Interview: KiBiSi

by Ulrik

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We fired a few questions at our product designers, which resulted in a conversation about idea-driven design, Stanley Kubrick and the joys of sensual R&B.

Danish design firm, KiBiSi, are Jens Martin Skibsted, Lars Larsen and Bjarke Ingels, a three-headed, creative hydra that makes it rain with idea-driven product design and awe-inspiring innovation. If you didn’t already know they’re also the company that’s design our headphones, such as our pride and joy, the Tracks, and our space odyssean star child, the TMA-1.

Operating across a wide range of disciplines, creating everything from furniture and household objects, to bicycles and aircrafts, the Copenhagen-based creatives have been steadily building quite a name for themselves.

Their approach to design reflects their shared raison d’être: to bring about products that springs from ideas rather than shapes. And this singular approach is a central part of what distinguishes KiBiSi from the majority of contemporary design companies. They’re about the constant reinvention, not an endless repetition of safe signature shapes; and they thrive on challenging preconceptions rather than pushing comfortable reiteration of the previously successful expression.

We had a chat with Jens Martin Skibsted and Lars larsen who told us how they got into design, why they founded the company and where they find their inspiration.

AIAIAI: Let’s start at the very beginning – what was it that first got you interested in design?

Jens Martin Skibsted: Well, I guess it all started when I was a boy, or at least quite young. I would read Vogue Hommes – I grew up in France, by the way – and I think my parents thought it was somewhat metrosexual (laughs). As I grew up, I was involved in a lot of different creative activity. When I was studying philosophy, I discovered that my oral exams weren’t valid in France, so instead suddenly the choice was between attending the film school and the design school. It actually turned out to be the film school, but as you know I ended up doing design anyways. But my design career actually started through the bikes that I made for Biomega. I checked out the designs that the designers made, which made me go: ’I can do that too’. That’s essentially what made me do my own designs. And then people started requesting my stuff outside the company I was working in, which really got things going. Subsequently, I met the two other KiBiSi guys. In the beginning it was actually a little bit strange as we didn’t all work together, we worked in pairs. I would do stuff with Bjarke and then with Lars and then they would work together independently of me.

A: So you all switched creative partners from time to time?

JMS: Yes. But at some point it dawned on us that we had the same approach to things. The thing is that in Denmark and in Scandinavia, it’s very much about shape. There’s a lot of people who are great at designing nice shapes and it’s often the same shapes that they produce no matter what brand they’re working for. And that’s where we had a totally different approach. We think the important thing is that the product is imbued with very strong ideas. They should of course be expressed in a nice shape. But the most important thing is that the product reflects an idea - that it’s idea-driven, as we say. And this was an approach that we all had. We discovered that there were a huge amount of things that we had in common, which is why it just made a lot of sense to join forces. Furthermore, we didn’t really invade each other’s turf, as it were, because Bjarke was into architecture and we weren’t that interested in that; I was interested in some branding things and the others weren’t that interested in that; Lars was doing some interior design and me and Bjarke didn’t really want to do that. So we could maintain our respective areas of expertise but still have a common outlook when it came to designing products.

A: Is there one specific moment where the idea of forming KiBiSi just clicked for the three of you – or did it happen in a more gradual way?

JMS: Well, for my own part, I can say that at that point in time, I wanted to work with people. And I was actually working with someone else, but I didn’t really think that the culture was for me. The three of us started talking back and forth about doing something – but it did actually happen at a very specific point in time: it was a night where we were listening to RnB, which is a genre that I’m really into. And that’s not a genre that the other two are really that into. So it was a bit weird listening to sensual fucking music with only boys in the room (laughs). Anyways, we got a bit spaced out as we sometimes do during our dinners, and we started talking about names for the new joint venture…stuff like Si, Ki and Bi and Bi, Ki and Si and that it should be six different variations over the same name. But we slowly receded from the trip of that particular evening and arrived at KiBiSi. (door opens and Lars Larsen comes in)

Lars Larsen: It’s only half of what he’s saying that’s true! Sorry, I just had to tend to something important.

JMS: Yes, okay, don’t print what I said about Lars’ testicles.

LL: Ah, well, the stuff about Bjarke is all true.

JMS: Lars, maybe you can talk a bit about what first got you interested in design?

LL: From the very beginning?

A: From the very basic beginning, please.

LL: Alright. Well, I’m from the country…and I’ve tended to a lot of pigs and plowed fields and tuned mopeds and built stuff. I had a tiny room with no space and one of the first creative things I did was to take two euro pallets and put them against the ceiling because I needed space - very basic stuff. I also grew up in a home that was Danish…we had PH lamps, and other Danish design and very early on I grasped that there was something in those items, which other items didn’t have. But it wasn’t actually until I was 20 years of age that I discovered my creative streak: I had a skiing accident where I tore ligaments and nerves and everything in my knee, and that meant that I had to stay in bed for around 6 months. That’s what made me pick up the book ‘Hvad kan jeg blive?’ (What can I become? –ed.), which I read from one end to the next and put little, yellow post-it notes in. By the end of that process, I realized that I had the written the most positive things about the Danish School of Architecture. So I applied there - and I’d gotten good grades in high school, which meant that I didn’t have to go to the admission test - I just went straight in. While I was attending there I quickly realized that I was actually quite good at communicating creatively and making my ideas manifest…yet at the same time I also discovered that Architecture probably wasn’t for me because of the scale. It was quite simply too big. That’s when it became apparent that I needed to take it down and work with stories and ideas on a smaller scale. So to answer your question, it’s not that I always knew that this was it for me. It’s been different things that just sort cluttered together and made it happen. Also, I’ve met some boneheads along the way (points to JMS)…No, but then I started my old company Kilo design with my ex-business partner, Troels. We had some of the same abilities… and split up because we found out that it was quite hard making a living doing design. For a while, we did some interior design, which I thought was really draining. I’d rather just make products and I’d prefer not to have anything to do with that stuff. Anyway, the thing was that it was hard to have an economic system when you’re starting up. I’ve always just built things and nerded around. But then at some point I started working with Bjarke (Ingels –ed.) - I was actually an intern at Bjarke’s old company, Plot, while I was still at the design school – And I gradually got more responsibility. At one point I was in charge of building a house boat. And I had a lot of other projects where I think I cried during some of them and thought I was going to die, etc. But the point I’m trying to make is that after I had finished all these projects, I learned that I could actually do these things. I suddenly felt like a person who could make things happen. And I came to the realization that if you throw yourself into things, and do all the things that you’re afraid of doing, you can actually do them. Of course, I also knew that these projects were going to be a long haul, but something had definitely happened to me.

A: Right, so you developed as person through these projects.

LL: Exactly.

JMS: Alright, maybe we should talk about Bjarke a bit – he grew up in a circus and was Pjerrot’s sidekick for a long while…no, just kidding (laughs).

LL: Continuing from what I said before, I think that my world is a mixture of different elements in that it throws together tractor aesthetics and machines with our whole design tradition and everything it entails in terms of elegance and proportions. It’s a good mix of the two. If you look at a case like AIAIAI, I think that this combination of things is very apparent. It’s about sturdy solutions that are very tool-like but on the other hand also quite balanced and homogeneous.

The TMA-1 at SFMOMA

A: Could you talk a bit about your influences and inspirations?

LL: There’s no doubt that Dieter Rams is a huge inspiration for me – and I’m not the only one who’s noticed this. Of course, he’s a huge inspiration to a lot of people. And then I think Jasper does some wonderful design, and Grcic, BarberOsgerby…

JMS: I think the common denominator for the people who we think are great is that they work in a completely different way than us. What that means is that we might arrive at the same place, at times, but we’ve gotten there from a completely different place. What's more, a lot of my personal influences are Anglo-Saxon. And that’s because when there was an oil crisis in the ‘70s it suddenly became a faux pas to work with plastic and material that was oil-based; then you had to go back to using wood and things that were more natural… so there was a peculiar break in the historicity of design. And at the same time certain Brits started looking to Danish design and Scandinavian design in an effort to strip away the unnecessary detail and ornaments of their own ornate heritage. A lot of the people that we look to are actually not Danes but people like these Anglo-Saxons who have lifted the heritage of Danish design. I have to say, though, that the individuals who influence me the most are not necessarily designers but people with the ability to reinvent themselves. If you look to cinema, it’s someone like Stanley Kubrick who’s able to produce these great works and take them to completely different places. What’s the name of that Taiwanese guy, who makes all those super cool films – he made Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm…. He has that quality that Stanley Kubrick also has where he reinvents himself completely. And what are the chances that someone from Taiwan can create a credible narrative about two homosexual cowboys in the states? What’s his name again, it’s annoying me now… Ang Lee!

A: Right. And Ang Lee and Stanley Kubrick’s work is something you can use in your own creativity?

JMS: Yes, I definitely think that I can, because we contend that we’re not a company that just has a signature shape that we reuse.

LL: Yeah, and that’s something we think is interesting. The act of linking the brand DNA with the idea coupled with a consistent execution of the design; the dynamic that occurs when you merge those three elements. Also, when you enter a project not knowing what you’re going to get out of it – that’s something we’re into. We use of a lot of energy in trying to locate the brand DNA and analyzing the brand that we’re working with, as well as the parameters that we work within. Very often we get surprised when we come out on the other side of the process and end up with something that’s completely different to where we started out. I think that’s extremely cool when you really discover things in these processes and that there’s something completely new in it. It’s almost like having children. Something comes out and you don’t know what it is! That really drives me. Like Jens Martin said, we’re definitely not form-driven. We don’t just sit back and make nice shapes. We get high on the good idea; When we’re working within a tight framework and go exploring within it and all of a sudden the good idea is there: that what gets everyone all fired up. For us it’s hard to masturbate for a longer period of time over a nice curve. It’s when there’s a story and an idea. That’s what drives everything we do.

A: Could you talk a bit about your creative process – how do you get from A to B?

JMS: We’re definitely not process-driven. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that, but the design that comes out of it is, for me, somewhat polished and ultimately boring…

LL: I’ d say that our process is quite comprehensive. It’s sort of Darwinist selection where we start with a thousand ideas and work out way down and weed out, so that we end up with the essentials. However, that doesn’t mean that we just can the ideas we don’t use. We store them in the archive and sometimes use them for other projects.

The latest addition to the AIAIAI/KiBiSi familiy tree: the Capital headphones

A: Guys, thanks for talking to us

Both: No Problem.