It Started with a Jacket
The story of how ÅBEN was born
Words by Jane Audas
It seems appropriate, in this the first Åben journal, to unpack how we got to this point. Åben is the end result of the passion, persistence and design pedantry (in the best sense) of David Harrigan, sometime lawyer and long-time fan of Scandinavian craft and design.
So, work led him down the path of design temptation. Arranging meetings on Fridays and Mondays allowed him to spend his weekends going to antique and furniture stores in Stockholm and Copenhagen. ‘I became a bit of a nerd. From talking to people on the shop floor, I went on to meet their boss, to meet the owner, to meet the wholesaler.’
Meanwhile, planning his wedding back in England led him indirectly to form the idea and then the reality of Åben. To misquote the song: Åben started with a jacket: ‘When my wife Billie and I got married, Billie (photographer and stylist Billie Scheepers) wanted it to be black tie. A friend of mine sent me a picture of David Beckham wearing a velvet jacket - it struck me as timeless, the way the sunlight played on the velvet was just beautiful, the shawl collar very Gatsby. Thinking of jackets, I asked Billie: ‘Do you know of any up and coming designers?’ and she mentioned Charlie Casley-Hayford.
Over the next 3 months I met with Charlie about 5 times, to take my measurements, size me up - and, over time - make sure the jacket was just right. What I loved about it wasn’t so much the personal interaction, it was that rather than stuffing the pockets of Mr Armani or Mr Ford, the money I was paying Charlie was going towards his rent, his phone bill and so on. I loved that.’
Not long afterwards, in their first house, David wanted to apply the same approach to furnishing his home. ‘We needed a dining table, we needed a coffee table, side tables, a bed. But I couldn’t find the emerging talent in Scandinavian product design. I wanted to work with them in the same way I’d worked with Charlie.’ Like many a good business idea, Åben grew out of David’s search for an answer to the question: who are the contemporary designers who might inherit the ‘design classic’ crown from Wegner, Jacobsen, Poulsen and others? He asked the question of his new contacts in the Nordics but kept getting the same response; why take a risk on somebody new when we’ve got best sellers already?
KADK — the royal
of fine arts
‘Over the next 12 months I met 86 designers, they all told me the same story. It got me thinking.’
Not one to falter at the first setback, David decided to find out more, spending time at the KADK The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. ‘I spent 2 days in their cafeteria to find out where the students go when they graduate.’ He found that life very often swallowed the creative graduates whole. The need to earn a living taking many of them off the path of being designer makers. Whilst some obtained design-related jobs, many left their own practices (reluctantly) behind them: ‘Over the next 12 months I met 86 designers, they all told me the same story. It got me thinking.’
Yet, thinking about setting up a business is one thing. How do you get from that to this, our shiny new website? David recalls: ‘I was listening to The Business of Fashion podcast and the editor was interviewing José Neves, who started Farfetch. He asked José if he had one piece of advice to give anyone thinking of setting up a business, what would it be? The response was: ‘Ask yourself, in 30 years from now, if you didn’t start that business, would you regret it for the rest of your life?’ And if the answer is yes, you need to start that business.’ I heard that walking through Queen’s Park on a Sunday.’ David had 2 major job interviews the following week: ‘First thing Monday morning I phoned them both up and cancelled the interviews. And went full pelt into Åben. That’s scary isn’t it?’
And so. 12 months of work have bought us to this point and we launch with our first selection of expertly crafted pieces that have a story. Made by emerging, and more fully-formed designers, whose stories we also tell. Some of our designers are still studying, some are more established but will benefit from an international platform like Åben. Their selection and the journey here has been personal, coming from a point of research but also from following gut feelings. Åben, which means ‘open’ or ‘openness’ in Danish, rose to the top of a very long list of possible names, which David road-tested with friends. He’d always loved the A with a circle above it. And the word itself resonates with possibility, bespeaks potential.
‘Sustainability is really important to me and is something that forms a cornerstone of ÅBEN as a proposition. It will be part of ÅBEN from scratch.’
Åben plans to honour the word by being open about how we do things, about customer journeys and manufacturing processes too. The advantage of building a modern business from the ground up is that Åben can concentrate on environmental and social responsibility from the get go. There are no murky historical waters to wade through, and David is keen to declare his climate politics from the start: ‘Sustainability is really important to me and is something that forms a cornerstone of Åben as a proposition.
It will be part of Åben from scratch.’ All our designers use FSC-certified wood. And we have partnered with One Tree Planted. And to put back into the design community Åben is supporting a Designer in Residence, the first of which is Stockholm-based designer Nick Ross. The Åben journal (you are reading it at this very moment) is another important facet of this company. Content and image heavy, it is a chance to commission articles about wider Åben interests and friends, whether that is about design, life, fashion, cities – you get the idea. And we very much hope you like it.