Interview with Danish Artist and Designer Naja Utzon Popov

07.27.17 | By
Interview with Danish Artist and Designer Naja Utzon Popov

Naja Utzon Popov is the first female ‘solo artist’ that Danish furniture brand Carl Hansen and Søn have worked with (they also work with design duo Strand + Hvass – Christina Strand and Niels Hvass), and she has designed their first serious foray out of furniture and into textiles. Design Milk caught up with the Danish artist, designer and ceramicist to find out more…

What is the most important thing to know about you?

That I’m not only a designer but also an artist. My two creative worlds run parallel to each other and cross over. I wouldn’t really consider myself a designer or an artist, it is more a creative process.

Your grandfather is Jørn Utzon, the Danish architect responsible for the Sydney Opera House. Your mother is Lin Utzon, an eminent Danish artist, and your father is the acclaimed Australian architect, Alex Popov. Tell me about the influence your family had on your creativity growing up.

Something that comes very naturally to me, and to my brother and cousins, is the way we look at the world. It’s something we took for granted I think, and assumed everyone was the same, but we were always taught to look at the finer details of nature. We would pick up a shell on a beach and choose elements or details and draw them. That’s how my brother and I were taught to explore nature. My mom is also very creative and she worked from home when we were children. Our house was just one big showroom-workshop-meeting place, and my daughter is growing up in the same way. My mom lives in Spain now and she spends so much time in Mom’s studio. Mom gives her canvas and oil paints and she has been doing that since she was five years old – she is nine now.

Was that idea of getting you to draw little details and blow them up your Mom’s conscious way of teaching you a creative process? Or just play?

No, I was with my mom in Denmark this week and she suddenly said, “Oh look at this incredible light.” She just sees everything as “wow” when it comes to nature. So I don’t think it was something she was forcing anything onto us, it was more just who she is. My dad, despite being in Australia from when I was seven, always lived near the beach, so we were taught to respect it but also to explore it.

Did you ever feel like you wouldn’t go into something creative?

What and have a regular income?! Don’t be silly! Seriously, I didn’t how what I wanted to do when I finished high school, so I did all my schooling in Denmark then went to Australia for six years. I got a job on a sailing boat and sailed two seasons around the Mediterranean. After that I realized I wanted to be back in Europe, but not Denmark, so I went to London and was there 15 years. I worked for Real Living magazine for a while as a stylist’s assistant and my parents said during that time I should go and learn to draw really properly and learn a real skill. They were very different to other families who might suggest studying a profession. I studied drawing and etching at Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney. And then when I wanted to go to London and my mum advised me to just sign up for lots of courses, to figure out what I wanted to do. I went to Chelsea and Kensington College and the first course happened to be ceramics – the minute I put my hands on the clay I just knew that this was it. I could throw straight away. It was just right for me. So it felt like quite a natural path.

But today, you work as a designer for production as well as a ceramic artist. Tell me about your first design commission.

It was a glass series for a Danish company called Zone. I did some votives and some drinking glasses and a fruit bowl. It did really well and it was a great experience because I got to go to the factory in Turkey and see the craft.

How much do you have to understand that side of it when you are designing a product you are not making yourself?

For me, it is really important. So for example, I came to Carl Hansen & Son just with the idea that they could sell everything for the home and not just chairs. I came in with my own factory contacts and examples of my work, but not the designs. Then I spent time in the factories, to really dive into it and see what they are about. If this was going to be a long term collaboration, I had to understand the whole foundation of the Carl Hansen brand story. It was incredible. You would walk into a room and there were just planks of wood on top of planks of wood. In the basement, these planks were laying totally clean in their raw state, untouched. It just made sense to me to use that in my designs. The Woodlines design [below] is very simple – not over-complicated in any way, it was just taken from what was right there. I did the drawings for [third generation Carl Hansen owner] Knud Erik, and straight away he felt the same. So it was very mutual.

Do you feel the pressure of the blank page in that situation?

No, I didn’t actually, I felt it would come. I just took it as going to see the factory, and I was quite confident that we were going to find something we could collaborate on. We got on and clicked and I think that is hugely important. That chemistry was there and then the idea just came.

You tend to be inspired by nature and natural materials. How do you put your own twist on that – how do you interpret it and make the design something that is yours alone?

It becomes unique because it comes from my head. I don’t think there can ever be two hands that will interpret nature in the same way and I draw everything by hand. I color the rugs on the computer, but the whole process of drawing is really important to get to somewhere where I feel I have explored every aspect to get to where I want to go. So it becomes uniquely mine as an outcome of that process.

Carl Hansen & Søn have a huge heritage of incredible designers. You are now becoming one of them, do you feel the weight of that?

It’s obviously a huge honor. My friend was looking at the designer profiles and it was this list of deceased males, and then me. I was humbled by that but I also feel very strongly that it is my place to be here. They are taking a new avenue and I am on that journey with them. When the Woodlines collection was launched last year I was a bit apprehensive about how their customers would understand that this isn’t just a prop for styling purposes, but is actually part of their product line. But they have put a lot of effort into telling that story, and it has been a really positive experience. Everyone has been amazing and it seems to have been received well. I am less apprehensive, now but still cautious. It is such an honor to be included in that list.

What are you most proud of?

Oh, my daughter. She is very creative. She can work a sewing machine and sews Christmas gifts for everyone every year. But from a designer’s point of view, this collaboration with Carl Hansen is a massive thing for me. It is a long schlep and you have done so many things along the way before you feel like you are there. Doing trade shows on my own for three years and working hard – now it is that feeling of gratefulness and I am just so appreciative. If something like this had just fallen into my lap, I don’t think it would be the same. I feel like they have given me an opportunity and I really want to give them the best I can.

What advice would you give to someone leaving school now who, like you, had no idea what they wanted to do?

I would say explore. I loved the fact that I signed up for so many courses because it allowed me to go through a process of elimination, but I think exploring different talents in yourself is very important. Whatever it may be, a teacher or doctor, figure out a way. Do an apprenticeship or a volunteer job so you can try it on for size, rather than just thinking you have to stay in the box. There doesn’t need to be a box!

What is next for you?

Well obviously, there is Carl Hansen and maybe next year we can collaborate with other materials – and I am always doing my own sculptures and art work too. I keep doing ceramics because I really like to get my hands dirty.

Katie Treggiden is a purpose-driven journalist, author and, podcaster championing a circular approach to design – because Planet Earth needs better stories. She is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a program and membership community for designer-makers who want to join the circular economy. With 20 years' experience in the creative industries, she regularly contributes to publications such as The Guardian, Crafts Magazine and Monocle24 – as well as being Editor at Large for Design Milk. She is currently exploring the question ‘can craft save the world?’ through an emerging body of work that includes her fifth book, Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure (Ludion, 2020), and a podcast, Circular with Katie Treggiden.