From UNIST to Johannes Torpe Studios in CopenhagenInterviewed by Seunghoon Lee
Aibolot Makenov is a recent alumnus of UNIST Design. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2019, Aibolot has been working as a junior designer at Johannes Torpe Studios based in Copenhagen, Denmark from August 2020. Johannes Torpe Studios provides various design solutions for renowned clients around the world such as Bang and Olufsen, LG, Moroso, HAY, Nike and Ferrari.
Seunghoon Lee (SL) It’s been a while since I saw you in person around UNIST campus. And congrats on your new position at the Johannes Torpe Studios. The work on the website looks quite interesting. How’s your experience there so far?
Aibolot Makenov (AM) I am having a fruitful time here and satisfied with both work and life. Here at Johannes Torpe Studios, we are dealing with a wide range of design practices. We do interior, architecture and furniture as well as home appliances, digital services, and electronics.
SL Awesome! Would you like to highlight some projects that you were involved in?
AM Recently, we had a kick-off meeting for an interior and architectural design project. It’s a cross discipline project where we have to closely collaborate with all our designers and architects. As a part of our team I am in charge of designing furniture and lighting in that space.
On the other side of the furniture and lighting project, I had joined a home appliance project for one of the biggest electronics firms in this industry. The project scope was to design a whole product line in 6-8 months. It was a very long project in comparison to our normal design practices which last for around 2 months on average. That being said, it was a good opportunity for me to learn about the newest technologies and practical constraints in manufacturing home appliances. In addition, we also helped with a strategic planning of the future generation products – thinking fast forward and defining the design language of the products yet to come.
SL Wow. Your projects are dealing with broad fields. It feels like experiencing those projects from many other domains are key characteristics of a designer working at a design consultancy.
AM Right. A design studio seems to be totally different from big corporations and this makes the role of designers also different. Studios are often small, have compact teams with limited budget compared to big corporations. Therefore, you are involved in most of the decision making and your voice is valued. In addition to this, designers need to think about strategic parts of the studio as well as design work.
We often do projects usually within one or two months. In other words, designers can experience various projects in a relatively small time period – which is in my opinion never boring. I think this is a charming point for me to be a designer in a studio. If you work for a big corporation, you might end up designing one product for several months or even years.
SL What about the work culture?
AM We have a flat hierarchy having a forefoot on trust. Everybody trusts each other. Freedom and responsibility are coming simultaneously. This was a little awkward at first for me, but once I got used to it, it’s an easier way to work.
SL For me, working for a design studio sounds like a much more intensive school-like atmosphere.
AM Similar, but I’d say more intensive. Actually I previously participated in a project for LG Electronics. We, five designers, worked full time for less than two months. For the first phase of the project, we created about 20 concepts. Much more intensive workloads and crazy fast speed compared to that in the school.
Anyway, it was a memorable moment because I had this wish that ‘One day I will work with big companies like LGe’ which became ‘Oh, I am working with LGe on day one’ at the studio.
SL That is so cool. Let’s move away from talking about only working. Share some memorable moments in your Danish life other than working?
AM We frequently hang out, moving our body out of the office. Every Friday, we have Friday Bar where anyone can join and have some beer and chat. A few weeks ago, we rented a house out of the city and spent three days there with everyone in the studio plus friends, partners of our company. It was a good collective and social time to spend with everyone who joined.
I also sometimes meet my friends from old days. When I landed myself here in Copenhagen, I was surprised that my friends from UNIST and Germany were also calling Copenhagen home. The world is not so big I guess.
On the other hand , I sometimes overwork which is really rare here in Denmark. I guess I still have some Asian work ethic…
SL Nice that you hang out with your colleagues outside work, and also can see your friends in CPH. Let us go back to the time when you were at UNIST. What made you imagine yourself working in Europe?
AM After pondering, I chose design as my major because I wanted to be an architect back in high school. I also liked experiencing new cultures and meeting new people. That’s why I decided to move to Korea. While studying design at UNIST, I was very inspired by designs from the Bauhaus era and Scandinavian design introduced by professors during the courses I took. This naturally made me imagine myself working in Europe.
SL How did you prepare for it?
AM When I was planning to get a job in Europe, I thought I should do an internship first. Getting an internship was actually a hypothesis for me. Hypothesis about confidence in getting a job in Europe and testing me living in a new culture. I was eager to verify that hypothesis.
So, I had to put extra attention to make this happen. After courses in the evening, I worked on refining my portfolio , digging studios and listing them up, writing cover letters. I ended up contacting more than fifty studios and companies. Some of them were searching for interns and some were not. I just sent emails to all of them with my portfolio.
As a result, I got three replies among fifty plus applications. All the replies were from German design studios. I remember it was February 2018. Among them, Wild Design attracted me. They were mainly doing design solutions for medical products, which was new to me. I did an internship there from July to December in 2018.
SL So, you came back to UNIST from Germany. What was your next step from there?
AM I took courses while continuously honing my design skills and portfolio. Apart from that, I continued working on my personal project called Toguz Korgool which is a board game played in Central Asian countries. This project started from a 3D CAD course in 2017. Afterwards, continued as a Lab project at IID lab, under Prof. KwanMyung Kim’s supervision, where I got very good direction and great support. As a result, we were named as winner of Red Dot Award in 2018. We flew over to Singapore to attend the ceremony. It was a whole lot of fun. We would be much better off if we commercialized Toguz Korgool, but the time and resources were limited.
Anyway, I was putting in myself working in Denmark back then. I was really into Scandinavian design and especially Danish designers like Poul Hennisen, Arne Jacobsen and Hans J. Wegner. They inspired me in many different ways. Of course, I heard the quality of life was beautiful there. So, I searched for some Danish design studios and contacted them with my portfolio. Fortunately I got good news from Swift Creatives. Working atSwift I met a lot of smart companions, many of whom were from Designit. While I was there, they gave me a strong toolkit of skills and very positive memories. So, now I am calling Copenhagen home, working at Johannes Torpe studios. It’s been almost one-year working here.
SL Were there any socio-cultural difficulties living and working in a new environment?
AM Yes and no – when I was going this road I already had expectations of cultural differences. Being open-minded and taking things easy helped to integrate here without many difficulties. Also, my experience living in Germany definitely made this process smooth. Along the way, there were some things I learned from here which I think all designers should keep in mind. You need to be open-minded, speak up, and learn the art of persuasion. And don’t wait until somebody hits you and gives you a task. Initiate tasks.
SL Do you have any tips for people who want to go abroad from UNIST?
Sharing and caring is really important. Be open-minded. Another is to always keep your eyes around you. See what is happening around the world.
SL Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts, I am sure our readers will appreciate it.
AM Thanks for doing this! This was fun!