Anders Arhoj: Democratization of Design

Anders Arhoj: Democratization of Design

Anders Arhoj is the founder of Studio Arhoj, a small independent design studio housed in an old envelope factory in Copenhagen. Coupling his perspective as a children’s book illustrator with his time spent studying ceramic craftsmanship in Japan, Arhoj creates whimsical artifacts that captivate hearts around the world. We talk about the contrasts and similarities between Danish and Japanese design as well as the importance of making beautiful things accessible to people from all walks of life.

How would you describe Studio Arhoj
We are not a ceramic company, we are a design company. We are kind of shapeshifting and trying new materials. That’s also why we constantly put out new products.

We don’t cater to high-end clients. We try to keep prices low and democratic so everyone can afford it.

It’s nice to accommodate more types of people. I wanted to keep the prices down so you could get something handmade with a unique feel. 

Why was it important to make the prices accessible? 
I think it’s because I’m from Jutland and the prejudice about us is that we’re only farmers and we’re really cheap. So that’s me. I just want to get value for my money, even though I’m very interested in aesthetics, I don’t want to pay too much money for something. 

In Scandinavia, we’re farmer people. We’re not so much traders like the German people so we have more tradition. We don’t have a lot of social classes like England. We’re all the same level. Everyone helps each other.

We just produce stuff like we did in the old days. In the old days, it wasn’t called “handmade.” It was the only way to make stuff. You are making the craft, not something that’s special but just something that’s natural.

You lived and worked in Japan, how did that impact your thinking?
My parents were always antique shopping from when we were very small. So we learned about aesthetics. My mom was constantly painting the walls new colors. 

But when I went to Japan, I discovered the craftsmanship. I didn’t know that I liked ceramics before I went there.

In Denmark around that time, in the 2000s, it was just straight porcelain, maybe with a little dot. You can’t see the trace of craft or aesthetic. Then I went to Japan and everything was thrown on a wheel and dark clay—a completely different approach to ceramics. I really liked it. 

When I came back from Japan to Denmark, I started to realize we actually have a tradition for crafts here in Denmark as well and no one at the time was doing pots except for the older generation. It was not very aesthetically pleasing. No design influence at all. 

I was used to doing kids illustrations and animations at the public TV station here in Denmark before I went to Japan. I went to Japan and I worked there in character design. So when I came home, I tried to start a company that clashed those two. I made ceramics with the more whimsical character design. 

You started this in Japan. How did that happen?
Basically, it was because I needed money. And all the jobs I could find were doing websites for apartment companies. They don’t speak English very well and they needed to accommodate tourists so they wanted to find a designer who knows Western aesthetics.

I worked at this one place called Design Festa Gallery in Harajuku and I started seeing the different ceramicists coming in. They would rent the room for a day or the week and invite all their friends or network to exhibit or come see their exhibition there. I saw all these artists and craftsmanship and it was very interesting to me. There I slowly started to develop my own aesthetics, my own projects.

When I got home, I worked for years in fashion doing t-shirt illustration. It was really big in the early 2000s. One day I met a ceramicist who was Danish at a party reception for a new store and we became friends. That’s how I really got into ceramics because she and I started to hang out and she would throw a little and I made drawings and we just started to experiment.

When you walk on the street nothing is coherent. When you walk down the street there’s one house one style, a modernist style, a Japanese style, nothing is coherent, it’s chaos.

It’s all in small pools of concentration, but right outside that place it’s chaos and I think that’s very inspiring as well because we don’t think about that in Scandinavia at all. Everything is planned. There is order, all the names match and it’s illegal to do anything that doesn’t match the city plan. Like the city decides the balcony color and you don’t see that in Japan at all, so it’s crazy. Visually for a designer, it’s really inspiring. It’s very opposite point of view, but at the same time, they have a love for materials like we do. So that's where we sort of meet. They like simple shapes. Some areas in Japanese culture have simple shapes. You also have the Buddhists culture so you have the gold and decor, but sort of down to earth, simple design, and function. It’s very matchy with Scandinavia and Finland. 

I’m curious about your process. Some pieces seem straightforward and functional and others are more experimental, like art. 
I definitely try to balance it because I don’t want to keep it separate where we do functional ware here and we do art here. 

I think it’s really fun to try to do art in functional ware. I’m sure people say you can’t do that because then it’s not art. But I just don’t really want to be all right and wrong. I think it’s ridiculous when people try to box things.

We also try to put out some more silly products and sometimes we really miss the mark like things people think are really weird. Last year we put out these hooks. Big mistake. We had so many in stock, no one bought them. But one thing that we put out in the spring did so great, we couldn’t meet demand. 

We just do what we want. And when people stop buying our stuff then that’s it but at least we wanted to do what we wanted to do.

Was working in ceramics a response to digital fatigue?
Yeah totally. I was really burnt out. Everything I did disappeared so quickly. I did children’s books. When you do a kid’s book in Denmark it’s full-priced for one week in the store and then they put it on sale because all the agencies put out new books every week. So there’s constantly things become unimportant. It doesn’t matter.

So your progression was web, then paper, and then you wanted something even more than that?
Hand drawn books are more interesting than computer-drawn books, and that’s what I wanted to take into ceramics. So it’s hand drawn but it still has a strict design aesthetic. 

At some point that will be fatigued as well, but for now, people still want to drink coffee. Ceramics have something that connects us to food so I think in that way we will always have ceramics, but right now there’s a crazy boom in Europe and the States and at some point, it will probably peak and then calm down. We are also trying to explore new things and look forward to what is going to be next.

Anders Arhoj in hist studio
I took all of my little projects and put them into physical reality. And it didn’t take long before one storekeeper saw our work in a store.

What did you bring back from Japan that influenced what you are doing now?  
A sense of color and the joy of color. I’m not afraid to use color and the Japanese have a very crazy way of thinking. They don’t think in coherence like we do. Or at least that’s my impression of what I see when I go there. 

Anders Arhoj holding a huge ghost
Anders Arhoj: Democratization of Design

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