Career-defining projects – including two landmark restaurants in their home town of Copenhagen – are bursting out of the practice portfolio of Signe Bindslev Henriksen and Peter Bundegaard Rützou. They talk theory and practice to Jamie Mitchell
Just five years after founding their own practice SPACE Architecture and Interior Design, Danish architects and university friends Signe Bindslev Henriksen and Peter Bundgaard Rützou already have a portfolio bulging with career-defining projects, including the interior design and architecture of Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant which was this year voted the world’s best by Restaurant magazine.
So what has been the recipe for success? ‘There has been this dynamic wave of chefs in Denmark, including René Redzepi, chef-patron of Noma, and Bo Bech whose restaurant, Geist [Copenhagen], we recently designed, and we’ve been lucky to have been chosen to design their restaurants,’ says Bindslev Henriksen.
‘Another thing is that there hasn’t been much competition,’ says Bundgaard Rützou. ‘If you look at other architects working in Scandinavia, very few are specialising in restaurant design. ‘But it’s not the case that we spotted a gap in the market,’ he adds. ‘Restaurant design is something we always wanted to do and it we were just lucky because not many people here were doing it.’
However, designing restaurants for clients such as the famously exacting Redzepi takes more than luck, and Bindslev Henriksen and Bundgaard Rützou have built their reputation on hard work, dedication and, above all, a client-focused approach to design. The designers are careful not to begin a project with preconceived ideas about how it should look, and say they have very little idea, in the beginning, of how the project will turn out.
‘I think our approach has been different from other practices in that we have not defined our own style,’ says Bindslev Henriksen. ‘Of course we have some things we love, and things we try to achieve in each project, but we place a great deal of emphasis on dialogue with the client, and that allows us to work very organically with every project.’
Bindslev Henriksen and Bundgaard Rützou met 18 years ago while they were studying architecture at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. After graduating they each established their own practices before reuniting in 2005 to form SPACE Architecture and Interior Design.
The idea was to keep the practice small (it employs just seven people including Bindslev Henriksen and Bundgaard Rützou) and only take on the kind of projects that really excite them. ‘We like to keep things small as it means we are able to sustain our involvement on every project we do,’ says Bindslev Henriksen. ‘Also, as a small practice, we don’t need to take on lots of projects just to survive; we don’t do projects that we don’t have an interest in or that someone else could do as well as we could,’ she adds.
Naturally there are disagreements, but Bundgaard Rützou says this is all part of the process: ‘We try to work a little bit like yin and yang – there are some benefits of being two genders and different personalities. It can be difficult, but we’ve known each other for a long time; we know what our limitations and strengths are and we try to make good use of those.’
While the duo are careful to avoid imposing their own style on projects – another benefit of having two architects at the helm – their work, which includes furniture as well as interiors, owes a great deal to the traditions of Scandinavian design.
‘That’s very much where our work comes from,’ says Bindslev Henriksen, ‘but we feel that the concept of Scandinavian design has been misinterpreted and cleaned up too much over the years.
‘Everyone thinks of Scandinavian design as something light and simple and made of wood, but when we look back we see much more diversity and much more playfulness.’
‘Scandinavian design is not just about the way things look,’ adds Bundgaard Rützou. ‘It’s also about a process where you travel, observe, take things out of context, and recontextualise. We are influenced by mid-century modernism, but at the same time we also like the ornamental aspects of art nouveau.’
This is particularly apparent in their work for Geist, where expanses of rough concrete and long, monolithic tables made of dark wood are set against arabesque ironwork, ornate chandeliers, vintage dressers and traditional bistro chairs.
‘The design concept was all about contrasts,’ say the designers. ‘We wanted the restaurant to be both dynamic and calm in terms of space, texture, colour and materials. It is a modern design that has a nostalgic tone.’
Noma too is full of dramatic contrasts. An 18th-century warehouse built to store dried fish, whale oil and skins has been transformed into a room that is sparse, almost brutal, but also romantic. Distressed wooden columns and beams, untreated wooden floorboards and rough stone walls, are softened with touches of fur and leather.
It’s a near-perfect expression of chef-patron Redzepi’s approach to cuisine, which balances modern cooking techniques with traditional Nordic ingredients such as bulrushes, sea buckthorn and lingonberries, many of which are collected locally. Redzepi was adamant that there were to be no tablecloths and no fancy cutlery.
‘From the beginning we tried to interpret a Scandinavian feel in this very old building which gave off authenticity in itself,’ says Bindslev Henriksen. ‘But we also added these natural elements like wood and fur leather – all very authentically Scandinavian materials.’
Although the practice’s reputation has been built largely on restaurant design, Bundgaard Rützou says that 10 per cent to 15 per cent of its business actually comes from residential projects. The practice also does offices, such as the Denmark headquarters of electric car manufacturer Better Place.
‘The project for Better Place was a good challenge because we were trying to reflect the ambition and the progressive nature of the client – a company that’s pushing the boundaries of electric automotive design – while also making it a comfortable place for people to work,’ says Bundgaard Rützou.
‘We try to approach all our projects in the same way,’ says Bundgaard Rützou. We don’t have any specific preferences as to what kinds of projects we undertake, but there’s a mutual trust between client and designer that has to be there.’
Maybe so, but would they admit there’s certain kudos that comes with designing the world’s best restaurant?
‘There is something wonderful about designing a place that’s going to be used by so many people on happy occasions,’ says Bindslev Henriksen. ‘And having the chance to do that makes us feel really lucky.’
This article was first published in fx Magazine.