Into One's Senses

For all its democratization of spreading the gospel of design, the visual nature of social media impairs a complete picture of its promise, powerfully contends a striking new tome co-helmed by multi-threat Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen.

The Copenhagen-based founding partner at Norm Architects, Jonas applies his decade-plus insight as an architect, designer, 
art director and photographer in The Touch: Spaces Designed for the Senses, a newly released, sumptuous tome created in collaboration with Nathan Williams, co-founder of the cult magazine Kinfolk and equally coveted Japanese-made lifestyle brand Ouur. The book, published by Gestalten and coming in at nearly 5 pounds, includes rare interviews and essays by industry icons; influential references from color theory and philosophical concepts, to précis on architects and products worth knowing.

Jonas and his Norm Architects co-founder Kasper Rønn have ranked among our favorite visiting speakers in our ongoing A+R Salon Series, to say nothing of the product design and art direction their influential firm realizes for A+R brands Menu, Ercol, &Tradition, Karimoku New Standard and Paper Collective.

Here, Jonas speaks to A+R about this latest contribution to the world of design.


A+R: As a designer, and an incredibly engaged one at that, why did you decide to get involved in this book project?

Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen: It is part of a process that started in architecture school, at The Royal Danish Academy when I read books by Juhani Pallasmaa. Specifically The Eyes of the Skin completely changed my view on design and architecture, and I have worked with phenomenology ever since. [The Touch] is an extension of discussions I have had with Kinfolk over the years, and it includes an interview with Pallasmaa.


A:R: The thesis of The Touch is that even in this image-centric social-media age, good design must engage all the human senses, as embodied in the concept of haptic design.  

JBP: The world has become predominantly visual and quantifiable, and the approach to design very mono-lateral. Haptic design is a way of design thinking that incorporates all our senses— touch, sound, smell and taste—and understanding the bodily experience of spaces and objects. It’s about designing spaces that evoke emotions, or determine certain behaviors; about how spaces make you feel as an organism.

A+R: How does that premise influence your own design work with Norm Architects and the countless collaborations and projects that you and your team produce for other brands worldwide?

JBP: Our approach to architecture and design is based entirely on the idea that spaces and furniture should, first and foremost, serve its user rather than be a means of artistic expression. We call it Soft Minimalism and consider it an ongoing study in human contentment and in creating wholesome, lasting environments. Our human-centric design principles are rooted in an uncompromising commitment to accommodate people rather than have them be spectators, continuously questioning the quality in architecture and design. It is about finding the very essence of form through a soft, warm and textural design language, and, in the end, asking the question: “What makes the framework for a good life?”

Soft Minimalism should not be considered a revolutionizing movement, but a subtle rebellion against the trend-driven. Rather than aiming for invention, we think of design in evolutionary terms, holding on to traditions, slowly and thoughtfully applying slight improvements to match the needs of modern society.

A+R: So change comes about as a “soft touch” versus a sharp break?

JBP: While aesthetics and technology have changed, basic tools of everyday life haven’t changed much over the past thousands of years: a chair is still a chair; a glass is still a glass. Everyday tools possess no temporal, cultural character as such—form, material and function remain the same.

What is interesting is how a chair feels to dine in, work in, relax in; or how a glass feels against the lips, or when it’s placed on a tabletop. How we interact with our surroundings touches all of our sensory realms. 

But in a culture where vision is considered our dominant sense, our other senses are greatly underestimated as a result. The principles behind Soft Minimalism go beyond sight. Guided by the body and mind, our intention is to evoke a spatial sense of serenity.

In our dedication to the haptic qualities in spaces and furniture, we look to nature for inspiration: for that which is durable and timeless; for aesthetics that please and stimulate our senses—our vision, our touch. For aesthetics and materials that patinate and possess timeless beauty.


A+R: So nature plays as integral a role to your design approach as the human senses?

JBP: Harmoniously embodying chaos and order, nature is a constant inspiration to human kind and will survive long after our extinction. Therefore nature should always be considered a guideline rather than a simple component. There’s no logic in working against it. Instead, have things convey references to nature in material composition, form and design language. Subtle, organic shapes in objects associated with animals, plants or human features are common and have been for thousands of years.  

The traditional Danish Modern cabinetmakers’ furniture embody sculptural features, with elements differing in size and thickness like the branches on a tree; being sturdy and robust or light and delicate. Yet, this furniture is humble in its minimal expression—a rational design language that has endured, and will continue to—with little tweaks applied and adjusted where necessary.

A timeless icon is something so simple that it makes very little noise in a space, but with a design language that stands out.

A+R: Ergo, the guiding force in your work and in this book is the reconciliation of proprioception with the “touch” in the book title?

JBP: The bodily experience of a space is strong—perhaps, stronger than the visual. Whereas we are more aware of and have a language to express how we visually perceive a space, we’re not used to articulating our haptic perceptions of a space. Scale, proportion and sound in architecture all influence how we interact with and feel in the given space. And so it is important to understand and consider the cohesive experience: to not only consider the aesthetic measures, but to explore and pay great attention to the haptic elements. The scale of a space should refer to the people in it and materials should feel good against our skin.

Beyond trends and technology, our ultimate goal lies in the craft, the quality, the details as well as materials’ ability to stand the test of time. Sensing the craftsmanship and idea behind a space or object, connecting to it on an emotional level, is the ultimate goal. By exploring the very essence of things; by aiming at geometrical purity and natural simplicity, the idea is to achieve harmony, joy and beauty. To have things work with, and not against its surroundings, amplifying or mirroring its context as well as using light and shadow to create atmosphere and depth. Sparse interiors won’t feel empty if the framework is composed of warm materials, magnifying the expression of light and space. The way natural day light enters a room or how it interacts with its surroundings determines the feel and liveability of a space.

Soft minimalism is characterized by a more delicate attention to materials, to scale, to sound, and–first and foremost–to people. Not only are we architects and designers; we’re listeners and storytellers. Our job consists in listening to and understanding the needs of people. The everyday lives of people.

Rather than adorning with superfluous details that call for attention, Soft Minimalism is about eliminating the irrelevant and emphasizing the important, ultimately arriving at the maximum of expressivity with the minimum of expression. Refining spaces and designs to their purest forms, while maintaining a soft and honest feel is the fundamental idea. It is refinement as a means of expression, but with a distinct thoughtfulness to it, and a clear vision to create spaces that feelgood and possess significant haptic qualities.


A+R: The Touch is split  among five “essential blocks of human-centric design—light, nature, materiality,  color and community.” Can you touch on what you and the book mean by community? And how/why this matters now?

JBP: Community is about spaces that bring people together. It can be public spaces, retail, hospitality, sports facilities—every type of space that connects kindred spirits. It is essential for human well-being, now more than ever, in these times where you can socialize without ever getting out of your private sphere. 


Photo Credit: Book cover image courtesy of Gestalten; All other images by Rose Apodaca.