Alexandra Raben: Casting Light

Alexandra Raben:  Casting Light

Alexandra Raben has traveled the world but always comes back to the comforts of home. Known for her intricately designed lamps, weaving together global-influences with a world-renowned Scandinavian design heritage, she’s exploring what it means to be a young, Danish designer. We talk about American high-fives and what it means to trust your gut and defy convention in a country where tradition and conformity are celebrated ways of life.

What differences do you see between the United States and Denmark? 
Oh god, so much. I also used to live in the United Kingdom, so that’s a third thing. I went to L.A. for two weeks just to check it out and stay with a friend. When I went around by myself, I took the bus. Coming as a Dane, I’m used to public transportation. We are very, very, very good at public transportation and when I went on a bus in L.A., I was like, “What is going on here?” It was just crazy and it took me four hours to get somewhere when it should have taken 20 minutes in my mind. 

I told my friend who I was staying with I took the bus, and he said, “You actually went on a bus?” Like it was a crazy thing.

When you return from living abroad, did you see things from a new perspective? 
You see yourself in a different way. I’m sure you’re proud to be an American, but sometimes when you meet Americans outside of America you realize some things about your own people and you’re like, "What is going on here?" For example, I went to Mexico with a friend for three months and somehow we had this Danish family traveling the same route as us. They didn’t speak any Spanish at all and their English was terrible. They were just traveling along and whipped out their travel guide and tried to eat the same way they did in Denmark. I was fascinated because they weren’t taking any of the culture in and there wasn’t anything in their way at all. Why go out traveling? And my friend said, "Well, they are Danish."

You keep coming back to Copenhagen. Do you think you’ll stay?
These are my roots and I just miss my roots. I love the way it’s so relaxing—there’s no stress here. I have a five-minute bike ride to work. I like the way you go out on the weekends and everyone is up for grabbing a beer. You can also go to a nightclub for hours if you want, but there are so many things to do compared to how small the city is. I mean we have a beautiful beachfront. And Tivoli, it’s a crazy thing because it’s so beautiful. It’s a small theme park in a tiny city but it’s cool we have that. We have a lot of history and art as well. I think that’s the thing. A lot of things I really like are hard to get anywhere else and I think that’s what brings me back. 

I think that it’s also the family mentality and the quality of life here. It’s kind of easy, breezy. You get paid to go to school here. You have your children taken care of and it’s paid for. It’s like everyone is helping each other. I think we try to take care of each other here and we try to take care of the city.  I think it’s a nice place to live. It’s not that much hard work.
Alexandra Raben dresser with art, awards, and accessories

How has Copenhagen changed?
I’ve lived a lot of different places but of course, Copenhagen is becoming more of a cosmopolitan city. 

I had to go talk to my boss at this place that was a rooftop site and there was an African drumming band, ramen noodles, mushrooms growing in the ceiling, and a bar. I felt like I was in New York.

I had to say a password in an elevator and I just thought this was so unCopenhagenesque. Everything was organic on the menu, too. I think of course this city is going to change a lot but what I like is that we still respect the landscape. You don’t see skyscrapers going up everywhere. It’s all still very respectful in terms of what gets built. Of course, there are bridges over the lakes so you can bike easily everywhere because accessibility is amazing so that’s the biggest thing that’s changed. You can pretty much go everywhere now. 

That’s probably why I couldn’t live in London because you can’t just go to the beach just like that. You can go to three different beaches here all within 25 minutes. I think most Danish people are used to being able to go to the beach and the sea. We have to have the sea close to us. I think a lot of people have that feeling, that you have to be able to go to the beach. 

What United States cities do you think Danes are most interested in? 
New York. The brave ones go to L.A. New York is a place with all nationalities, whereas L.A. is much much more different than I expected. I wouldn’t say L.A. is a city, I would say it’s five cities in one. You have to have a car and you have to expect to spend a lot of time in your car. You have to put a lot into your social life to kind of build something. Just thinking that I have to build this and build a social life and just build myself in this culture, that would be a bit of a challenge. 

Alexandra Raben weaving

How did you get started as a designer?
In 2012, I graduated from TEKO Design & Business and when you’re Bachelor’s thesis and your product is done, you go to the biggest furniture fair in Scandinavia. I went there and brought the lamps. I was so lucky that I got an order for 12 lamps from a department store in Munich. This was at a point where I had only made two lamps and I was just trying stuff out. My mom and my friend Bettina had to come help me out because I was just like, “Jesus Christ, what am I going to do?”

So then I started a company and I just started making them as I went along. Slowly but surely, the magazines got involved, and more fairs, and then private customers, and now today they are hanging in the craziest places. There’s one in Miami. There are some in the Netherlands in a Mexican restaurant. Some in a store in Madrid and in Germany. There’s been very worldwide interest, which has always fascinated me because this is a very small country and I haven’t actually done that much marketing.

What are some of your influences?

When we were at a school, everything was very traditional. You had to make a chair as your final piece and do the woodwork. It didn’t really appeal to me because I wanted to do something very aesthetic. I wanted to make a lamp and I wanted to do something that was very beautiful both when it was turned on and when it was turned off. Also, I really wanted to work with textiles and something with shadows- something that had a transparency so it wasn’t dominating in the room. I found Peruvian dream earrings. I really liked how you could change the colors and you could see these patterns forming. I just started diving into a work of patterns. I do not know how this came about but this just happened organically.

I really wanted to do something very different. In this country, we have a lot of heritage in the design world. We have all the classics to live up to, so trying to branch out is pretty tough.

Was it difficult to deviate from the traditional Danish design approach? 

I had a mentor at school who definitely did not support me and did not feel that this was the right way to do a degree in design. He said this would never be able to sell because you would have so much difficulty manufacturing it. I said not everything has to be mass produced.

I’ve definitely learned throughout this whole thing that you can only trust one thing and that’s your gut feeling.

Is that atypical in Denmark? To follow your gut?

I think it is maybe a little bit atypical especially because in this country, you know, you’re not really allowed to celebrate your success. Everybody has to be happy for everybody and competition is always a good thing, but it’s not something you speak of.

In the United States, there is a completely different mentality. I work with someone in my office who has been in San Francisco for six years and I can definitely feel the way he works is on a completely different level than us with the whole teamwork thing and high-fives. I think it’s a great thing. It’s just a different thing.

Alexandra Raben surrounded by her work
The Designer's Guide to Copenhagen by Alexandra Raben

Photography by Robiee Ziegler, unless otherwise noted. Interviews edited for flow and clarity.