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Rolf Hay | In Conversation

Early in April 2019, SCP were delighted to host the launch of the new hot galvanised version of the Palissade collection by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec for Hay. On the evening of the launch, we were pleased to welcome company founder Rolf Hay for a Q&A session with our editor Duncan Riches. He spoke about why he started the company, about innovating at a time of crisis, about the talents of the Bouroullec brothers and what we can expect from Hay in the near future. Here we present some highlights of the discussion.

DR: Welcome back to SCP.

RH: We actually launched Hay at the Cologne fair in 2003, and I met both Richard and Sheridan there. SCP was the first Hay dealer in the world. I am very thankful for that as the first collection was actually quite poor.

DR: What were the aspirations when you started Hay?

RH: I grew up in the industry, and before we started Hay I was working at Gubi in Denmark. We were representing the company Cappellini and I was extremely impressed and fascinated by the way they were running the business. Back in 2002, Cappellini were doing things differently from the rest of the Italian furniture industry, most of the Italian industry were loyal to their local Italian designers. But Cappellini did it in a different way. They were working with designers from all around the world. They discovered the Bouroullec brothers, they discovered Barber Osgerby, they were doing great things with Jasper Morrison. They invited young designers from everywhere in the world for adventures in the Italian furniture industry. This was extremely inspiring to me. When I was working for Gubi, I realised that the people who understood the concept of Cappellini couldn’t actually afford it. So I thought, what if we started a great design company working with designers from our own generation, from all around the world? What if we invited them to Denmark and gave them the opportunity to produce quality design products in a democratic context? That was Hay, and that’s still Hay. My wife and I met a man, who was the founder of the biggest high street fashion company in Denmark and who actually gave us the opportunity to do this.

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DR: You have said before that you felt it took you around five years to create the DNA of the company, and then the crash happened. I am interested in looking at that. What happened then?

RH: Early on it was difficult because no-one wanted to work with us, so it took us about five years to get the DNA of the company right. Early on we understood that if we wanted to make products in an affordable context, then we needed to take advantage of modern production. That was actually the starting point for us. But still, no-one wanted to work with us, which was a problem. When I was talking with people who we wanted to work with, they were all complaining about the manufacturers and the lack of knowledge of how to produce things. So what we did in those first years was to try to create a group of people with a passion for production. Creating a platform for these designers to express their ideas. Then in 2008, we were hit by the financial crisis. I remember having a discussion with our business partner Troels. I was saying that we were on the right track now, we were almost getting it right, and now this was happening to the world. And Troels said to me, ‘we don’t give a damn, just give a full pull on product development’, and that’s what we did. We were trying to be extremely business-minded, very serious and realistic about the products we were developing, trying to make them at a high-quality level but at a very reasonable price. Working with lower margins than the rest of the industry, believing that we could create volumes together with the suppliers, and we managed to do that.

DR: I would like to talk a little about the Palissade collection itself. Could you tell me some of the back story about the development of the product.

RH: Palissade is basically about two things. It is about working with two designers who have a very unusual capability to create products that have an incredible aesthetic balance, which I think they did with Palissade. When they are at their best, it looks like it is very easy for them, it doesn’t look stressed what they are doing. Then, number two is about having this idea and then welding. That was the key, we worked for a year and a half in order to find the right way to weld this product, in order to achieve the right price point and the right quality level. I think that it is one of the products that are actually very difficult to talk about, it is very transparent. There is nothing you can hide on this, which is also what makes it difficult, especially if you want to do it in a democratic context, because you can see everything on it, you can see all the welds, there is nothing you can hide. That is very difficult for a manufacturer.

DR: Why did they choose steel?

RH: We are extremely driven by production, and often a new technology or a new machine can be used for a project. In this case, you start to talk about the production and then you start to talk about the materials. We did talk about aluminum, which is in many ways the best material for outdoor use, the problem is aluminum is a weak material, it is soft, but it doesn’t rust. So, if you want to work with steel you have to treat it in a different way so that it doesn’t rust, but steel is much stronger and more reliable. We wanted to create something that could be around for many many years. Ronan had this dream of walking like an old man into a flea market and finding an old Palissade chair which still looked great. I think it will.

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DR: Talking to them, I understand their approach to making environmentally sound products is to design things that will last for a very long time. Moving on from Palisade, I am interested to find out about what is going on now at Hay. With the recent collaboration with Herman Miller, what can we expect to see in the next few years?

RH: The idea around the collaboration with Herman Miller is about both selling our products in the North American market, but also finding a way of producing our designs in North America. We couldn’t have found a better partner for that than Herman Miller. What is on the agenda right now is the aim to produce where we are selling. Which means we will have a hub in Europe, a network of suppliers, who will produce what we are selling here. Then a hub in Asia, in Shanghai, as we have opened a number of stores in China, Japan, and Korea.

DR: I understand you are launching some new products later in the year at the 3 Days of Design event in Copenhagen. Can you give us an idea of what we can expect to see?

RH: We are building up a new lighting collection, which is quite exciting. We are launching a new member of the About a Chair range, that has been a lot of fun to work with. It is about comfort, which I think is related to the fact I just turned fifty. This is the joke in the studio, that I care more about comfort now. We also have a new chair (the Half-Time) that has been designed by Cobe Architects (in Denmark), who have also designed a fantastic building in Germany. This is something that we are following up with at the moment, create things that have a stronger reference to architecture. It means that we are trying to work with the architects to create products for their buildings, which is something that I find very inspiring. It is the way people worked in the old days, and many of the best chairs have actually been designed for buildings. Think Arne Jacobsen, Mies, Le Corbusier, the whole gang. I think it is something that has been forgotten a bit, for us it is a good way to work right now. Rather than just making up design briefs that we think are relevant, that is something that we care a lot about.

We would like to say a big thank you to Rolf for giving us his thoughts.

Watch the talk on IG-TV

Palissade Collection