Democratic design: How Mette and Rolf fell in love and founded Hay
Since its founding in 2002, Hay has become the must-have home brand – but how have its founders evoked this obsessive collector fanbase the world over?
All kinds of creativity are spoken about as a solo affair. But behind all creative geniuses is always a support network, the kind folk who encourage them to push their private dreams into a sharable reality.
In some cases, this can just be one enthusiastic cheerleader. Over the years of interviewing creatives day in day out, we’ve heard tales of a tutor who saw a certain something in a young creative, a family member who told them to listen to a gut feeling, or thoughtful colleagues who motivated their peer into pursuing a passion project. The sweetest ones tend to be those with a romantic attachment though, where seeds of ideas begin to grow over pillow talk. This is exactly the case behind one of the world’s most beloved home brands, Hay.
The creative tale of Hay is a bit of a love story, really. Its founders, Mette and Rolf Hay, first met at the furniture brand Gubi, working together as colleagues and dear friends. Mette was the new starter, Rolf the experienced designer, and with time (we’ll let them share the story for themselves) the pair began to date. In fact, the initial spark of the company grew from the spark Mette and Rolf held for one another. As Mette began to head over to Rolf’s place in those first few months of dating, she spied an area where he’d been toying with his own designs, specifically just one table and chair. “He wanted to start his own company, but it’s difficult to tell people your dreams as many people don’t agree it’s a good idea,” Mette recalls today. “I believed a lot in him just from that table and chair, and there was so much energy when we met that I encouraged him,” leading to the namesake brand.
Today, Hay is arguably the must-have brand for any creatively-leaning home. Through its creations, the brand has created an almost obsessive collector fanbase. Spotting a Hay object – be it a chair in a friend’s home, a vase in the background of a Zoom call, or a tote bag on the arm of someone passing you in the street – is an almost daily occurrence. Beginning in Denmark in 2002, today Hay has stores from Seoul to Sydney, Chicago, Rotterdam and of course its flagship in Copenhagen. You can purchase Hay products at the MoMA design store or Selfridges, and recognise the designs in many of the world’s best restaurants, cafes and hotels. It’s notably famous for its collaborations, calling upon the world’s greatest designers like the Bouroullec brothers, George Sowden or Naoto Fukasawa, to create high-quality design products at a more affordable level.
On the surface, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why, and how, Hay’s creations have evoked this effect. Yet in getting to know the pair, you begin to realise this is driven by the level of care with which Mette and Rolf look at the world. At the root of Hay is a desire to improve everyday life through the objects we need or collect. This could be by designing a nook in the corner of a sofa to provide comfort, the pop of colour in a lampshade that fills a room when switched on, or simply a perfectly designed grater to add a little something extra when preparing dinner. These objects we use to move through daily life, especially when no one is around, are the true extensions of ourselves. It’s no wonder Hay is so popular when each piece is carefully crafted with a respect towards making life that little bit easier, simpler, or just better-looking.
It’s Nice That: The way Hay began has been discussed quite a lot, but I’m interested in how the pair of you met. What were your first impressions of each other?
Rolf Hay: Maybe you should explain how we met, Mette?
Mette Hay: Ya! We met when I went for a job interview at the company where Rolf was working.
I can remember coming into a room with the person I was having the interview with and passing Rolf actually, sitting at the back of the room at a round table. I remember that very clearly – and I got the job.
Rolf was part of the team with the guys running the business and my role was to do different assistant jobs. But I was 21 and Rolf was 30 and maybe, well at that time, the years between us felt like quite a lot. We got along really well though, he was a really nice colleague to work with. I used to say to my friends, “Oh, if this guy in the office had a younger brother…”. Also because Rolf was living with another woman at that time, I didn’t think it was a possibility!
MH: Then there was a party one evening for the Denmark-themed issue of Wallpaper* magazine. It was held at this beautiful place in Copenhagen and everyone from the company went out together. Something just happened that night. Rolf came to my apartment and we’ve been together ever since.
INT: As separate individuals then, where does your love for design stem from?
RH: I have always been working within furniture, but when I started I didn’t know who people like Arne Jacobsen were for example, which is different to Mette who grew up in the industry. I was from a home where design and such issues were never something on the agenda.
I started with a blank sheet of paper in front of me and no notes, but in a very short period of time, I fell completely in love with this industry and design. As a very young man, it was all about the classics from the 1950s and 60s for me. I fell in love with the old masters and I used all my spare time to study them. It was like from one day to the next design just became “the thing” for me.
Then one day, I was down at the Vitra Design Museum where they had an Eames exhibition. From that day my perspective changed. In my opinion, they did things the right way because they were actually occupied with creating design products for the many, not the few. After some years I began working for the company who were representing Vitra, who carried all the Eames products. I continued to study their work but then you know, as a young man you start to consider what’s your way of going forward, especially when beginning to understand the past.
At this point I went to a Cappellini exhibition in Italy and applied for a job at Gubi – where we met – who was representing them. There was something so interesting to me about Cappellini because, at that time, American design companies were working with American designers, Italian design companies were working with Italian designers, and so on. Cappellini discovered all these young talents from around the world and brought them together to make amazing stuff. I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that this was the starting point for Hay.
“What if we could work with the best designers in the world to create high quality design products in an affordable context, a democratic context?”Rolf Hay
INT: And what was that starting point?
RH: We could see that people who could understand companies like Cappellini – which is completely different to today – couldn’t afford it. And, the people who could afford it didn’t want it! It was too strange, or maybe too different for them. We said, what if we could work with the best designers in the world to create high quality design products in an affordable context, a democratic context? This is what we wanted when we started Hay in the beginning, and it’s still what we want to do today.
INT: What about your journey to this point Mette?
MH: Well, when I was a teenager my parents opened a design store in Herning in the middle of nowhere in Denmark. They imported all kinds of products; Vitra was part of their collection, Alessi and jewellery pieces, too. I think the best way to describe it is The Conran Shop but in the 80s and 90s. I started working there after school and found that this was the business I wanted to be in, but I didn’t know how and I had no design education – neither had Rolf.
I then moved to Copenhagen and was lucky enough to get that job I mentioned. Rolf and I met, and I also began working with another company importing accessories from all over the world. My passion for design and furniture is not like Rolf’s. I am just as much inspired by fashion and art as design and architecture. I like to take a product or trend and make it possible for as many people as I can.
“We are two people, with different passions. Mine are for the small things, Rolf for furniture.”Mette Hay
INT: And so how does it work now between you both?
MH: I do the accessories and Rolf does the furniture – it’s really divided but I think that’s really positive. We do work together when we do events or exhibitions, or maybe sometimes I’ll help Rolf and his team with colours, but we sit facing in two different directions. This is how we have worked for the last 18 or 19 years, and we’re still so passionate. We are two people, with different passions. Mine are for the small things, Rolf for furniture.
INT: Is there ever a divide in opinion?
MH: I think because we are also a couple, we have the same idea of how Hay should look. It may sound strange but when Rolf’s products and the accessories arrived for our latest exhibition in Milan, we hadn’t tested if they would go well together – but they did! We work with gut feeling and I think it fits together without a lot of meetings and discussions because of that. It’s just how it is.
RH: I think we also realised that in order to work together we needed to divide things. Mette and I can actually be in the office working – we sit not far from each other – but there are weeks when we are not in the same meeting. I guess you could say things are created in the same kitchen, though!
Mette and I, it’s strange, but we actually always agree. It’s very unusual if I were to do something and for Mette to say I don’t get it, and it’s the same for her accessories. That’s not to say it didn’t take us years to get the DNA right, but when you have the right starting point for a project, things are so much easier. But it’s also much more down here [gestures to the heart] than it is up here [to the brain].
“A good starting point is to aim for something different, but different is not a quality on its own.”Rolf Hay
INT: It’s interesting that you mention working with global designers as a key aim from the beginning. One of people’s favourite traits of Hay is your collaborations, and just how vast and different they can be. What do you look for in collaborators, especially if it is such a gut feeling for you, as you say?
RH: Hay has two kinds of collaborations, ones with different external designers but then also with design companies, such as Sonos. When it’s with designers, it’s of course around who you admire. When we started and said we wanted to work with the best designers in the world, of course none of the best designers in the world wanted to work with Hay. We were a young company and nobody knew us, but we knew the importance of dialogue. We needed to show a little of what we wanted to do and, slowly, the company started to grow, giving us the opportunity to work with better designers.
Today, there are quite a lot of opportunities for us. I think what we are looking for – and it is quite different from furniture to accessories – is a strong element of originality. A good starting point is to aim for something different, but different is not a quality on its own. Just because something is different doesn’t necessarily mean that it is better, but searching for something that is different can be the starting point for something original. It’s also a good excuse for a new chair.
What we are looking for when we talk about furniture is of course creative people who can deliver an original idea and bring in an aesthetic. The third thing, which is the less sexy part, is that we are looking for designers who have an understanding of industrial production as to how things can actually be made. This can often be the starting point for creating a high quality design product in an affordable context: you find the key to produce in a very efficient way. This is obviously not something people see, but it’s what brings us to the point of offering a product for a larger audience.
Then, they need to be nice to work with. This isn’t about having the same humour or anything, it’s about being fair in the way we share the operation. You work in a different way though Mette? You’re more intuitive than I am. I am very, very slow.
MH: But that is the key to Hay! It takes patience and power to work on a chair for many years. Those products are the reason we are here today. It’s a constant combination of doing core business, but then also things like fashion or pieces that are interesting and fun. I don’t think any of our clients are in doubt that we want to do business. We are here to provide our clients with products and a long term relationship, but at the same time we love to do things that you cannot foresee, like a trend people love.
One of the things I really hope that our children have learned from our home life is to always say yes to an invitation. If you’re invited to some place, maybe a party, you might meet someone who you’ll create something with. If you’re travelling and someone asks you to wake up at four in the morning to see something – just always say yes. I think Rolf and I’s life is built on this. If someone is contacting you with an idea, and maybe it’s not the exact idea you had in mind, the key is to listen and remain open to doing things differently tomorrow than you did yesterday.
For example, the Suicoke collaboration we launched was through our daughter, Margaret. She’s 16 now but when she was 13 she began creating jewellery out of these small, glass beads. She had her own Instagram account and was suddenly contacted by many people who’d seen her work. One in particular was this fashion designer in Copenhagen, Cecilie Bahnsen. She makes these really beautiful dresses sold with Dover Street Market, that type of brand. Cecilie saw a bracelet of our daughter’s and reached out to say she had been looking for something to place on her dresses to give this 3D feeling. Our daughter was invited to this meeting, and this designer was asking for colour ideas and if she could put some beads on her dresses for the next show. Margaret and I went and it was so beautiful what they made together. Cecilie also asked to place her beadwork on sandals for the show, which were so popular they were then put into production with Suicoke. They then wrote to Margaret to meet – because at the time Cecilie had the attention, not a 13 year old girl – but then they asked to collaborate with Hay, also.
You see every collaboration has its own story like this. Sonos is similar as they were in contact with our contract team to use some of our furniture for their lounges, so that when people were testing the sound of Sonos they would sit in a Hay sofa. I was then in New York, at the time working with the MoMA design store, and met with their head of design. They asked me to do a pattern for one speaker but I said I can’t do that, but I can do a colour scale because I thought it was interesting that Sonos was only ever black and white. He was such a nice guy – it’s always about meeting people.
RH: Yes, it’s always about the people we work with and it’s very much based on conversation. Some design companies are very strict in that the design director will have a brief on the people they want to work with and the project they want to do. We do that sometimes, but it’s quite unusual. For us, it really is about meeting with people, which of course means there has been a limit on our creativity for the past 18 months due to Covid-19. It’s a really difficult situation for our creative development when we cannot meet with our designers, because often it starts out with a conversation of what we could do. You’ll go to a studio and maybe want to brief a designer on a stackable dining chair, but then you’ll see a little mock-up on the shelf. It could be something they worked on years ago, but that’s how the conversation starts.
We try to stay relatively open in the dialogue of people we work with because, at the end of the day, the world just doesn’t need anything else – unless we can come up with an idea that is an improvement to something already existing. This is our excuse for doing something and “improvements” can be many things. It could be making it less expensive maybe, or it could be an aesthetic or environmental issue. There needs to be an element of doing something in a different way which will improve the quality of the object.
This is the conversation we always have with our designers and maybe it’s not worth writing about, but this is the way it works for us.
INT: No, I think it is. It feels very honest and that comes across in the work you make. I’m interested to know, from your point of view, why Hay has become so popular around the world? How do you do it?
MH:I think it’s appealing to people because of its welcoming and sweet approach. So when we first opened our store it was so important to Rolf and I to treat all clients equally – not like the old fashioned furniture store snobbish kind of way. We want to encourage people to come in, to try the furniture, to say yes your two year old is also welcome in the store. This is something we have really tried to hold onto.
I feel like all our employees show up every day with this kind of mindset. They all work like Hay is their own company, and it is their company. I think maybe it’s also appealing because one day we’ll do say a collection of Suicoke sandals, and the next day we’ll launch an outdoor furniture piece with, in my opinion, the world’s best designers the Bouroullecs.
RH: Please don’t write that! All the other designers will be angry! But there is something true in what you’re saying. The moment you say you want to create cool things with the best designers in a democratic context, you also need to show up in a way where you don’t exclude anyone and you’re not arrogant towards anyone.
But looking back today, I think the reason why people find what we do interesting is because Hay – and I’m describing this in the wrong way right now – Hay is a big mess. We touch a lot of different objects and it’s important to say that we try not to stay too strategic. Piece by piece we place a lot of design quality into every object, whether it’s a toothbrush or a super complex shelving system. It’s about having many layers to what you create, and some companies would say that this is our core business. It’s what we’re really good at and what we stick to. It’s our concept. Actually, that’s what is interesting about Hay, that there is no clear concept. There is that idea of creating affordable design, and there’s no doubt that is the vision, but it’s about being unpredictable and open to a good idea when it arrives on the table. I think the diversity in our products is inspiring. That, in my opinion, is the reason why.
“It’s still the thing that means the most to us, to see a piece in someone’s home is wonderful.”Mette Hay
INT: How does it feel to see those products out in the wild? When you visit someone’s house and they have a Hay sofa or a blanket, what feeling does that give you both?
MH: That’s always really, really nice. It’s still the thing that means the most to us, to see a piece in someone’s home is wonderful. Or sometimes it’s the people who admire your product. We met the amazing artist Pipilotti Rist, who I admire a lot, and she was sitting there saying that she liked our products! It’s also something we don’t take for granted, even after 20 years. I am extremely humbled by the fact that people have our things in their life. It’s so nice.
RH:I have to admit that from the beginning through to today, walking around the streets in Copenhagen and peering into the window of a private home to see one of our vases or a lamp maybe, even a chair, makes me really proud. That is honestly on top of everything else for me.
RH: Also when we see one of our bags on the street! These bags Mette makes are quite popular and you see them often, especially here in Copenhagen. That is something that really touches my heart, you know. It’s not that I am not fascinated if someone puts one of our products into their magazine, it does make me happy, but when people are actually saying OK, I am ready to buy this chair from you guys. It’s that commitment I am thankful for. We should always be very thankful for that commitment.
There are layers to it too of course. Two or so years ago we were asked to do the new cafe at the Guggenheim museum in New York. For me, with it being a Frank Lloyd Wright building, it was very special and quite the compliment. Of course that made my day, but I’d still say that it comes down to these private people who buy a piece and live with it. It’s actually quite intense for me.
INT: I can understand that, and it’s really lovely. How about last year then? Obviously with lockdowns everybody has been spending so much more time at home and really thinking about the space they live in. I was wondering if it has made you feel differently about the products you’d like to make, or offered new ideas?
MH: I think that as a company we always adjust to the circumstances we’re in. I am extremely proud of everyone in our company and how they have behaved within this time. How they have kept fighting for each order and development, but also kept good care of each other while working from home. We stand together as a company because Hay is also about being together.
Hay: New Order Shelves (Copyright © Hay, 2021)
Hay: Matin Table Lamp, New Order, Shelving System in Red (Copyright © Hay, 2021)
RH: You know, it takes three years to make a good chair. I think Mette’s response to the market is faster. But I think honestly it’s about considering what is changing in our lives. Of course if you make a handsome office chair and people carry on working from home, you can be very successful. There’s no doubt that people have paid more attention to the way that they live, which has been beneficial for our industry, but I believe it’s going to change companies more than our homes. What we have understood from this situation is that it’s important that our company is built and designed for people to meet and connect. Going to the office used to be about sitting in front of your computer and getting shit done, then going home again. In that area I think it’s going to change a lot, I mean it already has.
The question for me to reflect on is where will this experience affect our lives the most?
INT: On that note then, what’s next for Hay in the next few months or years? Creating a company such a yours is a dream for so many designers, but what are your hopes for the future now that you have achieved this?
MH: The thing we look forward to most is to finally meet our colleagues from all over the world physically again. Lots of new wonderful people have started to work for Hay and due to the extraordinary times we’re experiencing, we haven’t met them yet. We cannot wait to see the designers we work with in person, as we usually have a very close dialogue with them; suppliers whom we collaborate with and who are essential in our work; and lastly, our customers and collaboration partners who eventually shape what Hay is.
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.