Danish design collectives unite and conquer

The new wave of Danish designers and makers know there’s strength in numbers


‘When I started designing, I was interested in authenticity in Danish design and I found out that a lot of what we consider to be ‘Danish Design’, the classics, are not actually made in Denmark any more. And when you say ‘Danish design’, craftsmanship is really a part of that. Or at least it was.”

I am sitting in a workshop in Nordhavn, Copenhagen’s northern harbour area, with Emil Hjorth-Rohde, founder of EHR Studio. Hjorth-Rohde’s practice has stemmed from a fascination with making processes and an ambition to find a way to retain production in Denmark.

With manufacturing increasingly moving to eastern Europe and Asia, he wondered whether anything could be made in Denmark any more, and began researching the manufacturers and craftspeople left, as well as learning to make things himself.

Hjorth-Rohde works from a workshop he shares with four other designers and a fine artist within a cluster of spaces run by the creative co-operative PB43.

“PB43 found this place and they facilitate renting spaces or desks. But as a co-operative, it’s really not just a workspace where you rent a room. It’s a lot more than that, you have a lot more responsibility,” he says. “ I didn’t see that coming when I started out here, but I think it’s a good way to do things. It’s really nice to be around other people doing creative work and trying to make a living from it.”

Closer to central Copenhagen, I visit a co-operative with a different aim. Designkollektivet, located in Nørrebro, is made up of eight designers working together to present and sell their work. While they work in different disciplines and in different locations in the city, they share responsibility for a small shop space, giving everyone’s work a physical presence – and increasing sales in the process.

Kristina Vildersbøll, a ceramicist, explains how it works. “We each pay an amount each month for the rent and then we each get all of the revenue from our own products. There are eight of us, so we take five shifts every two months in the shop, which is very easy to manage. And when you’re there, you get to see what your colleagues are making and how customers are responding.”

The members of the collective have changed gradually since it formed in 2012. When there is space for new designers, the group begins to search its own network, visits design fairs and checks out graduates from the design schools.

“It’s very selective, because we want high-quality products, as well as an aesthetic that fits with the rest of the work in the shop. We also look for a certain levels of discipline and professionalism; I think we can go farther that way.”

Close to central station and Tivoli, tucked away in a basement in Vesterbro, is Viktoria Workshop, a co-operative workshop run by six ceramicists. Sharing workspace, equipment and a shop, these designers and artists learned a long time ago that coming together would make things much easier in a lot of ways.

“The small one-person potteries are still there, but I think the development, in Copenhagen at least, is that people find a bigger space together because it’s cheaper,’ says Tina Marie Bentsen, one of the members of Viktoria Workshop. “It’s also very rewarding when you can get feedback from your colleagues. You can talk to them about problems you encounter. You can also share skills: computer skills, sourcing, painting, presenting. You can get much further when you are together.”

Taking this idea of strength in numbers to another level entirely, Bentsen and 17 other ceramicists have come together to open their own factory on the Danish Baltic island of Bornholm, Den Danske Keramikfabrik, which began production in March. Creating a space where their own work can be produced along with that of other companies, big and small, they are breathing life into an island in need of industry and employment, as well as strengthening Danish craftsmanship.

“At this point we’re sending away a lot of skills to places like China, not only in ceramics but in a lot of industries. So you make a drawing on a computer and send it off to China and they’re very good at producing it. But what happens when the prices in China go up and we want to take back our production? There was a lot of know-how and skills in the hands of workers in Danish factories and they’re lost now. This is our last chance.”

The trademark of Danish design worldwide is its sleek minimalism and usability. However, a determination to maintain and develop craft skills, to allow design to develop from contact with, and understanding of, materials and processes, is also integral to the work of many Danish designers.

Designers might create autonomous work, following their individual inspirations and stamping their own names on their products, but they are far from working alone. As Bentsen says, “As a community rather than individuals we can have big dreams, and we can actually achieve them.”

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