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rising star – a Jack-of-all-trades

WORDS BY CHRISTINA NORDVANG JENSEN PHOTOGRAPHY THY-LEJREN | SCANPIX

Designer Johannes Torpe is a popular man, nationally as well as internationally. He grew up in an open hippie society and went on to become creative director at Bang & Olufsen. Then there is all that in between, of course. He is a Jack-of-all-trades and has come to the conclusion that that is not so bad after all.

The Beomaster 1700. An entirely flat stereo covered in aluminium with wooden panels along the sides. A child’s finger darts playfully across the black surface. Elegant soft-touch buttons that are so tempting to push. They are surrounded by light every time the finger brushes the small indention. Aged six, Johannes Torpe is at his cousin’s confirmation party, and while everyone else is having dinner, Torpe has slipped unnoticed into his cousin’s room. The half Irish half Danish boy is on a mission. His cousin’s confirmation present; the Bang & Olufsen Beomaster 1700. Off-limits for an overly curious kid. ‘My finger traced the tactile surface and felt the aluminium and the minor electric tensions on it. My finger then continued up across the buttons that are tiny indentions in the surface. It hit radio 3 and radio blasted from the speakers. It was amazing. My ears ached because of it, but it was worth it’, remembers Johannes Torpe while various notes and sounds flow from his mouth. The cousin came rushing up the stairs. Torpe knew he was in trouble. That was his first encounter with Bang & Olufsen.

Free to play in all fields Bom cha, bom-bom cha, crash. The sound fills the room at Johannes Torpe’s office in central Copenhagen and reverberates off the walls. At the far end of the room is a Beomaster 1700 with the forbidden buttons. This is not the source of the sounds, however, as it is only made of paper and part of a timeline with cut-outs of Bang & Olufsen’s masterpieces throughout the ages lining the wall. The source is actually the bass drum that booms below Johannes Torpe’s foot while the sticks dart between the hi-hat, snare drum and cymbals. Johannes Torpe is almost like a child again, playing away behind the drum set. Much in the same manner with which he constantly toys with the pen strokes on the pad for the many design projects he is working on. ‘I’m just a playful kid, really’, Torpe offers as an explanation for the wide creative range that his 48

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hands and mind have covered for quite a few years now. Johannes Torpe likes a little bit of everything, and is supported by his half-brother Rune Reilly Kølsch with whom he operates the design studio Johannes Torpe Studio and three record labels on which they release their own music as well as that of various other artists. A design agent once called him a Jack-of-alltrades. Torpe was not too pleased with this title to begin with but his father put a new perspective on the words. ‘He told me: “Son, Jack of all trades is much better than King of one. Being a King of one you can only truly master one thing well, but as a Jack-of-all-trades you can define what you want to be of all trades. It’s up to you”. And he was actually right’, says Torpe.

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Now, aged 39, his ability to do it all, and then some, has helped him secure the job as creative director at Bang & Olufsen. The Beomaster 1700 is no longer off-limits, but, instead, his new playground.

A people person with hippie roots The urge to experiment and play with his creativity might stem from his upbringing. This took place far away from hi-fi stereos and design icons. However, it held plenty of shapes, colours and music. Being the son of an Irish musician and a Danish painter, creativity was more or less a given. Moreover, for a long period of his childhood, he lived at the Thy Camp, which was an attempt at a self-governing society in Northern Denmark where alternative and liberalminded personalities resided. An experiment subject to constant change.

‘In the summer there were 4000-5000 people in tents. And a festival with music and nude people everywhere – real hippies. In the winter only 60 people stayed, making it two highly different realities’, Torpe explains. Johannes Torpe believes that his encounters with these diverse people and the free scope of his upbringing have shaped his personality. He gathered knowledge of life and people at a very young age. ‘Growing up in a hippie society that includes all sorts of different characters develops your ability to look at people and determine whether or not you can trust a person. Many people say: “ooh, it must have been a terrible childhood”. But looking back upon it from my perspective, today, it really wasn’t. It’s quite interesting, actually, because it has given me this ability to read people very easily. Look through them

and see if they’re honest or if they’re full of shit’, he says and explains how that has become an essential quality in his work and in relation to choosing new projects. He has continued to attend the school of life by discarding conformity and dropping out of school in the third grade. That has not necessarily been a bad choice as it gave him a clear philosophy of life, which he still follows today. ‘I’m awfully provoked when someone says that something’s not possible. Anything’s possible. That important attitude to life has been present throughout my childhood and it still is. If everything’s about problems and restraints, then nothing’s going to be fun. If it’s all about limitations, then you can’t do anything’, he points out.

At the Thy Camp he inhaled a culture and has since then just been exhaling. All over the world, from restaurants in China to clothing stores in Copenhagen. According to him, it is the playful child within that gets his creative impulses flowing.

was saying. I immediately saw precisely how it looks like today. “OK, I’ve seen enough”, I said after ten minutes. “But you have to look at the ventilation”? “No, it doesn’t matter. I know exactly what it should be like”. Then I went back to the hotel. My brother had a burger while I drew and I was done in two hours. After two months we had completed all the drawings’, he says.

‘It’s an explosion inside my mind. I can see things extremely fast. When I enter a room I can immediately tell that it should be like this and this’, he explains and mentions one of his first projects in Asia as an example. ‘We made the SUBU restaurant in Beijing seven years ago for our business partner in China. It was this awful mall in the middle of nowhere in Beijing. We went there to have a look while the partner told us what he wanted to do in there. I shut down completely for what he

The project illustrates very well the working process that Johannes Torpe follows. If he does not achieve this creative epiphany, then it is not meant to be and then he will not take on the project. And there have been plenty of working processes. Asia has become one of his biggest working sites, and Johannes Torpe is a busy man and in strong demand on this enormous continent. Last year alone, Johannes Torpe Studio was in charge of establishing 11 restaurants in China. And they continue being on a roll.

The world as his playground

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But to realise his ideas – and move from vision to reality – has taken a lot of hard work, Johannes Torpe explains. In the course of his career, nobody has handed him anything, but he has taken his chances when they presented themselves. ‘It takes serious concentration and sacrifice. You create a life around what you want to do. Music

must be great to listen to and design has to be beautiful to look at. All these things are very nerdy. If you don’t hold the nerdy gene, then you’re not cut out for this. It’s not possible. I’ve been a nerd from day one. But it’s tough work. And a lot of people tend to forget that’, he says.

The dream job in the cathedral of beauty Torpe’s paths cross with those of Bang & Olufsen when they ask him to make a presentation on trends in home and living. Torpe took the opportunity to obtain speaking time in front of the board of directors but the message from the speaker might have surprised the many suits. ‘Well, in fact, nothing interests me less than home and living trends. I think it’s boring and I don’t think that that’s what you need at all. You can look it up in an issue of Wallpaper if you want to see the trends’, says Johannes Torpe

as he re-enacts his fiery speech from his office chair. An impulse had lodged itself within Johannes Torpe and he had prepared for this unique opportunity from home. He put forward all his experience with products and establishing international brands. And his performance must have made quite an impression as he now, one year later, can call himself creative director at Bang & Olufsen, the pinnacle of modern Danish design. His hiring is to help strengthen the presence of the company in the Asian market.

Photo: www.jimmynelson.com

Johannes Torpe sees great value in not leaving sketches on the pad. ‘I believe that all the critics that seem to decide what is proper architecture will have to eat their pride and, in stead, realise some projects themselves. It’s all very good to produce a lot of great drawings of large projects but it has no real value unless it’s realised. Every day thousands of people eat at the restaurants we make. So where’s the value? What’s good architecture and what’s bad architecture? It has no value if it isn’t realised’, he states.

Explore the Energy of Creation

‘It’s a dream. I hold an enormous love for the brand. This gives me even more appreciation for the products. It’s a cathedral of beauty, but I’ve earned it and there’s a big difference. I wasn’t hired because of my education but because it’s a symbiosis – because I’m a Jack-ofall-trades’, he concludes.

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Johannes Torpe - a jack of all trades