For the past week, Colab in downtown Urbana has been home to a holiday pop-up shop featuring handmade and vintage items from Dear Home as well as handmade items from Norden, a German design firm start-up entering its second year. I caught up with Norden’s design team, Anna Gutsch and Johann Rischau, to learn more about their projects, their design philosophy, and how Norden grew during its first year.

Both designers stressed that for them, quality is the most important aspect of design. “It is important for us to create designs that are simple, clear, and refined,” said Anna. “That’s what we like and what we think is good. That’s where we think the quality lies. We strive to create designs that will last as long as possible. We don’t necessarily go for trends, but for quality and for style and experience.”

Johann added, “Germany is always associated with good quality products. This is also our model. We want to create designs that people will enjoy for a lifetime.”

This philosophy plays out in the range of projects they have undertaken in the past year. “We are not a jack-of-all-trades firm, but we do a lot of different things,” said Johann. Their current projects include interior designs, the redesign of a home, and two products, one for a business and one for consumers, as well as the holiday pop-up. In its second year, Norden’s holiday pop-up offers a change of pace from their long-term projects.

“We are currently working with two local companies to create a consumer product,” said Johann. “It will take several years before it will reach the consumer market, and we can’t really share any details about it until then. So the pop-up store is a temporary outlet for us. We tried to think like a retailer would, decorating the space to create a good experience for people.”

The diversity of Norden’s projects has been influenced by the needs and desires of the community. “The people of Champaign-Urbana have really supported us,” said Anna. “We wouldn’t be here without the community. We have chosen it, and so far they have chosen us back as well.”

She added, “When we first thought about opening this firm, we thought ‘what are we going to do here?’ And slowly we evolved. The feedback from the community has been great. We are busier than we could have ever anticipated. The range of people who come to us is incredible, and that’s something we really want to encourage. We want to be there for everyone who is interested in design. We recently talked with a high school student who is interested in learning about it. We work with people who are very well off and couples who are very young and don’t have a of of money, but put a lot of effort and a lot of care in to their homes. We appreciate that and we try to find a solution that works for them.” Norden also formed connections with the U of I this past year, as two students from the School of Art + Design completed internships with Anna and Johann’s design firm. According to Johann, “They really got their hands dirty,” and one product designed by an intern will be available at this year’s pop-up.

The different interests of their clients keep Norden flexible, said Johann. “We like that our day-to-day tasks are very versatile. We like to do a broad range of things, and we like to be purposefully nonspecific in terms of what we do because we learn new things every day. Doing different things keeps your mind fresh. You can apply things from one area to another.”

Norden’s consumer products reflect the Anna and Johann’s common philosophy, but also the different emphases of their training. Johann comes from a product design background, so he takes the lead during the modeling process. “One could say that I’m much more of a theorist and Johann is more practical,” said Anna. “I come from a color design background, which deals with the meaning of color, cohesive concept development, and identities for products. So in the design process when we’re designing a concept, I lead more on that. We check back with each other during every iteration of the project to compare the concept as it was written in theory with the reality.”

Anna said she has always been interested in the theoretical and conceptual principles of design. “I was always very intrigued by different textures, colors, and materials,” she said. “I like to go to the essence of a substance. I like to go down to the root of things and find out the simplest way a color or shape or experience can be expressed, and then to try to pair that up with a design so one has a cohesive experience. I’m intrigued by creating simple but refined objects that are on the dot.”

Anna said her background in color design helps her form cohesion between essence and function in Norden’s designs. “Color is the main thing that we perceive right away. And through studying the meanings of color, I went into perceptions of shapes and materials and tried to connect them with meanings and perceived sensuality.”

Meanwhile, Johann’s product design background is steeped in both theory and application. “When I first started in product design, I attended a program that encouraged us to do a lot of prototyping,” he said. “I liked the combination of theory and applied techniques. We designed with our hands and prototyped the ideas right away. The school had a strong focus on building things. They had carpenters who would come to the school to learn more about design.”

The products in this year’s holiday pop-up — which include holiday cards made with origami, cherry pit pads, and a wooden mood light featuring a forest scene — reflect Anna and Johann’s detailed craftsmanship as well as their underlying beliefs about design. “All the products in the pop-up reflect certain parts of our values,” said Johann. “For example, the cherry pit pad is the ideal product for us because it’s long-lasting, it’s mostly natural, and it uses something that is a byproduct, which otherwise goes to waste. And the cards are about sending something special to someone. With origami, every fold and combination of colors is purposeful. All the effort and care that goes into those cards really shows.”

“I think it goes beyond that for me,” Anna added. “I’m always aware of time and how fast things move these days. I feel like so many things today are faster than human speed. I love it when I have a moment when I experience something in human speed. If you have a card that someone wrote you, that was then sent through snail mail, I think that’s a different experience than receiving an email. I’m not saying someone writing an email puts in less effort or does it with less care. But it is perceived differently.”

Similarly, the wooden mood light, which is designed to be filled with tea candles, reflects Anna and Johann’s values. “We feel at home in the forest,” said Anna. “We feel with the mood light that we are giving some part of how we feel about home to other homes.”

As they continue through their second year, Anna and Johann said they aren’t sure what the future holds for Norden. “We like to go one step at a time, and, like in the design process, move forward in iterations,” said Anna. But it’s clear that they have deepened and enriched Norden’s vision during the past year.

“The Colab is an incubation space, so after being here one and a half years, we are pretty much the grownups now,” said Johann. “We have seen other start ups come and go elsewhere.”

Anna added, “In the first year, it’s all about getting up and running and understanding what you have set out to do. And in the second year, things get much more rooted in yourself, you get more of an idea of what it all means. The design process itself is not very tangible, and neither is this.”

The both assured me that the concept of Norden will continue to morph in the years to come. As Johann said near the end of our conversation, “The designer never stops thinking.”

Norden and Dear Home's pop-up Haus + Home continues through December 23rd on Thursdays and Fridays from 5-8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. They'll also be open on Monday, December 22nd and Tuesday, December 23rd from 5-8 p.m.

Photos courtesy of Sam Logan.