Els is the Head of Design at &Tradition. A true working nomad if there ever was one - Els details her experience within design from building lego towers to her leading position now. Now living in Copenhagen, we meet Els in her bedroom where she shares her story, perspective on life and her new way of creative thinking.
What was it like growing up? What is your earliest memory of wanting to become a designer?
I grew up in the countryside, Belgium! My grandparents lived next door. They had a big farm. Still have, but it's my uncle running it. I have a huge family on my dad's side. I remember entering a competition for IKEA. It was specifically for professional interior designers. I made this little booklet with hand drawings, and then they got back kindly saying that it was only for professionals. I was only 12, ha!
How did you find out about it?
I always looked through their catalog when I was young. One day I opened it up, saw them promoting a competition to design your dream house. My eyes lit up… I thought, “Yeah! I want to enter this.” My mom was super supportive and offered to help. I did all the drawings. She put it all together in a nice little booklet whilst she was at work.
Yeah, but this is more than 20 years ago, so it was, at that time, quite new. Then I was like, "Okay, I'm going to be an interior designer, basically. That's going to be my goal."
Let’s take a step even further back… how did you know about interior design at age 12?!
Lego had this thing called Belville and I would build different houses with different kitchens. It was a fun thing to do. Then I became interested in furniture and space in an innocent way. When I was 18 I went to study interior design in Brussels. Afterwards I started an internship - this was in and around 2008, a period where it was difficult to find work. They asked me to work part-time, and I didn’t want to do that so I decided to go to Spain to learn Spanish. And really quickly in Madrid, my world opened up.
What happened after Spain?
I was working in this tiny workshop for more than three years. Everything I drew, they would make next door, so I would spend a lot of time in manufacturing to see how things are made. I learned a lot about the finer details of the process. Then this opportunity came up for Vitra. I had always wanted to work for Vitra. I saw that they had this vacancy. I was like, "Okay, I'm just going to apply." Then I got it, so then I went and started to work for Vitra.
It was the best! It was incredible. I worked on Brussels Airport as a project. I was in charge of the showroom and then client projects and all the classics - I thrived. But I only stayed a year, they couldn't transfer me to London because they didn't need my position, so I decided to quit and move to London.
That’s a bold move to make…
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because I did a job. I quit. I went travelling. I did a job. I quit. I went travelling. That was my pattern. So I moved and then in September or October, I was like, "I need to get a job." I had this weird situation with this recruiter that called me out of the blue and said, "Oh, I haven't met you yet but there's this company called The Office Group (TOG) that likes your profile and would really like to meet you." It was around two o’clock and they asked if I could attend an interview/meeting at 5 o’clock. I was confused at first… didn’t think he was being serious, but he quickly filled the quiet and said "Yeah. Can you go? Can you go today?" I was like, "Yeah! Yeah, I can go." So I went home, got changed, and got ready. On the bus to the meeting, I was reading about them.
Right, and how did it go?
I got the job, basically and when I started, it was such a small company I was number five joining their property team. When I started they were not advanced yet on the design side. They really tried but their spaces were sometimes lime green and purple combined. They had a lot of furniture copies. I did my thesis about the Eames and I worked for Vitra before, so my job was to change that. I was there for five years. After three years they allowed me to hire a team so I started building a team after two and a half, three years. Then I had this physical burnout where my body gave up.
Wow, okay. What happened next?
Soon after the burnout, some changes occurred in the business that led me to resign. I didn't intend to do it as I loved the job. I was the job, you know? I didn't have a plan. I didn't have a job. Then you get the offers to go and work in the same sector because you have the experience. But I’ve always said to myself, that when I'm invested in a brand and I believe in that brand, I cannot go do the same (work) for someone else - my heart would not be in it." I'd never been to Australia, and I thought …why not?
So I went to Australia. I had never lived by the beach before then. I said, "If I'm going to Australia, I'm going to live by the beach."
How did your time in Australia go?
I spent a lot of time on the beach and tried surfing. I spent some time there just enjoying life. I planned a road trip, which I did by myself. I was also helping out a company based in Sydney and I was doing research on Australian designers two days a week and I would go into the office to give a presentation around it.
Sounds like a dream! How did you end up getting to live in Copenhagen after that?
At that time a lot of my friends had sent me this application for &Tradition that there was a head of design vacancy. I think I got it from five, six people individually saying that I should apply for it. I was staying with a friend of mine from Belgium near Melbourne and she had applied for another job and to motivate her, I was like, "I'll apply for this." So I just did it two weeks before I left the country back to Belgium to be with my family. Soon after I arrived I got sent an email asking for an interview, which went really well but first I said no to the job as I didn't want to move to Copenhagen, but then I came to my senses and moved after all.
It’s amazing to see how you’ve made your own luck in your life.
I never had a plan. I just went with what felt right at that time. Although, leaving TOG was one of the most difficult things I ever did because it was my dream job. I never thought I would land another dream job.
Then shit hit the fan, right? Nobody really knew what was going on. What was your experience going through that? And, how did that shape you to see things today?
The biggest thing for me was that I never really felt at home in London. I had my home, physical space. It was everything that I ever wanted. The house I was living in had all the features that I had set in my life.
It was a fantasy, yeah.
It was the fantasy and it was there, but I was traveling every other week. I was hardly there or I was going back to Belgium and I was traveling somewhere else for work, to see friends. I never felt like it was my home sweet home. Then I moved here to Copenhagen. All of a sudden I was by myself and I knew a few people, but I didn't really, and I actually don't speak the language.
I started walking around the city, listening to podcasts every time, every day, trying to get out to do something. I still went to work, but luckily for me this was a period of proper rehab.
How did that affect your relationship to your new home/space?
I spent all my time here (gesturing to the apartment). The summer was fine, but when winter came I needed to make it cozy. I got a new sofa and a few other things. I missed the warmth we would experience from a meeting, speaking and enjoying our time with people. Obviously, this was not possible so I wanted to somewhat replicate this sentiment in my apartment.
I'm curious to know how you feel now that you’ve gone through a process of "rehab" in the past 18 months?
Very good. I think that's the most beautiful thing about moving countries. You can just reinvent yourself. You just blend in. You need to adapt. What's the Danish version of you? What's the English version of you? What's the Australian version of you?
Sounds like this experience gave you the confidence and space to be a flexible, adaptable version of yourself?
I'm never going to be one that wants to reach a goal in life, I want to make a change more than anything. I don't want to have a certain position. I had this dream when I was younger that I wanted to work for Vitra. Then I did it. That was great. Then at TOG, they gave me so much freedom that I had so much fun in what I did. Then coming here and this new job and again, there's so much freedom. It's great. Everyone's like, "What would you want to do? "Do you stay for a few years”, and I honestly don't know. &Tradition is such a great challenge and I can see myself here for a long time.
I'm really excited to see how the products we're bringing out will perform. Are people going to be surprised? What will the reactions be? I think every product that is going to come out has a very special meaning for me.
Your job requires you to be creative as head of design. Has producing, creating and adapting to a slower life impacted your output?
You need to see things to get inspired... to get that spark.. But what you need is time, because you need your mind to be blank, to let something in and then be like, "Ah, I could use that." The time and space offered me an opportunity to reflect, think and question. I was asking myself all sorts of questions - what can we do? What's going to attract people? How can we bring people together?
Do you think in terms of your creativity, in this new realm of existence with COVID, how do you feed your creativity and creative process? How does it look now?
It was a great time to be in design this year.
Not interior design because projects slowed down. But to be in design and creating products, of course it was a great time because the pressure of launching went down. Suddenly you began to question do we need that, do we want to go back to that. The first thing, when that happens, when this is over, we want to bring people together. So this whole approach changed. It also changed the fact that we don't have to meet in person all the time. But the best part for creativity is when you sit collectively and you draw. That is something that's never going to change. Myself and everyone realized this.
Which is different to what people traditionally perceive creativity to be, something tangible like a song or a piece of art?
The biggest thing for me in 2020 around creativity was how do you get the best out of people when you're not with them? How do you motivate them? How do you get them to feel connected to a company they're not allowed to come to? You get innovative because you're thinking of problems you need to solve or ways you need to communicate or get creative, because you cannot see each other in real life
So you have to find a way to do it either way.
And in terms of the things that inspire you, what might those things be?
I love meeting new people. I love traveling. I love to sit in museums, preferably just by myself and taking it all in. I like museums for the space, not necessarily for their collections.
People, places, experiences, and conversations. For me, it's always conversations. It’s also why I love traveling by myself because I get to talk to new people. I once asked the concierge of a hotel to show me every available room, to see the tile pattern because it's different. You’re not really able to do that when you're with another person.
I think that's what sparks my creativity. I am so interested in how other people's brains work. I find it so fascinating, because I know how mine is.
Okay. Well, this was the first place that you came and moved to? I'm interested in your neighborhood.
This is home. Copenhagen K. This is literally the center of Copenhagen. It cannot get more central than this.
What's it like to live here?
I wanted to live in the center because of the duality it provides. You can simultaneously be by yourself and there will be a busy vibe around you just outside. You constantly hear people. Everything is so close by. I think it's important for me that I am right where it's happening so at least I feel like I can go out, have a drink and it's right next door. The shops are right next door, or downstairs, for that matter. You have supermarkets, work is close by. Convenience was a big factor when I decided to move here.
I love that. Do you have a favorite place in this neighborhood you like to spend time in?
Yeah. There's a wine bar by the water. I need to be by water because it's the nicest place. And I like just sitting there in the summer by the canal, having a glass of wine, and actually, in the winter, as well. I will go there quite regularly. For coffee, I like to go to the park. It's not the best but it's just nice because it's in the park. You can grab a coffee, and sit and read a book and that's my favorite pastime. And if not, then it's grabbing a coffee at, I'd say Atellier September or Sonny. They're very good places to have coffee and eat. Grab a coffee, sit outside, sit by the water. That would be the best thing to do here at any given time.
Nice. And what does a normal day look like for you?
I wake up very early. I'm a six o'clock type of person. When I wake up at 6:00, I go to the gym. It's in my three minute walking zone. I come back, shower, have an outfit crisis or not, depends. Mostly an outfit crisis. Go to work, have a coffee at work. We have great coffee at work too.
And how would you describe your relationship to your bedroom?
My relationship to my bedroom? Is it ok if I start with my process of how I make it?
I wanted it to be cozy and I didn't want to paint the walls because it's not too big. I wanted to keep that quite light. And then I like to have some feeling of intimacy in there. I think curtain wise, that's the only place I have curtains. Also, because I like sleeping in the dark, but I wanted to add some color to it and I wanted it to be relaxing. Also, one clothing rack. There's not too much happening because it really needs to be my serene moment of calmness and no clutter. I feel like everywhere else in the flat, there's a lot of stuff. But in there, I kept it really minimal because I need to relax and I need to sleep. I'm a sleeper.
And when you built this bedroom, was there a place or an item of furniture that you started with?
The bed is the most important!
And then you built around it?
Yes. Not a lot of sculpting to do in this one. But yeah, it started with the bed. It's the most important thing. I slept on floors, slept on a mattress on the floor. It's very important that you have a good night's sleep. I would say that my relationship there is more that it's like a sanctuary. It's a place to really relax and not get distracted.