Jan 11, 2022

Episode 79

Erik Nissen Johansen


Sweden-based, Norway-born designer Erik Nissen Johansen always felt drawn to the creative world. After studying design in Florence, Italy, he went on to found his firm Stylt Trampoli AB, which has been pushing the boundaries of hospitality design for more than 30 years. Using a film director creative approach, he often cites, “Never do the film without doing the script first.” When pitching to clients, each project is accompanied by a short, written story, connecting emotion to physical design. A testament to the firm’s creatvity, one of his most recent projects is Pater Noster, an 1868 lighthouse off the coast of Sweden he and his team revitalized into a 10-room hotel. Since opening, it has gained worldwide attention and recently won an HD Award.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m Stacy Shoemaker Rauen, editor in chief of Hospitality Design magazine with HD’s What I’ve Learned podcast. Erik Nissen Johansen is the founder and creative director of Stylt Trampoli AB in Gothenburg, Sweden. Taking a film director like approach to his creative process, he often cites, “Never do the film without doing the script first.” Every project is pitched with a short, written story, connecting emotion to physical design. For more than 30 years, Erik and his firm have been pushing the boundaries of hospitality design worldwide. Recently, they completed Pater Noster, the revitalization of an 1868 lighthouse into a 10 room hotel, which has gained worldwide attention since its opening.

SSR: Hi, I’m here with Erik, Erik, thanks so much for joining me today. How are you doing?

Erik Nissen Johansen: Thank you. I’m really good.

SSR: Alright, so we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

ENJ: Well, I live in Sweden, but I am Norwegian, so I grew up in an island in the Oslofjord.

SSR: So, were you a creative kid, did you always have a love of design?

ENJ: I definitely think so. For me, it was like a strong compass, a pointing arrow. At school, I was the worst kid on most of the topics and then I was the best kid on 10% of the topics, drawing and sketching and stuff like that. So it was just a big message saying to me, follow that path because you will be successful, or not those, or those, or those, because you will fail. I’m a proud dyslectic.

SSR: Oh, yes. Were your parents-

ENJ: Makes you think faster.

SSR: Yes, it does, as a challenge. Were your parents creative as well or anyone?

ENJ: Yes.

ENJ: Yes.My father, he’s an engineer, but his education before that was a carpenter doing furniture and stuff like that. And he’s a wood … After he kind of went into pension, he’s a wood carver, he always been very fascinating walking with him in the forest because he sees a tree and then he tells me what he see, that’s a chair, he envisions this thing he can make from it. And he’s really, really good. And my mother, she passed away some years ago, but she was a designer working, she even did dresses for the Norwegian queen and stuff like that.

SSR: Oh, wow. That’s exciting. So did you tinker with your dad while he was making things growing up?

ENJ: Yeah. And he was over the generation that fixed things instead of buying new stuff, which is more difficult today because it’s so much electronic in things. But I remember I told him we need a stereo in the house because my friend, he has a stereo and I want the Phillips one, and he said, no, no, I can make one. And he bought parts and he made it, and I was a little bit ashamed then, but now I’m really proud.

SSR: I know you’re like, “I just wanted the Phillips one.”

ENJ: Yes. Whatever.

SSR: That’s amazing. So did you go to school for design then?

ENJ: Yeah, I had a very inspiring drawing teacher in the seventh grade, eighth grade. And she talked very warmly about the Italian Renaissance. So that’s why I decided to go to Florence to study there, study art and design. And so, formally I’m a trained artist and a designer. And I met a couple of good friends from Sweden there at the school, we were sharing some of the art history classes and we decided to almost like the Medici Renaissance model or studio to start a studio. And I moved to Sweden after the school. And we have over five artists having a manifesto saying that everybody’s allowed to paint on everybody’s painting without anybody being allowed to get angry.

Pater Noster hotel in Hamneskär, Sweden

SSR: Oh, wow.

ENJ: So it was all about collaboration and kind of accepting that your initial idea might change and become something different, but different is good in our business. I would tell that speaks out is the commodity today. And that worked for three years, but we also had a lot of friends in the restaurant business, so we helped them with designing restaurants, and we did everything from the invitation, the logo, we made a business card, the menu, we did interior designed, we sourced the furniture, we did kind of everything. And I guess I fell in love with that process because I think also my art is actually collecting things and putting them together in assemblages or three dimensional collage boxes.

And it could be objects that have been thrown away from people, and you find one and another, and one might have some meaning to you, and you put them together, it creates a third space in a way. That’s exactly what you do with interior designer or hospitality design. If you make a room, you change the wallpaper behind, it might be telling a totally different story.

And when I did my art, or I still doing my art, it’s totally uncompromised because I’m the boss, I’m the one who decides, but I’m really fond of that Medici Renaissance collaboration, that people with different backgrounds are forced to collaborate because the results are getting different. And so, I almost get more reward from that, from the struggle and collaborating with a client, with a investors, with my fellow designers, with my opponent architect maybe, we are interior architects, so we have always, almost always, especially if it’s a new build, collaborating with an architect, and other consultants, of course.

And as you know, I will tell, or a restaurant is such a big project and complex, so you can’t do it yourself, you cannot do it yourself, you have to be good at doing it together with other people. And you have to create the operators, you have to give them a tool so their business can be even more successful than they would have been able to do alone, or on their own. So I’m really fond of that. And we kind of have an internal slogan at Stylt saying, “Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow.”

And it’s trying to create a cultural … It’s legal to fail. Because that’s the biggest threat towards creativity. I think if you don’t allow people to do mistakes, they get afraid and they will be afraid of trying to new things. So I also think it took a long time for me to have a profitable business. I was always employing the best, the most creative people, and remember we started as an art collective, very, very disorganized, and then I only in employed people that were really crazy, and we did magical stuff, but we didn’t make much money, and sometimes it was difficult.

But eventually we learned, I realized that running a business is a totally different education. So I think many of the successful companies like hospitality design companies are a group of people that founded it and they have different skills. And also successful restaurants often have a variety of owners, maybe one with a chef background and maybe one with economics or whatever. I answer a lot of questions.

SSR: I love it, like wait, so many questions off of that. So for, excuse me, so when you launched your firm in 1991, so 30 years, congratulations, you’ve survived for 30 years.

ENJ: Thank you. I was like year two when I started it.

SSR: How has your company evolved in the last 30 years, how have you changed it or adapted it for the industry? And what was the idea behind the name too?

ENJ: The idea behind the name is very simple. It means stilts, the walking sticks that you become one meter taller than the rest, a very cheap tool to get a new perspective. But Peter, one of the guy that I founded the company with, still a very good friend but we split up, this is one of the paintings behind me that we did collaboratively. We shared art history in Italy, and it was an old teacher that she was lecturing in Italian. And we were really bad at the language in the beginning. So we never arrived in time for her lectures, we were on in a bar outside, and she knew that. So she opened the window and screamed in Italian i trampoli or hey stilt guys, because we were taller than the rest in our class. So that was her negative nickname. And everybody started to call us i trampoli, which means stilts or the stilt guys, because we were taller. And when we formed the art collective, we needed a name, and that was already stuck. That the story behind the name.

SSR: I love it. And so how has it evolved from this art collective to where you are now? I mean, you’ve done hundreds of FnB projects and hundreds of hotels. How did you go from art to that?

ENJ: I think a few things. I think that I decided when I started this company in 1991 that I wanted to be really good at creating experiences that I wanted to experience myself through restaurants and hotels. And I took the decision that the company is going to be focused on hospitality. So if a company or a client comes to us and don’t admit to the hospitality industry, which is quite broad actually, it could be a church, it could be a gas station. If the owner thinks that he wants to also sell the experience, but obviously a restaurant or a hotel is very, very … But that was a decision from the beginning. And then I also think that, one, so we stick to that, but another thing that we had ability when I started in a very kind of effectively way, that we had the ability to sprinkle tinker bells stardust, artistic stardust on our projects, which was a very drawback in the beginning because it made as very unprofitable.

But the project were sparkling, they were fun, people loved it, fell in love with it. And I think now we are efficient, we can do the project within the timeframe and within the budget, even if some clients would hold me on that point, but we still have the ability to sprinkle the same amount of stardust. And we also found an efficiency in that. I think we have a great creative process with sharp elbows, we fought us to a position to be able to have time to come up with ideas. We say, we can create a concept for you, it’ll take nine or eight months, that’s our point of negotiation, and sometimes it doesn’t work. And then we have a strong project management that collect all the info and the background info of the project.

And we collect a broad group of creatives from our studio, our directors, copywriters, storytellers, interior architects, interior designers, project designers, and me. We read through the documents and the history and the background, and we start throwing ideas. And then after two hours we stop, and then we wait at least three or four days until we sit again and stop.

And then we wait three or four days until we start again, and then we can run these processes parallel for different, sometimes we had 20 projects in the IDS stage going on at the same time. And the thing that they start to … Even though their result is really different because it’s a kind of different recipe with the owner, with the building’s history, and the purpose of the project, they start to feed each other idea wise.

And also the time in between those four days, in between, your brain is still working on it. Because sometimes I notice we sit down again and people say, I saw this film with my wife this weekend, and they had this background, or I went to London and I met a friend and he told me, and then they start to kind of … So it’s an extremely efficient way of inventing the wheel every time.

SSR: Right. I love it. How did you come up with that, the start, stop, start, stop?

ENJ: I think it was because everybody had … It’s very strong childcare in Sweden, so everybody is like, to go and pick up your kids at the kindergarten is the holy thing that you cannot miss that, you get the evil eye from the kindergarten lady if you’re too late, so I wanted everybody to be in the meeting, I felt also, we had a lot of interns, that a great idea is very democratic, you don’t need a big long education or being an old person to come up with a great idea. It can come from wherever. And especially when people with different background are bouncing their heads together.

So in the middle of the process, somebody said, “I have to go and pick up my kids, otherwise I’ll get the evil eye.” And we stopped the meeting and we rescheduled, and I noticed that we can run this process as parallel. And then we kind of try to make it as a rule because we notice that … And I think it makes sense, sometimes the clients are really, really, neglecting that if you want a high quality idea, which is actually the thing that can create a huge cue outside your hotel or your restaurant, then you have to respect that it takes time, it’s the most important kind of asset or the most important contribution that we add to the table, of course.

And sometimes we even have our clients in those processes at some points, some of the meetings, and some other times we don’t. So I think that’s a little bit of a creative process, but also it ends up, the first meetings, we kind of get the, also like a saying to explain how our method is, that we never do the film without doing the script first. So we try to create an emotional argumentation why people shall fall in love with this place before we start to use too much time, before we start to invest.

And then we have one of our great storytellers to put it into a format, our great story, half a page, not too long, not too short, lots of emotion in it and in the middle. And it’s such a great tool, it’s almost like a ton of mood board, you could ask your client, can you read through this and do you feel the magnetism in this narrative, will that do the job, you think, will people fall in love with this? And then we also notice if you do that first, the process is so much more effective.

Downtown Camper by Scandic in Stockholm

SSR: Right, because you have this playbook to come back to, right?

ENJ: Exactly. And if you compare it, which makes a lot of sense for people, even not in the hospitality design business, that you have to do the script before we do the film. It’s so easy to understand that it’s really difficult for the set decorator to start his job without the script. He could start to buy the decor and maybe you need cars in this film, let’s get some cars, whatever.

But I really noticed that because you know exactly what you’re looking for, and it’s a lot of shares in the world, there’s a lot of fabrics in the world, there’s a lot of patterns. You have to kind of narrow it down and understand what kind of world are you trying to achieve, and what story do you want to tell? So that’s something we’ve really been doing from the beginning. I also wrote a book many years ago now, and it’s like, you know the hospitality educations here in Sweden and Norway and Denmark, it’s called Storytelling as a tool for the hospitality industry or something. So it’s like to get, or, I did illustrations and there was a professor that did the writing, but I talked a lot and she took notes, but we really worked with that very early on.

And we didn’t find it somewhere else. We just intuitively felt that this is the right way to approach it because it became easier. And we also always take, when we do the story, which is half a page maybe, we also synthesize it down to a sentence, we also landed the name for that from the film industry, The Five Word Pitch, if you can’t sell your idea in five words, it’s not strong enough.

And I also think that our firm is, you get almost for free, in the bargain at PR strategy, because it’s so easy to talk about our project. It’s so easy to be, very, very early on, we think about, what is the one image that’s going tell the story here. And you work with this and I think the best asset you can have as a hotelier, or a restaurant, especially a hotelier, if you can create one good image that is explaining in a split of a second the emotional argumentation as to why people should fall in love with it, that’s your PR strategy.

SSR: Yep. I love it because you’re an editor, right? You’re actually editing it all down to what it should be. And I think that’s where places get that authentic voice, right? That everyone craves or wants. But if you can distill down what you’re doing into a simple sentence, I think that sets you up for so much success.

ENJ: Because you have to do the thinking. It’s a lot of work behind that. I was really impressed by Norway, which is my country because they boil down a slogan for the country, for the argumentation of going as a tourist to Norway. And it’s Powered By Nature, it’s three words. And the more I think about it, it works for Oslo, it works for a city, it works for going to a restaurant, it works for going to the fjords, it works for hiking in the mountains, whatever. The produce in a restaurant in the center of Oslo, it’s also powered by nature, because you got the fish there, you got the crops, it contributes very few people, it’s a lot of nature. So you get the barriers from the forest and whatever.

And that’s really, really difficult, it’s so easy when you hear it, but the work behind is the top of the pyramid and you really need to finish your thinking first. And I think it’s like, if you’re an editor, I’m putting a great headline capturing the whole essence of the story that might run for 14 pages, that’s more difficult than writing the whole 14 pages I think.

SSR: I think that’s what we spend the most time on our headlines and decks and-

ENJ: And also on an experience, I think if you interview some of our successful clients, then that’s the biggest asset I think they would say that they got from us, because it’s such a good tool when you have to start to talk about your place and get it out.

SSR: You’re giving them free marketing advice. That’s great. So you said that it took a while to get profitable, for those starting out and creating their own businesses, how did you turn it? What was the trick to go from being, an artist collaborative to a successful business design firm?

ENJ: For me, I think it was, when I met Elizabeth my wife, not my late wife, because she’s not dead, but we are kind of splitting up now, but we are still collecting, working together, but when I met her many years ago, her father was an accountant working for British Petroleum, he was the boss of British Petroleum accounting in Sweden. And he was just retired, and he retired overnight, this is your last day of working and he was finished, his fingers was itching.

So he started to kind of look through our papers and he told me that, you have to pay the VAT, that’s very important. You have to pay tax, and I said, “Do I really have to?” Yes, you have to. So he started to kind of clean it up, he got rid of part of the DNA of an artist collective thinking only creative things is good and the rest is shit.

And were never interested in being the CEO myself, because I knew that I was, as to remember, I knew I was really bad at that direction. So I always had other people taking care of business side of it. But after that, it started to go better. And then the next lesson I think was that, it’s so, so easy to lose money on the project, especially when there are some project we sign, is maybe four, five years long, and you have to negotiate a contract in the beginning before you start, and you can do one wrong sentence in that contract and you fuck up the two last years. And so you have to be really good at signing contracts and you have to put in stuff in the contract so you are able to get paid for extras that comes up and you have to know all the dirty tricks that the client side can have, can possibly we come up with, which is impossible.

So when you get better at that, then you have a fair chance of making money on your projects. And then I think we did a mistake, I was really intrigued by working globally. So right now we are working on five different continents. We have live project in five different continents.

SSR: Wow.

ENJ: And I thought that’s really cool, but it’s tricky for the profits. Germany is a very close neighbor to Sweden, and when we did our refresh project in Germany, we were really caught by surprise by the actual responsibility of the interior designer. It means something else than in Sweden that we were used to. And then you learn the lesson that if you want to, we are doing a 25 hours in Melbourne in the Australia now, and our project is four phases basically. They start with a concept. And there we said we learned our lesson, Australia is far away, it takes two days to get there, whatever. So it’s not possible for us to be on meetings every second week or whatever. So we said, we do the two first phases, and then we have to find a local architect so that we can collaborate with, and they will do, under our supervision design wise, they will do the two last legs in the adventure. And then we will come down for the opening and drink champagne.

And that also secures the possibility to make profitable project around the world, incredibly. There’s a lot of tricks, but I think the best advice if I have to give one advice to people that want to start up is that, realize that, because I think most people like me, they did it because they were creative and they thought I have the ability to create magic and do places that people want to go into.

But admit that running a business is a different education. It’s a different skill set. You need to take care of your staff, you need to encourage both the creativity and also the limits of the time you spend, and they have to understand the relation to money, how long time it would it take for this bar to get their return of the investment, and understanding all these things. And understanding the importance of paying bills in time and simple things like that. But admit for yourself that it’s a different skillset. So maybe partner up with somebody who’s good at that, or buy those services or learn it yourself. At least that was, I think, my biggest mistake in the beginning.

HUUS Gstaad Hotel in Switzerland; photo by Mark Nolan

SSR: Got it.

ENJ: I would have a nicer car earlier. That’s people’s goal in the world. It’s a metaphor.

SSR: Do you have the five words for your company?

ENJ: Yes, but it’s not five, it’s-

SSR: Or the one sentence.

ENJ: It’s hospitality extraordinare, which English word actually, which is kind of borrowed for extraordinary with French spelling.

SSR: French flair.

ENJ: French flair. Right. And I kind of learned that expression long time ago, and it has like a connotation that it’s extra everything.

SSR: Yep.

ENJ: And we often say that, we will fail if we are not able to create a love story between the user and the hotel. And so it’s emotional driven. So that’s why that sentence is really, really important. So that’s our external kind of five word pitch, and our internal, and also maybe eternal is, let’s make better mistakes tomorrow.

SSR: I love that one. What is it about hospitality that you love so much? You said early on you dedicated what you wanted to do, or you dedicated your firm to doing hospitality, what was it, or what is it about hospitality that draws you to it?

ENJ: My father was an engineer. He was working on a company that took in imported vents and really kind of technical equipment and sold to the oil drilling industry in Norway that was kind of growing and booming. He represented different companies from different parts of the world. So he often had to go out to take a drink with the people from abroad that came to Oslo, where I grew up and I really loved, sometimes he took me to the bar at the SAS hotel in Oslo, the coolest skyscraper, I was mesmerized. And one time I was not so old, I was six years I think, and it was gentlemen from the United States that were invited over and he’d happened to tell me that he was like an American Indian, like a native American.

And I was so excited. I told him I have to come. And I came in and I was so disappointed because he had a suit and a tie on, this gentleman, but I really love that. So I think this public spaces that make people feel different things, I think it’s my, as I told you before, my three dimensional collage is my art, but in a big scale, you can enter it. And then we met on different events in the hospitality industry and it’s really people … They’re from the hospitality. So number one, they need to be nice to people, they need to be good huggers, they need to be open arms, they need to be inviting people, they need to be good at conversation. So I’m in love with the people, I’m in love with the people from this industry, it’s really nice people. I doubt that if I had been a car mechanics, that the events in that world would’ve been as fun.

SSR: No. I do always say that the hospitality world are people like no other that you’ve ever met. So, okay. Let’s talk a little bit about projects. Was there one project that you think was your big break or really put you on the map, one that helped you grow your business?

ENJ:I think yes, there are a few milestones, first time we did a restaurant with a good budget. And I think our kind of international, when people started to get eyes open for us as a company from Sweden, we got the hotel Sonya, is a Radisson now in St. Petersburg in Russia. And it was the Baltic countries, the three Baltic countries largest hotel group, Revol Hotels, that’s the kind of name of the company. And they wanted to, I think your magazine did a story of this hotel, and they wanted us to do their first venture in St. Petersburg. And they told us that the Baltics kind of turned back to Russia, they went towards Europe and became members of the European union and things like that. So we really don’t have a emotional asset for the people of St. Petersburg to fall in love with us, so we needed to kind of think of that.

So we went there to Russia, that was my first time in Russia and we were there for a week. I think we got paid for some of the days, but not all of the days. And we kind of started to soak in, and I had a very, very pre kind of stupid image, I thought the Russians were like the villains in the James Bond movies. But I found these people with double educations, you went to school for engineering and then you went to school for poetry. So you could have something to discuss in the bar when you met people. And we also found a reason for that, and the reason for that was that Peter de Great, he didn’t found a city, he wanted to do rival Paris as the cultural capital of the world.

So that was the purpose of doing this city. And you can see it in the planning, it’s planned around the institutions, it’s planned around the big museums and the Opera and stuff like that. And it’s also the official capital culture of Russia. And they have 30% of their Leonard da Vinci paintings in the world in their museums there. And they got the Mariinsky theater and what have you. And at the same time, we went to all hotels and they were either Sheratons or Hiltons, or they tried to look like an American chain hotel.

SSR: Interesting.

ENJ: That made a lot of sense after the iron curtain fell, I think, so we really said, “Imagine if we could kind of build a hotel on this thing that people already were proud of.” So we found an interview with a very famous chef, I think it was Newsweek, the magazine that interviewed him. And the last question in interview was, what is the best guidebook to St. Petersburg? And he answered in a very Russian manner, he said, “Read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, it’s the most accurate portrait ever written of this city.” So we thought, if we can translate that book, that is the most accurate portrait of this city into hotel experience, that would be fantastic. So we managed after a lot of convincing to our client that they should invest their 20 million dollar investment in the story of this student killing his pawn broker-

SSR: And I was like, “Have you read Crime and Punishment?”

ENJ:… With an Axe. But it’s very important book written 150 years ago from the great son of the city, the greatest author from Russia, I think, and it is a story that every Russian and many, many others already have a relation to. So after a long kind of ramp like that, they swallowed hard and said, “Okay, let’s do it then.” So, we did it. And I think we did it in a clever way, sometimes in your face, sometimes very subtle, sometimes you need to ask to understand it, but the hotel almost exploded in the beginning. They got a phone call after one week and it was Ivan Amachenku, the mayor, her assistant saying that Ivan Amachenku is coming tomorrow to open your hotel, and they said it has to be a mistake. And they said, “No she’s coming tomorrow at noon.”

And she came with, I don’t know, but 20 journalists, and she heard about this hotel in a blog and she said, “This is us, this hotel is us, this is what the story we want to tell to the world. Everybody thinks we are James Bond villains, but we are the cultural capital of the world. I want to endorse this project,” she said, and she brought two people to the opening. And one was the manager of the Dot Mariinsky museum, and they prepared a contract between hotel that they were together promoting the big son of the city.

And she also brought a tram driver who was called Dimitri Dostoyevsky, he was the great, great, great grandfather of the author. And he’s basically working there now taking tours and eating dinner with, I think he’s only paid by Free Bar for life, something like that. And the investment, the budget was the same budget they would have had anyway, infusing this story into the mathematics, it became a hotel that was really as respected and loved by the city, which is the key to make it interesting for travelers that arrive there.

Downtown Camper by Scandic in Stockholm

SSR: That’s amazing. I mean, as a designer, that must make you feel so proud, right? That you created something that’s helping a city as a whole.

ENJ: I was there not long ago, two years ago or something, and it was 12 or 10 years old, and I asked the manager that I never met because he was new, and I asked him a question I usually ask, what is the most negative thing on Tripadvisor, the critic that you get? And he said, “It used to be the dark corridors,” and I said, “Used to?” “Yeah, because we got a student working in the reception half a year ago, and she was a dedicated Dostoyevsky fan, and she knew everything about him, and she came here because she heard the story and she asked, can I work here? And she got a job. And she always starts by saying welcome to the world of crime and punishment of Dostoyevsky.”

And after that, they raised two points in general on Tripadvisor without investing anything, because the dark corridors made sense because they are supposed to reflect the feverish walks of Raskolnikov the main character that chopped head of the old lady.

SSR: I mean, I guess it’s setting expectations, right? You come in the door, she tells you that, and then you’re like, “Oh, well, now I expect this,” right? So instead of-

ENJ: Also I think the internet and the distribution of hotels has kind of forced it into a very generic set of information, do you have a pool or not? Or do you have large other rooms, do you have a bathtub or not? So all this information that differentiates the hotel from all the others, which this story does. Until somebody else becomes number two and do the same thing. They are really, really important. I think that’s one of the great asset of storytelling and trying to find something to, attached ID too when you start up and try to understand the emotional argumentation of why people should fall in love.

SSR: Has there been one project that you learned the most from that was the most challenging? I mean, I’m sure you learned something at every project, but one that you really kind of made you think and made you find an inventive solution?

ENJ: It’s a lot of them. I think we did, 12 years ago maybe, Klaus K in Helsinki, which was the first member of design hotels in Finland. And it was a big success. And they asked us after interviewing a lot of Finish designers and the Finland has good designers, they have a huge industry of designing cruise ship, or building cruise ships. But the manager, he was a manager and owner, he was from New York, from Americ, he was kind of thinking a little bit outside the box compared to other Fins on the market, and the building was called Klaus Kuki, which is a character from the North Finnish national IPOS [foreign language 00:44:05].

So he said, “Somehow I want to work with that narrative.” And nobody there, all the Finish designers thought that was too tacky, or maybe they said tacky and felt it was scary, a scary road to go. I might become the laughing stock of my fellow designers because I took on this impossible task.

And we really liked it. And we did a very kind of modern interpretation of that story which is extremely important. Finland was under Russian rule for many, many years, and then under Swedish rules. So during the Russian rule this book was a banned, it was illegal because it was stories from 1600 years back in time when they were free. So that’s why it was so important for their freedom movement. And it’s like any Genesis story, it’s really crazy shit. And I would like to smoke the things that the person that wrote the book smoked, and the Genesis story is about a bird, it’s before land exists. So it’s a bird landing in the ocean, laying an egg, and it falls down to the bottom of the ocean and it cracks and the yoke becomes land.

So we have the seven eggs. We have the reception desk looks very modern, still looks modern, but it’s like one of eggs and it divided the hotel into the dark and fair side, so the nightclub and the restaurants are on the dark side, and half of the rooms were on the light side. And I really learned there that there is also always, like the same thing in St. Petersburg, there is always something that unifies a group of people, let’s say in this case, the films, and it’s their sense of pride, or it’s something that makes you American or that has a kinship to other Americans. And if you can find that and work with it, it’s super strong, it’s effective. It’s like, from day one, you open a hotel that’s already famous because that book is already famous, and it’s liked.

And people from Finland said that, “Well, I didn’t really read it, but I remember my grandmother read it to me when I was a kid and she figured it was very important.” But there also a risk going that path designing because you could end up becoming the laughing stock, end up destroying their national ethos and making a very bad interpretation. And so you have to kind of have to be brave, and dare to do it. But if you manage to land on your feet, the reward is fantastic.

SSR: You just have to land on your feet.

ENJ: Yes. Greatly.

SSR: Exactly. Okay. Let’s talk about the one that just won an HD award. So congratulations. Yay.

ENJ: Thank you.

SSR: Pater Noster, which was an old lighthouse. I mean, it’s such a cool talk about an idea that, or being super authentic that you can’t replicate. I mean, tell us a little bit about it and how is an old lighthouse and how you turned it into a cool hotel and where it’s located?

ENJ: Talk about that project that I talked about before having one image that kind of sells the whole emotional argument. And there is a few drone pictures that I took on the little Speco land, this little tiny island in the big, big ocean and nothing around it, and I think the part of the success of Pater Noseter is the pandemic that was a rare time in history that every person on earth was sharing the same problem. And this image, kind of percented the solution somehow, you can run away from everything out there and there’s problem free. But normally I present myself as a, I’m a fisherman trapped in the hotel designer’s body. So I really like going fishing and we have a summer house north of Goberg and I have a boat there, and when I have spare time, I go there, go fishing, and to get the bigger fish, you need to go far out where the lighthouse is, is very dangerous reefs.

And the lease was up for grabs. And it’s the government of Sweden that managed it. And the branch that managed the Royal castle and the fortresses and the importance historical buildings, and it wasn’t the case of bidding the highest, paying the highest rent, it was just a case of, it was a fixed rent and case of them believing the people behind has the skillset, because it’s really, really difficult to manage a nine room hotel on an island very far away.

Every bottle of wine have to be brought there by boats and boats are very expensive and the glass have to be brought back with a boat and thrown away. And we had some friends that also had a love or relationship with the island, my business partner at Stilt, he really likes sailing. And we had friends with a restaurants license, liquor license. And so we had a good skillset of people, seven partners. So we won the contract beginning of, not last summer, but the summer, so we won the year and a couple of months they’ve been running it. And it was obviously in the middle of COVID and the biggest crisis in the hotel industry’s history.

So we thought, what shall we do with it? We didn’t obviously have a huge budget, we didn’t want to risk too much, but it’s also the first project that I became a partner in, also in the operations, but still it was the design company that did the concept, and we read an old book that talked about the lighthouse people, and it was 1868, they opened. And they opened after a long, long debate, 50 years debate that everybody said that it would be much better for the ships to put a lighthouse out there because the lighthouse was further in land, and it was very inaccurate, so people crashed in the reefs because of that. And people said in the same sentence that, but you can’t live on that island, it’s too sparse, it’s too difficult to get food, whatever. And then they built the lighthouse and three families moved out because it was kerosene driven, and it was like a clockwork mechanism that you had to wind up every hour that turned the whole thing around to make the blink sequence.

And so it was three people that had to run it and they were entitled to bring their families. So it was family moving out. And they proved all the skeptics wrong. They had a really good life there, all the kids that were born in the winter half of the year, they were born on the island because they couldn’t go into the hospital because of the weather. And they were fishing, they were hunting seals, sea birds, and they were never short of food. And they had a really great life, even, they were growing tomatoes in lantern, because it was kerosene driven, it was very hot and they got fresh tomatoes all the way around.

And that story inspired us. And then the lighthouse was abandoned in 1977 because it was a fully mechanical lighthouse that was built in the middle of ocean. So the building started getting destroyed and everything. And then the lighthouse itself, which is in cast iron was supposed to be dragged out in the sea. And then people started to protest because it was like a symbol of whatever. And they managed to raise money to restore it. So now it was beautifully restored, and we said that we don’t want to open hotel, we just want to open the home of the lighthouse masters and invite people to live on terms and conditions of this island, which means that you have to follow the chef down to the shore and pick the seaweeds and go back in the kitchen and help to prepare the eel grass seaweed, that if you fry it in oil for 20 seconds, it turns into truffle, it tastes like truffle, you can make fantastic stuff with it.

And we fish lobster and we fish without lines. So that’s what we wanted to do. So we said that, okay, how can we make this an authentic home or the lighthouse master? And we decided to buy a 70% of all the furniture, it’s second hand from the area to get the right DNA, and we bought new art, contemporary art, mixed that together with black and white footage from old people that we met that told us, my father was a lighthouse master, I grew up on this island. We managed to take pictures of their albums at home. And I was stuck there last summer because it was a lot of Swedes that came that couldn’t go abroad, they couldn’t go to their Villa in France or whatever.

So they came to visit us because they thought it was exotic, and people really, really loved it. And I was there with my drone. I was there with my camera and one day I thought, this sunset is the best sunset ever, and I flew up with my drone, I took the picture. And then two days later it was an even better sunset, and four days later, it was even better. So I kind of refined my album of footage the whole summer.

And then I started to send it out to a few people that I knew in end of August. And it just exploded. It just went by itself. I think on the potential reach, which is the way you measure digital newspapers, we have, until now, 14, I’m not saying the wrong thing, but 14 billion people that we have met, it’s like double the number of people in the world.

SSR: Wow.

ENJ: And then I think it’s more than 6,000 articles written about it.

HUUS Gstaad Hotel in Switzerland; photo by Mark Nolan

SSR: Well, I can’t wait to visit it. It looks magical. Just watching time. I could talk to you forever, but you mentioned this has been the worst thing to hit the hospitality industry with COVID, what has the last year been like for you, how has it changed you as a leader and how do you see the industry evolving or changing or just moving forward?

ENJ: I think from the beginning, I was very afraid. I was petrified, and all the employees, and I think everybody in the industries had a wait and see attitude. They stopped all the investments, but then some brave people said that, we did a restaurant locally here in Goberg during the pandemic, and it was a guy, “I made good money through the years and I never think the opportunity to close my restaurant and run away, has been better than now. So I was planning to run away in two years time, but I’m going to do it now because there is no clients anyway.” And then you have a lot of operators that have been struggling and that had the need to bring on more capital or more money, which means actually more other people being in charge or owning part, and new people means need for innovation, they want to do things slightly different. And I think there, we could be relevant for them and that we see that.

ENJ: But I think it has changed me as like a colleague or my other are partners, and my employees said, this was like one of the things, I think it was almost like 9/11 for people living in New York, that it was unimaginable before it happened. And then actually after, wow, it can happen. And I remember I read a protocol from a board meeting we had at Stilt, I think one month before it hit, so it was in February or something, and we sat there, and we’re like, “Okay. What about this virus from China there? We don’t see that as a threat at all, it won’t come here.” We didn’t have it in our vocabulary.

So I think being humble that big change can happen and nothing will last forever ever, and also this will pause, that notion, that feeling makes you much more prepared for the unexpected, which I think is, sometimes we have employees work as designers and architects, and the project managers here that say that we have to find a way to work. We have to find this, we have to put down this blueprint of how we do things, in which order we do things.

And I always thought that the set of people that are in a project would always be new. And you have the client with the money, a bag of money that he or she sorely earned through the times, and you will have to pay us some of that money. And you have to think that it’s worth it. But apart from that, the process will be different because it’s different people. So you have to almost, instead of creating a blueprint of how the project should be run, you have to be prepared that it’s going to be different every time. And I think the pandemic taught us that the hard way.

And also, a lot of tragic things in our industry, for example that it’s an eyeopener, I think that we pay restaurant workers too low, we don’t treat. And I think you see that in all the countries in the world that is difficult to find restaurant staff now because they were kicked out of their business and then they had to do something else and maybe they’re working in a factory and they feel that, well, this factory is actually treating me better than before. So it’s a lot of learnings from it, I think.

SSR: How do you see the industry changing or adapting moving forward?

ENJ: In respect to the crisis?

SSR: After COVID, do you see it changing?

ENJ: I think there are things that everybody are expecting. Everybody says that, it seems like everybody tried to convert a hotel into some city resort destination with a lot of fun things to do, so every boring business hotel need to be more colorful or something, because they saw that that was the only hotels that worked during the pandemic, that had like an entertainment content, somehow or another. And I think also that a lot of people think that the big conferences with thousands of people will be the last thing to return, but then you have people being really, really hungry for entertainment, having a good time. So if you try to find a trip, a package trip now to a warmer climate during the winters, everything is sold out.

And I think it’s in many respect, it was like an amplifier of existing trends. So for example, like we are doing now, you are in New York and I’m here and we talk to each other. And that was much more alienated before. And I remember, in Copenhagen it’s three hours by car from here, and we are doing a hotel project there, also a 25 hours. And the owners said that you really have to be here every week for a meeting, and we know those meetings that, is maybe a 2% or four, 5% of the meeting is concerning interior design, they have the electricity, the vents and whatever. And then he was forced to do them digitally, and then he suddenly said that, “This is much more efficient, it’s cheaper.” So a lot of people were forced into that. And I think also this programs, Zoom and Skype and whatever, it has become so much better.

And then I think, if you have hotels like…which is very, very experienced driven, and it’s like entering a world with different terms and conditions. And on the other side of the spectrum, you have hotels that actually are delivering capacity of rooms to a big city, where there is a big traffic. They will be struggling more and more because there is no emotional argumentation. And the unique experiences that actually gives you stories and ammunition to go back and tell your friends what you have experienced, they will really, really be the winners. And I think when we read the briefs from all the big hotel companies about their brands, and what us designers have to think about, it seems like everybody’s writing the same thing, they want to kind of be relevant to the local community. They want to be experience driven.

And of course, it’s difficult when you’re called Marriott, but it’s easier when you are actually a very small independent something that not even called a hotel. So the experience driven hotels I think will have a faster Renaissance than they had actually before. And I think also a big takeaway for me is that, I’ve been really missing my industry and hugging my nice friends around the world. And my mother had a very simple philosophy, never forgets to hug, if you remember that, your life will be better, you will die maybe with a smile on your lips, it has a big consequence. And I even realized and learned that she was even more right than I thought before, this pandemic.

SSR:  I love that. I’m going to keep that in mind. That is amazing. Well, and I think that’s a perfect place to stop. Erik, thank you so much for taking this time to chat with me. It’s been such a pleasure as always.

ENJ: Thank you. It was my pleasure. It was fun.

SSR: Hopefully I’ll see you in real life soon.

ENJ: Hopefully they will let Europeans in before your next event.

SSR: Yes. That would be lovely.

ENJ: When they open up, I’ll be there, I promise you.

SSR: Great. We’ll have a glass of champagne to celebrate the HD award.

ENJ: Maybe two, awesome.

SSR: Yes, we can do. All right.

ENJ: Excellent.

SSR: Thank you so much. See you soon. Keep in touch with everything you’re working on please.

ENJ: I will. Thank you so much.