From architecture and interior design to branding and product creation—with hit pop music thrown in for good measure—Danish designer Johannes Torpe doesn’t set boundaries when it comes to his creative projects.
As the head of Johannes Torpe Studios as well as the creative director for luxury electronics brand Bang & Olufsen, Torpe divides his time between his studio offices in Denmark, Italy, and China as he works on retail and restaurant space design, architecture, graphic design, branding, and more for an impressive roster of clients that includes Ferrari, Roberto Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, and Skype. Torpe cites his childhood upbringing in what he refers to as a “hippie commune” in Denmark as a key reason for his success, and has undertaken a wide variety of artistic pursuits throughout his life. In addition to his design work, he’s also famous for co-founding Danish music group Enur, which is known for its 2007 hit dance song “Calabria” that shot up music charts worldwide.
Since China makes up around a fourth of his studio’s total global business, Torpe opened a China office in 2012 in collaboration with well-known Chinese businessman Wang Xiaofei (a figure who is frequently mentioned in China’s celebrity gossip news thanks to his high-profile marriage to a Taiwanese pop star and previous role as president of high-end restaurant chain South Beauty Group, which is currently the subject of a much-publicized legal battle).
To learn more about Torpe’s thoughts on luxury and design in China, we caught up with him in Beijing to discuss his experience with Bang & Olufsen in China, how the concept of luxury is changing for Chinese consumers, and the differences between the creative design process in China and Europe.
You’ve designed retail and restaurant spaces all over the world, in both Europe and China. Are there any ways in which you specifically tailor your designs to the China market?
The China market, for me, is quite interesting. If you compare China with Europe, you would say that China and Italy have a lot in common. Luxury in Italy is not luxury; it is craftsmanship that has been turned into luxury to sell it easier to people who love money—to charge more for it. In China, you have craftsmanship as well, but they haven’t understood yet how to commercialize it into something of value with the exception of Chinese art.
Looking at the restaurant scene, I truly believe that when you go to a restaurant, you have two hours, typically—you walk in with your friends and all you want to do is forget the day. You want to sit down and forget everything around you and enjoy food and celebrate friendships. The restaurant, depending on where you go, has to set different scenes. If the food is fantastic, then you forget about the scenery; it’s not important. If you do a beautiful restaurant with great service and terrible food, then it’s even worse because it’s just disappointing. It’s not only the sense of what you put in your mouth, but the sense of what you look at; what you experience of the service.
For me, starting in China has been quite the experience because the people have a different experience of service than the rest of world, and also a different experience with the food—the freshness, the way it is served. There are so many ways you can serve a dish that you have to learn as a designer as well. For me, doing this in China has been a great challenge and is something I bring along with me when I do restaurants in Europe, America, and other places because it is really something you can actually use to remember how to do hospitality better.
You opened a partner studio with Wang Xiaofei in 2012. What effects has the China expansion had on your overall global business?
If you want to work in China with government-funded projects, you have to have a local Chinese partner. You can’t just be a laowai opening a studio here because they won’t let you in. And if they let you in, you have to [make] just one mistake and you will be pushed out of China. So to have Xiaofei as a partner is a very important thing for us in China, and he is a very productive man, which is why we are looking at projects all over China right now. He really has something to offer, and he is the new generation of Chinese that are not driven by the limitations of mainland China.
Have you noticed any differences between China and your home base in terms of creative studio culture?
Oh yeah, absolutely. There is a different creative culture in China, in most Asian countries, compared to Western countries. The culture is that, in China specifically, leadership is respected a lot. It is not democratic. I am a very democratic person, I really appreciate it. In my Copenhagen studio, for instance, everyone has a say. If people say, “we don’t agree,” then I say, “okay, then give me a better reason to do it differently,” and people will speak out very openly and you usually find a compromise and actually make it better than what you would have done. And sometimes you don’t. Sometimes I’m just right. I actually like that.
So my first experience when we opened in China was with a Chinese staff. They will not speak their mind. If you tell them, “do this,” and what you tell them is really stupid, they will do it anyway because they will respect you and who you are—their superior. This is something you have to get used to. When you work with Chinese people, you have to understand that if you give them the mandate to make a decision, they will treat it with the biggest respect and most humble execution, so you can’t put pressure on them. If you give them responsibility, they will shine, but they have to have a certain superiority to do it.
There is a difference in the creative mindset as well in how people work. Last year, I made the decision to relocate our Chinese studio from Beijing to Shanghai. If it is only Chinese, Beijing is good because the Chinese live here, are from here, and will stay here, whereas Shanghai is more a place where you can get a broader group of people to work with you. I think it is right because it is difficult to drive business in Beijing compared to Shanghai.
What are the characteristics of a typical Bang & Olufsen customer in China? How do your China store designs appeal to them?
We have two brands of Bang & Olufsen. We have “B&O Play,” which is our premium brand, and made for more portable items, made for the younger age. Then we have Bang & Olufsen, which is our luxury brand, and is completely different. It’s more for home integration and is used in bigger settings.
If you look at the classic Bang & Olufsen costumer in China, it will be the elite, basically. It will be the people who have a four-five-hundred-square-meter-plus apartment or house—the high-net-worth individuals of China. And those are the people who go out and buy a whole system to get installed in their homes that will be integrated with their interior design. That is why we have a bigger experience center with a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen area, so you can experience it.
We do the experience centers because people have to live with Bang & Olufsen. It’s not like you buy a boom box and play music and then buy a new one. Once you go in and spend a substantial amount of money, you’ve integrated the system in your house and in your life as well.
I think our challenge in China was that we didn’t have a store design that was appealing to China’s people. It was simply too technical-looking and wasn’t luxury; it was more like practical Nordic thinking. When I started as creative director, our first goal was to rethink the way that we use our retail space, the way we give people experiences in the retail space. We have done a concept now that is being rolled out in the world that is much more luxurious in look and much more tactile in material choice.
We’ve done a 25-meter LED waterfall in Taiwan in a restaurant—so you have a waterfall in front of the kitchen; people are firing up food behind it. It’s really an experience-based design. This we also put into our store concept for Bang & Olufsen. If you want to buy a TV set, you sit in a chair on a platform, which rotates and presents you to a TV and you get an experience, and you keep turning to newer and newer experiences. This is what the Chinese people are really into.
What are some of the most popular Bang & Olufsen products in the China market?
Well, surprisingly, if you look at our range of portable things like headphones, [they] are selling okay, but what is selling best is our premium, luxury products—our big televisions and speakers, because people feel they get something for their money. Our new television set is at 55, 75, and 85 inches and sells a lot—if you compare these television sets to a high-end Korean or Japanese brand, then the price difference is 40 percent more expensive, but our quality is on a completely different level. When you get a remote, you get one block of CNC aluminum, high polished with your name engraved into the back of your own TV. Everything is very thought through and the whole installation process is great. You have one remote for everything. This kind of thing Chinese people really appreciate.
What upcoming projects are you working on in China?
Quite a lot. The problem is that most of these projects, you sign a NDA and aren’t allowed to talk about them before a certain point, but I can tell you about a project in Sanya that has been going on for four years. It is a very big development with a group of hotels and villas. There is one architecture firm doing the master plan and then we are two designers, one French and then our committee, who are doing the hotels and the villas. It is a very interesting project because it is so big and is a new way of thinking about luxury villas. Instead of bling-bling, crystals—very Chinese, Russian-style—it’s more like eco-friendly design, which I find quite appealing. Lots of natural material, lots of actual use of natural resources from the island.
Then we are doing one project I can tell you about. It’s in Shenyang—it’s a private man’s private villa. We are working on it now and it is a 4,000-square-meter private villa. The interesting thing is that he has four children: three sons and one daughter. One is in boarding school in the UK, one in America, and the third one is going to be sent to Hong Kong very soon. So his whole philosophy is that it has to be a shelter for the family when they come back to Shenyang. He’s only in Shenyang himself 100 days a year because he’s traveling nonstop as well, but his appreciation for Scandinavian and Italian design is really powerful. We have done a structure for the whole family, which includes a spa with an Olympic-size pool, room for 24 luxury cars, the basement, entertainment zone, cinema, game room, golf room, gym, yoga room, meditation room, and two private restaurants.
I think it is quite interesting because it tells how the rich Chinese appreciate something different. This guy is a building developer; for instance, he showed me his newest project, which is a one-square-kilometer area he is developing—a super high-rise. You have kindergartens, supermarkets, underground parking, a gym, Starbucks, everything in this area. For him, it is the way he makes business, but he would never live there. He would like to live in a place that is completely excluded for him and his family. He wants everything, all materials imported from Scandinavia because he believes it is the cleanest place in the world. The heating and cooling system for his house is imported, specially built. The floor is Danish oak. It is going to be very interesting, and is the first residential project I’ve taken on.
So do you see yourself doing more private residential projects in China in the future?
Yeah. For me, the most important thing is the personal approach. It has to be based on friendship, where I can say my honest opinion. I can be quite frank and say, “This is the way it’s going to be. This is the best for you and your family. And if you don’t listen to me, I’m not going to do the project.” It is quite arrogant, but it is quite honest and I think Chinese people are quite simple in that way. They like honesty, and they can feel if your approach is honest and straightforward. If you try to comfort people and brown-nose them a little bit, you are out. I enjoy it.
Have you seen more demand for eco-friendly designs in China?
I have been in and out of China for 11 years. In these 11 years, I have seen so much change it is unbelievable. I think the perception of luxury has changed. The new generation of China, the people who are 22 to 30 now, have a completely different vision of what luxury is. Ten years ago, it was all about Louis Vuitton, big watches with gold and diamonds, but it isn’t anymore. I think that luxury for the younger generation is the approach to cleanness and to having a great life; the appreciation and celebration of life, which is much more interesting than the superficiality of luxury brands.
That’s why I think the demand for a clean lifestyle, for the respect of nature will be bigger and bigger. I think the Chinese people are picking this up faster than the rest of the world, and it’s something we can all learn from.
If you dig into the superficiality of luxury brands, they will suffer in the future for two reasons. One reason is that the future of China will not go into a luxury store. The future consumer of China will travel around the world and buy whatever they want, wherever they want, and not be loyal to one brand. They will dig much more into investigating something new, something unique, something that is for them only. If the big brands have to survive in China, they have to forget about the retail strategy, the big super stores, because the future, young Chinese will appreciate quality, craftsmanship, and nature much more than their predecessors.
This interview was edited and condensed.