Good design has some magic to it, believes Jakob Wagner. Drawing from degrees in both mechanical engineering and design, Wagner founded his namesake design studio in 1993—and this magic has landed him numerous awards and commissions from manufacturers including Moroso, Bang & Olufsen, Louis Poulsen, and Cappellini.
Most recently, at 3 Days of Design in Copenhagen, Wagner unveiled a new shelving system for Danish manufacturer Montana. He sat down with Interior Design to share what underwater sport helped him land his first job, where he starts his design process, and what object he finds particularly fascinating.
Interior Design: What makes your new shelving collection Montana Free for Montana stand out from other contemporary shelving collections on the market?
Jakob Wagner: The intention was to take shelving to a new level. We wanted something super simple and highly functional that serves as a showcase. It’s more about being playful than being organized. The first thing we did was get rid of all the extra vertical elements, and really minimize them into rods of tubular steel. Then we minimized the horizontals as well. The system consists of 12 standard compositions that you can choose with an optional interposed shelf. With the fabric panel, the exchangeable piece, you can go wild. While the shelf is available in four colors, there’s eight colors for the fabric. Design-wise, using textile was a huge challenge, but it introduces a whole new softness to shelving.
ID: What else have you been working on?
JW: The JW table for Montana, which launched at IMM Cologne, is a system for different applications with various tops of different woods and laminates. The frame is always in aluminum—polished, black, or white—and it’s triangular so you don’t hit your legs. I like objects that have a little hidden secret. JW has a super slim leg—it may have the thinnest leg on a table that you’ve seen. We really went to the limit. When you move from one angle to the next, the view changes. It’s always different, like a face that changes from different angles.
I also designed all the new headphones that came out in the last five years for Bang & Olufsen. The H4, H8i, and H9i are completely wireless with a bit of aluminum, different plastics, and rubber. For Louis Poulsen, I designed wall lamp Ripls, which is meant to be very low cost so it could go in schools and institutions.
ID: How did your childhood in Denmark influence your design thinking?
JW: I grew up in Copenhagen, and my parents are doctors. In the basement of our house, there was a big workshop. I was kind of king in the basement for many years. I used to always experiment... we set fire to everything and built all kinds of things—a lot of pretty dangerous stuff. My father is a researcher, so finding out how things worked was always planted in me from the very beginning.
ID: How do you start your design process?
JW: I don't think so much about the product; I think about the person using it, the context. We all have relationships to our products. I see myself as the one that makes sure that relationship is a good one. I try to imagine exactly how it would be to use the product. So I visualize the process of using it over and over again, talk about it, make sketches.
For example, nobody really uses a lamp—it just lights up. So I think, can I do something that enriches the experience of using it, that makes passing by it something special? We as designers should come up with something a little different, something not seen before.
ID: What was the catalyst that got your first product into production?
JW: My first product was a wrist computer for scuba diving. I went to school in Switzerland, and I graduated with this kind of scuba-diving mask with a lot of instruments—impossible to make but a high-tech, futuristic product. I managed to get an invitation from Swiss company UWATEC. They were curious to see what it was, and asked me to come down and show it to them. I immediately got a brief after that. I was just out of school, but I found myself working for one of the most advanced companies in the world, doing scuba diving instruments from day one. That was my dream job. Technology and sports, those were my interests at the time. It was a flying start—and I had them as a client for 15 years.
ID: Is there someone in the industry that particularly inspires you?
JW: Konstantin Grcic is always cranking out something new. He can go in many different directions, yet remain consistent. It’s not his style, it’s his thinking. I think I am in love with his brain.
ID: Do you have a dream project?
JW: I would like to do something that makes a huge difference for a lot of people. Something which improves life, worthy of an Index Award. I have a number of ideas about learning equipment and how you can make learning accessible globally. My dream project would be more about making a big change in the world than about making a new product for the one percent.
ID: Do you have an object in your home that has particular meaning for you?
JW: I have a collection of bird skulls which I love. I found most of them here and there, and purchased a few. You can actually buy them on the Internet. I have the front part of a pelican beak that I found on a beach in Mexico. Nature has been a constant reference for me from the very beginning.
ID: Is there a historic building you admire?
JW: The Louisiana Museum in Humlebæk, outside of Copenhagen. I like the refined balance of architectural narrative and landscape integration.
ID: Do you have a book you recommend?
JW: I just ordered a few books on sacred geometry, geometry that’s built into the universe that mankind discovered over the years. The Secret Code: The Mysterious Formula That Rules Art, Nature, and Science by Priya Hemenway is one. When they discovered these patterns in ancient Greece, they were thought of as sacred because they were not manmade. We thought they had a secret… and actually they do have a secret because these geometries are the building blocks of life.