Since 1968, textiles company Kvadrat has built up a reputation for the quality of the products that it designs and manufactures for private and public spaces. From upholstery fabrics and curtain textiles, to rugs, acoustic panelling and tiles, in each case, colour is one of the defining characteristics of its aesthetic.
Yet despite its celebrated design approach and its many projects with artists, designers and architects, Kvadrat has somehow remained, as historian Denise Hagströmer writes in Interwoven, a visual history of the company, “the most famous Scandinavian brand that no one has ever heard of”. In his foreword to the book, Peter Saville, who has worked with Kvadrat since 2004, suggests that both the company’s tricky name and its rural base in north-eastern Denmark have contributed to the fact that, even to this day, the business retains an air of mystery.
‘Kvadrat’ means ‘square’ in Danish and is pronounced how it is spelled, with the emphasis on the second syllable. As a company name it was inspired by the grid-patterned paper that textile designers and engineers in the 1960s would use to make initial sketches. Based in the small coastal town of Ebeltoft since its move there in 1980, overlooking Aarhus bay and the Mols Bjerge national park, many of those who know of the Kvadrat name at all, may know it for the way it works as a design company.
Saville writes that it remains “a family business, but one that is surrounded by an extended family of creative partnerships” and extols the Kvadrat working method because it is “the kind of template that one idealised in the past; relationships between artist, designer and manufacturer that are driven by belief and commitment, in the way the canon of great design has always been forged.”
Collaboration is at the heart of Kvadrat and, as vice president of branding and communications Njusja de Gier believes, while the philosophy has made for “a very open and cosmopolitan company”, working with external designers has meant that “the collections and way of thinking stays fresh and surprising, as we ask somebody to give their interpretation on a direction or idea. It triggers and stimulates our thinking in different directions. As we work with people from all over the world the output has a universal, eclectic character. We are not the typical Danish design company.” Kvadrat’s internal product development department consists of project managers with backgrounds in textile design, on hand to help the various creatives from non-textiles backgrounds to translate their ideas into working designs.
By the mid 1960s, Denmark’s reputation within the design industry centred largely on its metalwork, ceramics and furniture production. At the time, Hagströmer notes in Interwoven, the country was largely an importer of textiles rather than an exporter. But the balance was about to shift thanks to the increasing popularity of ‘Scandinavian Design’ and Denmark’s concerted efforts to be a part of this emerging movement.
Coupled with a growing interest in domestic interiors and demand from an increasingly design-conscious furniture industry for innovative textile production this meant that company founders Poul Byriel and Erling Rasmussen could launch Kvadrat at the perfect time. Since then, the company has worked with many of the world’s most revered furniture brands, from Thonet to Vitra, and their vast range of textiles and fabrics have found their way into homes, workspaces and institutions, becoming part of the look of everything from Eurostar trains to the debating chamber in the Berlin Reichstag.
High-profile projects aside, Kvadrat’s increased visibility over the last few years has been largely due to the work of de Gier, Saville and the now five-year long relationship the company has had with UK studio Graphic Thought Facility. Saville has been working with Kvadrat since 2004 when he was invited to work on the company’s identity and he remains a creative consultant, working with de Gier and GTF on a regular basis.
“We had collaborated with Peter previously and combining our ways of working seemed to make good things happen,” says GTF creative director, Robbie Mahoney. “Kvadrat was already a successful company but largely unknown – and unpronounceable – to anyone outside the furniture trade. We were brought in to bring the core identity up to date but we also wanted give them a more confident persona; they are, after all, great at what they do. It’s possibly a Danish trait to be modest and it was interesting to note an initial unease in some quarters in changing their logotype from a recessive grey to a more definitive black.”
In addition to defining a new language for product imagery, Mahoney explains, GTF also developed a new typeface for Kvadrat’s communications (a redrawn version of Neuzeit) in collaboration with HouseStyle Graphics. Once these initial elements were in place, the first creative expression GTF were able to make was a new ad campaign where, Mahoney says, the brief was simply to increase awareness of the brand.
“There was no specific product to sell, so we were free to develop a campaign that was all about celebrating the essence of the company, that they produce the most incredible range of ‘raw materials’ for the design industry to work with – full of colour and texture and innovation. The latter being very important as Anders [Byriel, CEO] is very clear that, whilst they have a wonderful and enduringly popular back catalogue, they are most definitely not a heritage brand.” While GTF took references from various historical forms and motifs, the look of the first campaign was “purposely to stop you in your tracks and take note of this brand; to be a world away from the typical textile trade ads offered up by the sector at that time.”
Mahoney says that the studio’s relationship with Kvadrat, via de Gier and Saville has meant that the creative process can be very fluid. “With bigger clients it’s possible to get absorbed in the day-to-day, there is so much to deliver and respond to,” he says. “Peter’s role ensures we spend valuable time, along with Njusja, establishing where in the broadest terms we want to go with the brand. For the most part we will respond to a brief from Njusja by presenting directly back to her, but we might equally sound out a concept on Peter first, or he’ll bring one to us to get our thoughts. This trust and mutual respect makes for a strong relationship and, I hope, strong work.”
Beyond the creation of its own textiles and fabric designs, it’s Kvadrat’s relationships with artists and designers from outside these disciplines that has enabled its more unusual projects to bloom. Artists such as Thomas Demand and Olafur Eliasson, designers like Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, David Adjaye and Patricia Urquiola have each taken Kvadrat textiles as the starting point for projects which examine the extent of what the medium can do.
This thinking has resulted in things as diverse as the Ready Made Curtain and the Textile Field installation at the V&A Museum, both of which were made in collaboration with the Bouroullecs. In 2011, the company worked with Demand on the Saal project for the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. “It’s a trompe l’oeil,” de Gier explains. “The curtain gives the impression of draping to the ground in wave-like folds but, as the viewer approaches, it’s revealed to be a completely flat piece made out of our Soft Cells acoustic panels with deliberately unaltered creases and imperfections. For this, Thomas really pushed our printing capabilities.”
Further to this, part of de Gier’s mission at Kvadrat is to inspire people in the use of textiles, an idea that led her to instigate exhibition concepts for two of its most famous lines: Hallingdal 65 and Divina, which was launched in 1984 and designed by Finn Skødt (the first designer to use it was Ron Arad). “We wanted to celebrate the longevity of one of our most successful textiles and bring them into a contemporary context,” says de Gier.
“Hallingdal is our first ever textile and the foundation that Kvadrat was built upon – that and Divina are the favourite textiles for many designers. The initial idea was to ask designers to upholster their favourite furniture piece in it and create a colour story, [but] this seemed uninspiring, so I changed the brief. I told the designers they could have as much textile as they wanted to create something where the textile was the main focus. Besides that, there were no limits.” The result was Divina: Every Colour is Divine, an exhibition which first opened in Milan and went on to tour Kvadrat’s international showrooms.
Significantly, these large visual statements link back to the Kvadrat identity and campaign work which employs striking imagery to put the product front and centre. To achieve this, GTF work regularly with photographer Casper Sejersen in Copenhagen and a range of other imagemakers including Angela Moore, Annabel Elston, Matthew Donaldson, Joël Tettamanti, Scheltens & Abbenes and the artist Anne Collier.
“Photography is a key element in Kvadrat communications and it’s becoming increasingly more so as its potential to be seen is spread across new and ever multiplying channels,” says Mahoney. “Over the last five years we’ve worked really hard to build up Kvadrat’s image quality and resource, from campaigns and product photography to documenting the projects and events they’re engaged in.”
A natural extension of this is using bold imagery on social media and in film projects, an area that GTF are devoting more time to, be it in documenting a larger project or using animation as part of the marketing material in the build up to an event. “It’s a really interesting challenge to think of simultaneously static and moving expressions of a project,” adds Mahoney.
As with their base of photographers, GTF has a coterie of filmmakers who respond to the Kvadrat aesthetic which includes directors like Sejersen, Andrew Telling and Matthew Donaldson and animators such as Studio Aka. “This approach does perhaps give a Kvadrat ‘look’,” says Mahoney, “but I don’t see it as a dogma. I think each project is quite distinct, but may well be perceived as having been touched by the hand of GTF! That’s fine.”
Furthermore, de Gier believes that, despite being screen-based, online can be particularly useful for a textiles company. “It’s the perfect medium to support the tactility of textiles as you can display moving images which is essential for communicating what, for example, curtains can do for your room to create atmosphere,” she says. “Films are really important to our storytelling – it’s where we will put even more emphasis in the future.”
In as much as Kvadrat is already a success story within the textile design industry, as a company it is the product of nearly half a century of collaborations and a belief in working closely with practitioners from a range of creative disciplines. Harnessing this and communicating it to a wider audience is no easy task, but the results speak for themselves.
“The Kvadrat look is something that we have carefully blended over the last few years,” says Mahoney. “There’s a clean, contemporary feel to the brand, a sense of space and controlled celebration of colour, but above all we’ve always wanted the products to be the hero; our communications always investigate creative but appropriate ways to express the product’s design, materials, texture or colours. We’ve been very lucky that, in the first instance, we are working with great products.”