It sounds as if the Norwegian designer known for his incomparable lighting projects has been hibernating, but that couldn’t be further from the truth: he’s actually on six months parental leave for his youngest daughter Flora – ‘For that we are so blessed in Scandinavia,’ he nods – and has been happily off the radar, meanwhile slowly but surely working on ongoing projects. DAMN° had a talk with him about life and work, with zero stress.
Daniel Rybakken's career took off in Milan 2008 when he presented his work at SaloneSatellite. The world discovered a young Nordic designer who seemed to be very aware of the effect of daylight on the human mind, and who was dedicated to explore how artificial lighting could produce the same effect. ‘Milan is special,’ says the designer, who won’t be presenting new projects at the Salone this year. He’s not a great aficionado of fairs, he admits: ‘I am very careful about fairs. Those are the places par excellence where everyone gets inspired by the same things. If you don’t want to be influenced by it, it’s better to avoid fairs altogether. Copying is something our brain does subconsciously, and in the studio back home, those patterns and shapes start to wander around in your brain, and you end up having ideas connected to that.’
For Rybakken, the environment can be pervasive: ‘Just like suddenly everyone seemed to work with trash, or started to combine certain materials like stone, leather and brass. In the beginning it sounds cool, but by the time you’ve developed your project inspired by those ideas it’s everywhere, because its become a trend. I try to avoid that.’ Some of his work does become a trend, though. ‘I would prefer if it didn’t. I consider it to be a problem at the core of the design industry. How many young designers are copying the way Ronan Bouroullec is drawing? They go around and see things, they think, “I want to do this too” and then create something similar, adapting some details. Whereas, design is about communication, it’s a tool to tell something. Everything – shape, texture, colour, the meeting of different materials – is part of that narrative. You can’t just copy the shape and that’s it…’
Born in 1984, Rybakken grew up in Norway, where he studied design at The Oslo School of Architecture and Design. He graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in 2008 from the University of Gothenburg’s Academy of Design and Crafts, and went on to start his own practice in the same Swedish city. A winner of a number of awards, in 2014 Rybakken was the first Scandinavian designer to receive the Compasso d’Oro; in 2016 he received his second one. Rybakken is known to be a slow designer, as if he’s hibernating during the dark winter months, only to come out with an eruption of new bright projects when the light is back: ‘I take my time because I don’t compromise on quality.’
He agrees that growing up in Norway is crucial to his approach and view on light. ‘Without the light situation here, I would not be doing what I am doing now. The average Nordic person has a very strong sensitivity with light. Since it’s scarce, it’s precious, and you can see this in the way we illuminate our houses and public spaces. In southern countries, people are so used to the abundance of light they might not see it anymore. I noticed that in restaurants in Italy, for instance, the light is often functional: they illuminate in order for you to see what you’re eating. In Scandinavia, light is used to create atmosphere. The lack of light shapes us as people. Winter is a depressing challenge. But summer is as well: when after months of absence, the light finally comes back, a kind of crazy euphoria takes over Scandinavia. It distracts us from work; we can’t focus. On a sunny day we can’t stay inside, otherwise we have a bad conscience. We are kind of drilled from childhood to appreciate the light before it goes away.’ It sounds like a true challenge to go through that bipolar situation each year: ‘Sure, but it’s also an inspiration. I try to recreate natural sunlight, the way I want it; the way I need it. While creating I don’t think much of the end user, to be honest. I am the end user of all my projects; I design for myself. I can only hope other people share my needs, view and taste.’
Since his first, memorable passage in Milan, Rybakken has built up a unique relationship with brands like Luceplan and Artek, who have the patience to wait for quality. ‘Alessandro Sarfatti jokingly said that Luceplan might have one-night stands with some designers; with me they wanted to have a fruitful marriage. We’ve been together for six years now,’ he says with a smile. ‘With Artek it went the same.’ This kind of declaration of eternal love is gold because, ‘It isn't always easy to survive as a designer.’ As a result, Rybakken occasionally launches projects for a different kind of brand, for a different kind of audience. For instance, trend aware young people who grew up with Instagram and Pinterest, who might share sensibilities with Rybakken but who can’t (yet) afford his slow creations for high-end brands. Together with Norwegian colleague Andreas Engesvik, he’s now developing a sofa for the fashionable Scandinavian brand HAY, a company that stands for the kind of trendiness Rybakken criticises – ‘It’s good to take risks sometimes.’ And mind you, each project he develops has to be perfect; it has to fit in his collection as a thoroughbred family member.
The designer is also working on a new industrial design project for Artek about which he can’t reveal anything yet. Same for the ‘big project’ with Panasonic he’s very excited about: ‘I’ve been working on it since last summer…it’s a high-tech project, science fiction for the future,’ he enthuses. Here, the essence of Rybakken shows: ‘I only recently realised that I actually became what I always wanted to be, since I was a kid: an inventor. Design just happened to be the area in which I could develop my ideas. The urge to find novelties and to better things is something that drives us all, as a species. My drive is to create something new that enhances my quality of living.’ Since he has the soul of a scientist, we imagine trial and error – not to mention failure – are paramount in his working process. ‘Certainly, moreover, since in design so many different parameters are going on at the same time. Failure usually happens at a very early stage in the process, in my brain, before I start drawing. You’ll often find me sitting at my desk, thinking. I always feel tired after that. In our daily life many things happen in a routine of subconscious processes – we don’t have to invent new things every day. Using our brain intensely to find new solutions for unknown problems requires more effort from our brain. So it’s quite normal when I start thinking about a new project it exhausts me.’
Where and how did he pick up his way of thinking? ‘At high school I felt that some fellow students were not taking my work seriously because they thought I got help from my father, who is a graphic designer, even though in reality I had worked on it nights in a row on my own. I felt that was hanging over me, and that I had to start doing something different in order to establish my own identity.’ One of his key works, he says, is Counterbalance for Luceplan, for which he won his first Compass d'Oro. (‘When Alessandro Sarfatti and I made a selfie with the Compass d’ Oro on the bus to Malpensa, regular Italian people were pointing at us saying “Wow, that’s the Compasso d’Oro!!”.’) Rybakken calls Counterbalance a key work because it revealed his thinking, his identity, also to him. ‘In retrospect, you can see a clear red thread – all these projects are connected, also aesthetically. And often ideas are born in one project and live on in another.’ Equally revelatory was Daylight Entrance, one of a series of projects that exemplified the true nature of his work, born out of his existential connection with daylight.
When we spoke, Rybakken had just had a retrospective, Daylight and Objects, in the Gothenburg City Library on the occasion of winning the Torsten and Wanja Söderberg Prize 2017, so his thoughts about his oeuvre are still fresh. ‘I realise every project is important for me; I want each of them to be very, very good. And they all have to fit in the collection – it’s a family with each member sharing the same DNA.’ In the exhibition – which will soon travel, with Helsinki as its first stop – the designer presented projects and sketches, but also pictures, which reveal another side of Rybakken: besides being an inventor, he’s also a collector. ‘I photograph all my collections, I also sometimes work together with photographers, and I collect these images. This body of work, this collection, is my very own narrative.’
Daniel Rybakken — Daylight and Objects, Design Museum, Helsinki, 8 June – 26 August,