It's not every day that you go back to live in your "where-nothing-happens" small city after years of University, and you realize that one of the most iconic designers of your time is hiding among those city walls. I'm talking about Niklas Jacob. On a Sunday afternoon, I visited his exhibition, "20 years of Design" (1999-2019), and I found myself face to face with him.
Jacob started his career in 1989, and between 1990 and 1992, he had held many exhibitions in small art galleries in Copenhagen. In early 1998 he joined MOMO DESIGN, where he became a Chief Designer the following year. During this period, he also developed designs for great companies such as Lamborghini, Lexus, Nissan, and Logitech.
Later, he became Design Manager for Makio Hasuike & Co, and, after that, he started working as Freelance Designer for several other companies. In 2005 Niklas Jacob founded the strategic design and branding company Fruithouse, based in Copenhagen. He teaches Industrial Design at the University in Ascoli Piceno, the seeming "where-nothing-happens" small city I mentioned before. So, I went to meet him in his studio, 20 minutes' drive away from there. With his extreme cordiality and in a friendly mood, he answered all the questions I always wanted to ask an experienced designer like him.
V (Virginia Alluzzi): So, who is Niklas Jacob?
N.J. (Niklas Jacob): "Good question. Well, Niklas is a person that has a profound necessity to communicate. There are many ways to do it, and one of those is through design, the privileged subject that daily deals with the perception and the understanding of reality. I'm an author, I've been making music and I've been painting. Actually, I started my creative journey right with the painting before focusing on design."
V: How did your passion for design come about? How did you approach the subject? Why the need to design?
N.J.: "I remember when I was 14. I began to get really interested in objects, in the shape of objects, in the beauty of objects. At that time, I made a subscription to the only furniture magazine in Denmark. Maybe it's a bit unusual at 14...I know, you could be a comics fan or something, but I was in love with furniture magazines. Before high school, my initial idea was to study Architecture. In the meantime, I started to get passionate about painting and, once I finished high school, I started painting full time. I was very much inspired by this artistic movement of the 40s-50s called 'COBRA' and pursued by Danish, Dutch and Belgian artists: it was characterized by somewhat childish expressionism. Painting is a very long and challenging road to pace so I returned to the old idea: on the contrary, however, I no longer wanted to study Architecture, I was then interested in the architecture of objects. I chose Milan, and from there, I began to express myself and to communicate through design."
V: What brought me here is the non-trivial approach to everyday things and the ironic aspects that can be easily found in your works as well as the strength of each concept: in your opinion, how an idea originates?
N.J.: "Actually, I believe there are 3 approaches.
① Eureka!: The idea comes from a stroke of genius. The product doesn't exist or doesn't exist in a specific shape. An uncontrollable fluke.
② Deduction of a problem (given by a company or a client). It starts with a briefing. Oscar Wilde said, "to define is to limit". So in the briefing phase, you have to define the project and then establish limits within which you can start to look for the best solution. The idea arises as a consequence of a problem's definition. It's a process.
③ The desire to design an object. Years ago, I wanted to design a desk lamp. I started thinking about the configuration of this product. There were no clients to give me a direction, so it was me defining which typology, what solution, which configuration. Once I defined this, I passed to the form. From the ideal desire, I created concretely."
V: Your resume has numerous collaborations. What is the project you are most fond of?
N.J.: "I believe that the projects we love the most are those that we will never see realized. This is because clients, for one reason or another, do not give the same importance we give to them. I believe the problem subsists for any creative from graphic designer to advertiser, from architect who designs a building, to designer who designs a product. The projects that I like best are these."
V: Your design reflects on the gestures, or rather uses them as a canvas. I also see a very marked playful and ironic inspiration. Do you agree with it?
N.J.: "I do, and usually, the most playful concepts are not intended for commercial purposes. There are some of those projects I never introduced to companies, because I never thought of them like products I would sell. These projects want to provoke a reaction: for example, the 'Explicit Design' collection or the 'IDEA- The design supermarket' project. In this particular project, I invited 17 designers to produce a series of satirical flat-packed products in the style of IKEA furniture, for Milan Design Week 2018 (hosted in via Tortona, venue SuperStudio). Those are a product that would not typically be able to found in large-scale distribution. They include a closet where the lover can hide more comfortably when the husband suddenly shows up at home, a dining table with a hole in the middle for 'the person who needs to go on a diet' and even a bookcase for just one book, 'perhaps the most important, or perhaps the only one you have'."
V: What advice could you give to the future generations of designers?
N.J.: "There is this very famous quote that Steve Jobs pronounced to Stanford graduating students: 'Stay hungry, stay foolish’. Well, I think that we could be more synthetic: ’Always be curious’ because the curiosity goes to investigate still-undiscovered fields. At the same time, on a professional level, the designer must choose the first job carefully, because the most crucial training is not the one that happens during the studies. In fact, if you learn to do your job in a wrong studio, this could harm your creativity, approach and work methodology as well."