Film and haute couture meet wood
Many traditional Scandinavian family-run companies have seen a change in management in recent years. The younger generation is gradually taking the helm. Somewhere in their 30s, most of them took an unconventional route to the director’s chair of their company. They often pursued different professional paths entirely before treading in the footsteps of their parents’ generation. The same can be said of Jonas and Julie Krüger, now representing the fifth generation at the helm of Danish wood specialists Brdr. Krüger.
Julie, 38 years old, trained as a men’s tailor and worked in haute couture fashion and for the Royal Danish Theatre before assuming management of production at her parents’ company in 2015. Jonas, 40, actually has a background in graphic design and worked for many years for TV broadcasters such as MTV and on film productions. When Julie Krüger entered the family business she asked her brother if he didn’t want to do the same. Which he did, becoming creative director of Brdr. Krüger. How do the pair bring about changes at the traditional company – and where is their opinion needed most? How do the Krüger siblings rate craftsmanship and what role does design play in the international furniture business? Adeline Seidel spoke to the young entrepreneur.
Adeline Seidel: Let’s start with a very personal question. You took over the business from your mother and father. What was the best lesson your parents taught you?
Jonas Krüger: My parents really are entrepreneurs in many ways. The company was inherited on my father’s side and has been going through different stages over many years, adapting to times, possibilities and changing markets. It’s always been in the spirit of the company that everybody is in the same boat, as we say. Everybody works hard towards the same goals: there’s no management somewhere remote from the craftspeople who do the real work. My father’s still an active craftsman on the workshop floor with dust in his hair. The spirit of working hard, both physically and mentally, and long hours to achieve goals, is kind of a culture that I grew up with. So I think both my sister and I have a respect for this kind of hands-on attitude. We try to take the best part of that culture and mentality with us towards the future in a more modern company.
What does “more modern” mean precisely?
Back in the day they handled a lot of decision-making over a cup of coffee in the workshop and nothing was written down. That was how things were handled the good old way. Today, of course, it’s also a different kind of company: there are more people, it’s a bigger place, we have a more diverse collection of products. All this requires a new way of working, a new way of communicating, both internally and externally. So it’s a modernization of the company but with this attitude that we are all working together. And it’s a flat structure where everybody can come and knock on our door and talk to us. I think that kind of workshop culture, mixed with a modern approach to structuring a company, is perhaps what we took with us.
What were the previous generation’s goals and what are your and your sister’s goals for now?
I think my parents’ generation faced globalization, early globalization, in those days, and they had to adapt a company working on small orders, sometimes unique orders. We’ve done a lot of bespoke work, both big and small; we’ve done art, we’ve done churches, we’ve done Tivoli Gardens. We were sort of the go-to guys for special tasks in wood turning. But it was not a feasible business model. Manufacturing processes have changed with time: new materials have been introduced, we’re not dependent on wood as we were in the old days. The company had to adapt from small commissions to serial production. In the early 1990s we started to launch our own products as series and this, I think, was the first indication of a change towards the company we see today.
After you and your sister took over you soon teamed up with OeO Studio. Why?
I was looking around for someone to help us and actually first became aware of them in a commercial movie that I was commissioned to produce a long time ago. Somehow they were in the back of my mind – I think I even read their newsletter and small things like that. Then when the opportunity presented itself I contacted them and a few others to get to know them a little better, talk about our challenges and get a feel for the chemistry and also how they work and what they could do. And it was a short research phase because I really felt comfortable with them.
What challenges did you face there and how did this influence your briefing for OeO?
Well, basically, I was searching for a design strategy, a brand to formulate who we are, to help us refine our brand DNA with the goal of making a roadmap – what not to do and also what we could do. With that leading to building a brand and building a collection long term on the premise of our history and craftsmanship and, of course, the market where we have something to offer. And other possibilities.
When you look at the current furniture market, which is definitely a dense market, Nordic design is actually very popular. What is the niche you see for Krüger and what sets Krüger products apart from others?
I think what we can offer is a new take on tradition that builds on our craftsmanship and the traditions that we have; but we are not going to stand still in history. We’re going to look forward, not back into archives – to find an old sketch by a well-known designer. We want to do something different, but it’s not a revolution – it’s a step forward with respect for where we came from. That’s why we are working with design that is contemporary and, hopefully, it will generate new classics.
You mentioned roadmaps: What are you not doing and what can we expect from Brdr. Krueger in the coming years?
Well, you mentioned earlier what has defined the last ten years if you like, or my generation in the furniture industry, and especially here in the Nordic region. Of course, there has been this whole new Nordic wave that has washed over us which has been like opening the windows for some good, fresh air. I think it brought a lot of good things with it. That said, I think it’s a pity that it’s also synonymous with outsourcing to the Far East, etc., and that’s one of the things that is a no-go for us. We’re going to keep it local and keep it focused on quality and craftsmanship and durability. Our products are not a trend, or something that is a fall/winter collection, or that kind of mentality – we’re not going to go into that.
It’s about building things to last, in terms of both design quality and physical quality. And that means, of course, in the design itself – we shouldn’t try to compete on the premise of easy manufacturing and the minimal design that enables easy manufacturing. We have to stand out, and the furniture should appeal in a way that you see that it is of high quality.
What role do your parents play now? Do they stay put and let you and your sister do whatever you want? Or do they always have something to complain about?
I think it’s always a special situation to work as family. Of course, it’s not without its bumps, but I think we’re quite fortunate compared to other stories I hear from other family-run companies. It’s not big issues that we don’t agree on – we pretty much agree on the bigger picture and where we want to go. So they give us a lot of freedom in terms of putting our fingerprint on the next generation. And there are many things that are very new. We moved into a new production facility roughly two years ago, two years in February, and we got the first meeting room in 130 years. We opened the showroom in May, I mean, there are so many things that were unthinkable ten years ago.
Your growth rate is quite fast: 30 more people working for you in five years – will there be a limit to your growth?
Good question! We want to grow but we don’t want to grow out of control. I mean, I think it’s important that we are connected and don’t become a huge factory. But, of course, you never know. Times may change. But that’s the atmosphere we’re talking about these days. We had the same discussions: Is there a limit to growth? And the answer is yes and no. I mean, we’re quite comfortable with where we are.