The Dictatorship of Sound | Johannes Torpe Designs, Bang & Olufsen

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He has design in his blood, a creative mind, a musical beat and the determination of a leader. He embraces Scandinavian design, a trend that has recently been taking off worldwide. MiND had the chance to talk and learn from one of the key names in the design industry in Scandinavia and worldwide. Johannes Torpe is the first ever Creative Director at Bang & Olufsen, the Danish luxury manufacturer of audio and video products. The brand hired Torpe in 2012 in the position he calls, “Creative Dictator”.

Torpe is no shy guy when it comes to pursuing his dreams. Born to ride free and live life to the fullest, THE MAN Johannes Torpe comes from an Irish father, “yeah Irish; Irish people comes with guitars, and funny hats, dirty jokes and make women pregnant”, and a Danish mother “who is an artist, painter and sculptor”. He became an autodidact – self-taught from an early age, and faced life alone. This has equipped him with a fundamental level of creativity which has never left him since. Climbing the ladder of success and earning his fame through hard work and passion, Johannes decided to “enjoy the very structured life of business, which is more than the free life of the hippie camps memories”.

Bang & Olufson Store | Johannes Torpe

THE SPEAKER, Johannes Torpe creates his work by taking out the results of his design projects to which he adds a mix of music and persuasive skills, delivering inspiring talks all over the world, about the genuine interior design experience.

On his list of skills, Johannes adds the identity of a MUSICIAN, when at the age of 12, he started working in a drum store, soon after becoming the lighting designer for many different concerts with self-built lighting switch board. His ingenuity gave him the tools to be sought after by all bands at the time for his ways of interpreting light and music. That is, until he started his own band. Together with his brother Rune, the ENUR band was created and made no.1 hit lists throughout US and Canada with their song, “Calabria”.

This fascinating creative mind, who met with us on a packed day in Corso Como, Milan, let the agitation of the Salone del Mobile start his day, slowly wafted away by freshly ground coffee while he revealed to us the meaning and the milestones in being Johannes Torpe, THE DESIGNER.

“The bug for design is something that never leaves your body.”

Leaving home and the hippie camp when he was twelve, Johannes went to find his own start in the world. “I started to work in a drum store (in Copenhagen) because I played drums; it was the most natural thing for me to find the most freaky place with the most freaky people and I worked there for four years”. The timing coincides with the moment he discovered lighting design. “Light has the power to paint a room, it could set a mood, it can change the perception of people’s mindset with only a light change; it’s the same emotional touch you have with music, it can simply do things to you that you don’t really understand unless you’re aware of it. I found that both music and light are game changers in many ways”.

“Music and light are game changers in many ways.”

This was the first step for Johannes own lighting design company. And yes, he was only 17. Chasing after bigger dreams, Johannes decided to sell his company at the age of 21. “At that time, I’d done all the big music festivals and all the big tours for Scandinavian, German and British artists, all over Europe.” His love and understanding of light rose with his interest and experience in music. While bands did not want to invest in a lighting designer in their own team, Johannes got to be recommended to all the hit music bands at the time. “You grow in reputation and all of a sudden you’re a well-established name just by doing what you like to do.” At the age when his friends were having their teenage romances and drunken nights, Johannes was determined only to focus on his career, making him feel much like a grown up. He was living his dream and it was only the beginning of it all.

What does it take to become better in what you do? Johannes explains, “people never spend time on refurbishing their brain, which is our most important asset to function at all, to make it regenerate and to be open to new things. And this is one of the strongest attributes in order to become better at what you do. It’s indeed very important that you follow the natural path of childhood, but on the other hand if I had done so, I would have probably stayed in the hippie camp, and that would have killed me both creatively and intelligence wise”.

“I like to surprise people.”

Taking his passion for people, design and his career, Johannes likes to do things to the limit but not beyond it. “You have to be emphatic enough to feel where the limit is. You must never go too far. You should be able to find the balance.”

Bang & Olufsen | Johannes Thorpe

“When doing other than what your passion is, you dilute it.”

Design is passion
With music playing a big part in his life, Johannes’ true love has always been design. “My passion is design. My passion is conversations like this, that makes it all fun and my passion is working with people. Music alone is no longer satisfying for me. Though music is also a big part of me, we had some projects running with some rather big names, but we make music by heart, not by hits.”

Design itself is passion: “For me, passion is working with a space and creating a fulfillment for the people being in it. It is an emotional journey. And if it’s a retail space, that emotional journey should be what’s catching you, what is taking you and grabbing your attention, but never in an invasive way.”

“A shop must not catch you alone by its products but by the atmosphere, and this is the strongest part of designing for the retail sector. If you are able to create the right atmosphere, people will start coming because they will see it as a destination.”

Honesty is what retail design is missing. 
“There has to be honesty in what you’re doing, in the way that you have to try and do something different, something that’s original for the place. Products cannot be the only thing that grabs your attention. You have to do something extraordinary with the space, and translate it into your own work. For example, if you take the Bang & Olufsen flagship stores, the concept we are in the process of rolling out now, is actually revolutionary within the world of luxury electronic goods. So when you create something which is truly different, you amaze people and they want to come back to your store.

From store design to staff training: a Bang & Olufsen case study. 
Johannes Torpe is now rolling out a five year plan for the Scandinavian luxury brand, Bang & Olufsen. The B&O case is quite interesting because there are around 700 stores worldwide and Johannes Torpe, as the new Creative Director, made it his mission to transform them all.

“The training of the staff alone is one of the goals, so the element of the retail experience is first of all the way our sales teams present the brand and the stores to the customers. Then we create a clear vision; we are selling luxury products within sound and design, but Bang & Olufsen is also known for magical experiences. So as a designer, I needed to challenge the good taste within those magical experiences. We set our minds to give people extraordinary surprises and let them be part of the change physically. And that works incredibly well.”
“We are known for magical experiences.”

The first ever Creative Director of Bang & Olufsen
“Bang & Olufsen came to me and asked if I could do a speech for the new management board about interior design and tendencies, so I came there and I prepared a speech about something completely different because I wanted to show them what I believe is the full potential of the brand within the design language. So I gave a talk about how my company and I look at the world of luxury and the consumer experience. I found it more interesting for them and the CEO understood that it was what he was looking to hear. Two weeks later they contacted me, to help them to create B&O Play, a sub-brand. I helped him with that and half a year later, the CEO said he needed someone to help them creatively.

Talking the brand’s language 
It takes a lot of determination to convince a brand that it needs a creative change and the change that you propose is the right one. “I have to convince them in my own quirky way. The thing is, Struer is in the rural part of Denmark, and the HQ of Bang & Olufsen, but it is also near where I grew up. I might not speak their dialect, but I understand the mindset.” Knowing how to handle people is the second language you need to know how to speak after branding.

Bang & Olufsen by Johannes Thorpe

The collar of a designer
Finding your own style, blueprint or identity in design can be quite tricky. Johannes says that “when you are educated as a designer or architect you kind of get curated depending on your mentor and your mentor will help shape you. My mentor will always be my mother who is a free spirited hippie artist that does not necessarily want to say no or yes; she always says maybe.”

“Creativity is completely global.”

But in the design world hides another jungle. Talking about his work people get to be very judgmental about what he does because he always wants more. Of course other designers can do whatever they want. If they want to sit and carve a spoon or create a beautiful chair, fine by me. I am not like that, I work at a different pace. One day I want to do a spoon and then I want to do a glass, a store, a phone, a magazine; I mean why should we as designers choose a direction for creativity and limit ourselves within creativity, and just the word itself embraces that? Creativity is completely global.”

Bang & Olufsen | Johannes Thorpe

Getting the right team is hard to do, but Johannes says that in his creative agency “most of them come to start as interns and then they grow with the work. They know it’s attractive to work in a place that does things in a different way, because we don’t agree with paying the price of compromises for doing the creative work you like.” Creativity prevails anything “and if it’s just for the money you shouldn’t be a designer, you should be a lawyer or something where you can actually earn money, where you can educate your way into society. Design is not society, design is more fluent. Nonetheless, everything around us is the result of creativity and even lawyers and bankers and so on, they need design. Something which is desirable starts where the designer is putting his or her love into it. And when it goes all the way to the core, then you love it as well.”