Quality is contagious

Co-founder and Managing Director, Anders Ojgaard, explains the philosophy behind Waremakers

Anders Ojgaard Waremakers portrait

"Primary is the design and manufacturing standard. Quality is the category." — Anders Ojgaard

How can 'quality' represent a value in modern life?
The quality of the objects you surround yourself with plays a great part in creating the quality of your life.

You are constantly surrounded by your possessions: clothes, knives and forks, furniture, bags, pencils, cups, gadgets. You name it. Of course, the quality of these sends cultural signals to the outside world, but more importantly, the quality of them affects how you feel.

Pick up the cheap fork that started to rust a few months after you bought it. Or the bag with the plasticy leather and the seam starting to come apart. Or write a note with the plastic biro that leaves ink stains at the end of every word. And it all starts to feel a bit like a rainy day — even if it’s blue skies outside.

“Is this really as good as it gets? I was really hoping the world would be a nicer place than this.”

On the other hand, if you save a little longer for that bag — or simply buy the really good one instead of the two cheaper ones — things start to change. You feel a little proud of that bag. You feel the dedication that went into making it rub off on you. Consciously or subconsciously. There are higher ideals out there.

And this is a real spirit lifter. You start to carry yourself a little differently — hold that chin a little higher — and you can't help but to invest more efforts in your own doings. A positive circle starts to form.

So, in a sentence, surrounding yourself with quality will profoundly affect the quality of your life.

It is common to take design into account when talking about, say, houses, but perhaps less so when the object of debate is smaller. Is there a way to change this perspective?
I do not agree with this. Design is ubiquitous and we are all constantly confronted with the design of everything from common tools to computer interfaces throughout the day.

But certainly, part of our job is to increase the general awareness of the benefits of quality design of these everyday objects.

It’s a big job, but we will be trying. A combination of industrialization, modernity and, not least, outsourcing to low cost countries like China or Bangladesh, has resulted in a paradigm that is dominant for a very large percentage of westerners:

We consume. We want more and we want to continuously replace what we consider 'old' with what we consider 'new'. But in order to consume a higher quantity, most people need to consume cheaper, meaning lower quality.

There are many reasons for all this, of course, but the English have a nice little phrase that sums it up: “retail therapy”. I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but in a postmodern era, we are all shopping for identities and for meaning, and having a frequent “hit” of something new you can wear or show to others to assert, and create, your identity, has for many become a modern drug.

As cultural influences in the 21st century become so fleeting and whimsical, a desire to constantly acquire something new is stimulated — even if the feeling of satisfaction lasts only a few hours. The next day, the hundreds of marketing messages you will be confronted with, will create new needs that need to be satisfied.

Changing this means changing the whole paradigm. You know, for many centuries, having many ornaments on your, say, furniture or house, would be a status sign, since it showed that many hours had been put into the manufacturing. And that cost money. It took decades of modernism to arrive at the simpler design language we see today where functionality and simplicity is usually ascribed more value than decoration.

So it is a big job getting people to consume a little less, but to consume much better. It takes time. But we know that it actually ends up making you a happier, and more satisfied, person. And it actually doesn’t take that much to shift your consumption habits just a little bit towards ‘quality’. 

The importance of “classics”. Please, give us a definition of this category and tell us if you have some parameters to recognize what is truly, genuinely "classic".
Simplicity and shelf-life. Classics are almost always simple designs that you could draw the contours of from memory: The VW Beetle. A Coca-Cola bottle. A Vespa. And they are still sold today. Some in a slightly updated version, but still with the main idea intact.

Of course, not all classics make it all the way into the mainstream cultural canon like these. But each category of items has classics that are known by those who know: A stapler from El Casco. A pewter flask from Wentworth. A safety razor from Mühle (excuse me for squeezing in two of our own makers here).

What they all share is a simplicity and a shelf life of several decades. They just don’t grow old.

It’s interesting how we can use the term “an instant classic”. Most people associate “classic” with something that has been around for quite a while. But sometimes we see a shape, or design, that is original, yet very simple. The design somehow seems intrinsically ‘logical’. Like it was always meant to be that way. We already know instinctively that it is going to be around for a while.

A bold conclusion? The human mind recognizes simplicity as a mark of excellence.

In what way can 'beauty' improve daily life?
I am going to refer to my answer to the first question here. But to add a little manifest, my basic philosophy is that in the absence of ethics, there remain only aesthetics.

I am a profoundly non-religious person, but I understand perfectly well why some people choose religion. Among other things, it gives you a sense of meaning. If, however, like me, you don't believe in any deity, you can find relief in beauty.

Beauty gives me meaning. Beauty gives me an ideal. Striving to achieve beauty in my surroundings, be it my city or my kitchen, gives me a sense of purpose. So in a sense my manifest is a bit of a contradiction, of course. The ethos is in fact created by the aesthetics.

And I am sure this goes for other people too. The love of beauty binds us together as people. 'Beauty will save the world,' as Dostoyevsky wrote.

I love the 'Arts and Crafts' movement: In my opinion, craft should get back to its beginnings and discover its roots. But this will probably be a great challenge for young companies in the era of globalization, is that right?
Yes, it is a great challenge indeed. But I think we are slowly moving to the other side of the wave and that it could be a slightly easier ride from here. The “Made in China” era is starting to lose its pace.

Some of us are beginning to tire of the poor quality — not least the Chinese, of course. You know, they make Audis and BMWs in China, but the Chinese don't want them. They want the ones that are made in Europe.

The financial crisis has also shifted the perspective a little. People just paused for a second and thought about their spending habits. They are picking up again, but I believe these meagre years inspire people to consume less, but to then invest in better quality that will last much longer.

Going back to the roots and buying dependable quality items with simple, logical designs is a way of grounding yourself again. Stepping back from the thundering avalanche of mainstream consumerism is a way to regain control after being left powerless due to macroeconomics we could not possibly affect — or even understand.

I am not saying that all the world’s Hello Kitty bags will disappear from the supermarkets tomorrow and be replaced by hand-stitched masterpieces in vachetta leather. But I am seeing a slow shift in that direction. That’s partially why we started Waremakers. We want to help swing the ship around and supply the growing demand.

What is the current direction of arts, crafts and design in Europe?
What I am seeing in both Europe and the US is the search for our roots that you mentioned yourself.  A large part of our makers start out as design companies that then very actively seek out smaller manufacturers that have existed for ages — decades, usually.

The young companies then bring their own designs to these traditional manufacturers and form a collaboration with them. And what comes out the other end is something beautiful. Traditional, elegant designs with a modern take on functionality produced to the highest specifications.

The small manufacturers that were threatened by globalisation are seeing a revival, and the consumers get a great selection of really wonderful products.

Simultaneously, some of the more forward-minded traditional producers, like sock-maker Sozzi Calze from Italy, wish to embrace the new opportunities provided by the internet and so, thankfully, form partnerships with Waremakers.

The possibilities are really there for the quality-minded producers now. But they need to rethink the traditional producer-to-wholesale-to-shop system if they want to take advantage of them. The internet is tearing down structures and building new ones.

Hubs and clouds are very useful ways to manage the complexity of our society. Please, explain to us the concept of a 'hub for quality'.
Well, this really is Waremakers’ raison d’être. Of course, most of the products we sell existed before Waremakers, but they were just really hard to find.

What you have out there is, on the one hand, bulk sites like Amazon that do no curating but simply offer a huge selection of mainly mainstream items. On the other hand, you have “the long tail”. Thousands of small, and very small, sites offering more niche products in various categories.

So in the past, the only way of finding the understated quality that we loved was to spend hours, and I really mean hours, ploughing through endless pages and, of course, wasting a lot of time sifting through it all to find the one percent that contained what we were actually looking for.

This, of course, is the inherent characteristic of the internet. An enormous volume of information that will potentially offer everything you could want, but at the same time makes it very hard to actually find it.

So a hub for quality is really also a filter for quality. A filter for a certain type of products.

A ‘hub’, of course, is the “centre of it all”, or “where it all comes together”. So what we want to do is gather all these quality producers so their goods become more discoverable. For their benefit and for the benefit of the consumers.

Instead of having isolated producers promoting hundreds, or thousands, of smaller sites, we can bring them together and concentrate our efforts on promoting one site.

It just makes a lot of sense. Not only does it make it much easier to find this type of products. It also makes it much easier to define and promote the concept of understated quality, increasing the interest in the category as a whole.

The category of what the item is used for is secondary on Waremakers. Primary is the design and manufacturing standard. Quality is the category.

Of course, we had to start somewhere, so we started with accessories and stationery. But the plan is to continuously expand into new categories, such as lighting, clothes or kitchenware. I even have a dream of setting up an architectural branch one day.


This interview was originally published on 'A Lanky Gentleman'.