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Soft minimalism and human-centred design with Norm Architects

Meet Scandinavian interior designers: Norm Architects. Minimalism, sensuality, and serenity.

Architecture & Design by Norm Architects, Photography credit to Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen
Soft minimalism and human-centred design with Norm Architects
Clara Carlino de Paz
January 10, 2024

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Minimalism, Scandinavian and human-centred design walk into an interior design studio. What comes out? The incredible Norm Architects; and today, we had the opportunity to sit down and talk to them about their philosophy towards architecture, interior and product design and photography. Learn more about what it means to bring sensuality into a space, and how you too can incorporate haptic principles into your practice. For more exclusive interviews at the cutting edge of interior design, subscribe to our newsletter. Without further ado…

Hi! Could you introduce Norm Architects and your main areas of work?

Founded in 2008, Norm Architects is a Copenhagen-based practice working with design to enrich the human experience. As multidisciplinary architects and designers, we consider our work as a facilitation of well-being, as a distillation of aesthetics that resonate with the unique person and place, and as a system that supports universal human needs. 

Each Norm Architects project—be it architecture, interiors or products—exemplifies minimalism infused with a larger aim to re-sensualize the built environment through haptic designs that embrace mind and body. Hence, projects of all scales are guided by the essential and universal needs of body and mind to arrive at outcomes that feel as good as they look and that age gracefully. Through natural materials, simple geometries and thoughtfully composed atmospheres, we aim to nurture all five human senses, support the human form and provide enduring functionality. 

Our Copenhagen-based studio merges Scandinavian traditions with an international perspective and cultural curiosity to deliver site-specific spaces and objects defined by exceptional craft, beauty and longevity.

dining room Norm Architects
Photography by Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen

In three words, how would you define your brand identity?

Thoughtful, empathetic and human-centric.

What are your main references, or sources of inspiration?

In nature we find our essence as it embodies haptic qualities that resonate with us and make us feel at ease. Therefore, from a human-centric point of view, working with nature, rather than against it, is a given when composing the frameworks that surround the daily lives of people in today’s increasingly chaotic world.

Photography by Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen

The first thing that drew me in was your aim to "re-sensualize" the built environment. Such a sexy way to put it! Could you elaborate on what this means and how your approach achieves this goal?

We spend most of our time indoors. Our experience of everyday life is largely dependent on the manmade structures, materials and objects that form our modern habitat. The story of our lives unfolds between the walls of home – our place of sanctuary – at our work desks, restaurant tables, and within the greater infrastructure of the city. Just like the weather, the atmosphere of the built environment has a profound effect on how we rest, think, feel, work, eat and socialise. Spaces and objects must certainly be functional but if they are to truly serve us, they must also attend to our bodies and emotions. 

At this moment in design history, we believe it’s necessary to go beyond strict Rationalist and Modernist doctrines to re-sensualize the built environment with a hapticity that embraces the whole human being – that addresses our perception of space and all our sensory faculties. This requires slowing down the process to consider design from the perspective of human experience and sources of meaning. To us, good design transcends utility and aesthetics to become a sensual and social exercise – to create a framework for essential human needs of safety, identity, belonging and purpose.

serene hotel Norm Architects
Photography by Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen

I noticed that Norm Architects places a strong emphasis on haptic or human-centred design. How do your designs engage the senses and enhance the user experience?

With any project we always start from a human-centric lens. We aim to create concepts that embrace the human psyche and human form in context of the project’s particular place, time, parameters and needs. We use our own senses—including our imagination—to design the right feel, smell, image, sound, scale and density. In this way no two projects are ever the same. We think in both practical and poetic terms every step of the way. We never compromise on quality. We choose what will have the most meaningful and positive impact via the most restrained yet beautiful expression. 

wabi sabi living room
Photography by Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen

The concept of "Soft Minimalism" is also central to your approach. How does Soft Minimalism differ from other minimalist movements, and what inspired you to adopt this particular perspective?

When we started our practice almost 15 years ago, we spent a whole year discussing what we wanted to do. We realised that we were minimalists in many ways, and that we loved that simple way of living and working, but at that time, minimalism was not a positive word. So, we sat down and wrote a short essay called “Soft Minimalism,” in an effort to re-invigorate the concept. It was all about saying that you can have a simple life, you can decorate your interior in a simple way, you can make simple objects, but if you use natural, good quality materials, you’ll still end up with lots of character. It shouldn’t be considered a revolutionising movement, but a subtle rebellion against the trend driven; rather than aiming for invention, we think of design in evolutionary terms, holding on to traditions, slowly and thoughtfully applying slight improvements to match the needs of modern society.

japandi restaurant Norm Architects
Photography by Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen

I would love to explore deeply the notion that Soft Minimalism is described as a subtle rebellion against trend-driven design. Could you elaborate on this concept and perhaps explain how this connects to sustainable design in a broader sense?

For us design is all about eliminating the irrelevant to emphasise the important – whether designing buildings, interiors, furniture or creating images. It is about clear and simple communication that is timeless. Having said that, the main goal for our architecture, interiors and products is all about meeting human needs. We create spaces with a sole focus on the life that is meant to unfold there. We don’t care about trends or a visual expression that is not purposeful for people. The beauty of things should have a raison d'etre besides just being beautiful.

japandi restaurant Norm Architects
Photography by Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen

With 15 years of international experience in various design fields, Norm Architects has a multidisciplinary approach. How does this diverse experience influence your design process and enable you to create spaces and objects that connect with human needs?

It’s a certain way of looking at the world. There’s no difference in the overall approach we take to architecture, interiors, or design. It’s basically about the same things; doing architecture, it’s about understanding the needs of your clients – if it’s a family, you consider how they live, what their preferences are, how they host guests, and so on – and then we combine that with the knowledge we’ve gained about what is pleasant for human beings in general. That’s one type of analysis. Doing design work is another thing — we need to understand the basic needs for using an object, as well as the client, the market and how it’s going to be communicated. But the two processes aren’t that different. 

Then we have photography, art direction and strategy – those are more intangible in many ways, because it’s all about communication. Still there are some common principles we apply across the board. We always try to find a sense of balance in our projects. The point at which there’s nothing to add, and nothing to take away. So, it’s a constant game in the creation process of adding an element and then taking it away again, to find the exact point at which a design is so simple that it will stand the test of time, because you don’t get tired of looking at it, but it has so much character that it stands out as something special. That also applies to how we work with photography. It’s really about emphasising what’s important by ignoring all the irrelevant things. It’s too easy to just photograph everything. Focusing through the lens to concentrate on a motif or a shape is much more difficult. It’s the same with design – so many things can be going on that, in the end, nothing is important. 

scandinavian bedroom Norm Architects
Photography by Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen

What advice would you give to designers interested in minimalism, or soft minimalism?

Everything comes down to the elements that we surround ourselves with in terms of light, materials, colours, and scale, so when creating spaces, timelessness is achieved through a coherence in the surrounding composition. Hence, interiors are more likely to stand the test of time when the objects within it correlate. It’s therefore crucial to understand the importance of the dynamic, unseen matter defined by form and how objects not only affect the user’s perception of the given object itself, but just as much of the room and of the space left around it. Creating that cohesion is a way to determine the lifespan of a given interior; recognizing that there is no one-size fits all solution and that tailored, bespoke compositions are lasting in that they’re not only made to serve us but are also context-aware and well-integrated in the architecture. 

With that said, these objects first and foremost need to serve a purpose to achieve timelessness; a chair should be comfortable to sit in, a spoon should feel good against the lip, and a space should hold features and functions to make everyday life as pleasant as possible. Little things matter more than we might know or realise; if something doesn’t feel good and natural, we’re more likely to replace it, hence it isn’t timeless at its core.

scandinavian outdoor design Norm Architects
Photography by Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen

Thank you so much for this amazing chat. How can our readers keep in touch with you and your work?

Instagram: @normarchitects


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