What does creativity mean when you're in the middle of the fjords? A conversation on design, curiosity and eyewear with Michelle Rowley and Helge Flo. Gently interrogated here by photographer Silje Bryn Knutsen and curiosity tutor Tom Morgan.
The view from Kaibosh’s HQ window couldn’t be more Bergen. Through raindrop lenses lays a vista of mountain-lined fjords filled with ships, in and out of the cobbled and latticed cityscape. Beyond the well-known fish and ships of Bergen one finds a pumping music industry, clusters of contemporary artists and a confident design sector of reshaping brands and agencies. This part of the Nordics looks out across the North Sea.
Nordic it may be, but to its creative souls London is as familiar as Oslo. And no one exemplifies this more than eyewear brand Kaibosh – the creation of eyewear designer Helge Flo and brand consultant Michelle Rowley, partners in work and love. The Anglo-Norwegian duo is surrounded by a team that makes up the engine of what is fast becoming one of Norway’s most recognisable fashion accessory brands and a thorn in the side to the eyewear establishment.
What’s the driving philosophical force behind all this?
Helge emphases the importance of the customer as the heart of their design ethos. He is critical of the industry constraints on the customer, from the cost to the style choice. Helge and Michelle are set out to revolutionise how we behave when it comes to eyewear.
“I can assume that there’s something wrong with the customer or there’s something wrong with the way the industry works. Instead of trying to change everyone on the planet, we’re changing the process.”
They’re doing this through affordability and direct link from designer to customer without the optician as the gatekeeper of style. It’s through observation and exploring how and why we behave with our eyewear that they’ve found their point of difference. The reverence they hold for the wearer, ‘design savvy, fashion conscious, urbanites’, is their first and last reference point, whether it’s a product or service. This curiosity in human behaviour is undoubtedly influenced by the intimacy of Bergen and the vibrancy of a major city like Paris; the city where the duo met.
The genesis of the brand says a great deal about how we behave with our eyewear. If you wear glasses how frequently do you change them? How many pairs do you have? How often do you consider them as part of your overall outfit?
“What we noticed was that forward-thinking people who are interested in fashion and wear glasses had eyewear out of sync with their clothing. They bought clothes regularly, how they looked was important, but their eyewear could be up to five years old… why is that? We want to bring eyewear in line with the rest of your wardrobe.” Michelle explains.
There is playfulness to the duo and this can be seen through their work. And this playfulness is crucial.
“You just have to change your eyewear and people look at you different and that’s the fun – to play and tap into different styles.” Helge explains.
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to style and suitability Helge and Michelle also take a dissimilar approach to established ways of thinking.
“We’ve purposefully not worked with [frames for specific face shapes] because we believe that it’s about your own style and personal expression, putting a look together rather than something imposed. We prefer to work in a different way with the product than being strict, we want people to play more and have more fun, experiment. It’s a discussion of what you like best”.
So, this isn’t just about product or brand. It’s about facilitating a discussion and supporting our freedom of personal style and expression.
One can look at eyewear in its medical application, prosthesis, but the most powerful, and in many ways more interesting function, is the affect of eyewear on our super-ego; how we want other see us. Helge describes eyewear as “the single most impactful [fashion] product”.
The design philosophy of Kaibosh uncovers of what is often neglected and yet has such an impact on how we experience the world: Fashion offers us a voice of expression, without the need for words, and whilst it’s an expression from the inside out, there is an equal reaction from the outside in; how it makes us feel.
“What I love about sunglasses is that it changes people. When people put a pair of sunglasses on everybody’s a rock star. No other accessory or even item of clothing changes you in quite the same way and I think it’s a wonderful thing to play with.” Michelle says.
The pair are filled with excitement when playing with the connections between style and object, human behaviour and the state of the world. Where has eyewear been and where it’s heading?
“For many years, we’ve had sunglasses with mirror coating and darker and darker lenses, just hiding, and now its getting lighter. We are going towards a place where we want to show our eyes. And that’s interesting because it makes you think: what’s that a reflection of? Is the financial crisis going away and we a ready to be seen again? I don’t know but all these things are connected and fashion is the mirror, a reflection of the world. Thinking about this takes design to a different level.”
There’s perceptiveness and confidence supporting Kaibosh’s expansion, way beyond Scandinavia. What does this quiet city on the North Sea provide in inspiration to fuel such a furnace of innovation?
Travel is seemingly vital, Michelle describes the experience as “taking myself into a different world” and for a resident of this city it’s not so unfamiliar. As a city of trade for centuries, Bergen is founded on the graft of foreigner merchants and exotic goods. It is behind the quietness that lays a disquiet quality and the urge to travel. As Helge puts it, “like many things it comes from a curiousness to explore.”
Describing the quality of a place by the urge to get out of it is never a good sign. But that’s not the case for Bergen. Rather, the city is a balance of extremes, in our worlds of extreme lifestyles, and it’s this that facilitates a creative [physical and metaphysical] space. For Helge it’s balancing whilst in motion.
“In Norway your forced to calm down, that’s what the fjords do. But you have to get out before you fall asleep. As long as you’re aware of it you have the balance. A dance of inspiration and reflection, but everything we develop is being done here.”
Michelle has a view undoubtedly formed from her Englishness and its culture of visual noise.
“A great advantage of being here is that a lot of the clutter is taken away. It’s easier to see things and have vision.”
Its not easy to grapple with such a concept: romantic in principal, but in practice the balance is often nothing but a dash to one side only having to dash back to the other edge of our responsibilities. Helge has an antidote of realism to the often romanticised aspiration of having the ‘best of both worlds’.
“In a society where you can be connected to the whole world it’s important to be bored, just think, just dreamla And that’s what you can do here.”
As with all balance, the counter point is mutually important. The duo has been popping up Kaibosh in strategic locations all over Europe. A telling example of this counterpoint to Bergen was their 2013 pop-up in East London’s container-mall, Boxpark, in Shoreditch.
“It had to be Shoreditch or Dalston, or somewhere like that. We talk to the same people all around the world.”
Being in the company of these two curious folk one cant help but be inspired and take away a sense of liberation, both in style (a re-appreciation for eyewear) and confidence to find the creative synergy between two juxtaposed cities.
“The question is… is London reality, or is Bergen reality?”
Words TOM MORGAN
Photography SILJE BRYN KNUTSEN