Rolf Hay: “HAY’s intention is to create great, affordable products with the best designers in the world”

Founded by Rolf and Mette Hay, HAY is a Danish – and increasingly international – design company that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. In an interview with Design Stories, Rolf Hay talks about recipes for relevant and timeless designs as well as HAY’s plans for the next two decades.

Rolf Hay
Rolf Hay co-founded the Copenhagen-based brand HAY 20 years ago.

Hi Rolf, how are you?
We just came back home from our vacation in Greenland. If you think it’s cold in Finland, you haven’t been to Greenland! It was a beautiful experience and now I’m back in business and full of energy.

You have recently moved into a new home. Can you tell us something about it?
“We have just moved into a new house in Copenhagen we renovated for two years. We wanted a place that’s modern. It’s an old house, but inside everything is new and contemporary.

Knowing HAY and my wife Mette’s sense of color, one can expect our home to be very colorful. It’s simple but not too simple. Our home is an extension of what we do professionally. It’s a place that’s in motion: we’re living amongst HAY prototypes that we bring home for product development reasons. So if you would look at our home now and come back a year after, it would be different.

Overall, we’ve never cared so much about matching the elements together. We care more about the individual qualities of every element. Our home is not color-coordinated. Someone would say it’s a big mess because we’ve collected a lot of small objects and items from our travels. These objects are dear to us and they’re all over the place creating an enormous amount of detail. But for us they don’t need to fit together – they need to be good together.”

• Read also: Mette Hay on curating HAY Accessories: “Most of it is instinct” >

Mette and Rolf Hay
Mette Hay curates HAY’s accessories collection, while Rolf is responsible for the furniture.
HAY House in Copenhagen
The flagship store HAY House is located in an old building in central Copenhagen.
HAY Palissade bench, olive
Colors are an integral part of HAY’s aesthetics. The Palissade bench was designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and the Pao Portable lamp by Naoto Fukasawa.
Mette and Rolf Hay
The scale of HAY’s success was something that Mette and Rolf Hay didn’t expect when establishing their own brand.

HAY will turn 20 years old this year – congratulations! What has happened during these two decades? What did you start off with, what expectations and dreams did you have and where are you now?
“HAY has been our life for the last 20 years and sometimes it feels like 50 years, and I mean that in a positive way! We started HAY with the intention to create great, affordable products with the best designers in the world for the many, not for the few. I think it’s fair to say we have managed to deliver on this.

The intention we had in the beginning is still the same: we want to create great, affordable products with the best designers in the world. Did it turn out the way we expected and hoped for? Yes, it did. But obviously, I didn’t expect the company to have the size we have today. But the intention, the vision, and the passion for design are completely unchanged. A dream came true on a scale we didn’t expect, and we delivered on our initial intentions for the company. That is of course something that makes me extremely proud.

In the beginning, I kept saying that design will always be at the heart of HAY. Within the last ten years I’ve understood that the heart of the company isn’t necessarily the design, but the people who are surrounding us: the designers we’re working with, dealers who are selling our products, and our employees. In the end, it’s the people who are creating all of this.”

“For me, things should be unchanged but stay in motion.”

What will the next two decades bring for HAY?
“The intentions for the upcoming years are completely the same as they were when we started the company. I’m also beginning to understand that these are the intentions, but it’s important that you are constantly changing the way you are achieving your goals. When you think you’ve found the exact right way to work, you find yourself in kind of like a comfort zone. The comfort zone in my opinion is the most dangerous place for a company like HAY to hang out. For me, things should be unchanged but stay in motion.

I think for HAY it has always been important to make a footprint of our own time. In twenty years, I hope that I’ll be able to say that we’re still making great, affordable products with the best designers in the world.”

Rolf Hay
Rolf Hay wants HAY’s products to be footprints of our own time.
HAY Butler stepladder
HAY’s Butler stepladder was designed by Shane Schneck from the US, and the Korpus shelf by Andreas Bergsaker from Norway. The W&S Chamber vase is by the Copenhagen-based duo Wang & Söderström.
HAY Rey chair, deep black
According to Rolf Hay, Nordic design often involves elements that are human and warm. HAY’s Rey chairs are accompanied by the yellow-legged Two-Colour table.

Is Scandinavian and Danish design legacy a burden or a source of inspiration for HAY?
“When we started HAY, we weren’t really insisting on being Scandinavians. We wanted to be an international design company working with designers from everywhere in the world. That is what we do now, working with designers in Asia, North America, Europe, and many other places in the world. However, HAY will always be a Danish design company because we are from Denmark. We come from Scandinavian design culture.

To me, Scandinavian design is strongly inspired by Bauhaus and its principle, form follows function. But what’s special about Danish and Scandinavian design is that both in architecture and design, we have an element that is human. While Bauhaus was super hardcore and religious, in Scandinavia we have objects that are friendly. That is the platform HAY is standing on and that is something our international designers are trying to do when they design for HAY: a sort of dogma of simplicity but not too simple.

Alvar Aalto is a fantastic example in his way of creating simple products with a human element, understanding that it needs to be warm and friendly. I don’t think Aalto was looking at his furniture as objects that would later be considered some of the most treasured and important design objects in design history. For him, it was an extension of his architecture, simple and nice objects.”

“While Bauhaus was super hardcore and religious, in Scandinavia we have objects that are friendly.”

I know this is kind of a hard one to answer, but what are your absolute HAY favorites?
“I don’t have a favorite, to be honest. I’m not very nostalgic. When the product is done, it’s no longer in my hands. I’m sort of leaving the product after we’ve done the product pictures. To me, it’s like saying goodbye to a dear friend and a goodbye to something I’ve been working on and cared about for a long time. But it’s also the beginning of something new.

A smart answer could be that my favorite is the one I’m working with right now – but that might be too smart.

So, I don’t have a favorite, but there are products that have been more important than the others. So maybe I could say that I have a best friend instead of a favorite. That is About A Chair. It took HAY to another level and made many things possible for us. The whole range has had the greatest impact on our company.”

• Read also: Rolf and Mette Hay: “We want to make products that people truly care about” >

About A Chair
Rolf Hay’s best friend among HAY’s wide selection is the About A Chair range, which today consists of dozens of different variants.
HAY Two-Colour table 160 x 82 cm, maroon red - red
The Two-Colour table is part of a collection designed by the Belgian duo Muller Van Severen, and the Revolt chair is a re-issue of a chair originally designed by Friso Kramer in the 1950s.
HAY Bella coffee table 45 cm, low, oiled oak
Friendliness, simplicity, and playfulness define all HAY products, such as the Bella side table, Shaggy wool rug, white rice paper shade, and the sofas of the Arbour collection.

When we look at HAY’s products, it’s clear that there must exist some type of HAY formula since whatever the product is, it looks really HAY. What is it that makes and defines a HAY product?
“A HAY product needs to be relevant to the time we live in and to the people who are using it. At its best, a HAY product has an element of something new, doing things in a different way. A good HAY product is friendly and simple without being too simple. A good HAY product can be playful, and it looks like it came out effortlessly, not stressed and forced.

A good HAY product is aesthetically balanced. Original, relevant, and useful so you could see yourself living with it. That is HAY.

One of the greatest compliments I’ve received was not long ago when somebody said to me, ‘when I look at HAY’s products it looks like it’s fun to work at HAY’.”

Rolf Hay walking in Copenhagen
“In 20 years, I hope that I’ll be able to say that we’re still making great, affordable products with the best designers in the world,” Rolf Hay says.

4 x Rolf Hay’s favorites:

1. Movie: “Mississippi Burning is one of my all-time favorite movies.”
2. Scent: “Freshly toasted white bread.”
3. Restaurant: “I’ll give you two replies – I genuinely think that Noma in Copenhagen is the best restaurant in the world. At the same time, you wouldn’t go there often or even regularly, so I can’t call it my favorite. There are many places, unpretentious ones, that I like a lot and return to.
4. City: “Best to live in: Copenhagen. Most exciting and inspiring: NYC and Tokyo.”

HAY favorites

About A Chair
Arbour sofa
Two-Colour table
Palissade lounge chair
Hee chair
Butler stepladder
Rey coffee table
Woody Column shelf

See also:

All HAY furniture >
All HAY lighting >

Text: Hanna-Katariina Mononen Images: HAY

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