Following their impressive work on the Wadden Sea Centre, arc’s Matt Waring caught up with Danish architects JAC Studios to discuss its design philosophy, and the role that light plays in its work.
Scandinavia is a region well regarded for its approach to design, and not just in the world of flat-packed furniture; with its sparse, minimalist aesthetic complementing the vastness of the landscape. In the architectural sphere, JAC Studios has brought this approach to its work, designing exhibition spaces and residential projects that exist in harmony with their surroundings.
Founded by Johan Carlsson in 2009, JAC Studios was established, in his words, “as a response to find a balance between, or a framework from where to explore spatial interventions and storytelling from both a practical and propositional perspective”.
After opening an art space, working with performance and exhibitions in the international art scene and working within the field of ‘temporary interventions’ for eight years, Carlsson was invited to design an exhibition about the Danish situationist artist Asger Jorn, something that he believes was a ‘generator’ for him setting up his own studio.
Now, JAC Studios is an architecture and design practice that explores “both the practical and the theoretical, aiming for results that are innovative, high quality and socially relevant.”
This is realised by utilising a philosophy that looks at the wider contextual setting surrounding each project, regardless of scale. This was evident in their work on the darc awards / architectural shortlisted Wadden Sea Centre, and can be seen across the studio’s portfolio too.
“JAC Studios believe in contextual interventions, where the narrative or the thematic story is communicated through a one-off design, composed of investigations in movement, the specific room, the scenic setting, light, sound and furniture,” Carlsson explained.
“Projects should address the social, spatial and sustainable issues and are developed physically and conceptually in parallel. This approach focuses on a deep understanding of how things are made with emphasis on hand-craft and production.”
Because each project must interact with their wider contextual setting, it’s hard for Carlsson to define what JAC Studios’ ‘signature style’ is. Instead, he said, they “always aim to focus on spatial experiences, an approach where the performative aspect of body and space creates the dynamics”.
Since its inception, JAC Studios, comprised of a team of architects, designers and artists, has developed a more specific focus on interior architecture, and predominantly exhibition design, working on internationally renowned projects such as the Yumin Art Nouveau Collection in South Korea, and House of Sweden in Washington D.C., as well as UNESCO world heritage sites such as the Icefjord Centre in Greenland, and the aforementioned Wadden Sea Centre in Denmark.
Alongside this, the studio has developed a focus on private sector work, completing a series of small-scale residential projects, such as the widely published Sturlasgade apartment in Copenhagen.
The core aspect to developing each project, Carlsson explained, is rooted in context, relationship to the site, history, user preferences and ambitions. “This is coupled with respect and sensitivity for the existing, valued ethics and aesthetics,” he said.
However, the studio is selective when it comes to what projects they take on and bid for, as Carlsson elaborated: “Our preference always begins with context and content: in the case of exhibitions, this is often the artefact or object linked to a specific theme. We favour a no-nonsense exhibition, where the artefact is the main actor.
“We believe that the combination of scenography and architecture provide a base for alternative thinking, which results in communicative spaces evaluated by storytelling, aesthetics, materiality, sustainability and user participation.”
Throughout the design and implementation process, JAC Studios place a great deal of care and attention on maintaining good relations with the client. Stating that the client is always “an integral aspect on the work”, Carlsson explained that they always focus on “developing a good working relationship through hands-on workshops that help to establish a collaborative approach within the team”.
Alongside its work in the practice of architecture, design and realisation, JAC Studios believe in the importance of sharing knowledge and information, and they achieve this through their Residency and Salon programmes. “We believe that architecture plays a major role in contributing to debates and dialogue, and that architecture should work as a social and communicative stage,” said Carlsson.
As such, the studio is comprised of two key aspects: one, as Carlsson explained, is “rooted in the practice of architecture, design and realisation”, while the second is “focused in sharing knowledge through the staging of events, ‘salons’ and gatherings that address a critical approach to the wider field of architecture”. JAC also, through its Residency programme, invite other practitioners from diverse practices into the studio.
This quest for a constant dialogue, and the studio’s self-proclaimed ambition to ‘embrace the sphere between architecture and art’, has seen JAC bring in collaborators “in the form of writers, scientists, filmmakers and artists that help add a depth and integrity” to each project. By working with these collaborators, JAC believe that they can find the “balance between the rational and the poetic” in their work.
Such collaboration was none more evident than in the Wadden Sea Centre project. As JAC Studios acted as a general contractor on the project, as well as the lead designers, they were able to gather a team with unique specialties and skills that formed the design approach and exhibition aesthetic.
As such, they teamed up with fellow Danes and lighting designers fortheloveoflight, while also working with Jason Bruges Studio and No Parking to create a serene exhibition space that matches JAC’s primary ambition and sits in perfect harmony with the surrounding landscape.
“Good design should relate but not necessarily mimic, copy or respond seamlessly with landscape,” said Carlsson. “There should be a critical response that is formed through analysis and perception of each unique landscape and architectural setting.
“The landscape in the Wadden Sea is truly exceptional and was a core inspiration throughout the project. The site is in constant motion in the area, tides and migratory birds follow their own rhythms and we felt the exhibition should respond to this.”
It wasn’t the first time that JAC worked with fortheloveoflight – the two practices share a studio space, and as such, Carlsson revealed that he and Nikolaj Birkelund, founder of fortheloveoflight, work closely together on the majority of projects that they have in the studio.
JAC and fortheloveoflight also created a bespoke light fixture together for the Wadden Sea Centre. Working alongside Mike Stoane Lighting, they designed and developed the BBx.70 ‘Birdbeamer’ fittings.
“We developed the BBx.70 from concept and design to realisation through a series of physical 1:1 mock-ups and testing both in the studio and on-site,” said Carlsson. “With the excellent help of Mike Stoane, we were able to produce bespoke fittings that offered a uniqueness and high quality to the lighting units and interfaces.”
Further to this, JAC has developed modular furniture for the House of Sweden, crafting a thin wooden structure with integrated lights but no cords. “To reach this, a low voltage system was developed and implemented into the magnetics that keep the modules together,” explained Carlsson.
This all ties into Carlsson’s belief that, in order to create an effective exhibition space, teaming up with lighting designers should be a top priority. “When developing design aspects such as display cases it is essential to work closely with a lighting designer to form the project approach, materiality and principal dimensioning,” he said.
“We often work with priceless and rare objects, so a skilled command of lux levels and illumination is fundamental to our projects as well as creating a suitable environment for the selected objects.”
This need for skilled expertise in lighting means that Carlsson understands the importance of working with lighting designers, as he believes that “lighting design is one of the most essential aspects in our projects, particularly within exhibitions”.
“Clever manipulation of light can create moods that form the essential experience when visiting a gallery,” he said. “As such, natural and artificial light should complement each other and work together to form an overall theme and aesthetic.
“When we generate a project, we set up a team from the very beginning, which includes a lighting designer. Since many of our designs are developed and custom-made, it is a must that all aspects that would affect the design or the way the design is seen are with us through the full process.”
Carlsson’s close working relationship with Birkelund at fortheloveoflight has given him a strong understanding of just how light can impact on a space: “Lighting is and will always be one of the core instruments in spatial design, the rapid pace of innovations within lighting opens up for new ways of how to integrate the light, but also what functions the light can perform in a space,” he said. “Functions that sometimes go beyond providing light, but also control the environment and the performance of the space.”
Because of this, and Carlsson’s experience of developing lighting fixtures, he explained that lighting “will take an even more prominent role in the practice”.
“It is exciting to develop bespoke systems that utilise the latest technology with mock-ups and rigorous tests in-house, further challenging the meeting between technology, craft and innovative solutions. That said, we strongly believe in specialists and we will continue to collaborate with lighting designers.”
All of this means that for JAC Studios, the future looks bright, and Carlsson agrees, adding that he hopes to use the studio’s experiences to continue developing, and push on to new frontiers.
“We hope that the future will allow us to continue exploring and to create designs and experiences that make us reflect, question the ordinary and create new conditions.”