The obsessive boss
Born in 1965, Anders Byriel has headed textiles company Kvadrat for 18 years. The founders, his father Poul Byriel and Erling Rasmussen, had sold to a Swedish firm in 1992, not expecting the project they had started in the spirit of the late 1960s near Ebeltoft, Denmark would also make their children happy. But as the new owners did not develop the company’s potential, the family bought it back again. In the late 1990s, it passed to the next generation, which multiplied sales and profits. While Byriel Senior had the creative role, his son took on the management. Mette Bendix, daughter of the company’s director Rasmussen, headed product development. A lawyer with an MBA, Anders Byriel began his career in a law firm. In 1992 he moved to Kvadrat as assistant manager. Prior to becoming CEO, he was head of marketing (from 1994) and head of sales (from 1996). For the London Design Festival in 2013, Prestel published a company portrait entitled “Interwoven”. The fact that it is already somewhat outdated today testifies to Kvadrat’s dynamism. Currently, Kvadrat is restructuring its headquarters, expanding its warehouse capacities and having London designer Sevil Peach redesign its offices in line with current working practices. When in 2017 Aarhus presents itself as European Capital of Culture, Kvadrat will be in on the act. In the interview Anders Byriel explains how all of this is connected, and talks of his enthusiasm for architecture.
Thomas Edelmann: Kvadrat was founded in 1968 by your father Poul Byriel and Erling Rasmussen in the spirit of Scandinavian design. What idea did the founding generation follow back then?
Anders Byriel: They both worked in a company in the 1950s which was called Unica Væve and it had two key designers, one of them was designer Verner Panton, the other painter, sculptor, architect and designer Gunnar Aagaard Andersen. The latter taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and at the time was among the most intellectually influential people in Denmark, indeed in all of Scandinavia. That was the formative influence. My father was responsible for the creative side of things, while Rasmussen was in charge of commercial matters. They began in 1965, and in 1968 the firm was registered. The first product was “Hallingdal”. It was not until much later that I understood all of that, because I was born in 1965. Our origins are not so much in the artisanal design of the 1950s, that extremely important time shaped by Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, Børge Mogensen, Kaare Klint and other highly influential figures. They set the tone. The colors of these Danish classics tended to be very subtle and calm, but my father and Erling saw themselves as design revolutionaries. They worked with the next generation, were influenced much more by Pop art and the early 1960s than by craftsmanship. In the first showroom, for example, there was no furniture. People sat on the floor. That must all have seemed like a radical new beginning.
… which meant traditions associated with arts and crafts were pushed into the background?
Anders Byriel: They did share some of the values that many famous Danish designers had established in the 1950s. But especially with regard to colors, they wanted to move on. They were looking for a way out of the 1950s. After all, although many items of innovative furniture had been designed, the coming generation felt intellectually restricted and wanted to expand its scope. They wanted to be more expressive and playful than had seemed possible until then. It was when I first saw the Kvadrat posters as part of the “Pop Art Design” exhibition, which was shown by the Vitra Design Museum in collaboration with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, that I appreciated how Kvadrat had evolved in this spirit and environment.
Three decades later, in 1998, you and Rasmussen’s daughter Mette Bendix, who is in charge of product development today, took over the management of the family firm. What has changed since then?
Anders Byriel: Before I did that I was involved in marketing and corporate strategy at Kvadrat. I worked with my father, which was very pleasant. By that point Kvadrat had transformed into a large Danish company, a highly influential Scandinavian phenomenon. Back then we were a company that was largely geared towards consumers. We sold millions of meters of our products for all kinds of home settings, and could perhaps be compared at the time with companies like Marimekko. My goal was to shift the focus more towards architecture. But I also wanted to strengthen an aspect that had existed at the very beginning, but which we wanted to build on. We wanted to become more cosmopolitan. We already had many fantastic designers back then, but most of them were Danes. We wanted to open ourselves up more to the world, especially to global architecture and the design community. So we began our collaboration with the highly influential Dutch designer Frans Dijkmeijer, who wrote books about our textile design. We began to work with Swedish and British designers. We started embracing cosmopolitanism as a business. We got more and more deeply involved with architecture. Since I joined the firm the Kvadrat Group has grown from just two to 25 companies. We gradually expanded our business to many other regions. In the last five to seven years, aside from Europe we have increased our efforts to secure Asian markets. In this time we have transformed ourselves from an influential European firm to a global player.
Anders Byriel: You could say we are returning to our roots by offering products to consumers again. That is the most recent company branch. With a part of the business we are targeting consumers’ interests again. This year this business branch, which we conduct via the retail trade, grew by over 30 percent. This year and last year we increased sales of the Kvadrat Group by 15 percent. In the last five years we have doubled our business.
You frequently emphasize the importance of “architectural space” for the company strategy. What does that mean for a company with a focus on textiles?
Anders Byriel: We work with architects from all over the world, without exception. We are there for small studios in Düsseldorf and in Kanazawa. And we collaborate with the super league of architecture. Generally speaking, architects use our standard products, but at the same time we have some 300 projects a year worldwide with custom-made specially developed products. That might range from the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles by Frank O. Gehry to Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall by Herzog & de Meuron. Our core message is: What can textiles contribute to architecture? We are in a fortunate position. Beginning with the Bauhaus, modernism in various forms has asserted itself more or less everywhere. That has resulted in reduced spaces and surfaces. Consequently, architects see textiles as an element they can use to produce tactility. Once they have recognized the possibilities, they explore the aesthetic and functional options more intensively. Textiles are employed on walls, as curtains and as sun protection. Another important area is offices, which in aesthetic terms are taking on the appearance of private rooms. Here, too, textiles are developing into an indispensable component, which is excellent news for our business.
Does the quality of textiles play a larger role today than it did 20 years ago?
Anders Byriel: As with most things, people’s enthusiasm for textiles goes in cycles. Even in the 1950s, which were considered somewhat boring, wonderful things could be discovered at textile biennials. What is perhaps new is that people have recognized how delightful they can be. They make a decisive contribution to culture. For example, textiles are incredibly present in contemporary art today, when it is a matter of visualizing materiality. And young architects find it equally fascinating.
Is that because textiles offer a certain softness in a world full of hard edges?
Anders Byriel: I call it materiality. This room we are talking in now is a white box, which would alter completely if we were to install a green wall covering with acoustic properties. We would quite simply feel better. Materiality makes it possible to touch something, makes a space more pleasant. You can perhaps manage without plants or pictures on the walls. These are things we also learn exploring the current avant-garde in architecture and art. But the dividing line between the two areas is very fine.
What changes do you see as regards technologies and markets?
Anders Byriel: The quality of textiles plays a special role as regards the markets. There are three things you must really pay attention to: quality, quality, and quality. In Germany, our biggest market, as well as in Scandinavia there is a very strong quality awareness.
As regards technology, for some time people have been talking about smart textiles without much having happened in this respect. What we are currently working on is the next leap in sustainability. So far, technology has often concerned correct behavior as citizens. But our approach has to be more progressive and aggressive: We need an economy of closed cycles. This is possible and we need to achieve it. We are exploring these possibilities and investing very heavily in this area. Next April we will present the first products. That is the most exciting topic in the area of technology.
Kvadrat has transformed into a group of brands and is steadily expanding. It ranges from specialized suppliers such as Danskina, Kinnasand and Soft Cells to suppliers like Wooltex or Gaudium. What is the strategy behind these purchases and holdings?
Anders Byriel: The core is still Kvadrat. The brand makes up 80 percent of our entire sales. Soft Cells is a very successful division, which works solely with acoustics, an area that is becoming increasingly important. We acquired the other brands like Kinnasand and Danskina to have a channel for reaching consumers. The other side of purchases is connected more with production.
But not in the sense of buying and selling brands to make a profit?
Anders Byriel: It is about competencies. We are moving away from coordinating things like a sports article manufacturer or a fashion house. If we want to reach the next step of our business, if we want to become twice as big once again, then we have to be more involved in production processes. Not only to control quality, sustainability, and efficiency; we also want to move things forward ourselves. To achieve this we have to get more deeply involved in research, deal more intensively with production. Which is why we are investing in companies like Wooltex, Gaudium and more recently Innvik. For example, the British company Wooltex is incredibly successful as regards production processes and quality. The Norwegian firm Innvik can produce its own yarns and is like a huge crafts workshop in which custom-made items like our Raf Simons collection can be realized. In a way Kvadrat is the umbrella, but also the engine of the whole thing.
Does the Kvadrat philosophy influence new acquisitions?
Anders Byriel: You could say that we at Kvadrat are obsessed with a series of things: obsessed with architecture, with design, and to some extent with contemporary art. This is also reflected somewhat in our design teams, in the brand and marketing managers. Basically, you find it in all our employees. And perhaps this is what creates a connection between the brands. The architects sense this engagement for a creative culture and that results in their goodwill and loyalty towards our company. But to get back to your question: Danskina joined us because that is what our handmade carpets would look like if we were a rug company. There is a total overlapping of values. Kinnasand is a sophisticated, purist brand with a very narrow profile and extremely high quality. And we are keen to keep it just like that. The creative culture is the glue that holds it all together. It rests on the pillars of architecture, design and contemporary art. The really big thing for Kvadrat and Soft Cells is modern contemporary culture.
Kvadrat defines itself as a European company that has developed into a global player. How does this international gearing affect your thinking and decisions?
Anders Byriel: Even though Scandinavia is a favorite at the moment, I’m not a big fan. I’m first and foremost a European and cosmopolitan, then a Scandinavian and after that a Dane. What sets us apart is that we conduct our business on the basis of dialog, that we treat our employees with respect. In China, where we started business activities five years ago, only one person has left so far. That is somewhat unusual. When it comes to the design field, we don’t have a programmatic understanding. When we get involved in a certain region we are curious about what’s happening there. When we opened up a small office in Paris we sought contact with the French design scene. This led to collaboration with renowned designers who now work for us, such as the Bouroullecs. In Asia we go about things exactly the same way. In China, for instance, with Neri & Hu. In Japan we collaborate with Akira Minagawa, a connection that goes back a long time. Generally speaking, we are interested in local communities.
You not only cooperate with furniture makers, which use your products, but also with many important contemporary artists. How does Kvadrat profit from this collaboration? Is it about image? I guess not.
Anders Byriel: The first projects began somewhat spontaneously. They were so extraordinary. Once nobody turned up to a project – perhaps it was a little too elitist at first. That was a long time ago. The German artist Thomas Demand has become a collaboration partner for us. He has helped us coproduce some really exciting things. Our aim is to produce really good works for good institutions. We turn down commercial projects which are ultimately done for a collector. We aim to do things that are accessible to the public. We prefer temporary projects, and don’t mind if they are small, though we would rather do big ones. There’s a certain regularity to these cooperation projects now; we realize one every other month. We work with Tarek Atoui, with Philipp Parreno and Pipilotti Rist. You could say it starts in an unplanned way and then it turns into a “beautiful animal”. The benefit? It inspires the architectural avant-garde. When I visit Ascan Mergenthaler or Herzog & de Meuron we talk about such projects and about their own projects. What is happening at the front end of architecture and art is stimulation for our corporate culture. It motivates our staff.
Can you make an internationally operating company independent of economic crises?
Anders Byriel: You can never be totally independent. But it is an advantage operating in various continents and in different economic regions. When Europe is weaker, China expands, for example. By 50 percent for us recently. There is something like a “black swan”, which precipitates a crisis at irregular intervals. If you are not prepared, it can ruin your business model. I see it as the responsibility of management to be financially prepared for economic crises. Business is about flexibility. When something happens, the business has to adjust to the people and the world it operates in.
Often commercial success is seen as being the antithesis of creativity and aesthetic quality. But perhaps that does not apply to firms that place such importance on design?
Anders Byriel: Kvadrat came about through an experiment. I’m not sure if we experiment enough today. When the business expands and you have more resources and become more global, you have to remember how you got where you are today. At any rate, success should not result in standstill, as happens at some large companies. If you have more special competencies to offer, that strengthens entrepreneurial power, and that opens up space for creativity.
The Kvadrat headquarters in Ebeltoft near Aarhus are being modernized. Why? And what will the result look like?
Anders Byriel: Actually, we have 25 firms with many showrooms in different places around the world, such as Paris, six in Germany alone, in London, Stockholm. But as a company that is involved with cutting-edge architecture we also need to reflect that ourselves. Which is why we are completely modernizing the original 1980s building. It would have been cheaper to tear it down and put up a new building altogether. But instead we have worked at it from one side to the other. There will be a showroom for all our brands. And we’ll show a working environment that sets standards. We are developing our environment. There will be a place for important works of art that we have bought recently. And lots of other things will be happening, too.