INTERVIEW: ERIK NISSEN JOHANSEN, FOUNDER & CREATIVE DIRECTOR, STYLT
A creative visionary in all aspects of life, Erik Nissen Johansen expresses his passion for art through design and articulates his appreciation of the coming together of minds in creating something truly unique in interview with Sophie Harper.
If you’ve ever had the good fortune to spend time chatting to Erik Nissen Johansen, you’ll know what a captivating storyteller he is. There’s a connection to history or people behind everything he speaks about and his explanations paint a vivid picture easily envisaged without having to see with your own eyes. But then, that’s largely his expertise and what he prides
his work on: “writing the script before producing the film” as he says. “We like to find the story to give to people before they invest in the project. I always compare it with an architectural drawing, so the architectural plans should be finished before you start to build – and the drawings are shown and discussed and changed and then approved all before the building goes ahead. What we’re doing has exactly the same purpose.”
Erik, originally from Oslo, founded Stylt 30 years ago in Gothenburg (still the studio’s home today), but it all started in Florence when Erik felt compelled to go and study there after being inspired by the stories a teacher told him of the Medici family. “They were the first family with the economic powers to match the church. The head of the family was obsessed with talent, and so in their beautiful villa in the centre of Florence they had a big studio where they employed talented people. One guy arrived and said ‘I can construct bridges’ and then the next person came along who happened to be a great artist, and they sat next to each other and the artist made the bridge builder’s work better and vice versa. It was that interference between different skills that gained the value. Innovations come from people from different backgrounds coming together – the Medici family’s studio kick-started the Renaissance and made the world a brighter place.”
After his studies in Florence, Erik moved to Sweden having become friends with two artists from Gothenburg. They thought it would be fun to open their own art studio where they could work on their own art and exhibit other people’s work too and mix in different disciplines from interior design to advertising, and with five founding members in the beginning they opened their studio. “We had this manifesto saying that everybody is allowed to paint on everybody’s painting – it was about collaboration – so every piece of art was signed by everyone and that worked for three years.” They decided to go their separate ways while they were still friends, not wanting to let business come between them, at which point Erik formed the beginnings of a new studio – Stylt.
“I guess there are different reasons for people wanting to go into business and I did it because I’m a creative person, I’m an artist and I feel I had the ability to create environments and branding and buzz around something.” Erik had the vision to create beautiful places but admits he lacked the acumen to keep a viable business going properly, “Business-wise I’m lousy, so in the beginning I think it was more like a joke than a company but the result was good, we made some nice places.” Then he met his wife Elizabeth who, together with her father who had headed up the finance department for BP, helped Erik make the studio profitable. “There was this symbiosis where Elizabeth was the right part of the brain and I was the left, and her father helped out a lot and so the company slowly became more professional. We were always this company that had the ability to sprinkle Tinkerbell (fairy) dust, over our projects – that was never a problem – but little by little we made steps towards a real business and now I’m surrounded by smart people that can do all that but we never forgot the Tinkerbell dust – to get that artistic twist that people, without fully understanding why, fall in love with something.”
Erik tells me about the changes he’s seen in the industry over the last three decades and he tells me how big branded hotels simply didn’t understand the Stylt philosophy at first. “30 years ago people booked hotels with a brand name for reassurance, but things have changed. In the same way people no longer rush to McDonald’s when they’re in a foreign city, they now want to enter a different world. So in the beginning it was very difficult to sell our ideas, but now even the big mainstream brands want something different. We’re currently working with the Renaissance brands for Marriott – one in Paris and one in Amsterdam and if you read their manuals they want to help people write their own story – they want to be an incubator for individualism and mirror the local culture, so demand for our way of thinking – allowing a hotel to have an identity – that has really changed.”
Another big change, Erik points out, has been the evolution of the way we define luxury. “The term ‘luxury’ has seen the largest metamorphosis over the last 20 years. 25 years ago it was a Rolex or a Ferrari but today it has totally different values. The most expensive hotel on Ibiza is a little farmhouse with no electricity in the rooms and if you want to eat there, then you go out to the fields and you dig up carrots – the luxury is getting dirt under your nails, it’s an experience like no other. People are seeking something unique.” It seems that much is true more than ever since the pandemic, especially with travel being such a treasured privilege now. Erik tells me about the little lighthouse on Pater Noster in Sweden that he has a stake in and how a worldwide pandemic was actually the best time to open a hotel of this kind. “It’s become a symbol of hope. It’s more than a hotel in a way, it’s this amplifier for people’s emotions, the whole island is. If you are sad, you are sadder here than on the mainland, if you are happy, you are even happier, if you are in love, you are even more in love.” Pater Noster has become a superstar over the last year – critically acclaimed and awarded for its design and sheer uniqueness, it has received unprecedented attention in the world press. “Communication today is so fast,” Erik says. “I have a picture of Pater Noster that was taken during a big storm a few years ago and I show it to people and they either say ‘oh no, it looks a bit scary’, or ‘oh my god I have to visit’ – the reactions are instant. I knew Pater Noster fell into the new luxury experience that people are looking for.”
A keen fisherman, Erik was very familiar with the reefs around Pater Noster and had an affinity with the little island, as did his business partner who is a keen sailor. Together with friends and family – each with their own expertise in various aspects of hospitality and business – the group seemed to have all bases covered to transform the island’s lighthouse and former keeper’s quarters into a unique hotel experience but they had little idea how much attention it would generate. “I’ve been working with hotels for the last 30 years and this has been unprecedented. Since we opened, there have been more than 4,500 articles written about it globally,” Erik tells me. “It’s a rare occasion when everybody on the planet is sharing the same problem (outside of their own personal problems). And somehow this image of the little island in the middle of the ocean has been the answer to a lot of people’s problems – it’s been the common good.”
Erik tells me all about the history of Pater Noster, the families that lived there, the keeper who grew tomatoes in the lantern hold, he tells me how they selected a piece of photography by Christy Lee Rogers to display in the dining room as homage to those who had lost their lives to the seas in shipwrecks over the centuries, but to also honour the work of the lighthouse and its keepers in the lives they have saved. I get the impression Erik knows just as much about all of the projects he works on. “A lot of research goes into the history of the building as well as consumer trends – a vivid story is more like putting a personality to a building.” It’s all part and parcel of developing concepts and strategies as far as Erik is concerned, but he is so invested in gaining local knowledge it’s a wonder he has space left in his brain for anything else. “We work with a lot of independent hotels that produce one-off’s rather than big chains, they each have a strong identity and a unique style and lots of personality and they’re really fun to do.” Again, it all stems back to the Medici philosophy as Erik tells me how everyone’s story adds something unique to each project – be that the story of the building or city, or the stories of the people working to create the project, “I have people here who have backgrounds in advertising and graphic design and movie companies and interior designers and architects and I force them to work together, which can sometimes be difficult but the results are always different, which is a really good asset to have in this business. We have two values at Stylt. One is togetherness and the other is difference. We need to create things that aren’t the same as something else and so our differences help us to do that, by doing it together.”