Anders Byriel on Redefining the Idea of “Company Culture”
Anders Byriel isn’t your typical CEO. Over his 25 years as head of the Danish textile company Kvadrat, he has turned what was once a small, fairly dusty family design business into a global giant. Perhaps just as notably, he’s taken a radical, and even artistic, approach to building and cultivating the brand’s culture, one that’s based on four core values: passion, creativity, quality, and empathy. His resolute focus on culture, beyond simply efficiency and profits, has led Byriel to run the company in a highly collaborative way, partnering with designers such as Raf Simons, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and Peter Saville; artists including Thomas Demand, Olafur Eliasson, and Pippilotti Rist; and arts institutions like the New Museum in New York, the Tate Modern in London, and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark. During his tenure, Kvadrat has partnered with brands such as Adidas Originals, Bang & Olufsen, and Jaguar Land Rover, too.
Kvadrat follows what Byriel calls a “conscious design” approach, one imbued with sustainable, egalitarian—and, all in all, unmistakably Scandinavian—values. Despite being among the world’s largest producers of wool and upholstery, the company has committed to net-zero emissions by 2040.
These holistic values can be traced all the way back to the founding of the now-second-generation family business in 1968 by Byriel’s father, Poul Byriel, and Erling Rasmussen, the father of Mette Bendix, today the company’s product director. Even at its founding, Kvadrat was rooted in the principle of, as Byriel puts it on this episode of Time Sensitive, “producing machine-made fabric with artistic integrity.” Since Byriel took over in 1998, Kvadrat has grown from 70 employees to an impressive 1,000 across 29 countries. No small part of this is the fact that Byriel has made Kvadrat’s textiles unquestionably cool—and long-lasting.
On this episode, Byriel talks about why the best design has an artistic edge, the importance of making space for emotion within a corporate environment, and his deep and lifelong passions of poetry and photography.
Byriel describes how, at Kvadrat, he’s rethinking the term “company culture” by putting an emphasis on engagement in culture at large—including, most notably, contemporary art. He also brings up a quote he read recently by the French writer Annie Ernaux that moved him.
Byriel highlights Kvadrat’s various projects with arts institutions, including the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern in London, and the New Museum and the Guggenheim in New York. He also gets into how the company works with outside talent, such as the British graphic designer Peter Saville and the designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec.
“‘Efficient’ is truly something I really never cared about,” Byriel says, noting the importance of his maintaining an artistic and human-scale approach to running Kvadrat. He also mentions that as the company has grown to comprise around 1,000 employees over the past two decades, efficiency is nonetheless something that’s required—but always within bounds.
Byriel speaks about why Kvadrat has entered into projects with companies such as Adidas Originals, Bang & Olufsen, Jaguar Land Rover, and MUJI—and, partly by reason of this, how Kvadrat has become a “cult brand” within the world of design.
Byriel talks about the company’s headquarters in rural Ebeltoft, Denmark, and goes into the early history of the company, which was co-founded by his father, Poul Byriel.
Byriel emphasizes how Denmark is, from a sustainability and net-zero perspective, miles ahead of most of the rest of the world, and how longevity has long been built into the country’s very society and culture, as well as into its design products.
Byrial delves into two of his greatest passions: poetry and photography. Among his many references are Henrik Nordbrandt, Ocean Vuong, Nan Goldin, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ai Weiwei, Robert Adams, and Ansel Adams.
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Anders. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
ANDERS BYRIEL: Hey, good to see you.
SB: Good to see you, too.
AB: What a beautiful location you’ve got here. Really, really cozy.
SB: So you were mentioning that you were reading a book on the flight over here and pulled a quote. I thought we’d start there.
AB: Yeah. I wanted to bring something for you. Oh, well, I actually, I just picked this book up in the bookshop in the Stockholm Arlanda Airport, and I had seen a documentary about Annie Ernaux—she won the Nobel Prize last year—and the book is called The Years. I always need some intellectual food. I was a little bit low on—I didn’t bring that much to read, and then I started reading it. Then I actually was mesmerized, and then I thought of the opening statement, and then I thought of a quote I would bring to you saying, “All the images will disappear.”
SB: Hmm. Wow. And how do you interpret that?
AB: [Laughs] She also had a Tolstoy quote in the beginning. It’s very much about what we think is important today will maybe be totally irrelevant in the future. So it’s showing, in a way, the power of time, that things move and actually also a lot of things will be—she’s using the word disappear. I would maybe say erased. So actually, the context we are living in, the things we are interested in or obsessed with, most of it will be gone. And why I actually disagree with her partly—and that could be part of our conversation—but also the power of arts. I would say music, literature, and contemporary art or art in general, I think those are some of the things where time doesn’t really matter, that you can actually, now there’s “Vermeer”—I haven’t seen it; it’s one of the must-see shows in Amsterdam—and I hear, I’ve read about people are nearly crying when they’re seeing it. It’s the biggest Vermeer show ever.
SB: Completely sold out.
AB: Oh, is it? Okay. But also, I think it’s one of the things we share and one of my passions, contemporary culture and especially art, that somehow it can stand the test of time and it can have a relevance in another context. I just thought she was so radical. So I thought it was a nice opening.
SB: That is a great place to start, and part of why I was so excited to have you on the podcast, something we’ve been trying to do for a few years now—
SB: And I’m really excited to be with you here today, is that you’ve built this incredibly special culture at Kvadrat. I’m probably mispronouncing Kvadrat. [Laughs]
AB: No, you’re doing very well.
SB: And not only at, I want to add, but of—culture of Kvadrat—and I think there’s an interesting distinction in making that “of” clear. You’ve previously said, “We are not a company, we are a culture.” And so I wanted to ask, how do you define and think about the phrase “company culture,” and how would you describe the culture you’ve built at the company over the past two-plus decades?
AB: Yeah, it’s a long journey. My team sometimes forgets that you start from—it was a very small entity. We were seventy people, we were doing sixteen million euros [in annual revenue]. We were very Scandinavian-based. So you dream. But that’s not the same as you certainly go. In a way, it’s like a stairway.
Two things about the Kvadrat culture: When I was there and I joined the business, I came out of university. I had a [master’s] degree in IP law [from Aarhus University] and just starting at the business, I worked as assistant director, and then I became commercial officer. But in serving the business, I just realized it’s very much some few people who create the business. It is a creative director, maybe plus a couple of…. And the creative director, by the way, was my father [Poul Byriel].
By the way, the business is owned by two families. But it was a very small group, very few people creating the culture. So it was the idea of— You can say, in a way, two perspectives to create the culture of the business, and in a way be on the inside or the inside, which is a true culture. Start building a culture with a passion for architecture, contemporary art and design, and those three keywords and starting to evolve this and build knowledge as a group. But of course you’re a small organization—we went from seventy, now we’re one thousand. So it is like different milestones you get to, but it’s this ongoing movement that everybody is invited to be a part of.
Just this morning, I had a [Microsoft] Teams meeting with ten new employees, and it’s called “Contemporary Culture,” and you it’s ending on. You should be a part of this. We want to invite you in, we actually expect this from you. You should be engaged in contemporary culture, and some of the power. For example, now we’ve got.… I’m just counting how many companies we have, something like forty incorporated businesses. But also, every year, they report to me what they’ve done in contemporary culture—events, and they need to do two per country around the world. So, for example, the Italians, they go to Venice Biennale, they see the show, the whole company, they go, they get a tour, have conversations. Or the French take the train to Marseilles, they see Le Corbusier, other things. So it’s also the belief in the collective power of engagement in the culture. And then it keeps evolving. Our community, which is also our clients, they sense this. Then on the other side is, of course, delivering the creative output.
Then we also started from being this Scandinavian company—or really, we actually were a company a little bit like Marimekko. We were actually doing better than Marimekko then, but doing a very home textile printed cottons, but working a lot with artists in the early days in the sixties, from ’68 and on—that was the beginning. But extremely local, very, very Scandinavian. So that was actually looking for talent. So we started in Northern Europe, adding talent, looking for talent, and then slowly growing.
I think how we’re working with creativity is also—now I know you had Peter Saville here, who is an amazing gentleman. It was actually, also, the ambition to really work with the best—work with the best of the best. That’s why I often call us or mention us as a little bit like a publishing house or record label. You also need to groom talent. You need to build a platform for future talent. So it’s been this journey where we actually—the day you think you’ve reached the top, then you’re all already on the way down the mountain. But with that said, we reach out.
Many collaborations took us places we couldn’t even imagine. For example, the Bouroullecs, where we’ve done interpretations of spaces, done all kinds of different products, tried to create new topologies. Now Erwan [Bouroullec] is creative director on a new venture. We’re reinventing the window, but also other collaborations. Raf Simons started out, in many ways—actually, we thought of it as more just to inspire ourselves. But then we were like, Wow, this is actually gaining traction, this is becoming a whole entity of its own.
So actually, now I’m sorry that I keep talking, [Laughs] but also talking about time—because you have this great line for this show, if I may call it that, or this podcast—that I was also reflecting that a part of the power is that we are thinking very long-term. We can get back to how we run the business, but also in our creative relationships. We don’t really want to work with somebody who’s maybe done one very beautiful thing that could be commercial for us, but we are not really interested. We only want, I would say “sign on” [Laughs]—like a record label—but to work with somebody that we can see we want to work with this person for ten years or fifteen years.
SB: Multiple albums. [Laughs]
AB: Yeah, exactly! And maybe only the third album will be great. So you also, you need some patience when you work with people. So I think this longevity in the creative relationships is creating something very special, and in that way we keep building the community so that they become a part of our community. Now you’ve met Peter [Saville], who has been extremely important in being our art director on the whole visual side for many years.
SB: You brought him in for the [Kvadrat] logo originally, right?
AB: Yes, exactly. He is a great thinker. I’ve been asking him to write some books. Maybe you could do it with him, because we really need to get going on it. One of the things— he helped us with, also. Yeah, the logo. But somebody else is doing the logo, he’s doing the thinking and the direction.
SB: The logo was the springboard.
AB: Yeah, exactly. I’m with you.
SB: That became—
AB: No, but that’s how we started. We just said, “Who’s the best in the world?” We considered two or three people.
SB: And he also brought David Adjaye into the fold.
AB: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
SB: Who designed the London showroom.
AB: Yes, exactly. Or Thomas Demand, who I met via the Louisiana [Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark], and I didn’t know him. He brought me to Rosemarie Trockel. We could get back to that, to Rosemarie Trockel, to Olafur, and that’s how everything is snowballing.
SB: Olafur Eliasson, for the listeners.
AB: Yeah, exactly.
SB: Yeah. Well, and that’s what’s so fascinating, is this list of artists, creatives, practitioners, designers, architects—Jean Nouvel, for example—people you have worked with over the years and gotten to do these extraordinary things with, all through this medium of textile. Which I think is really remarkable, because a lot of times the company comes in and they just end up saying, Oh, we’ll sponsor your show, or we’ll do—But actually you sort of say, “We’ll do that and.…” Then the textile gets to actually be innovated on and pushed in new directions.
AB: Fully, fully, fully, fully, fully. You could say, when we set out originally, we had those contemporary artists who were mostly Scandinavian and Danish. And then I was very focused on architecture. So this is why we have this leadership in global architecture doing textiles. So I was very focused. So it was more designers doing the lead and also doing most of our things. And then conversation kept going with the artists. And then we did the first projects with artists, and then the feedback was, “Let’s make it into a program so that there is a logic.” That’s maybe one of my weaknesses. I love things where we don’t know where we’re going to go. I love that it’s totally open-ended, and also love when it’s open space, or we ask Bouroullecs to design Los Angeles—we don’t know what’s going to happen. So I like this.
But back to it—so we made the arts route into a program. We also brought two curators onto the program [Julia Rodriques and Francesca Astesani from South into North] because it was not all about myself and what I liked, but also actually bringing two young curators, eighteen years younger than me, female, global, to have the conversation of where are we going to go. And also that we not only would be—we were a little bit on a roll, where it was becoming very much a blue-chip [entity] and contemporary art loved us. But we were just saying we also have an obligation, like with design, to also work with people who are on their way, where we can actually make a difference and maybe also even help them in their career.
So back to the program: It was actually formulated in dialogue with Thomas Demand, and it was to do things that were temporary; that were public, so everybody had access to it; and also that we could actually add something—that it was a co-production. Actually, the first person who kind of, I wouldn’t say got it, but we’ve had a lot of museum collaborations. We’ve probably done something like forty to fifty collaborations now with institutions around the world. You name them, we got them. Ludwig, Louisiana, Tate, New Museum.
AB: M+ is in the pipeline. Kanazawa, we’re talking. So we try to find two routes—so the blue chip, but also people who are on the way. And also working in the material. It’s the absolute exception if it’s not gone again and then just documented. But also now it comes, now I get back to it. The person who, for the first time, formulated it was actually Massimiliano Gioni from the New Museum here in New York, who said that Kvadrat’s role [is] they come in with the artist, they help the artist do a better show than they planned to do, and then they leave with the artist. And there were many institutions that couldn’t really get it. They’d be like, “You’re here, you need to be a corporate sponsor for five years, and we need to collaborate.” But it’s not really that, because we are coming with the artist and we just want to build the best possible thing for…. For example, Louisiana, where I serve at two foundations, on the board, when we worked with Pipilotti [Rist] there, now I also know the inside of a museum, you have a certain budget, but you could say, us entering then maybe the budget is maybe nearly the double, because we come with money, but we also come with skills. We can help build the set, we can help do what artists dream about.
SB: Yeah, I mean in an extraordinary example, in the fall of 2021 at the Guggenheim….
AB: Oh, yeah.
SB: Right down the middle, the rotunda—
SB: Was this massive textile on which an artwork by Wu Tsang was presented and projected. Incredible.
AB: Fully. And also it’s showing that, it’s about how things can—thank God creativity cannot be programmed. You don’t know how good it’s going to be. Sometimes also things get mediocre, all right, but sometimes also it takes off.
SB: Win some, lose some, yeah.
AB: Yeah. But some things also just take off and become very poetic and—
SB: Well, I wanted to ask you about the new Triple Folly structure on your campus by Thomas Demand. Because triple folly is architecture, but it almost looks like something made out of paper, intentionally. And it serves this sort of practical role, which is, it’s a meeting space, but it also, I think, serves this metaphorical role for explaining the role of art within Kvadrat.
SB: I was hoping you might speak to that a little bit.
AB: [Laughs] You’ve already done it better than I could. Here it was—truly, I think even Thomas was a bit nervous about it also, because he’d never built a 3-D structure. He had one as a model in the Venice Biennale when [Kazuo] Sejima was directing it [in 2010]. Something that could have been—I think it was called Kettle House. That was a house from China. A house that was not torn down. And then he rebuilt it as a model and it was supposed to go into our public artwork in Switzerland, but it was voted down by the community. So it’s the first time he’s building something this size.
The exploring thing is that it’s undefined, that we, let’s see where, actually also the purpose or where, how we;re going to use it, it’s still a bit undefined. And I think that’s what we like, and I love it, that it’s undefined. I think if you see the structure—if somebody listening sees the structure—it probably became a hybrid between, I would say, seventy percent sculpture and thirty percent architecture. At some point, Thomas also had to kind of—I think he wanted to do it all on his own, but he had to….
SB: Bring in an architecture firm.
AB: Bring in Adam Caruso, who is a dear friend of his, to make sure we could close the doors, and it’s not raining in and so on. So it became this hybrid. And the key space, it’s three different paper, cardboard. It’s actually, I don’t know what you call it—the paper hat that the chef in a diner is wearing. And then it’s a sheet from a lawyer, a paper sheet. And the last one is a plate, a paper plate. So it’s like three elements of paper that make up the roofs.
I think that gives some excitement, also to our employees, but to our community. That’s also why we don’t really have a fine line between employees and our clients and our community. We see it as one community. And also the energy about doing things and seeing where we’re going to go. So now it became, and while I was talking about the shapes, the tall hat is, we have a Rosemarie Trockel artwork in there, which was the second art project we did for [the Museum] Ludwig, which is one-point-two tons of wool. It’s twelve meters long, six meters high, one meter deep, the biggest work she ever did. Also, the room has a nearly, what do you call it, semi-religious feeling or very poetic feeling.
SB: Sacred almost.
AB: Yeah. Sacred feeling in this space. You nearly get quiet when you’re sitting in there. It’s immense beauty, and of course, that’s the power of contemporary art—that it’s not only the feel; there’s also content.
SB: Yeah, I mean you’ve talked about this. You’ve said that you see art on the front line, it’s sensing what’s happening in the world and the way we’re feeling. And Peter Saville, similarly, of working with Kvadrat, has said “It’s less of a business relationship and more akin to that of artist and patron.” I wanted to ask, in this time that we live in, companies, especially companies at your scale, or beyond your scale, tend to become all about efficiency and they forget some of the freedom that comes with thinking the way perhaps an artist would. So I was wondering if you could speak to how you see this. Kvadrat also follows this what you call “conscious design” approach. So how does that all intersect—this idea of conscious design, but also this idea of artistic engagement, if I can call it that?
AB: Yeah. I think, also, talking about time today, what I learned with my moving through the art and the design worlds, or at least my own approach to design, I really realized that if we are in design, still we are a design company, we’ve been collaborating with a lot of artists and we are actually going to do things with artists that’s—
AB: Totally, and more to come with more people. But talking about design, I think the best design has an artistic edge, I really think so, or is artistic. And that’s going back to your question that, of course, I think the iPhone is a beautiful object and it’s working extremely well, and it’s very well-designed and produced and worked through and tested and so on. But, I have to say, with our creative teams, we’ve got more creative teams working on and collaborating with people. We always work with external people or external designers. The best thing is when there is this element of freedom, this element of the unpredictable and where you are stretching or you’re trying to go somewhere.
SB: And the tension between that and what we might call the “efficient.”
AB: Yeah. But, I have to say, “efficient” is truly something I really never cared about, more or less. Also, in the business, we’re trying to learn it, because now we are a machine. We are like a thousand people, and we need to tick like—I call it a Swiss clock. Forget the Danish clocks. It needs to tick. Because that’s of course also part of the experience. We get a product, we will work on a big project. I would probably guess we are involved in like seventy-two percent of all landmarks in the world.
This is also a part that people sometimes forget about Kvadrat. They think we are this artistic, and we are a brand and we are a culture. But, of course, there’s also this Swiss clock under the surface that makes things—before I start saying something bad about…. But I would say when you talk efficiency and design, that’s where I really go…. And I see, really, a tendency. I was talking with a friend who has—I will not say who—who worked for one of the biggest American companies in industrial design, and they were just telling me about how things are going in-house, how things are getting extremely corporate. I think you are losing the artistic side of it. I know it sounds naïve, but I think, if you look at amazing American design companies who were created in the fifties and sixties, there was that energy. You will lose it [with scale]. For example, now in Milan that’s in a month, isn’t it? Yeah, exactly in a month.
SB: Yeah, Milan Design Week.
AB: Yeah. We’re going to show a textile collection that’s coming out of paintings. And this is Kvadrat core, this is the architectural part of Kvadrat, but it’s Ronan [Bouroullec]’s paintings, his works that you’ve probably seen, that we had translated into different types of textiles. So it’s a very poetic.… Do we know if this is going to….? I’m not sure. I don’t know how commercial it’s going to be, but it’s also, we need to push the boundaries. We need to set new milestones. We need to push it. We can’t look back. We need to look ahead. We need to try to formulate the next, and if we’re not trying, we are not going to go somewhere else, right?
SB: I love that you’re saying all this because one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about was the decentralized nature of your business, which was, prior to you taking it over, quite centralized, quite Danish, quite hierarchical. And during your time at the helm at the company, you’ve kind of shifted things. Part of this is also getting away from a more rules-based approach.
AB: Oh yeah.
SB: I was wondering, how have you gone about this sort of letting go, if I could call it that? And how do you create an unstructured culture while still scaling, still maintaining quality, and still increasing revenue, all things that any business wants, but without losing that poetry and that soul?
AB: Oh, great question. Thank you. You could say how I look at the culture, it has two sides. It has a warm side, but it also—I don’t know if it’s a cold side. We also have the Swiss side or the Scandinavian side. It’s about the clock. So there’s a lot of things where we have conceptualized things, and they’re ticking, and we know we have created ways of working that when you start with us—I was just talking about the new people starting here—that we know how you can become successful, so trust us on this. We want your feedback. That’s very Scandinavian, Danish. Danes are very critical to our authority, so just speak up. It’s not a problem. So we have this feedback culture and so on.
But, when that’s set, that’s the side of the business where we are. We develop ways of working, but still in what I call freedom in a framework. So we create a framework. That’s also when you are, for example, a commercial person at Kvadrat, we have a hundred and forty, when they go into a big project with—I’m on a lot of NDAs—one of the world’s greatest businesses. And we send this person, this is a person who can make the decisions. You don’t need to phone a regional director or managing director in a company or in a local company. When you meet the person, this is an empowered person. They have freedom in their framework, they can make the decisions. So that’s the energy of being well organized in a way, on the fundamentals. So that’s a part of it.
Then what we offer is, and not everybody needs to be a part of it, but we have slowly, it’s really turning this, the engagement in contemporary culture. We see people knowing a lot, following things. And I also believe the community through conversations about creativity, because our touch—we’re seeing twenty-five thousand architects and designers around the world many times during the year. So the conversations with them, the feedback from them, it just keeps feeding the culture and keeps moving us along.
SB: I love this. I’m struck by this tension, too, and I’m thinking about Giulio Ridolfo here and his Materializing Color project, and just like the crazy inefficiency of that project, which is like, “I’m out in nature, just kind of like hanging out, picking flowers, looking at colors.”
SB: But the other side of that project is this incredibly beautiful, durable, long-lasting, and actually, I would say, quite efficient product. So this dichotomy between inefficiency and efficiency is—
AB: Yeah. You need to be inefficient at a certain point. You can say it’s also, you make some choices that you want to be value-based, and you try to let people make their decisions based on the values. Also, just so we take the sugar coating away, it’s also not always that easy, because as you grow as a company, you need to comply to legal things. You need to comply to legislation about personal data, G.D.P.R. in Europe, other things. So there’s also this that’s sneaking in on you.
Actually, sustainability is also a powerhouse and very exciting, but there’s also a lot of organizing around it. So finding that balance with organizing those things, and also putting them into the world, to make the world better, and still having the freedom. I think that that’s probably the tension that you are seeing. I would say something, just to flash it here, I’ll be on Thursday at Harvard Business School. The second case [study] about Kvadrat is coming out. So we also had a study for young MBAs. The first case came out in 2014.
SB: Yeah, I read it.
AB: Okay. Oh, thank you. Called “Leading for innovation.” Now comes a new one called “Focus, Execute, and Grow.” It’s very much cases about how to grow a global business. But the core of it is also how we work with culture. So I’m—from a professional point of view—proud of people studying this.
SB: Yeah. And selfishly, that’s sort of the point of this interview right now. I mean, I’ve really wanted it to come across as: Anders is not your ordinary CEO. In fact, we have very few CEOs that have come on this podcast.
AB: Thank you. Thank you.
SB: We had Andrea Illy, the chairman of Illycaffè, who also is very involved in the world of art.
AB: Sure. I know him.
SB: Yeah. And we’ve had our mutual friend, Christian Madsbjerg, who you introduced me to. I would say it’s very rare to find a CEO who’s thinking about culture in the way that you are and engaging with it at a corporate level in the way you are. And also on a personal level, which maybe we’ll touch on.
AB: That is true.
SB: But you’ve previously emphasized the importance of creating a vision that carries emotion. And I feel like we don’t get to hear enough talk about emotion from executives. Could you elaborate on this a little bit, speak to how you think about emotion as a leader and a CEO? I mean, clearly Kvadrat has cultural intelligence, but also I would argue emotional intelligence embedded into it.
AB: You could say, where to go. I’m just thinking more things that’s why, I need to organize my thoughts. [Laughs] We are working in the creative industry, and I think people can feel the passion, if you’re passionate. And of course if you are the CEO and you’re passionate about it and passionate about creative culture, it will go all the way through the organization. And people, when they interact with some young salesperson we have in Chicago, or in Shanghai, they will sense some of this energy.
One of my thoughts also, it’s actually a passion for creative culture and producing creative culture. It’s actually also a passion for…. I use the word—I love to be a little provocative—beauty. Like this is a place of beauty, your place here.
SB: Thank you.
AB: Yeah, yeah. And me, I love books. We are packed in books. We have beautiful objects around us.
So I think this passion for these types of spaces—and you’ve got nice art on the wall, not irrelevant art. Somebody’s been thinking; it fits. So this passion we need to bring, and it goes all the way through. And just to say, then you can get financially successful. Of course, Harvard Business School will not write a case if we’re not financially successful.
But when that’s said, I think people who get successful [is] when they’re passionate about something, and then the financial success comes after. If I should say an extreme example: I’m in the jury now of Entrepreneur of the Year in Denmark with Ernst and Young, and that’s some of the key people in Denmark and Danish business. And then sitting with one of—actually, the biggest—PE fund in Denmark, the CEO is sitting there, invites me for his annual conference. So I went over there, I thought, “Okay, maybe I can learn something. Let me also be a good sport. Let me go and see what those guys [are doing].”
I was like, I was scared, it was like, such a PE firm, a whole day. It was this church of money. They were only talking about money the whole day. It was like, if you’re a priest, you’ve seen the devil [Laughs]. And there’s actually an old Danish expression: “If money is your master, you’re really in trouble.” That’s an old English expression. So I think that’s where some CEOs really, if you don’t [like what you do], then go do something else. I think some great CEOs could be passionate about…. Like, I love a small—they’re not doing that well—a small Danish brewery called Mikkeller, maybe you know them.
SB: I know them.
AB: Yeah. I love them. And they’re not doing very well. Maybe they’re too passionate! But they’re so passionate about what they’re doing. There’s so much excitement. They’re very innovative. So I really believe that’s how this energy is extremely important.
Another maybe more general thing about leadership, I believe very much, we had years where we grew a lot and we had people who were burning out, which is not good for our community. So we introduced, in a way, empathy. That’s maybe the closest word to what you’re talking about, social intelligence. The two are interlinked. So one of our four words is actually empathy. So it’s passion, it’s quality, it’s love for design or understanding of creativity, and then it’s empathy. So we also live the value of empathy. When we work, with all relationships—of course with clients, we try to listen to the clients. Where are they actually? But actually, also on the internal lines, have you been fair to this person? The power of success comes also from teams. Teams being successful, because we are in locations all around the world. So it’s the team in Singapore, it’s the team in Italy who is successful. It’s not really the mothership who will help them. So creating—back to empathy. And then, at the end of the day, maybe it’s banal, but also success comes from understanding yourself, so also about—
AB: All right. All right.
SB: And I love this idea of being heart-centered. I think that there are not enough leaders who think that way. Again, it’s like the church of money or something.
AB: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
SB: All hail the dollar, but it can’t be everything.
AB: No, no.
SB: Do you think that companies like Jaguar Land Rover, MUJI, Adidas Originals, Bang & Olufsen, these companies that have created partnerships with you, what is it about Kvadrat that they feel drawn to? There’s a sort of cult quality to what you’ve built—without it being an actual cult, of course.
AB: We’ve learned we’re not allowed to say cult, right? [Laughter] We get a lot of requests, so we’ve been very hard—and maybe not hard enough—on choosing who to collaborate with.
SB: You can’t say no to a Stan Smith, though.
AB: No, we couldn’t. [Laughs]
SB: I mean, to make a Stan Smith sneaker.
AB: It sold out in four days. What’s the idea?
SB: I couldn’t even get one.
AB: Yeah, exactly. Nobody got one. They just went. So yeah, so we did Stan Smith. In a way, also, we are this cult brand. I mean, I’m actually okay about being a “cult” brand. When that’s said, we are not really known by that many people. We are known in the design community. We are a very strong brand in the design community, the AD community, and with people who are interested in design. So you could say those, for example, Jaguar Land Rover, it is actually my own account, or I’m following them. You can say the side effect has been they do a small film about us; five million people see it.
SB: Yeah, well exactly. I mean—
AB: Yeah, or the Stan Smith. Or B&O—many people know us from B&O, even some people think that’s who we are because they meet us. So in a way it’s also, of course, it’s a way of getting to know that we are this global specialist in design textiles. I’m thinking of other collaborations. We’ve got a couple of collaborations now in fashion, with some of the world’s best fashion companies. And it’s not so much business, actually, and now it’s not turned into a collab. It’s more that we do textiles for them. But where the energy comes is sometimes when you plug in—I’ll not mention the name, but one of the best Parisian brands—but they’re ten thousand people. They’ve got a lot of R and D. We are, in a way, like-minded. So it’s also connecting with people who can take us out of our industry. Because our industry, interiors, is a relatively small industry.
That’s the same actually also with Jaguar Land Rover. They’ve got an engineering team and art design team of three hundred people. So there’s also talking with them, and they have a lot of research. They’ve actually got very strong sustainable ambitions: You can say the whole automotive industry knows they need to transform if they want a role in the future.
So it’s more those conversations, leveraging those resources and then finding out who has the true ambitions on creativity, on sustainability, on technology. And that’s actually taking us to really new places. The challenge is of course to stay focused in those conversations.
SB: Yeah, obviously there is, at its heart, the design connection to the company. But what I wanted to actually speak with you about today wasn’t—I was almost hoping we wouldn’t even use the word design, because I think the value of your company extends so far outside of the reach of what the design world is.
AB: Fully, fully. I had with Konstantin Grcic—maybe now I can say publicly—but we had a late night dinner at Flos, when Piero [Gandini] was at Flos, I was a little bit—what do you call it—I was on design: “Design needs to move. I think sometimes design is very much caught in a circuit, and it’s replicating itself.” And his defense for design was that we are just doing things better and better and better and better. And that’s a part of our culture. But I was saying I think it’s a very closed circuit and we really—
SB: It gets stuck in a silo. How do you break out of that?
AB: Yeah. And that’s, of course, where, with our creative culture, with contemporary art, also architecture, those conversations—and back to contemporary art, because this is where contemporary art is ahead—often I say contemporary artists do not know where they’re going. They’re just sensing something. They’re interpreting the world. Sometimes they cannot even formulate what they’re sensing. And that’s why the power—actually, I think also sometimes with architects, because we are involved in probably five to six thousand projects around the world in architecture—there’s also a lot of info coming back to us that is from outside the design space.
This is probably where the design is partly caught in its own circuit, I think. Sometimes, we get the energy right and things are moving. I like design the most when it’s contextual, when it’s working in context, and somebody as smart as the designer takes it somewhere else and creates something even better. That’s when I get the wow, or the “supes,” as we say in Danish, that when people apply things and take it even further. So design, I think we are, in a way, a little bit challenged in design.
SB: Yeah. Well, I will say that a lot of the listeners of Time Sensitive aren’t from or of the design world. So for those listening, actually—
AB: Yeah, please.
SB: You can go on our timesensitive.fm website and look at all the hyperlinks of the references and the people we’ve been talking about today.
AB: Yeah, exactly.
SB: And I think it’s impossible to have a conversation with you without talking about design. Of course. But I think, actually, so much of the heart of what we’re talking about is about creativity at large, and embedding the thinking that comes with looking at art, thinking about art, engaging art, and how that can be applied to the operations of a company. How that can be applied to how employees ponder things, period. And I think that that’s really beautiful about what you’ve been building.
I also didn’t want to miss the opportunity to talk to you about Ebeltoft, which is where the company has its headquarters. The majority of its employees live and work there. When I think about your operations, which really embody quality and slowness, it feels so rooted in this place.
AB: I often joke that we are the middle of nowhere. We are nowhere, where the roads have no names. That’s, in a way, also the power of the business, is that you have this backbone that is in a way a slow, very well-organized, perfectionistic culture. People have good lives. People who have, you can say your customer service has a regular job, but also works in the warehouse. You live in your own house, you have a boat, you maybe have a summer house. It is a great life, it’s a good life. It’s a Scandinavian, egalitarian life and well considered. And then we have the tension that we are in New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Tokyo, Milan—
SB: Grand Rapids.
AB: Which is actually a copy of Ebeltoft. We see Grand Rapids is actually our Ebeltoft. That was to build a backbone in the U.S. So Ebeltoft, it has the beauty of Michigan, but we are also on a peninsula with a view of the sea from all our rooms.
What we’ve done in Ebeltoft is, we felt already that we had a little bit of a gap between our head office and those forty-five showrooms around the world and our forty companies around the world. So it’s also trying to build a culture, build a bridge between those cultures, and actually, Christian Madsbjerg, who has been here [on Time Sensitive] before, was one of the ones helping try to build this bridge. And they’re actually promoting contemporary culture, inviting people in, saying even if you live in the middle of nowhere, it’s a very beautiful place, but there’s maybe twelve thousand people living in the neighborhood. So we are at the sea. You can fish, you can surf, you can do other things, but it’s also a very, very small community. But trying to connect those communities and share the content…. One of the things, for example, what I do, I was actually complaining about my senior management team because they didn’t join me.
But also I go, when we have these cultural trips, we go together. I go with—it is, like, blue-collar workers who are joining. And then we are going to have a museum tour, going to look at architecture, having conversations. We really live it. Everybody is going somewhere. We live it. Or we have people coming doing lectures. So that’s how we try to create, but you need this type of backbone, and that is, in a way, also one of our secrets, that we’ve got this—
SB: Yeah, well, and we haven’t entirely touched on this incredible legacy. Your father, Poul, founded Kvadrat with Erling Rasmussen, in 1968, and going back a bit, it was founded on this principle of producing machine-made fabric with artistic integrity. So all of what we’re talking about has been in the DNA from the start.
SB: And you’ve described it as, like, a “hippie company” early on. Clearly not a hippie company anymore, but working with just these incredible creative people, Nanna Ditzel, Verner Panton. One of the images I’ve seen, looking at the company archive, that I was hoping maybe you could speak to is Restaurant Varna, which was completed in 1971 in Aarhus, Denmark, and I think it’s really this remarkable example of the space-shaping power of Kvadrat from an early moment. These pops of color, the richness of the space—that restaurant would look totally contemporary now. And so, I guess this is a roundabout way of asking, fifty-five years on, how do you see this duration, this endurance, this longevity—to tie it all back to time?
AB: Oh, thank you. It’s also something that I realized—there was a show [“Pop Art Design”] at Vitra Design Museum and it traveled to the Louisiana [Museum of Modern Art] and to Moderna [Museet in Stockholm], [that was] trying to show the connection between Pop art and also art in [Achille] Castiglioni, Verner Panton, and many other people trying to build this. Can’t remember if they had architecture—it was actually mostly design and contemporary art. And there I realized, Oh, my God, this is who we are. Because Scandinavian design, especially Danish, is so centered on Midcentury, like in a way, also American design. That’s like the birth of the modern. And my father grew up in it and knew all those people, Arne Jacobsen, Finn Juhl, and so on, worked with those people. With that said, Kvadrat is, of course, we have a lot of values on quality. That’s probably why we make things that last forever. And no compromise. Quality, quality, quality. But that said, it was also—how my father thought—it was actually a community that was a little bit, he said, without oxygen. It was very rule-based. It was very quiet. They were smoking pipes or whatever.
SB: Tan and gray.
AB: Listening to quiet jazz, which is not a problem. We all love Kind of Blue, but it was very, very organized. So 1968 is extremely important. We are far more connected to Pop art—
SB: I mean, radical design started that year.
AB: Castiglioni, Verner Panton, all those things. This is where we are born. And this is also why, when we started, we were seen as kind of explosive. Our first showroom, there was no furniture. It was all, like, you were sitting on the floor. We had wild colors. Actually, the Raf Simons logo now for the Raf Simons collections is actually from ’68, which is very, it’s a comic drawing and so on. So we had this energy. So it was being more free. And that’s actually what my father…. When I took over the leadership, we were extremely experimental. So he believed—it was actually our core idea then to do experimental textiles. So sometimes we did textiles, we maybe produced ten kilometers, and we sold nothing, zero.
Another thing just to, because I was thinking now we were meeting, also my own childhood. When I grew up, my mother was working with fashion, was a fashion tailor, and my father was working for Verner Penton and he was building the shows. So in many ways I’m actually a Verner Penton kid because my father—they were both engaged, and my father would give my mother a lift. My mother was working with Verner Penton on clothes, doing fashion with him. And my father was building his shows and working with him. And then he gave her a lift for three hours on a ferry ride, and then I became the product. They married. [Laughs] That was the beginning. Also, growing up, the home was full of prototypes. So I grew up seeing prototypes, all textile prototypes, furniture prototypes. So it’s been a beautiful ride and very engaging. And of course, also a ride that trains your eye.
SB: Yeah, well, and I should say here that it wasn’t always that you were going to become the CEO. In fact, you went to business school; you trained to be a lawyer. You worked as a lawyer for a period. And it was only when the company was sold, in 1992—a disastrous sale, I suppose—and the family was able to buy it back that your journey really started. I think what’s so remarkable is that your partner now in the business [Mette Bendix] is also the offspring of who started the company with your father. That’s so rare that a family business would continue, but this is actually a double family business.
AB: Yeah it is true. I think where it has been good for us is that we always run things with good governance. We got a super-professional board. We are trying to do things the right way. Actually, back to the values and the ideas: It was interesting when we were doing a new strategy, and we did a 2030 stretch, where should we be in 2030? And the most powerful was actually because we checked in with the family members, but they were so clear on the values and the vision and the creativity. So it’s lived by the ownership, for sure.
SB: In a conversation last year, you were speaking of Denmark, which of course connects to this family thing and to these egalitarian values, and you describe this idea of being very quiet, doing things in a more sustainable way. This is just part of the very nature of what it means to be Danish, almost—or Scandinavian. Could you speak to this sort of “fewer, better things” approach to objects living in design and how that’s embodied at Kvadrat, but also how that is sort of this enduring quality? I mean, I think this idea of looking at what’s around us, and how do we—upcycling, for example, recycling….
AB: The people creating Scandinavian design in the fifties and so on, it also came from the fact that we were not so wealthy, to be truthful. They were working with elements from farmers, craftspeople, and so on. In many ways, it was a little bit like the Shaker movement in North America. The Shakers also, they came from Europe, didn’t they? Partly from Switzerland and other places.
SB: I’m thinking now, too, that you just did this Shaker [System] project with Raf.
AB: Yeah, exactly. Which is also very much about, you have one space and everything can hang. So it was also being careful about materials, that you were careful and you did things that really lasted long. Also a tradition, a big tradition was that things—you inherited interiors and things that lasted forever. So I’m creating things that lasted that long. I was just talking with my spouse Miriam Bäckström yesterday, who’s an artist, and she’s Swedish. Even the Swedes are very respectful to the Danes. And she said, “It’s so unfair because you all Danes, we really grow up with it.”
In that way, we are a little bit unfairly ahead. And also where we are going, because we need to take care of materials. We need to create things that last as long as they can. We need to make things that we can disassemble, reuse.
We are actually transforming as a business. It’s actually one of the big agendas now. We’ve been talking a lot about creative culture, but the other very big agenda is transformation. To be a pure leader on sustainability, and have leadership on sustainability. And what’s happening now, maybe talking about sustainability as one of the major, I don’t know how much in the U.S., but in Europe, you need to get going. You know, you also have the pressure from shareholders and from leadership and from communities. It’s just very difficult if you’re starting now.
For many people, many companies, it’s a leap. It took ten, twenty years to get here—or even longer. We’ve been twenty-five years since we did our environmental management system, since we started working with the E.U. and so on. So it’s going to be very tough, but of course we are going to do it.
SB: And you’re coming out of a culture where it’s already just embedded. You were thinking like an activist in your youth.
AB: Yeah, exactly. I was walking through New York today. Here I’m like, “You are so lost.” I see a container and all kinds of things laying there, everything just mixed together. If you go to Scandinavia, we are recycling ninety-seven percent of all our metals, we are recycling ninety-seven percent of all paper in Scandinavia. We are recycling eighty percent of all plastics in Scandinavia. Now we are going to, by law, recycle all textiles. But it’s like what are we…? We are running out of resources.
SB: One of the items I wanted to bring up is the Steelcut Beat, which is this textile crafted from one hundred percent post-consumer recycled polyester. It’s not that it’s, like, a wholly original thing to do, but it is a good example of something that you’re doing that just shows what is possible.
AB: Oh yeah. I would say this is to be credited also to the U.S. textile community. The U.S. has been very good here, very early, and we are working on that also at the moment. I would say we are working on some things very innovative about recycling new materials that’s coming out very soon. I will not say more because somebody will be unhappy with me. But also working with…. We created, for example, our main manufacturing place, we are maybe the world’s biggest producer of wool and upholstery. We have a site in Yorkshire, in the U.K. We have our own facilities together with a partner, and we own half of the facilities. But there we created special machines. Typically at a manufacturing place, you have ten-percent waste; we have no waste.
So from all the woolen waste, we are creating a yarn, and we have two products created after that. That’s what you call “postindustrial wool.” You can also create post-consumer wool. At the moment, there’s just some challenges related to cleanness and other things. Best example: the Really project, where we are upcycling textile waste from the fashion industry, from furniture manufacturing, and also from hotel chains and others, where we’re actually recycling their materials and creating… So we are creating circular solutions for clients. That’s extremely exciting at the moment. That’s one of the routes we’re going.
I think what’s maybe also for, and probably quite a lot of the listeners will know, the big thing is the net zero, is actually the net zero, because one thing is creating circular systems, reducing waste, but the net-zero challenge…. And that’s actually now also, with the theme of time, is that’s the problem, that it’s so abstract. Now we are starting to see signs of it, but that’s actually the biggest challenge we’ve got. It will be a burning platform for our kids. So that’s also one of our big pushes to go from gas to go to electricity and manufacturing. All our cars are electric in the company and so on. Doing things, really moving, seeing where is your impact and what are you actually going to do to reduce it?
On products, I’m just starting to think, also, that there will be a press release out tomorrow on a collaboration [with Avantium] on something called PEF, which is a new type of polyester that’s not fossil-based. So it’s actually made out of food waste and other waste material, so we’ll create a totally new material. It’s ten years of research and we’ll be the first working with this material.
SB: What I love hearing here is, this is the upstream conversation. Kvadrat is an upstream company, and what you do, the trickle-down of that is extraordinary. And when you think about where we are in the culture, where we are in the planet, where people are talking about “resource scarcity,” we actually live in a world of incredible abundance. We really do, but we probably should not be looking at virgin materials, we should be looking at, how do we reuse what’s there? And it sounds like, based on everything you’re doing, from committing to net zero by 2040 to producing some of these textiles that are a hundred percent recycled, that’s the future.
AB: Fully, fully.
SB: I want to finish on photography and poetry. You were mentioning earlier that you have this incredible collection of poetry books at home. You’re also an art collector whose collection is largely photography.
AB: True. Thank you.
SB: And you were mentioning your Robert Adams book collection, which sounds extraordinary. Anyway, I wanted to finish on poetry and photography, also because you started with this exquisite quote about the image. So how do you think about poetry in your day-to-day? What does poetry serve for you?
AB: Maybe somebody listening is saying, “This is a commercial for poetry.” There’s a vibe about poetry at the moment with young people.
SB: We’ve had quite a few poets on the show.
AB: Oh, right, okay, good. And I actually went into poetry a little bit. We had to read it in school with— I didn’t really like it. And then I read an amazing book by Henrik Nordbrandt. I don’t know why he never got the Nobel Prize, but he’s an amazing Scandinavian poet. Then, he only had only been writing in poetry, so I wanted to read something else from him. And then I started reading his poetry, and then it totally took off. I was 18. Ever since, I’ve been into poetry, so I have a lot of hunger for poetry. The challenge with poetry is, truly, it’s best when it’s read in its own language. Poetry is very specific. It’s difficult to translate poetry.
SB: I think it should be read aloud, too. Heard.
AB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Helps. Sometimes I talk with people and they say, “Oh, I dreamed about this. I had a terrible night. I was dreaming about this.” Actually, sometimes I have some nights where I think I’m working all night. That’s the worst dream, right? But this is like meditation. So read five poems before you go to bed. So that’s actually one of my—sometimes, if it’s good, then I just keep going. But I just read this young poet, Ocean Vuong, who is probably some of the best things I read in the last—
SB: Time Is a Mother.
AB: —in the last five years. You’re blown away. It’s so powerful, and so much—
SB: I’m actually reading a book right now called Your Brain on Art, and it’s by Ivy Ross and Susan Maxman. Ivy’s a former Time Sensitive guest and Susan’s been on our other podcast, At a Distance. I’m only bringing this up because it does get into poetry and reading poetry before you go to sleep.
AB: Oh, does it?
SB: And I think there’s something quite profound in this act of slowing down, of not looking at a screen.
AB: Oh, fully. I think with poetry, that’s where the clear link is to contemporary art. Of course, it’s an art form also, on its own, but let’s say with visual contemporary art. It’s also that it’s kind of undefined. When you read Ocean Vuong, of course he’s writing about a friend going to a mental institution, challenges in life, but he is also…. Because it’s abstract, it’s very feeling. You’ve maybe experienced something a little bit like this. So also it’s sharing, due to the fact it’s pretty undefined. I think that’s the power of poetry. That’s the power. I just read the national poet of Iran. And there’s a big, big tradition in Iranian poetry, or a massive tradition in Persian poetry, and it’s written in the 1400s. He was a major inspiration for [Johann Wolfgang Von] Goethe and it’s so straightforward. It’s like Ocean Vuong. This is also his power, that he writes poetry you can understand. You’re right on. You are with him.
But also you’re reading this poetry and it’s actually telling you something about society and there’s a lot of humor and there’s a lot of reflection. There’s a lot about…. So this is where poetry can…. Another one, [Jorge Luis] Borges’s poetry also is one of the ones that have been standing out. But there’s so much.
SB: I think about how, with Kvadrat, there is also this precision and economy and directness. There’s a very firm directness when you see these textiles. And I wouldn’t be so hyperbolic as to call it a poetic act, what you’re doing—it is industrial—but there is in its nature, poetry, and I think that that’s really compelling.
AB: Thank you, thank you.
SB: So let’s switch to photography.
AB: Yeah, let’s do it. Actually, I dreamt about doing a poetry prize, or collaborating with poets. But of course, we become like a cultural.… That’s actually Peter Saville. He said, “You need to be a cultural institution,” in a good sense. But let’s go to photography.
SB: Yeah. Well, tell me about your photography collection, your interest in photography. Maybe we could even start with Robert Adams. Why Robert Adams?
AB: I actually don’t own Robert Adams yet. I only bought all his books. It’s not that expensive, so it’s okay. [Laughter] He is on the list. I actually had—now here, if he listens to this, I’m going to get in trouble, but I had a little bit of an intellectual discussion with the director of the Louisiana, Poul Erik Tøjner, which is this amazing institution, because he’s saying to me, “Anders, photography, that’s where people start. Photography is not…. It’s like, the first year’s primary school in art. And then we all graduate and get into the real stuff.” Actually, also, for the business, we work a lot with conceptual art installations and we have video. So it’s not that— I also actually own a little bit of sculpture. And we’ve got some sculptures. But that said, photography is….
Even my spouse is a photographer, Miriam Bäckström, a quite celebrated contemporary photographer. She’s in MoMA, Tate, and Moderna, and Louisiana’s collections with photography. I kind of got to know her because I loved her work. I was so mesmerized by her work there. But with that said, you see the power of photography. I think where photography is very challenged as an art form, first of all, of course, it’s all about content. This is where people sometimes go wrong. If you see a photography auction or something, there’s a mix of things that are not contemporary art. Contemporary art photography, the idea is the center, and course, photography is just a way to show the idea. And this is where it goes wrong, when we see fashion photographers, all the people, or press, which is amazing—it’s just not art. How powerful a piece of contemporary art photography is very much, of course, all about the core idea, the artistic expression. Then you can have beauty, but that’s the core.
The other exposure of photography is that we’ve all got smartphones. So I love to take pictures. I’ve probably got twenty-four thousand pictures in my phone right now. Some of them are pretty good. We are all small artists. [Laughs] It doesn’t make it easy to be a contemporary artist working with photography as a medium. It just gives me so much energy. Of course, we are supporting Nan Goldin and her European tour, which is very exciting. And we are helping with material building her cinemas. There’s four or five small architectural spaces, and we are helping with materials on that. I always adored her work, and then I just bought it. Seeing Nan, her story about the [downtown New York] community in the seventies, eighties, nineties, also her activism later, tried to express that in an installation or in a painting. So for me, I think photography, now you make me—I’m getting warm, we say in Danish—I think it’s actually more relevant to contemporary culture [than paintings]. It’s actually also the life we live. The now. I think it’s very much the now.I probably also would like to have some paintings, but for me it’s a little back-leaning. It’s not leaning into the future.
Also, I actually didn’t want to buy it, I met him in Tokyo. I thought, No, it’s too quiet, this is really boring. [Hiroshi] Sugimoto. But I couldn’t get it—every time I look at the sea, I think of him, or very often, when I fly I think of Sugimoto. So then I had to buy it.
SB: Next time in the movie theater, you’ll think of him.
AB: I had to buy a seascape. So there’s those things.
Or I have a work, for example, Ai Weiwei, I think his most important work [“Ai Weiwei in the Elevator When Taken Into Custody by the Police” (2009)], where he’s arrested in the elevator and standing [with] two Chinese police agents who are holding him in his arms and standing next to him, and they’re holding him on his arrest and he’s standing in the elevator and he just takes his smartphone out and takes a picture in the mirror. Try to do that in some other art forms. So I think now there’s an instant element in photography.
And now, talking about Robert Adams, think of how, in a way, the whole story about the West. And many people interpret him as a critique of what’s gone. No, no, it’s his forefather. What’s his name?
SB: Ansel Adams?
AB: Yeah. I just bought a work of his, which is very, very like his work. In a way, he’s standing on the back of him. It’s a work that looks very much like Adams’s works. But Adams’s work is about a lot of other things. He has this book—it’s about his home. He’s now, I think on my memory, in his seventies or maybe eighties. He’s in his home. It’s a book only about his home. He has this beautiful—relatively, I think for American standards—wooden house in nature. And then he’s describing his home. It’s poetry. He’s describing the clouds, he’s describing the laundry, he’s describing…. Or there’s another book, that’s actually my favorite; it’s called [A Road Through Shore Pine], where he drives to his house. So it’s just pictures of this route where he’s driving through the pine trees. After I saw that, I will never forget this route through the pine trees. So it is cinematic, also, at the same time.
So I think photography is very, very exciting. Even now, photography is a little bit out of fashion. But I spoke with some curators, and they said, “Yeah, so what? Art is always moving somewhere else.” That’s my excitement.
SB: How do you think about the quote that you started this interview, this conversation, with, in that context? I think we’ll end there. I’d love to hear what that quote means to you when thinking about photography, thinking about poetry, and ultimately thinking about Kvadrat.
AB: I think a lot of things are going to disappear. A lot of imagery is going to disappear. Also, somebody was very tough to me about photography, that the quality of photography today is actually—in a hundred years, most of the photography will be dissolved. I hope there will be a solution. So things will disappear. And I think Kvadrat will last. I really think it’s built to last. I think we are reaching into the value. Our community is getting bigger. I think actually, also, truly myself, as a CEO, I took the company to this—and I’m planning to still take it to the next chapter—but then of course, when that chapter is over, I think I will also disappear, and it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter. It’s the energy, the passion. And we move some things.
Some of the products, some of the designers will last probably the next five hundred years. Also some of the contemporary artists we are working with—they will have a legacy. They will live in the future, and we will probably be forgotten. They will not listen to our podcast, and they will not worry about who was the CEO of Kvadrat—who cares? [Laughs]
SB: Amazing. Ephemeral, and yeah, what a beautiful statement on time.
AB: Thank you.
SB: Thank you, Anders.
AB: Yeah, and thank you for taking me in here.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on March 20, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Casper Sejersen.