About one year ago, I was giving a talk to students who were about to graduate from the various design schools in Copenhagen. After I finished, I leaned back in a chair located rather close to the door (and close to the drinks and snack section...) when I caught myself staring at a bag. It captivated me to the extent that everything around me disappeared, and the only thing left was the bag and me. Once I snapped out of it, I went up to the person holding the bag as to ask him where he had bought it. To my great despair, it turned out he had made it himself, and he was holding the only sample. The Man with The Bag turned out not just to have a great eye for design, but to also have a great and intricate mind, and his name is Brian Frandsen.
Core77: Tell us a bit about your background. How did you end up in the field of design?
Brian Frandsen: I was not supposed to study design to begin with, I never thought I would do anything like this. It sort of just happened. I've always been a bit of a book nerd— I live very much in my head. I've always loved school, mathematics and humanistic studies, so I thought I was going to study Danish, rhetoric, philosophy, political science or something along those lines.
After high school, I was lucky enough to get a job in quality control for a Danish mainstream clothing brand at their office in Hong Kong. I spent half a year there, with my partner at that time, and while I was there it hit me how disgusting the fashion industry really was.
My boss would find something she liked, draw it in Illustrator and send it off to the factory in China. After we got the sample and established the price of the product, they took away a few details to make it cheaper to produce and sent it back to the factory. The entire fashion and design mechanism was without feeling, without heart. I felt offended by the way it worked, yet at the same time it fascinated me.
I lived in Hong Kong for a while—just as with the fashion industry, I had contradicting feelings for the city itself. I loved it and hated it at the very same time. It's the most constructed place I have ever been. It feels like nothing in Hong Kong is natural, everything is man-made, everything has its place, and all of the buildings are built in a specific way. But at the same time, when you walk around and truly look you can see how the traditional Chinese culture is creating its own space in the cracks of the perfect façade. It grows like weed out of the asphalt. These perfect glass buildings and the uncontrollable growth that is happening in between theses buildings ignited something within me that changed me on a fundamental level.
After I got back, I still thought I was going to go to Copenhagen to study and get a serious degree in one of the rather academic fields. I don't know if they have it in other countries as well but in Denmark, universities have something they called Open House where you can visit the uni's and check out all of the courses available. I visited all of the ones I could think of, but in the evening, only Copenhagen design school was open so I went there just to see what they had to offer, and I was hooked. There was something about it, the same thing that had fascinated me with China, that was man-made and then the other side, the one that you could not control. That you should put yourself in the space between what the logic tells you and what your intuition tells you. That's where I wanted to be.
Another important factor in my decision to go to design school was a reform that resulted in a more theory-driven education. After that I went home, did some research and found out that there is only two design schools in Denmark: The Design School of Copenhagen and Design School Kolding. I visited Kolding and realized it was time for me to choose between a life (in Copenhagen) or a superior (to me, at least) education (in Kolding). I went for the latter. I applied the same year, and I actually didn't expect to get in that same year, but to my great surprise I did. So that was how I got into design.
What got you through these five years at Design School Kolding?
[Laughing] It's been six or seven years now, as I've been working there as well... Not one single month have passed since I started that I haven't thought "What am I doing here? I'm not a designer. I should stop this and start studying at the university!"
I've had a really hard time fitting into the idea of what it is to be a designer. I started with industrial design and it is a rather square way of thinking. You are supposed to design this-or-that sort of product, and to do it in this-or-that sort of way. I have a tendency to think on a more abstract level. As I said, I live very much in my head. This has been a hard thing to handle and has created a rather difficult relationship between some of my teachers and myself. I've tried to explain my way of thinking, the philosophy behind my projects and they have wanted to see something. There's this constant struggle going on within me on so many levels. Just to get out of my own head and start making things with my hands is a long process, but when I finally get to the stage when I start creating, then the ideas just come flooding out, and it's hard to stop creating.
After you finished your studies, you have been working in various areas of the design industry, how do you feel about it today?
I'm really trying to love it, and I'm trying to do so in the same way as you love a child who doesn't know any better. I've worked on a development project at Design School Kolding where we were trying to implement sustainable processes and thinking in small- and medium-sized businesses. One of the reasons why they are not using the solutions available for a more sustainable production is because they can't wrap their mind around the consequences. It's such a big and abstract phenomenon—questions such as "What is responsible?", "What is sustainable?" and " What can we allow ourselves as a product producing industry?" can be truly hard to answer if you don't have the right tools to do so.
One of my current preoccupations is how we can use design and design thinking to strike a balance between the analytical and intuitive processes to become a new and creative language and a new way of working when creating products. The big discussion going on right now focuses on whether people have a tendency to either blame the industry or blame the humans for everything that is going wrong with the world. Some of us seem to put ourselves on a pedestal and think of ourselves as if we are above nature, others seem to want us to stop existing since we are of greater danger then benefit to the environment. I don't believe that either is the case.
The idea that we should stop producing things and stop buying things—in order to more or less stop existing in the physical realm and just become brains—is alien to me. It doesn't get us anywhere. One of the solutions to the problem is to find a balance between being a rational being and a sensing being that exists in this world, who creates things that improve this world. Our ability to reason and imagine a future helps us develop, but we live here and now through our senses and our bodies.
To reach this mindset, we need to change our way of thinking of ourselves on a fundamental and human level. Thinking about how this is going to happen truly occupies me.
Right now you are working on a new handbag collection, how does this align with your line of thinking?
To be completely honest, I'm struggling with it. But at the same time, I do have this need to create, create handbags, art and products. I don't want to create "just another thing," I want to create something that fulfills a need, both in a functional and emotional ways. You can say that it's my way of giving back.
I create bags that I believe people are going to buy because they know they are going to love it and keep it for many, many years, and they know they are going to have a relation to this bag. I don't want to create something people by because of trends. If you as a designer go for creating the best and the most environmentally conscious product that also is the most beautiful and has the biggest liveability factor on the market, then you have the right to be here. If your only concern, when designing, is to sell as many things as possible without taking into consideration how this impacts people and the world, then I don't think you have any right to be putting things out there.
Can you give us examples of designers who you think definitely have the right to be here?
It's hard to truly see a business or a designer's way of working and designing unless they are completely transparent, and there are very few who have reached that level. But on a personal level you can, to some extent, go after your gut feeling by asking yourself if it is a product you believe you are going to love and use for a really long time. If you truly believe that this is the case, then that is a step in the right direction. By choosing your purchases this way, you forces the makers and companies to emphasize their focus on quality and durability.
There is one fashion designer whom I have a great deal of respect for, and although I don't know him personally, he is the only one who I trust 100%: Bruno Pieters, the man behind Honest By. He used to be the Creative Director for one of the high-end brands, and got the same sort of feeling for the industry as myself. He quit and spent a year traveling around visiting various producers as to see which one of them "had clean flour in their bag" [a Danish expression for honesty], which ones who were willing to open up their books and their manufacturing procedures and tell about the origin of their raw materials. After this, he designed a collection, which is sold such that a customer can find out absolutely everything about the various garments—from how much the seamstresses are paid to how much the safety pin holding of the tag costs—on the website where it is sold. Not that anyone reads everything, but the knowledge that it is there gives you a sensation of trust and understudying of the philosophy that drives him. This sort of absolute transparency is beautiful.
I believe that this is something we will see more of in the future. And I believe that this way of thinking is one of the things that is going to be a part of creating this change in mindset that I spoke about earlier.
In a world where it's hard to have faith in anyone as long as there is money involved, I believe that one of the ways to create a bigger trust is to open up completely. And as far as I know, Bruno Pieters is one of the only designers to have done so to such an extent.
Is this way of being completely transparent something that you are aiming for when designing?
Absolutely, and it's rather easy for me, seeing that my production flow is very small compared to other businesses. There are some parts that are rather hard for me to get all of the information about, but I try to gather as much information about the various parts of the objects as I possibly can. It is my goal to have a product and production flow that is 100% transparent. Every time I buy a material, I try to take it one step further and get as much information about it as possible. You can say that I'm building my own little transparency library.
You work a lot with leather, how do you feel about this?
It's difficult, since there isn't really any responsible production of leather that produces leather of high enough standard. I only use naturally tanned leather, which means that there's no use of chrome or other chemicals in the tanning process. This is more healthy for the workers, as well as for the users in the long run.
Where do you find this sort of leather?
I believe it's called full-grain leather in English, but I'm not quite sure. You can find it in more or less any store that sells leather. It's normally the thicker and harder version, seeing that the soft and very flexible ones are the ones that have been treated with chrome and other chemicals as to make it softer and create a specific surface. I really like working with the naturally tanned leather, which just becomes better and more beautiful with age. One of the problems with working with leather from animals that have lived a good life in the outdoors is that their skin has been damaged by insect bites and scars from fence cuts. It makes it a bit less attractive to the costumers, but I try to design my products such that the flaws become a part of the appeal.
I also try to dissect the design so that the various parts can be easily separated for easy recycling—trimmings, metal parts and main structure all by themselves. Right now I'm designing a bag where the main bag, made of leather, is rather neutral and simple in its expression, while the inner bag is made from textile and is the part that you change with time. This way you can make it more personal and keep it for longer, since the design takes the seasonal change of fashion and the longevity and properties of the leather is into account in its construction.
Based on your products, it's easy to see how your philosophies guide you when you design. What sort of reactions do you normally get when it comes to your products?
I am happy that you can see the influence of my philosophy in my designs. To be honest, I don't think that much about it when I design. The philosophy is created in a dialectic relationship between what I do, and I believe this to be the way we in reality experience our life and the world around us. Never stop creating and never stop reflecting on your creations.
Usually people are fascinated by my products, which go to the edge of the expected without becoming statements—they always have a twist or a hidden story. People find both comfort in the classical foundation I build my designs upon and excitement in the unexpected twists and details.
You also explore other sides of design beyond bags. Tell us a bit about that.
Other then the basic design projects, I work as an innovation consultant where I primarily work with organization development, and secondly with product development. It refers to the idea of the new way of existing in this society and how to create relations and business in a more conscious way. It builds on some design principles of balancing an intuitive and an analytic way of thinking when creating. Design encompasses grand spectrum of methods on how to incorporate this in processes, and these processes can be used in more or less any field, whether it is strategies, lean product development or human resources.
Now I'm consulting various schools and NGO's on how they can incorporate design thinking in their way of working, on a process and strategic level and in product development.
When working as a consultant, do you have a specific way of working, or does it depend on the organization?
Hmm... That's a hard one. The strategy that I use as a base is the "design stairs" (developed by Danish Design Center). It's easy to use in the way that you start up by asking: Do you need help developing a product, a process, a strategy or development of the organization? And I use a lot of time asking "Wh-" questions—What, Why, Where, and in the end How...
I've been reading a lot of Roger Martin's articles and books; you can say he's my hero. He used to be the principal of the Rotman School of Business in Toronto, which is one of the most prestigious business schools fo North America. He says something along the lines with "Future business leaders should not understand designer, they should become designers." He defines the leader as the one who balances the analytical processes and the intuitive processes in a business. His theoretical basis is something that I use when talking to the analytical thinkers, who are the majority of the people you encounter in the businesses of today. I try to convince them to start working more with their human side, their intuition and start understanding that their feelings also give something important to their work. Also, that they can trust these human sides as to make decisions on previous experiences, not just data.
I also make an effort to get clients to understand that if they want to develop anything in their business, they have to have the courage to be interrupted and let the unexpected enter. Normally this is really hard for people, since they want to have total control over everything they do, every minute of the day, so asking them to listen to their intuition is an interruption in itself. To listen to your gut feeling takes a lot of courage for people who have ignored it for such a long time.
So what is the third thing you do?
It's art, and in reality this is my biggest creative outlet, where I can work more closely with my own essence, aesthetics, materials and storytelling. It feels fantastic.
How do you bring in your thoughts and theories into your art?
Everything is connected. In order to become more sustainable as individuals, I believe that we have to not only be human, and use our humanity when we are at home with friends and family, but that we are first and foremost humans and we have the possibility and responsibility to take this into consideration in our day-to-day life. We are a part of everything, we are connected to everything. We can never put ourselves above this, the only thing we can do is to take part of it and be a part of it in such a way that the footprints we inevitable leave behind is as positive a mark as possible.
The key to act in the transition between the social paradigm we are living in now, and a more flourishing future, is not to tear everything down and start from scratch but to continue building on the sections that actually work. I believe that the thinking and acting within design will have a major influence on our ability to do so.
Although my art is very personal, its also a study in how you act as a human being, how we interpret the world and how we connect to and interact with people around us.
We walk around in this world without really seeing it. We are so used to our brain picking up images and processing these images that we take them for granted. Since we are so used to this, since we take it for granted, many people walk around as zombies, without ever questioning or contemplating over what is going on around us. We are rarely aware of all the impressions we get, and why we understand them as we do. You can say that my art is creating deception. I like creating pieces that make you believe you see one thing, but in reality it might be something completely different. I create art that deceives the brain in such a way that it makes it hard for the brain to connect what it is seeing into something that makes sense to it creating a sort of flickering reaction. We can see it, we can't see it.....
I want to create art that makes the brain question what our minds perceive as reality and what really is reality, and also makes us question everything we see around is in our day to day life. Nothing is what it seems, and many have to be reminded of just that as well when it comes to our day-to-day life. This is something that has been a part of the art world for as long as there has been art, I just try to make it in a more obvious manner.
The biggest piece I've made so far was for the Milan Fair in 2012 in collaboration with Ege-Carpets. It was a self-portrait created by 125 carpets stacked on top of one another in a standing position. For this project I've made a 3D scan of my own face, and cut it out in such a way that you could "walk inside my face." And on top of these rugs there was a 2D print of my face, so when you glanced at it your brain would perceive it as a 2D picture of me, but then while moving around it your brain would start reacting to the fact that something wasn't the way it first thought it was. Your brain will flicker between the perceived reality and the real reality, and your mind will find it hard to connect the two perceptions into one. The brain wants the sculpture to go outwards like the 2D picture, while the negative form of my face was showing in the 3D cutouts.
I loved this project, specially watching people react to the piece, to see how they first just walked passed it and then come back to look at it more closely seeing that they couldn't make sense of what they saw at first glance. It was like giving the viewer a sort of break from only relying on their perception. It was a mental interruption.
For a long time, we have talked about making everything around us as smooth and effective as possible, but this isn't what we need as people. We need some sort of resistance as to not lean back and only rely on our perception and start seeing the world for what it really is.
We have been talking a lot about designers, how would you describe what it is to be a designer?
I have a tendency to make the designer sound like some sort of God, and that is not my intention, far from it. But I do believe that a designer has a sort of courage when heading into a new challenge. A good designer knows how to balance divergent and convergent processes. Non-designers have this ability too, but they've been taught not to look at the world this way. I believe the approach of the designers, the methods and way of approaching challenges, is more accurate to how the human being is designed by nature to solve the puzzles of life.
There are two steps of courage that characterize a good designer:
1.) The courage to take two steps back and observe the world as if she isn't a part of it, open up and reflect on what she perceives as an empty room that she then fills to the brim with information.
2.) The courage to make the hard choices, and use an analytical approach as to decided what to keep in the room and what to get rid of. Most people don't like taking these sort of decisions, they prefer to lean back, let go of their responsibility and let someone else take their decisions for them.
So the designer asks questions for a long period of time, and just continues asking questions when others would stop asking too quickly and instead start coming up with solutions. We dare to continue asking and when we feel like we have enough information, only then do we start looking through the answers in order to construct an answer that solves the task at hand. We connect dots in such a way that they create the answer.