Creating interconnected, intelligent design with Johannes Torpe

Published:  March 4, 2016
Tara Watson

A self-taught designer, Johannes Torpe is a charming and humorous character. Between running his own studio in Copenhagen and formerly being the Group Creative Director for Bang & Olufsen, Torpe uses his multi-disciplinary background (he has worked as an interior designer, graphic designer, lighting designer, research fellow and even as a music producer and drummer) to enrich and diversify his expertise.



The ‘design activist’ exited Bang & Olufsen in October last year as he embarked on a fellowship with the Architectural Department of Westminster University in London.

Torpe was in Sydney for a Brand Forum 2016, and Melbourne to host a lecture at RMIT’s Design Hub. desktop sat down with Torpe, to discuss his upbringing, aspirations and his insights on ‘branding spaces’.

We heard that you started your first design business when you were 14, is that correct?

Not entirely. I grew up in a hippy camp and when I was 12, I decided to move away. I moved to Copenhagen and started at a drum store because I played drums. And when I was 15, I found my first company doing lighting design – doing concert lighting, touring and so on. That was actually very successful so I sold it with twelve employees to a big company.

Then, I started doing graphic design. I had no idea how to use a computer, I’ve never done it [graphic design] before. So, I bought a Mac and it was very intuitive to use. I started doing lighting design at nightclubs and at one nightclub, I was asked to buy 25 per cent of the nightclub and I said yes. So I bought 25 per cent of a humongous company that was almost bankrupt for, you know, $10,000.

I then started doing nightclub designs and ended up going into commercial design for nightclubs. Then I sold the business about four to five years later to investors and started a company with my brother who is a DJ. So I ended up going from lighting to graphic to interior design with always business in mind.

Nasa Nightclub

Nasa Nightclub

You refer to yourself as a “design activist”, what does that mean exactly?

I’m a design activist in a sense that I’m not a designer, I’m not an architect, I’m not a clothing designer or graphic designer. None of those. I do not have the educational qualifications to call myself that.

Despite that, I’ve been able to do architecture, clothing design, lighting design, interior design, product design and furniture over the last 20 years. I’m not a specialist, I’m an activist within multiple fields. If I work with the right people, with the right heart and right intelligence, based on my intuition, I can do anything. That is how I became an activist more than anything else. I’m the one who comes in when there is a flow of work, I break it up, shake it up and tip it upside down. People get really pissed off at the beginning, but afterwards they get really happy. Because it matters and it’s much better.

I’m now starting this PhD and I had to bring up all the work I’ve done over my whole life and it’s over 1500 different things!

Speaking of the fellowship with the Architectural Department of Westminster University in London, what is the PhD all about and what do you hope will come from it?

To understand what I’ve done for all these years.

Because I didn’t really realise what I had done. The PhD is something you can apply to at different universities for a fellowship. I was actually pushed into applying. They were like “come on, come on!”, so I did it. I knew the school and I thought the chances of me getting in were so small. But then they invited me to Westminster. It was the only school I would accept because I travel a lot and London is one of the hubs and would connect quite naturally. I’m very happy to be in the program and the people I’m working with because everybody’s objective is different – mine is very commercial.

I like a challenge. Last year, I did two speeches a week. Most of them were keynotes for big companies, or TED talks, for the The New York Times, or it’s high profile, speaking with other executives who were in suits (laughs).

I like speaking to people. The more people there are, the more I can inspire. I did this PhD so that I could dig into my own life. It’s also to take all that I have learnt and make it into something conceptual so that I can share with other people.

In my commercial mind, what I can envision is a really great book [coming from the fellowship] that is basically telling my story from the beginning of my life until now and sharing the process behind it. It’s kind of like an autobiography but not in the sense that it’s just about my life, because I’m only 43 not 83. So it can be my life until now and where I see myself going and how I can inspire other people.

You specialise in ‘branding spaces’. What does that mean exactly and why do you see it as an vital component for companies to consider?

Basically, right now we have just been in a competition for one of the biggest fashion houses in the world, as we speak. What is really interesting for branding spaces, such as a clothing stores, is that you walk into the store and in the store you have to get instant gratification of the brand. You have to be able to understand clearly what it is and what you get out of it. It has to give you emotional gratification. It has to give you something back.

The design is a small part but the brand of the company, the service, the staff, the materials, all of that, has to come together in perfect combination. That is essentially ‘branding space’.

Bang & Olufsen

Bang & Olufsen

What I believe, is that in the future all these brands won’t have, you know 2000 stores around the world, because people will go online.

The big brands that are retailers by nature have to change the way they do business. They have to change, they have to do what I call a “cathedral” of the brand. They need to be like a church for people to walk in and be like (sings), and Jesus is where the sign of the brand is and everyone is praising the brand. So people out there will be faithful to the religion of the brand – otherwise you will lose them. And this is what we do. To make their experience better, we rejuvenate and make their businesses better.

What is the design process when working with a new brand and interpreting  a brand?

The first thing we do is to do a consumer insight. We have to understand who the brand is and the history, the past, the future. But most importantly, we have to understand who are their customers; and who do they think are their customers; and who do they want to be their customers; and who do we want to be their customers. This is very, very important. To be a good designer is to understand all of these before we draw a single line.

This is information that is crucial for us to help them in the right way, so that we can bring them further. It is very critical when you’re pitching to other companies.

You have to create a ‘wow experience’ every time and our job is to help them get that experience but to do that we need to understand the brand in depth.

In terms of “bad branding”, what can be the negative effects?

There are many examples of bad branding. Bad branding can be when a company claims something, you know they say “we are the best at something” but their customers will say “no, you’re not” and yet, the company still claims it. The customers start to doubt their authenticity and if they are truthful. That is the worst branding you can get. This will turn customer satisfaction into negativity and in the world of the Internet right now and the world of consumer insights, it [the word] travels very, very fast.

Look at Nokia right now as a good example. Nokia says “we make the greatest phones in the world” and everybody says: “well you don’t make a glass telephone that can interconnect everything.” Then they just say “Well, we’re Nokia!” You can’t be that arrogant. I think Apple is potentially going that way as well. They are pretty ignorant about what their customers really want now and I’m turning away from it and you probably are now too. We don’t connect to it anymore. This can become very, very bad branding. Bad branding can also be if you are not caring about what people think and you talk down to your customers – that is one of the worst examples of bad branding.

What do you think differentiates Australian design from say, Denmark?

First of all, I think Sydney and Melbourne are extremely different from each other; two very different mindsets for design. Sydney in many ways adapts to a lot of Scandinavian design.

But in Melbourne, you pretty much have your own style. Your style is interesting because it has the influence of both Southeast Asia and East-Asia, from Japan to China and Hong Kong. From this you adapt and take with you. With all the immigrants moving here, it kind of becomes part of your culture. This is what I really love about Australia, the diversity.

I’m very diverse myself, in a European context, because we do so much work in Southeast Asia. People in Europe are very confused because I design for the people, I don’t design for myself. If I design for someone I very much analyse what they need and what I need to do to make their customers buy more from them.


If you could offer advice for inspiring designers, what would it be?

It’s always difficult to advise people. You know, running a business and doing design is in many ways like having a relationship. You know in a relationship, in your first relationship you fall deeply in love, you think it’s amazing and will be forever, until it isn’t anymore because people grow away from each other.

The same happens to you as a designer and as an architect. You think of one style that is really your style and then you realise as you get older that it isn’t your style anymore and you divert from it. You have to expand your style to both run a healthy practice but also to satisfy the food for your soul. You really have to try different things. It’s the same with a relationship. If a person only has one relationship in their lifetime then you can be very sure that they are stepping aside many times, for both of them to actually to feel life, it’s the same with running a business.

So my advice is to be authentic in everything you do. Be authentic and believe in what you do. Don’t be adaptable to other peoples tastes. Create your own taste but don’t be afraid to change it. Because life changes you as a person and as a human being. What is really important is that you change with life. Life isn’t black and white. It is 16 million and 900 thousand colours. That is the spectrum for the human eye. If it feels right, it is right. Don’t let anyone change your mind from what you think is right. If you stand by your thoughts then you are going to get very far.

When dealing with clients however, do you find it difficult to do what you want to do but still adhere to their vision?

It’s always a compromise. When you are a younger designer you tend to say “my way or the highway”. I’ve done that a couple of times, especially when I’ve owned my own business. But then I got the bruises for my mistakes. The problem is that you can’t be a good designer and give other people bruises. You can’t. Or you will be responsible for the failure of the business.

It is very important to know whether the risk is worth taking. You have to be realistic with what you do and say, and really give people the benefit of the doubt and then you will be able to compromise for your design and then it will be truly great, I believe.

What would be some of your career highlights so far?

Well one of the recent career highlights was to be the creative director at Bang & Olufsen for the last four years.

In my music career, it was definitely making a number one world hit with dance song Calabria – the one with the saxophone riff. That’s definitely a career highlight, with my techno group Enur, with my brother, headlining the biggest stages in the world.

Other highlights? Owning bakery chains, cupcake chains and coffee chains is a career highlight and a really fun thing to do. Also opening up in China and starting offices in China and Italy has been a career highlight. Having my own suit collection in Italy. Right now I’m doing a lot of projects with hotels which is something I’m really focusing on. Also doing new projects in Iceland , which is a place I really love, which is exciting.

Agnes Cupcakes

Agnes Cupcakes

You’re a self-trained designer, how do you stay motivated?

I stay as fit as I can because I need all of that energy to be able to cope with what I want to do in my life. I have no children yet, which is also something that I mentally took a choice about when I was younger that I’ll either have them when I’m 20 or in my 40′s because everything in between is going to be in those years where you have the energy to kick ass – so might not be the time to do that. You justify that.

But what motivates me to keep doing the work I do, is the people around me. It is the people who help me grow as an individual by working with them and getting the opportunities to learn how to work with new people. It’s all extraordinarily exciting for me. It’s what motivates me to keep going. Meeting people is the best thing I know. Sitting here and meeting you is the best thing. I truly believe that there is a reason for everything in life. Also bad things, like I have a polyp on my vocal cord, when definitely has a reason, that I’ve been talking too much (laughs) and I need to slow down. That’s a signal for me to be quiet for three weeks, because I can’t speak.

Doing the PhD is also a thing in life that I have to do, to become a better designer and a better communicator and to share life with people and get people motivated about their own lives.

Also I believe I could go to Mykonos and help refugees to go over the border to get into Europe, one by one. I could do that but I don’t think I would be very good at it. I think I’m much better communicating to the world to do things better and to inspire people. To teach people that life is not in boxes. Life is really where it takes you. That’s why my PhD is called ‘The Skipping Stone’ because I see myself as a skipping stone. Skipping the water, and every time I skip I make ripples in the water and I touch people. I touch their hearts or get to know them. This is a beautiful thing in life. That is my goal to touch as many souls in my lifetime.

 Finally, what’s next for you?

To take my company to the next level. To do some company structuring and have our branding business and product design business more focused so we can do more consulting work for big companies.

I want to divert my company with new partners in the future, get investors, build more brands, give people more of what I can deliver in terms of great [brand] experiences. I hope I can do my best with this and then to have as many young people to inspire me as possible as I inspire them. To have as many people to follow me to get a fun life. For me it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. The journey is exciting.

Learn more about Johannes Torpe via his website.

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