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Carla Cammilla Hjort is (not) changing Ikea
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Carla Cammilla Hjort is (not) changing Ikea
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Conversations
10 February 2022

Carla Cammilla Hjort is (not) changing Ikea

Interview by Jana Perkovic
Photography by Kasper Kristoffersen

Dancer, yoga teacher, festival director and successful creative entrepreneur, Carla Cammilla Hjort was long an anchor of Copenhagen’s creative world. But everything changed after her studio was asked to create a limited-edition collection for Ikea. Her work impressed the CEO so much that, two years later, he gave her a carte blanche to pitch a project – any project. Uninterested in business-as-usual, but curious to see if big business can be transformed with an injection of creativity and artistry, Carla proposed, and convinced the decision-makers of the furniture giant, to create a future living lab, a space that would incubate research and design solutions for a better and more sustainable everyday life of tomorrow. SPACE10 became a corporate innovation lab like no other: unabashedly values-driven, with an open and inclusive culture, and a generous approach that would see hundreds of young creatives employ their imagination towards visions of a better future. Instead of secrecy, it promoted sharing; instead of corporate profits, a vision of a more socially and environmentally positive future; and instead of competition, collaboration.

Carla still works with big corporations – including Ikea – guiding them on the path to transformation into regenerative and socially-positive businesses, but today she does so mostly from her idyllic farm near Stevns Klint, a UNESCO-protected landscape a few hours away from Copenhagen. The Farm, where Carla lives with her partner Nicole, is a sprawling property with workshops, offices and studios, hosting artists and creatives from around the world. The Farm is also a place for creative gatherings, including Social Service Club a few times a year. One such creative gathering was my opportunity to sit down for a conversation with Carla.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Discussed in this Story

JANA: It’s really nice to talk on the farm today, because we are talking about creating spaces. I remember our mutual friend Binit Vasa once described you as the person who intuitively makes spaces. He said, “Carla enters the room, and as she comes in she might take a vase of flowers and move it just ten centimetres to one side. And when she does it, you realise that the entire space has suddenly become a thousand times better.”

CARLA: [Laughs]. I think you asked earlier what star sign I was. And it’s often said about Cancerians that they are very homey people, that the home is the centre of their life. I always felt that I was not very Cancer-ish because I loved travelling. I went travelling around the world when I was 19, for four years. I thought that was very anti-Cancer to do. I have lived in so many places. But one thing I have realised is that I always, even when I travelled and lived in little huts and weird places, the first thing I’d do is make it my home. I would always travel with certain items that had meaning to me and that would help set off the feeling of home, of my space. And then I would very quickly go out to the local market and find little artefacts, a blanket or a little sculpture or something like that, and just make it my space. So I do think that I have a lot of the Cancerian qualities. It’s very important to me to feel a sense of belonging in a space. It comes from making it cozy, and also from the little things that I find that I can look at when I’m in a space. That then influences my thought process. It helps inspire me. It also creates a calmness around me, so I function better.

So here we are. This place is called The Farm. It’s a big, incredibly beautiful house with a couple of little houses outside. And then there is a treehouse. And there is another treehouse in the making. And we have come here specifically to think, to reflect, on what we do. And what is fascinating about this place, which is full of rooms – it has rooms for sleeping, rooms for working, it has a kitchen for cooking, it has spaces for eating – every space has been designed to facilitate a particular type of activity in a really intentional way. How do you set out to create a space like this? What was your intention? And don’t tell me that it just happened.

OK, I won’t tell you that it just happened. ’Cause it was actually a dream of mine since I was 20. I told you earlier that I lived in an ashram in India for one year, but it wasn’t my first communal living. My mum had a dance-school and as a kid I would be there every day after school. That was a very strong communal space. Dancing is very magical to me. It’s music, it’s moving the body, it’s being in the body. And it’s also expressing yourself through and from the body. And people that dance are often very passionate about dancing. So imagine a childhood where every day you are around people that are extremely passionate about what they do. And they express themselves. I love dancing: from the ages of four to 20, I danced every day. So that was my first experience of having this creative collective vibe. And then, when I lived in the ashram, I had the experience of a spiritual community for the first time, and that was very powerful. I decided that one day I wanted to create a community: build a space where people would come together and, as we did in the ashram, explore ourselves and our potential.

And what is really kind of wonderful about both these things is that it’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to make money from either dancing OR from meditation.

Yes. [Laughs]. 

They’re really activities that you do to do them – not for a second purpose.

Exactly. Actually, it’s funny that you mention that, because when I came back to Denmark after the four years of travelling, I came to my dad who’s an entrepreneur, a self-made businessman. And I was like, “Dad, I have this great idea. I want to create this community.” I tried to explain my vision and he just laughed and was like, “Forget about it. It’s the worst idea.” And he was like, “If you want to do something like that, you need to figure it out yourself. I am not going to support that.” Then I started thinking, How do I make that dream come true? And what do I really love doing? Music and dancing came back to me as two things that I love very much. My logic at the time was to turn that into a career as a DJ and a music producer. I did that for 10 years, and actually did really well and had a lot of fun. I started making quite good money playing as a DJ.

What did your dad say?

Well, at first he didn’t really understand. But then I had a duo with an ex-girlfriend of mine, we were called “Faggot Fairies” and suddenly we had a global hit. It was all over the newspapers. We won awards. And then suddenly he’s like, “Ah, okay.” Like, that’s the kind of thing he understands.

So he understood you were making money. He didn’t understand you were enjoying it.

I think maybe he also understood that, but he didn’t take it that seriously. But then, after some years, I started to realise that I was always able to see potential everywhere. I have a very natural ability to connect dots, and by connecting dots, see new potential unfold. So a natural extension became to start my first two companies – this was all in 2007. One was Trailerpark Festival, a music and art festival which became iconic in Copenhagen. I ran it for 10 years. It was a three-day festival with 10 000 people every summer. And that’s how I met Kaave Pour and Kevin Curran, who are now at SPACE10. I started ArtRebels at the same time: a hybrid between a collective and a company. The idea was to find ingenious ways to help creatives turn their talent into a way of living without commercialising it . I started thinking that I didn’t want the festival to have sponsors in the traditional way. I started asking, what could create value for the brand? I don’t believe that it creates any value to put logos on things. I started experimenting with different ideas around how we could create value both for the brand, for the artists and for the guests, the participants of the festival. And that became figuring out how to sell to the brands the idea that they should fund an art installation, and the people doing the art installation. Because an art installation gives value to the audience, and it gives a job to the artist. And for the company, I thought it was a much more interesting story.  So the storytelling idea really started to emerge and mature. We started documenting it in little videos and stories and interviews. This is not such a new thing anymore, but back then it was. You know, music blogs were the big new thing, MySpace was just happening, but social media was not really a thing yet, in 2007. 

How was it received in Copenhagen?

Extremely well. We got a lot of attention from the media, and ArtRebels was very hyped. And as you know, a lot of brands really want to connect to youth culture, so they started reaching out and slowly but surely I started building the company. That’s how I got introduced to Ikea.

Of all the corporate think tanks in the world, and R&D labs that big companies have, I don’t think there’s any one that has the history like SPACE10 – that started out as a music and art festival.

I think it actually may be the only one in the world! (Laughs).

Can you tell me the story of how you founded Ikea’s research and design lab?

I had a phone call, I think this was in 2012, from Ikea Sweden. It was a secretary who called me and said, “We’ve heard a lot about ArtRebels and Trailerpark. Our leadership is going to Copenhagen for three days of strategy and we want to split them up in groups at night and give them little inspirations,” so they would go and visit different companies that they found interesting. And mine was one of them. They asked if I would do a talk about ArtRebels and Trailerpark for this little group. About how you build community, how to do new business models, because I had built this whole network-based idea that we still have today in SPACE10. And I said, “Yes, of course, I would love to do that.” I was very lucky that the team that they sent me had the CEO. I love doing talks about what I’m passionate about, and I can very much sense the audience. I think that comes from being a dancer and a DJ. I could just sense that the CEO was inspired. When I was done with my talk he was the first to ask a question, and he said, “I really enjoyed this, it’s super inspiring. If you could work for Ikea what would you do?” And back then, I thought of Ikea as a home furnishing company. So my most immediate and intuitive answer was that ArtRebels would design a limited collection for young people living in small spaces with an ArtRebels touch and feel.

And then we talked a little about it. He asked a few questions, “What did you mean by that?”, and I just made up something, because I hadn’t really thought about it. He really enjoyed my answer. “I think we would probably try and design a collection without any home furnishing designers involved, with artists, musicians, a group of people that would not normally do furniture design.” He was like, “That’s really interesting.” Then a few days later he wrote me an email, and it was like, “The most inspiring thing for me in Copenhagen was to visit you. And actually this limited-edition idea fits our new strategy.” Which is why they were in Copenhagen, to figure out the new strategy. And he’s like, “So if you’re up for it I think we should go for it.” And a month later I had a contract in place to design a collection. And we did, and it became a success. Then he called me a year later. He’s like, “Hi Carla, it’s Torbjörn. Just wanted to congratulate you and the team on the success. I’ve been thinking about you all week. I’m in New York airport right now. I wanted to call you and let you know that I’ve become the CEO of Inter Ikea Systems.” He explained what it is. And then he said, “I want to design a better Ikea for the future. And I came to think about you. I don’t have any agenda. So just have a think about whether you feel like you and your network could support me in this mission.” And then I was like, Okay, this is crazy. The first time I pitched this guy something in this unplanned manner, he just said, “Let’s do it.” And now he calls me and asks me about this. Crazy. So I hung up and I was like, This could be something very special. I felt like I had a carte blanche to come up with what I wanted. And I felt I had nothing to lose. So I decided, I’m just going to pitch my ultimate dream. I reached out to Simon Caspersen, who had worked for me in ArtRebels but had left to make a documentary. I asked him if he wanted to help research and brainstorm for some weeks. And one day we came across Ikea’s vision, “Creating better everyday life for the many people”. That was when I was like, “Okay, that’s it.” We’re not going to pitch anything but working with the vision. My thinking at that point became: What could Ikea potentially be doing 20 years from now, if they were not in home furnishing, but had to live up to their vision?

It is actually a really big vision for a furniture company.

It is a huge vision, and that was why it was so brilliant. It’s very rare that you find a company with such a strong vision. And a very emotional vision, values-based. So to make a long story short, I wrote to him saying, “We have this idea of an innovation lab. Do you want to hear about it?” He wrote back, “Yes, sounds interesting. Come to Holland, in Delft” – to the company headquarters – “and I will invite a few more important people around the table.” Simon and I went, and I just did my thing. With only men in the room, by the way. I started a circle with introducing my life story – LSD, ashrams, travelling, no further education, how I started companies, blah blah blah, I just poured myself out. It created a vibe in the room. Everyone started sharing their innermost stories. And it was so beautiful. What they had been dreaming of but didn’t do in life. It was like a therapy session. But it also created trust and vulnerability. Then finally we get to actually present the slides. We had seven slides – for a six-hour meeting. And magic happened. We started presenting, we had decided who would present what, I could feel the room really clearly, but there was one guy in the room that I couldn’t really feel. Was he excited? Was he pessimistic? Sceptic? I couldn’t tell. And then suddenly, he sort of put his hand on the table and he’s like, “Sorry, sorry, sorry, I just need to say something. I would never normally do this in front of the client. This is the most amazing pitch I’ve ever heard. We have to do this.” And then they all started saying, “Yes, we have to do this.” And the CEO was like, “Yeah, I also think we have to do this.”

So what did you propose in that meeting?

We called it ILAB back then, but it was basically the vision, the model, of SPACE10. Small team elevated by community. We would take different themes, future of food or technology or home, and look at them from different perspectives. Of course, it got fine-tuned with time, but it was pretty much what SPACE10 became. Basically, we left after six hours with high-fives and hugs and the promise of a three-year contract and full freedom. I told them I wanted full freedom to do it my own way, to set it up as I wanted it. And I needed three years to show whether it has any value for them or not.

So then I called Kaave, whom I knew from when he was 17, who was very talented young creative and became our creative director. Simon was already on board. And then Guillaume landed into the team because his wife was my first CFO. Lise White called me when I was just about to sign the contracts with Ikea and said she had finally convinced Guillaume to move to Denmark from New York and he needed a job. She thought I could help set up some interviews. I remembered in the back of my head that she mentioned he worked in innovation for big companies. “I think he should just talk to me.” When we had our meeting and he was very used to corporate lingo. And we were not. So I thought, that’s perfect.

You three creatives, and Guillaume as someone on the team with corporate experience?

Yeah. And then Rikke, who was the CFO, she was the backbone of it all. But creatively and strategically, it was us four. As we got started, we realised we would need a space. We would need a bigger team. A new name. So throughout the year, we did a lot of meetings, we travelled around Ikea all over the world figuring it out, and just got to know them. How do they work? Who is who? In the first few years, I think we felt like a little rock band. We came into rooms. We were always together. We would never do meetings alone. And we complemented each other extremely well. No matter which room we entered, people loved us. So once we were ready to pitch the whole SPACE10 shebang and much bigger budgets, it was quite easy to get through. And then I set up another contract next to what we call the master contract, just for SPACE10, which then operated as a non-profit: Ikea funds everything, but we don’t make any money of it.

I remember when I first came to the SPACE10 office – before the pandemic. There was an event downstairs, and I realised that there was no locked door between the 100 people in the audience, and the computers and machinery and people working in the office and in the basement. People were mingling through the building to get to the toilet. There was just this incredible spirit of trust in the building, and a sense that the lab is connected to the society outside the building, as well as to the bigger design industry. And that it all works because we want it to work and we make it so.

When we talk about spaces that work – when you do things from the love of what you do, and for the love of people, I believe that that energy spreads in the air. It’s not something that you can package. It’s something you can sense, at least from my experience. The Farm has been extremely beautiful as well. I don’t know what it is about this space, but it attracts the most amazing people. They come from all over the world, and it’s kind of random, we don’t know them, but they all have in common that they are incredible people and they fit into the spirit of the space. It feels like it’s transformative for them to be here. And it has been, and is, still, transformative for us to be here.

When you were taking about how you live here at The Farm and the programs that you run, I noticed there is a lot of exchange. People come here and contribute in one way or another: build a wood-fired oven, or a treehouse. You give and then you get something back. And that seems to me like a very Scandinavian, maybe even specifically Danish thing. Like there is a kind of trust that holds everything together, a kind of free exchange?

You could call it a social contract of some sort.

How do you create that? What are the ingredients that make this trust, which holds everything together in a space like this? I know you’re going to say that you don’t, that it just happens, but I am not sure.

No, no, no. Nothing just happens. Everything that we put out, each of us, has an effect. There’s always a cause and an effect. I can only speak for myself – I think that, because I am so sincerely curious about people, our psychology, our spirituality, our behavioural patterns, our emotions, I can have really good conversations with people. I also have a lot of life experience, and I think some of the young people that come here see me as a version of what they could also do. You know, that you can do what you love. That you can actually make it work. That you don’t need an education, that you don’t need to follow the normal paths and that you can still have fun. In that sense, what I have created represents something that a lot of young creatives both relate to and aspire to. We had a psychologist here, during Social Service Club, and she started talking about the value and meaningfulness of being of service. It was like the penny dropped. Because that’s exactly what I feel I’ve always done. I have been a servant to the community. It makes me very proud, to serve. And of course it is about me, in the sense that I find joy and purpose in doing that. But I find purpose in focusing on others. And I think that comes back to where I grew up.

My mum, as the owner of the dance school, she was never about being on the stage herself. She was always about finding the talent and then nurturing them and making them the best that they could become, making them the stars. And I feel like maybe that is something that I have just observed, and I somehow saw that made a lot of sense. It’s not about me, it’s about nurturing the project, the idea and the intention behind the project.

There is a lot of happiness, real life happiness and fulfillment, in elevating others. Scientific research now tells us that, if you want to feel better about yourself, the best thing you can do is lift others up, help somebody else.

From my experience, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, balance is also important. In order to keep doing what I do, and find joy and not get tired, I have also learned to take time off and just read books, write, go for walks, take a few weeks not to work, or work as little as possible. Because a lot of what I do is hold space, and that takes a lot of energy. It gives a lot of energy, but it also takes energy. Especially when there’s conflict. We are now talking about all the good stuff, but when you’re around so many people all the time, in such intense and intimate ways, you will also get all the drama.

It seems to me that, throughout your work, you go into a commercial, business setting, and give people the license to be vulnerable, to live from the heart. That can sometimes bring out a lot in people. It can also bring out trauma, sadness and fear. And how do you…? Or how do we, all of us as people, as a planet, how do we manage that? What do we do once you open up all that potential and then it’s messy?

Yeah. It’s messy. Of course. There is probably not one answer to that. That would be nice. People are people and they have emotions, they have stories, and they have traumas. But I think, if there is some sort of universal answer – I see two ways to deal with life. Either you don’t go through it and you don’t look at yourself. You look at everyone else and you blame everything on something out there. You feel shitty? It’s someone else’s fault. It’s something out there that creates that situation in you. That is an uphill battle. That, for me, is not the way forward. Because you cannot control your surroundings, so you will always hit the wall. And life will be a struggle.

Whereas if you always, whenever you hit a wall or get in conflict or feel pain, if you look at yourself – What did you do? What is your pattern? What is your fear that creates this situation? So, what can you do? – then you take responsibility for the situation and learn from it. Learn. Get to know yourself, get to understand your psychology and your emotional patterns, how they probably create similar situations again and again. For me, that is what life journey is about. That’s what is meaningful about being alive.

And so, here you are, changing the world by changing Ikea.

I am not changing Ikea.

[Laughs].

Let me make that very clear! That has never been my role, and it doesn’t make sense in my role. It’s about changing individuals, and many individuals can collectively create change. What does make sense is when I am asked by someone from Ikea, like I was recently, if I can do a talk to his team about rebellious leadership. And even though it was just on a video call, one person in the team suddenly got teary-eyed and started to open-up about some very personal things. It was so beautiful. We’ve had six months of process and they all still talk about that one talk, that one day. I think that’s the change I can facilitate. And then also to have a space like SPACE10, that can give so many young people opportunities to do exciting and meaningful work. That, to me, is the radical, beautiful part.

Here’s what strikes me as somehow amazing about what you have just said. We have come here to talk about your gift of creating spaces for people. And you have worked with Ikea. We have spent all this time talking about space and we have not once talked about furniture. That just reminds me of the misconception that people outside of Denmark have about hygge. You know, people think hygge is about a blanket.

And a candle.

Yeah! But it’s not. It’s about something between people.

Well, it’s a combination.

So it is about blankets and candles! (Laughs)

To return to our starting point: when you create an inviting space for people, to have great conversations, and dance, and have fun, and be creative, then you create a space where hygge can happen. There is an interplay of inner and outer coming together. I’m a very visual person, and aesthetics has a big influence on my mental and emotional health. If I’m in very ugly surroundings, it fucks with me. I can’t relax, I feel there’s something wrong, something missing. But most of all, it’s about what happens between people.

And then The Farm, now, also brings a closeness to nature. When we wake up here, we go out with our morning coffee and sit and look out over the fields and sit under the big trees. It does something good for the soul.

Maybe that was the last thing that I wanted to ask. We are in this climate emergency. How do we move forward? We don’t have a lot of time left to make significant change.

No, we don’t. I wish I could answer that with a clear answer. I don’t have a clear answer. But what I think the world and humanity needs is to stop. Slow down, so that our senses can be reawakened. I think we have been numbed for the past few hundred years, since industrialisation, since people have become consumers and have been seduced into all kinds of addictions. We have lost our sensibility, lost touch with nature, with being part of nature. We really need to stop and reflect on the deepest level. Understand all the systemic ideas that we have adapted to, and question them. And then rebel. [Laughs].

I want more things that inspire me to...

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