Rolf Hay Pursues his Passion, Loves Handball and is Good at Shouting

Interview with the Founder of the Design Label Hay

Rolf Hay Interview 2017Translated from the German by Laura James. Rolf Hay pauses between thoughts whilst he tries to formulate them. This may be due to the fact that German is not his native language, but it also shows that he is a well-informed person. The man, who originally had no relation to design, has been leading one of the best known design labels in Scandinavia since 2002.
After a short stay in Berlin, he paid a visit to Hanover and Connox.

I was nervous about my interview with the founder of such a successful company.
However, Rolf Hay is relaxed. His casual appearance and his open, friendly face work wonders. Dressed entirely in dark blue, with a checkered shirt, loose chinos, a casual jacket and black sneakers, he looks nothing like the businessman I had expected to see. We naturally address each other informally - a pleasant, Danish custom. Finally, after a disarming smile and the question "So, how shall we do this?", I calm down - thankfully!

Rolf, you’ve been to Hanover before. You moved here after school, didn’t you?

Yes, more or less. I didn't know what to do and I wanted to continue playing handball. So I moved to Germany. I lived in Godshorn.

Godshorn in Langenhagen? That is where our new logistics centre is...

In Godshorn? Really? That is what you call fate. I worked there as very young man, in a Scandinavian furniture store.

How does it feel to be back in Hanover?

I told Ruben, our country manager, when we were driving into Hanover that I was feeling almost nostalgic. I have not been back for years. They were good times.

Have you always wanted to found a world renowned design label? Or did you originally have very different plans?

In my family - other than my father and my brother - most were self-employed. Some were successful and some less successful. So, it’s kind of in our DNA. I think as a young man, you don’t think too much about it. When I first came to Hanover, I didn’t know who Arne Jacobsen was, and I had no idea about furniture.

Did you grow into the design furniture world when working for the Danish furniture store?

Yes, exactly. [ponders]. Actually, no. Because the shop where I worked was not a design shop. They sold pine furniture from Scandanavia. However, I did meet the person who changed the course of my life there, Peter. And he had a furniture agency that represented major, important companies from Scandinavia. It blew me away! As I started to come into the furniture design world, I no longer had any doubts.

It just suddenly clicked?

Actually, yes. I still know at which point exactly, which was at the furniture fair in Cologne. That was my first day working for Peter. And there, I knew quite quickly that it was right for me! From then on, my interest for design only grew stronger. That was actually a decisive time because I had used every minute in Germany. I went to many exhibitions. Some exhibitions I saw two or three times. That was extremely inspiring. I have never regretted it.

After Rolf Hay moved back to Denmark, he worked for the renowned family company Gubi for a while, where he also met his wife Mette. Out of pure coincidence, as he says, he met the founder of Denmark's biggest fashion company, Troels Povlsen. A meeting that laid the groundwork for the later foundation of Hay.

The Rolf Hay Interview 2017Had you already developed a concept?

Of course, we knew what we wanted to do. At that time, Scandinavian design revolved around design from the 50s and 60s. These things are still very significant, but the younger generation was really not that interested in Scandinavian design.
That was one idea, maybe an opportunity could be found there.
Then there were also companies that were interesting for my generation... but just too expensive. People could simply not afford it. If we could attract talented designers and then produce high-quality design products at a good price... that was our chance. There was no such thing at the time. The timing was somehow perfect.

Many treat Hay as a representative of Scandinavian design. Do you see Hay that way or is it something completely new?

I know that Danish or Scandinavian design plays a role for many of our customers. We are, of course, a Danish design company because we come from Denmark. But one thing that was very important to us was that we wanted to work with the best designers in the world. To be honest, it doesn't matter whether you're from Poland, Germany or Denmark – the idea is what really matters. If you have a good idea and can implement it efficiently, then you are more than welcome to work for us.

What do you consider a good idea?

There is fortunately no such thing as a recipe for a good idea. Otherwise it would be too easy.

Does it have more to do with intuition or how you go about with the selection of the next project?

It depends... The product needs a new component or a small improvement. Improvements can be a new design or can happen in the mode of production. For us, it is about the fact that we want to make high-quality design products, that arise in a democratic context. This requires a certain knowledge as to how things are made. We spend a lot of time looking for the right means of production. It is about bringing new technologies into the production. A good idea for a new product may be a new form of production. With new technology, you can develop a new design language, make products more durable and longer-lasting. It may also be more environmentally-friendly or cheaper. We are fully aware that our products are not cheap. But we always strive to offer the best possible prices.

Is Hay’s recipe for success that more people can afford the products? Why do you think Hay is so successful?

That has certainly something to do with it.

At this point, we briefly interrupt the interview. The phone rings and I assure him that he can take the call. We use this short break to finally clarify whether Hay is pronounced Hey or Hi. Rolf Hay is amused:

If the interview was in English, then I would have said 'Hey' and in Danish, I would say 'Hej'. However, funnily enough, my father says 'Hi'. This is one of the cases where I would normally say that one must decide for himself. [Laughs loudly].

You don’t mind?

In the company, I have always said that it's not about the brand. It's about the products we supply. Hay is driven by the products and the design.

The Rolf Hay Interview 2017But the concept is already enormous - your name is such a big brand...

Yes, nothing else occurred to us, to be honest. [Laughs.]

Honest. I also have to laugh.

Back to success.

So for me, the issue of success is not something that interests me. Of course, you have to be profitable - which we are. However, for me and my wife and our business partner Troels, it was always about... [Rolf Hay thinks a little longer.] Well, design is the greatest interest in my life - and it has been for the past 25 years. Tomorrow we get a new prototype and it's killing me that I won’t be in the office tomorrow. My interest still means a lot to me. I love doing what I do.

It must be nice seeing how enthusiastic people are about Hay?

Yes, it makes me very happy.

At that moment, something occurs to him.

Someone recently asked me what makes me the happiest. There are many things, of course. For example, the employees that have been with us for over ten years and you can see how far they have come. I'm just proud. Having a company in which so many people have been for so long. I am also happy going somewhere and looking through the window and then seeing, oh, there is a chair by us, and one of our vases. That good feeling hasn’t changed even after all these years. And I'm extremely grateful for that.

Sometimes it is frustrating to work on something, for which you can’t find the right solution. But I'm extremely glad that I have found something in my life that interests me so much. And I hope that you see this as an outsider.

Your family also plays a very important role in your life. Where do you find the energy to juggle life as a managing director and father of two children?

I'm working a lot. Probably more than the average Dane. But the most important thing is my family - by far. And that’s where I get my energy from. I was a handball coach for my daughter’s team. I think there is also a lot of energy that comes from doing something that I'm so passionate about.

And you can see it. His body language - when it comes to design and his company - is reminiscent of a sprinter who just wants to run. Actually, he admits that he is rather lazy when it comes to things that do not interest him, and says:

If I hadn’t found something that I was passionate about, then I don't know what would have become of me. Basically, there were only two things that have interested me greatly. Handball was the first and the second is design.

Would you have otherwise been a handball player?

No, I wasn’t good enough. [Laughs.]

Maybe, a coach...

Yes, perhaps a coach. [He smiles.] I am good at shouting. [We both laugh.]

Do you have a favourite product?

No.

No preference at all?

No. But to be honest, what interests me the most are the things that I am working on at the moment. Unfortunately, I am that kind of person - I am much more interested in what lies ahead than I am in what lies behind me. That has its advantages and disadvantages. At the moment we are working on a new furniture program, that we are going to present in Stockholm. It's a re-launch of furniture from the 50s - made by two Dutch designers, Wim Rietveld and Friso Kramer. The furniture's design is really ingenious and well-thought out. I realised that this makes me slightly nervous. You never know whether something is going to be successful. I also have to say that the longer I work with furniture, the better the feeling is when something works. Tomorrow new prototypes from the factory will arrive, which I hope will be perfect. Otherwise, we have a problem.

Would you be disappointed if the prototypes weren't good?

Yes, totally. I am usually the one who takes the first prototype of a new design home with me. That way, we can see what it looks like in the house and test it out. If I notice that Mette's not entirely convinced, things get difficult. On those occasions, it takes a little bit of time before we can talk properly again. I am extremely sensitive during the first prototype phase. Those who know me are aware of that!

One thing I really love about my work is seeing the 3D drawings become a prototype. It must be really close to reality. Sometimes you are positively surprised and sometimes it is way off. It always kills me when that happens. I can’t cope. I get in a bad mood. And there were a couple of times when I went home because I knew if I stayed there, I would ruin a good day for my colleagues.

How much do you get involved in the process from the designing of the piece to the finished furniture?

So, my first decision is to see if we can implement something or not. For that, I need a lot of time. I then get involved with the method of production, again and again - perhaps more often because it interests me. But the team keeps it running.

What can we expect from Hay in the future?

First, the Relaunch, which will be introduced in Stockholm. There are a handful of designers that we always work with. The Bouroullec brothers from Paris - they have three projects on the go. Stefan Diez's is also working on something. And then a new idea emerges from time to time...

He stops briefly

So I have to say, for me it basically doesn’t matter at all whether it is a well-known designer. We work with Stefan Diez, because he's extremely efficient, not because he is known. And that also applies to the Bouroullec brothers. We also note, of course, that when we think of Bouroullec, there are other interests - the market and the press. I do not want to deny that, but I believe that when the product is first available to you on your side, you will not go along with a semi-good product just because it comes from a good designer.

After nearly an hour of conversation, there is still a question that I want to ask.

The Rolf Hay Interview 2017According to the world happiness report, Denmark is the happiest country. What makes Danes better than us Germans?

The Hay founder is somewhat baffled by my question, apparently he has not heard of this report yet. He does not know how one would measure that - and that is a good point. After asking where Germany ranked, and hearing that we are pretty far down, Rolf Hay thinks about it and says:

We never win anything - you always win!

What do we win?

Football! Except in 1992 when Denmark played in the European Championship final against Germany. I was with my handball team in a pub here in Germany, and Denmark won. Two seconds later, the entire pub was empty. That day, I realised how important it is to have people with whom you can share that win. It is like this for my wife and I with the company. Thank you for the interview.

Article from the 2017-02-10, of Caren Schwenke

Rolf Hay Interview 2017  

Rolf Hay Interview 2017

Rolf Hay at Connox 2017: We interviewed the founder of Hay, one of the most famous living design labels from Scandinavia. He tells us about his passions for design.

All articles from this category Behind the scenes