Making HAY: Rolf & Mette Hay bring good design to all

Rolf and Mette Hay turned their passion into a global phenomenon with their eponymous brand Hay – an innovative design retail space that connects the dots between pencils, sofas and everything in between. And while countless collaborations with top international designers have served them well, what makes Hay stand apart is their instinct for bringing good design into the reach of a new and untapped audience.

Rolf and Mette Hay are perched next to each other on a sage-green steel bench underneath a tree in the courtyard of Lindencrone Mansion, an 18thcentury building in the heart of Copenhagen. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the Danish power couple behind the eponymous brand Hay have become champions for a more accessible design industry. “The more I work with design, the more I’m very aware that what we do has to be different,” says Rolf. That drive has led Hay to create a design retail universe that is completely its own over the past 15 years. Together, Mette, 38, and Rolf, 48, have opened dozens of stores internationally, launched an entirely new retail concept – in the form of their Hay Mini Market – with branches at the MoMA Design Store in New York and at the Picasso Museum in Paris, and pulled off a long line of heavy-hitting collaborations, with everyone from Ikea to feted French design duo, brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec – hence the Palissade bench the Hays are currently sitting on. It’s just one example among many of a Hay collaboration that became iconic following its inception in 2015 – today the Bouroullec’s striped metal outdoor furniture collection for Hay can be found in public spaces around the world.

What makes Hay so innovative is not the products themselves, which run the gauntlet from well-designed stationery to sofas, but rather the groundbreaking business model the couple have created, extending the reach of a formerly niche market. “We want to produce high quality furniture with some of the best designers in the world, for an affordable price,” explains Rolf. “I’m not saying that we are always driven by making things less expensive, but we are driven by making things better or different. It can be a little element, or it can be a huge thing. This is my desire.”

Hay sits somewhere between Ikea, where chairs come flat-packed and start at £3, and top-end brands like Carl Hansen & Søn or Vitra, where chairs are made by hand or in limited numbers and can cost thousands. Hay brings together the best of both of these approaches, but adds an element of risk by mixing in more radical, sometimes short-lived design pieces. This is colourful, playful and contemporary furniture that is created by serious international designers – the same designers who usually work with those top-end brands – and it’s produced using progressive manufacturing techniques to create high volumes of product. It’s not an overstatement to say that the success of Hay has paved the way for an explosion of affordable, high-quality design.

The dynamic husband-and-wife team behind the brand aren’t what you might expect from the faces of a multinational company. Instead, Rolf and Mette Hay look much like many other young parents in Copenhagen. Mette, the slightly more relaxed of the two, is engaged and warm, open to chatting about everything from the couple’s two children to the challenges of working with someone you live with – about which they are disarmingly candid. Comparatively, Rolf emits a nervous energy and between jumping up to get coffee and looking distractedly at his phone, it’s not quite clear if he’s just busy or avoiding the questions. But he too relaxes when the talk turns to the technical side of design and once he gets going, like a true design nerd, the enthusiasm is palpable.

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