have around 20 projects going on at once – all around the world. So sometimes one of us goes to the US for three days while another partner is off to China for a couple of days, and so on. Then, of course, we have different tasks and roles. Some partners put in a lot of hours completely immersed in a project – like Kasper who’s quite good at focusing on one project and pays great attention to the little details.”

NORM VEDBAEK HOUSE IV

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“When are you most creative?”

“I’m most inspired and creative when I’m busy, I’d say. I find that most ideas pop up when there’s a lot of input. Some people say they need peace and quiet in order to be creative. It’s the complete opposite in my case. When I’m in our summerhouse in the south of France I’m totally uninspired – no ideas come to me. But when I travel, go to museums, see new things; projects and products, or visit factories and see their machines and materials and so on … That’s when ideas come to me in a steady stream.”

Normally I would be one of those people that Jonas refers to; someone who’d state a need for peace and quiet in order for their creativity to thrive. But I see now how that’s not entirely the case. In fact, it’s hardly the case at all. He continues explaining, while I realize just how absolutely right he is:

“The brain puts together new ideas when exposed to various input. When I work it’s a non-stop process. Like I said earlier – I can’t just go home and do nothing. But I’m fine with that. I’d be bored with the average 9 to 5 job, where you sort of have to turn the creative button on/off. That wouldn’t work for me. Instead I have periods where I work all the time, and then a month – once or twice a year maybe – where I turn it off completely and take time with my family somewhere.”

“How many hours do you work?”

“Around 50-60 hours a week.”

Damn.

“Do you get tired?”

“I love what I do, so generally no. It’s more rewarding and energising than it is tiring; retouching photos for example. I find that very meditative. We would probably still do what we do if we didn’t get paid, you know. Of course, there are times when it’s just too busy, which is why we try to turn down projects that don’t excite us. When you’re excited about the work that you do and the brain releases a lot of endorphins from doing it, I think you can consider yourself very privileged. I can imagine you feel the same way doing what you do – traveling, visiting new places and writing about it?”

I nod excitedly: “Absolutely!”

We start talking about photography, and Jonas tells me that photography has been a passion of his since he got his first film camera as a kid. He’s autodidact like myself.
Today photography is a huge part of his work at Norm.

Norm Italy

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“When we started Norm Architects, we photographed our projects for the website, and slowly our clients realised that we mastered photography as well, so we started shooting their product photos as well. Then came the magazines – such as ELLE Decoration, Kinfolk etc. and today we shoot editorials, books and work for other architects.”

After geeking out about photography, cameras and gear for a little while (Jonas just purchased a Leica Q, which I’m quite envious of), I ask him about his proudest moment in his career so far.

He takes a deep breath. I wonder if that’s the kind of question that would annoy someone like Jonas, but luckily it doesn’t seem to.

“That’s a tough one. I think we’re more for enjoying the process of creating. But it does feel like Christmas when we get to see the first prototypes of something we’ve been working on, and you feel the satisfaction of seeing it come to live – sometimes better than you had hoped. That’s extremely rewarding.”

I feel the same way.

“What are your goals for Norm Architects?”

“If we can keep the balance of our work life as it is now, I think we’re in a good place. If we can stick to our values in the future, and not get carried away with this snowball-effect that we’re experiencing at the moment – we have to say no to a lot of projects, which is difficult – I think we’ve succeeded.”

The next big project at Norm Architects is designing a boutique hotel, which Jonas can’t tell me much about at this point. He does seem rather excited though.

I think that people in all creative industries could learn from Jonas and his colleagues at Norm.
Jonas makes the perfect example of a humble and hardworking creative who values quality over quantity, and stays persistently true to his passion.

On my way home I feel the same way I always do after talking to people who are truly passionate about what they do: energised, inspired and eager to go home and do the job that I love as much as Jonas loves his.

Norm Fredensborg House

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