Interview: Jacob Holm & Richard Munao

Nov 24, 2011
  • Article by Leanne Amodeo
  • Designer

Richard Munao, Managing Director of Corporate Culture, was this week presented with the Diploma of the Danish Export Association in recognition of his work in promoting Danish export – an accolade he was nominated for by Fritz Hansen CEO, Jacob Holm. Leanne Amodeo spoke to Munao and Holm about the relationship between Australian and Danish design, and the continued challenge of protecting and promoting authentic design.

Leanne Amodeo: Richard and Jacob, Can you take me back 12 years and let me know how the relationship between Corporate Culture and The Republic of Fritz Hansen began?
Richard Munao: I started this business with a Danish partner who was a manufacturer of a couple of Danish brands. I wasn’t aware of Danish design at the time, and hadn’t really sold a lot of it previously, but when the business was only two years old the Export Manager for Fritz Hansen came in, liked what we did, liked our showroom and the relationship started from that. It’s kept on growing in terms of both sales and friendship, so that we now have a real understanding of each other’s business. I feel like I’m part of the family.

Jacob Holm: It’s one thing for business partners to create a platform for doing business and it’s another thing to share the common values and to be able to have a deeper understanding and interest in design, specifically in Danish design. That is more than just a business partner, and that is the reason why Richard in particular, and Corporate Culture, has become a part of the Fritz Hansen family. Basically we have close to 1000 dealers worldwide. You could say that Richard is just one of many but, in this case, there is only one dealer in Australia and for that matter, he is taking care of our business here, so he is closely tied to the company.

LA What has this ongoing relationship with Corporate Culture meant for Danish design?
JH Well, I think that you have to look at it within a broader perspective. Danish design is a small segment of the entire interior design segment. It’s perhaps a little bit different than other design styles and therefore it’s really important for us that there is an ongoing steady haul where we are trying to educate the marketplace. Not educate in terms of design itself, because, obviously, people have a broad understanding of what it is and how it works, but with the particular story behind it. Danish design and the interpretation of what Danish design is all about was built up during the 30s, 40s and 50s. It became what it did and what we’re trying to bring forward in terms of our tradition, as well as trying to introduce new elements. Trying to influence the design community through both direct and indirect means is a very, very important part of our business, so to speak: it’s the part where we feel like a small group of monks who are travelling barefoot around the world with our small religion that is part of a much bigger world in terms of design.

LA Jacob, you raise the issue of heritage, which has always been a strong selling point for Republic of Fritz Hansen. How do you react to Richard’s co-founding of the Authentic Design Alliance (ADA)?
JH I think it’s a great initiative because, obviously, the issue of copyright and ownership is an important part of our business, and the protection of rights is an issue that takes up a lot of our time and resources. In having close to 1000 places worldwide where our products are sold, it also provides a huge platform for people to make copies or replicas of our furniture. In most places we’re able to fight them with legal means, but in the case of Australia there really is no legislation at least to the extent that there’s something you can actually use to stop what is, in my mind, a very immoral or unethical way of interpreting our business.

LA Richard, has there been any movement with the ADA’s plans to lobby government?
RM The first step has been to gather people with a common interest because if we can grow that body then it makes it a lot easier to have serious discussions with government about these issues. One thing I have planned for next year is the presentation of a paper on issues such as intellectual property rights. The interesting thing right now is that I can take a photo and I’m protected – and I’m not a photographer. Yet, if an artist or designer creates something they can register it, but, really, someone makes a few changes with the intent of directly copying and they can get away with it. That’s why Corporate Culture are involved in events like Tuesday night’s Design Pitch: we’re trying to encourage young designers that there is a means to design new things. Part of why the ADA was formed was to start to educate with the view that we would eventually lobby. We don’t lose a lot of work to copies, we really don’t; it’s not a major problem for us. I think the major problem is that it starts to stifle creativity, and it would be much nicer to be seeing new things being designed, or, like Henry Wilson presented at Design Pitch, old designs brought up to date rather than just copied.
JH That’s at least the agenda that we see in Europe. There are a lot of things that you need to protect in terms of worldwide globalisation and the very competitive picture that we’ll see in the years to come. And for Australia now, that means it’s even more important that you can protect your ideas and your innovations, not only in a small, narrow way but in terms of technology and in terms of software, and for those purposes you need legislation.
*RM* Denmark presents a good example: with a population of 5 million people and a strong design culture, they’re probably one of the few countries in Europe at the moment that you don’t hear about having financial difficulties. I don’t think that’s by coincidence; I think that’s part of the design heritage. The State of Green export initiative – which is currently hosting events across Sydney and Melbourne, where Danish manufacturers and exporters have come out and met their Australian partners – raises awareness of Danish design as well as creating business to business meetings. It’s a fantastic initiative that promotes this small country with a quarter of our population. As a government and as a country we need to be saying, well, how can they do this? I know they have Europe in their backyard, but what are we going to do?

LA Do you think that we just don’t take our design industry seriously enough in Australia?
RM I think that the biggest problem for design in this country is that you can sit on a flight – and I use this analogy all the time – between, say, Sydney and Melbourne and talk to the person sitting next to you, tell them that you sell Fritz Hansen or talk about Jørn Utzon, and the general public just aren’t connected. So, you might get one in five that knows Utzon designed the Opera House, whereas you sit on the equivalent flight in Scandinavia and you sit next to a Dane and it doesn’t matter what they do, generally speaking, they know who designed the Copenhagen Opera House, they know who designed the Egg chair. I think that’s where the challenge is: it’s really more about consumer awareness. It not only goes back to that notion of education, but also culture. It has to be led from the top and government needs to make people understand the value, including the economical value, that there is in design.

LA Jacob, how is Australian design and the design industry perceived in Denmark?
JH Australian design is perceived as being both dynamic and progressive. I think Marc Newson is obviously someone recognised as being an international design superstar – he is just the tip of the iceberg though, but at least we know him well. So, in that context Australia is not regarded as an underdeveloped design nation at all! On the contrary, the historical ties between Europe and Australia, especially through architecture, are in my mind the fundamentals that have given rise to the awareness of Australian design. The fact that you surround yourselves with interesting buildings, and that you are actually thinking about what you are putting into the buildings – that’s really the place where it all begins. I think that, in this regard, Europeans, and Danes in particular, regard Australia as a design nation – as a country that is well connected in terms of design.

LA Then how do we expand on our design relationship with Denmark?
JH It’s quite easy. You need to buy some more furniture! The other part of it is that young Australian designers need to come to Europe much more often. And as we saw in Design Pitch, they need to show off their good ideas and meet up with the European manufacturers. I fully understand the practical implications of long distance, but I think that it’s necessary. A lot of good initiatives are maybe stranded one way or another in a relatively small Australian market, without having the opportunities to hit the North American and, for that matter, the East Asian markets, which are the most important ones in terms of scale and in terms of a design-enthusiastic audience.

LA Who are the new wave of Danish designers?
JH Cecilie Manz is already stocked at Corporate Culture. She is very good at producing entire collections. As a designer in her mid-thirties she is one of the new generation of Danish designers and architects who don’t feel the shadow of the great Masters. The Masters are dead and gone and there’s room for the new wave to unfold their wings and do their own thing, without having them looking over their shoulder. And I think, seriously, that’s a very important part of their success. Kasper Salto is another mid-thirties Danish designer that Fritz Hansen is working with. I think they are the two who are probably the most developed right now.

LA What’s next in terms of Corporate Culture’s relationship with Fritz Hansen?
RM We’ve really made a move into the residential market over the last three years and, like Fritz Hansen, when we first started we were much more focused on the contract market and that’s changed. The contract market and the residential market are coming closer together. We’re seeing offices that look like people’s homes, so I would say that strategically it was a good move for us, but through the Fritz Hansen collections it’s something that we’ve been fortunate to fall into. We are making our showrooms a lot more homely. So moving forward we’ll be selling design at all levels from accessories, like a Cecilie Manz glass, but we’ll also continue to promote the beauty of having things for a long time. Longevity isn’t really a big thing in the environmental bodies’ assessment of products, but we’re trying to educate those bodies and the consumers. When you’re talking about a product that was designed in 1955 and is still in production it’s got to be a better investment than something you can pull apart and put into containers at the end of its life. We should be making things that last a lifetime.

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