Classic Scandinavian design versus the New Nordic

Kristīne Budže

An interview with designer Morten Bo Jensen


In 1931, the seventeen-year-old Danish youth Holger Nielsen won an automobile in a lottery at the local football stadium. The lad didn’t have a driver’s license and sold the car, investing the money in his metal workshop. Eight years later, Nielsen created a product that became world-famous; today, instead of shrinking in numbers, its popularity only continues to grow. The object in question is a metal rubbish bin which Nielsen had made in 1939 for use in his wife’s hair salon. Mrs. Nielsen was very satisfied with the bin, but even more interested in it were her clients, many of whom were the wives of the city’s doctors, and who then told their husbands about the bin. Nielsen had made only one such bin and hadn’t planned on making more, much less putting them into production, yet he began to receive many requests for them from the city’s dental and physician’s offices. For fifty years, this metal rubbish bin was the most popular bin in Denmark’s health clinics. Nielsen believed that good design never goes out of style and he didn’t change the look of the bin for decades. After Nielsen passed away in the 1990s, his daughter Jette Nielsen took over the business, who then transformed the Vipp brand from a manufacturer of specialised rubbish bins for medical clinics into a design-object brand. Terence Conran from the UK was the first to include the household item among the wares for sale in The Conran Shop stores in London and Paris. Not long after, the Vipp rubbish bin was added to the collection of New York’s MoMA. At the start of the new millennium, Danish designer Morten Bo Jensen was invited to become the head designer at Vipp (he had previously worked on the design team for the stylish urban brand Biomega). Now alongside the rubbish bins – which have remained almost unchanged for eighty years – is an almost complete line of household items including kitchen appliances and even a special Vipp shelter vacation house. met with Morten Bo Jensen in Riga, where he had come to be present at the opening of the new Vipp store there.

A kitchen in a Soho loft designed by Morten Bo Jensen

It is quite rare for labels to have permanent in-house designers nowadays.

Yes, especially furniture companies often work with freelance designers to create a broad variety in their product range. But then there are companies like Apple, who use their team of in-house designers to retain the company’s DNA legacy in each new product that make them very distinct as a brand. These are simply two different business models from a design point of view. 

You came into a family business that had been operating for several generations, and moreover, as the Vipp company’s first in-house designer.

It means the world to all dictated by personalities – whether you do or don’t have that ‘click’ with the head of the company. My professional assignment is to carry on Vipp’s powerful DNA into new products and series by following the company’s philosophy, and preserving the brands high level of quality. But obviously also to renew and extend the history that dates back as long as to 1939.  

 rubbish bins from 1939 and today – with minimal changes in design and slight technological improvements

Before you joined the company, Vipp manufactured only rubbish bins, correct?

Yes, the heir to the company, Jette, had already designed a toilet brush that stylistically matched the Vipp rubbish bins. She had done it very pragmatically, basing it completely upon the factory’s technical and material abilities. Now we work on a much broader scale and we’re developing many new product categories and working with complementing materials.

Have you always wanted to be a company’s in-house designer? It seems that every designer’s dream is to have their own studio and work on a diverse array of projects.

That’s a question of the designer’s temperament. The opportunity to follow an idea through all of its development and realisation processes, and be present throughout, has always been more important to me than variety. Following an idea through from start to finish is not always possible if you’ve been invited to work on only one project for a company. It can take up to two or three years for a product to go from idea to store shelf, and so many things about the product change during that time. Especially if a product line with several variations is being developed – then many things can change in the details. I think it is better to work with the engineers on a daily basis and to follow along with an object’s development on site.

Doesn’t it become dull working with one material and one colour – black – for twelve years?

I am sure that for some people that could seem like imprisonment, but I like the fact that we can create product series within a unified style, and that we can continually preserve the philosophy. I really like businesses whose products don’t need a visible label on them because it’s clear who has made it from the design alone. Design that is intrinsically linked to its brand is the level of quality that we try to achieve at Vipp. When we set up the bathrooms or kitchens in our showrooms entirely with Vipp products, we’re not dictating that people live only with our products – everyone is free to pick and choose, and if they wish, they can follow our style suggestions. 

But in your own apartment, located in a former Copenhagen pencil factory, there are many things that you have designed yourself. I’d image that living in a space like that would be like having to every day reread old articles that I’ve written.

That’s a good comparison. Truth be told, sometimes I do feel as if I’m a little too deeply involved in what I do (laughing). Nevertheless, it’s also a very nice feeling to be able to live with objects that you have helped develop.  Apart from that I also often take home new prototypes to simply test and try them out to see how they work in a daily setting and with the rest of the produvt line up – this is a unique development tool. 

For instance, with furniture designed by Australian designer Marc Newson.

Yes; and also vintage items. 

Maria Nielsen’s hair salon, for which the first Vipp metal rubbish bin was made

You work at a company where its first product was already perfect and has now become a design icon. One would think that there’s not much that can be added to it.

The first Vipp rubbish bin was created 80 years ago. It is still being produced and looks almost the same as back then. I think that’s a sign of great quality if an item has managed to live through so many fashion changes and technological advancement. Of course, some technical and technological improvements have been implemented, but they are unnoticeable. I like to compare Vipp rubbish bins to German automobiles, especially the Porche 911, which was created about 50 years ago and, in my opinion, is still the brand’s best model. There are car and watch brands from which you’d want to own an old version, and then there are brands where this ‘longevity’ is not present at all.

I believe that if you put in all of your effort, work very carefully, and give great importance to a product’s material nature and design detail, then it is possible to create a product that will be used for many years. At Vipp, we try not to select designs that are too trendy or use materials that are very popular at the moment; we try to find the essence of design that we hope will retain its significance for many years. That’s why Vipp kitchens don’t have marble counter tops, brass hardware, or that currently fashionable shade of green. That’s a completely different business approach– to sell what is fashionable at the moment with the build in stress of constant reinvention  – for example, brass in various configurations, so that people buy a lot of it now and then throw it out after a few years when a new fashion appears. People use Vipp rubbish bins for several decades. It might seem a bit strange that someone would want an old rubbish bin in their home, but quite frequently we have people show up at our offices with their old rubbish bins in tow, asking if we could fix it or replace a part. The pedal mechanism that opens the lid of the bin is what can wear out. After several decades of use, something tends to break – as it also does with the Porsche 911. We gladly fix their bins so that they can continue being servicible for decades to come. It seems unbelievable – because we’re not talking about a wristwatch or a car but a simple rubbish bin. I would be proud indeed if the items we’ve created in the later years would be in service for that long. 

The Vipp shelter made a big splash in design-world media

In terms of size, your largest item is the Vipp shelter. How did you go from rubbish bins to architecture?

From a design standpoint, we approached the design of the shelter exactly as with the rest of of our products. We see ourselves as makers of tools. The famous rubbish bin wasn’t conceived as a design object, but a functionally necessary tool in a hair salon with the aim of easing Maries’everyday life. We see the Vipp shelter as a tool that helps you get out of the city and into nature, but at the same time, be surrounded by good design – though it sounds a little crazy we like to think of it is a human battery charger. We are not architects nor house builders; our shelter can be bought in the store just like other Vipp products and can be assembled wherever the customer wishes. Of course, the Vipp shelter is also framework in which we showcase all of our various products in a space that perfectly resembles our philosophy.

You’re not the only design company that has come up with their own house – the Japanese firm Muji has also done this. Is a house as design object an especially telling sign of the times in which we live?

Yes, I think it fits in really well with our times. To escape hectic city life and submerge yourself with nature combined with great architecture and design is something that creates a spectacular and memorable experience. A person of today has their stress increased by all of the many choices we have to make on an every day basis: what to buy, what to eat, where to go etc. That’s why we believe in offering a limited number of options based on a curated pre-selection - we like to compare it to restaurants that offer only a few daily dishes instead of lengthy menus. 

Is Vipp’s biggest market Denmark or abroad?

For many years we were ‘world famous’ in Scandinavia, but over the last ten years, the internet and social media have changed almost everything. It’s interesting, and also a bit peculiar, that about half of the people who buy Vipp kitchens have never seen or touched them in real life but like them because they know our brand and our accessories.

Are they buying ‘the Danish lifestyle’?

I would hope that they’re more interested in the quality of the product rather than its particular style. But, of course, the world likes the Scandinavian lifestyle. The so-called New Nordic is very popular right now, with brands like Hay, Muuto, Normann Copenhagen leading a more affordable product offer and a series of brands including vipp offering a more classic and quality defined approach. 

 ceiling lamps are one of the brand’s newest products

Are you more in favour of the Danish classic approach to quality?

Yes in the sense of always favoring longevity of things. I think that today people like to combine items of varying status which is perfectly fine to us. It used to be that if you new which political party your neighbours voted for, then you also knew which shops they frequented and what kind of car they drove. Everything was clearly delineated and stereotypical; nowadays, people feel much more free to combine various brands. You can be wealthy, but still drive a casual economy car or be a student with Vipp allover your home.

Is New Nordic design also linked to the new trends we’re seeing in Danish architecture? They say that the new Danish architecture is markedly different from Danish classical architecture, which was of very high quality but also slightly boring.

You’re probably thinking of Bjarke Ingels, right? I’d say that he’s not what you would think of as a typical classic Danish architect. I really like his architecture. I know that many criticise him – they say that the Danish architects of today don’t pay enough attention to the culture of detail and the quality of materials used but I actually think Bjarke has a unique ability to create architectural value on many different levels and has proved that he masters the detail as well. And Bjarke has a remarkable talent in speaking about his projects and the ideas behind. Today it is very important that you know how to explain and describe what you are doing.

Do today’s architects also have to be able to speak in front of large crowds and convince them of their plan in 30 seconds?

Yes, quite often this is needed and has almost become the rule of the game if you want people to buy into your idea. 

How do you see the future of design?

I’m personally interested to see how design will change when we’re on the next crest of an economic boom, when there will again be optimism and great interest in new materials – like at the turn of the century, when artificial materials as Corian and carbon fiber entered the mass market. But I think there will always be a big need for the authentic and crafted so I expect to see a diversified future with various directions that speaks to different contexts and values. And not least will it be exciting to see how virtual and augmented reality will shape and influence the discipline of design in the future.

Designer Morten Bo Jensen