Danish design has a long, storied history, and an impressive roster of design stars that have emerged out of the tiny country over the years. The 1950s and 60s were a golden era, yielding a who’s-who of midcentury icons, including Louis Poulsen, Verner Panton, Arne Jacobsen, Hans J. Wegner, and many, many more. Those designers’ clean-lined, beautifully crafted, materially innovative furniture and lighting designs helped define midcentury modern style on a global scale. But those years were followed by a more fallow period in Danish design. “Perhaps we ‘fell asleep,’” says Lars Østergaard Olsen, CEO of Lightyears , the Danish lighting company he co-founded in 2005. Lightyears, along with other young, fresh companies like HAY and Muuto, was instrumental, then, in waking Danish design up in the early 2000’s, and contributing greatly to the country’s current design renaissance. We spoke with Østergaard Olsen about Scandinavian design values, the role of light in a country that’s dark half the year, and the new Danish design boom.
What inspired you to launch Lightyears?
Lars Østergaard Olsen: Rasmus Markholt and I founded Lightyears in 2005 as a kind of “reaction” to the many dominant lighting companies from Italy, and the also-dominant and famous PH lamps. We thought there was room for a lighting company focused on creating contemporary lighting design out of a strict Scandinavian design approach, in which everything superfluous is erased and you are left with only the logical and relevant parts. The focus is on simplicity and functionality. In other words, we wanted to combine contemporary Scandinavian design with the heritage of the famous lighting designer Poul Henningsen.
What is the number-one value that drives your design work?
LØO: To create functional and honest lighting designs—a typical Scandinavian approach.
Tell me about one of your favorite Lightyears designs.
LØO: Caravaggio, designed by Cecilie Manz, is without doubt the best example of how Lightyears combines the contemporary with the traditional. A metal bucket shape is quite classic, but when presented in the original high-gloss black, with a red textile cord —that feels very modern. Caravaggio is that kind of design you never get tired of. It looks great in any color and any finish, from matte or glossy metal to translucent glass.
How has Danish design evolved over the years?
LØO: Back in the 1950s and 60s, Danish design was at its peak, and lots of classical designs were made by very skilled, and now famous, Danish designers. After that—perhaps we “fell asleep,” I don’t know, but the fact is that the creativity slowed down and the next decades belonged to Italian design, especially the furniture and lighting industry in the 1990s. The beginning of the 2000s marked a kind of comeback. New companies like HAY, Lightyears, Muuto and others made their entry—and after that we have seen a number of Danish and Scandinavian design brands doing well in the marketplace. This process seems to reinforce itself, as we’re now seeing lots and lots of skilled young designers making their breakthrough.
Tell me about your relationship with Denmark. Are you from there?
LØO: I was born in Denmark and have lived here all my life. Danish design has always been an important part of my life. From childhood, my generation has been surrounded by all the classic Danish design pieces. I think it just made me more aware of what products for living—such as lighting, furniture, and tableware—can be, and what they can do for your environment. It builds up an awareness of aesthetics that can be kind of addicting. When you experience people’s homes decorated and filled with great design, you just want to live that way. Of course, this does not mean I can’t be happy with non-Danish design. For example, I have an Eames lounge chair and it goes well with my Danish stuff. I love masterpieces wherever they come from.
What do you love about working in Scandinavia? What inspires you about the region?
LØO: I’m sure that the young designers here are all inspired—one way or another—by the old design masters and their approach. And from a company perspective, those designs set the bar for the quality of our designs—we want to present products that we feel can stand a comparison to those classics. Also, Scandinavia is very dark half of the year, which means that we all love light. Nordic people, and especially the Danes, are extremely attracted to warm and cozy light settings. Lighting means a lot to us. You can get that cozy feeling by using metal pendants, where the light is well-directed.
If someone wanted to visit your head office, what would they see?
LØO: Lightyears’ head office is located at the port of Aarhus, in a warehouse that has maintained its original industrial look, with exposed brick walls, concrete ceilings, and large windows that allow daylight to stream in and illuminate the 8,600-square-foot space. We worked with the Danish interior designer Sofie Ladefoged to create a showroom inspired by the esteemed Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. A number of simple walls constitute a series of boxes that, when seen from above, resemble a maze. This creates a room in the room that makes it hard to take in everything at once. Short glimpses of a lamp here and there make the maze an intriguing path to walk—a visitor will continuously discover new angles.
Where else can a visitor get a sense of Denmark’s contemporary design scene?
LØO: Spending some time in the heart of Copenhagen and visiting the design store Illums Bolighus is a must—here you will find a great selection of the best Danish design in the realms of furniture, lighting, and home accessories.
The most difficult part of Jennie's role as Merchandise Manager for YLighting is deciding exactly which pendant she loves the most for her mid-century Oakland condo. When not making design decisions she and her 3 year old son compose songs to sing to the family's new baby.