Meet Christina, wife of Danish chef Claus Meyer
“Behind every great man there’s a great woman”, the saying goes, but in the case of Christina Meyer Bengtsson, wife of famous Danish chef and entrepreneur extraordinaire Claus Meyer, it would be more suitable to say, “next to every great man there’s a great woman”. Because that’s where she is – right next to her husband – in their shared adventures with the Meyers brand.
Christina, a graphic and interior designer, has played a big part in shaping the visual identity of Meyers and in the process of putting the brand on the map outside of Denmark. We sat down with her for a chat about how she works, her role in the Meyer-business, their American adventure and what the future holds for her and her husband.
Christina greets us on a somewhat blurry facetime connection in her office in New York. She is sitting at her desk in front of a raw brick wall. The brick wall and its rough appearance is very typically New York and very typically Danish all at once. It highlights an infatuation with minimalism, authenticity and clean aesthetics shared by New Yorkers and Danes and in that sense, the brick wall in Christina’s office is a fitting illustration of what she is in New York to do – create spaces that integrate the Nordic design style with the New York-style in a New York-setting.
To understand how Christina ended up in The Big Apple on this mission, we must go back no less than 22 years to 1995, when she and her husband Claus Meyer met each other as she started doing graphic design jobs for him through her one-woman-business Heartwork. Ever since then, Christina has had her hands on pretty much everything linked to the visual identity of Meyers – from the layout of the packaging for the Meyers’ product-line and cook books to the interior decoration of several restaurants, delis and bakeries.
Initially, Christina’s part to play in Meyers where very hands-on and she did most of the Graphic design tasks herself, but a rapidly growing business and workload changed her role. Even though she does not hold an official position her place in the company is clear. “At one point, there were just more work than I could do and Meyers had to bring more people in. This changed my role in the business. Today, I typically sketch out an initial draft for the graphic design unit to work from and then my role is to overlook the process and steer it in the right direction. I guess you could say that I’m the Chief Designer or Chief Consultant for graphic design.”
Christina hesitates a little before naming herself Chief Designer. As the interview goes on it becomes clear that this is no coincidence. Whenever the subject is her achievements and qualities, she expresses herself with humility and a bit of shyness as well. She functions as the Chief Designer, but she seems disinterested in talking about titles and accomplishments. It is not that she does not want to talk about Meyers and what she does – she speaks vividly and elaborately about the many projects – but she does so without highlighting her own contributions to the success of Meyers. Not even when it comes to the other branch of her role in the company. Interior decoration.
“For the past ten years, I’ve been involved in the interior decoration process of pretty much every project that Claus (Meyer red.) has thrown himself into. Either in collaboration with various partners or with my long-time colleague Ulrik Nordentoft.” The list is long: Restaurant Radio, The Standard, Restaurant Namnam just to mention a few in Denmark and more recently, Restaurant Agern and Great Northern Food Hall in New York. All restaurants, that Christina has done the interior decoration for and all projects that she has realized together with Claus, her husband and business partner. However, Christina still refers to the restaurants as Claus’ projects. She partakes, but to her, it is his projects.
The answer to this lies in the fact that Christina does not see herself as an entrepreneur, even though she is an integral part of Meyers and runs her own company Heartwork. “I don’t feel that I’m an entrepreneur. My husband is. He is entrepreneur enough for the whole family. I just try to keep up.” And there’s plenty to keep up with. Meyers’ bakeries and deli’s, restaurants, catering, cook books, seminars, festivals. The list goes on and on. “Claus is entrepreneur by heart and a lot of good things come from this, but sometimes I try to pull a bit in the other direction, when he sets to many ships in the water. I try to be the realist and remind him to take care of himself and his time.”
Christina, however, is in no way incapable of contributing with ideas and projects. “Occasionally, I see possibilities that he doesn’t. In that sense, we complement each other really well. For instance, we have been arranging the Apple Flower Festival on Lilleø since 2012 and last year I came up with the idea to contact The National (American band red.), because one of the members have a Danish girlfriend. Suddenly, they were at the festival, playing on a tiny stage made from old apple crates.”
This idea of Christina’s has since brought more with it and this summer Claus Meyer and Bryce and Aaron Dessner from The National are launching the Haven Festival at Refshaleøen, Copenhagen. It is this willingness to pursue ideas that brought Christina and Claus to New York. They went there to open Restaurant Agern and Great Northern Food Hall both located at the Grand Central Terminal – a protected building from 1903. Christina calls it the biggest projects she has ever worked on. Every single adjustment, material and plan drawing had to be approved by the conservation authorities, a procedure that would repeat itself, whenever Christina wanted to change something as the projects progressed.
That’s only half of it. Prior to even getting to the point of getting plans approved, a creative process of gathering inspiration, brainstorming, sampling materials and developing an initial concept for the interior decoration takes place. It is in this process that Christina really thrives and her creative spirit really shows, when she describes this process. “I always look forward to the inspiration-stage of a project. I go into a state of mind where I’m very observant of my surroundings and have my antennas out. I start walking around the city, sensing the many impressions, I read international home magazines and use Pinterest a lot to find inspiration. Inspiration does not necessarily occur at your desk from 9 to 5. It can happen on an evening stroll, a night on the town or whenever, so for me it really is a matter of opening my mind to ideas and let them come.”
Apart from City walkabouts, magazines and Pinterest, Christina finds inspiration for the restaurant interiors from another, and very crucial, element – The gastronomy of each specific restaurant. To her, coherence between the gastronomic style and the visual identity, is paramount. Her husband and the Meyer-brand is easily the biggest promoter of New Nordic Cuisine in Scandinavia and the rest of the world. This sets the tone for Christina’s work. “Of course, I strive to make the interior decoration reflect the cuisine. Especially here in New York, where we are trying to communicate and show off New Nordic Cuisine. The physical setting and the food must go hand in hand.”
At the same time – and now we are back at that raw brick wall in Christina’s office – it was important for Christina, Claus and their American business partners that the interior of Restaurant Agern and Great Northern Food Hall represented a meeting between the Nordic style, which Christina describes as no nonsense minimalistic and simplistic, and the raw but little more lavish New York-style.
“The DNA had to be Nordic, but the agency managing Grand Central Terminal sent us to a great number of New York-Restaurants to get a feel for the scene, because they were a little worried that the Nordic expression would be to minimalistic and cold for New Yorkers to adopt. So, we had to find the middle ground by integrating to different styles. This was challenging, but also exactly what we wanted to do with these projects. The goal never was to go to New York and say – this is the New Nordic dining experience, take it or leave it – the goal was to create a meeting between the North and New York. I think we succeeded at that and I believe it was the right way to do it. An ultra-minimalistic and streamlined restaurant would have been somewhat off in a New York-setting where art deco is widespread.”
To bring more of New York into the interior decoration, Christina took to one of her favorite places for inspiration – the city. One of the things she found and fell in love with was the classic mosaic subway-tiles with the station name on. As a close to perfect illustration of the merger of two styles, Christina got the idea to decorate the subway tiles with classic Nordic knitting patterns and use them in Great Northern Food Hall. In Restaurant Agern, which is inspired by Alvar Alto’s organic shapes, Christina chose a herring bone floor. The herring bone pattern is on the walls as well, adding a New York and art deco-like touch to an otherwise minimalistic and Nordic interior. Again, a combination of two styles, just like the wall in her office.
Christinas’s attempt to intertwine the Nordic style with the New York-setting has been very well received. Restaurant Agern received a Michelin star in 2016 and the New York Times called it “…an unhurried oasis in clean, comfortable Scandinavian mode.” And Great Northern Food Hall was praised as “beautifully lit, welcoming, and thoughtfully designed — a serene oasis for commuters…” In New York Magazine. Christina herself, in her humble demeanor, says, she thinks the interior decoration turned out “pretty okay”.
Humility is also what characterizes Christina’s dream-project for the future. As she bids farewell on that blurry Facetime connection, she says, “After these enormous New York-projects it would be nice to do something small and simple. My husband and I dream of opening a small “secret” restaurant in a location where people normally wouldn’t go to eat to see if we could make them come out there. It would be fun to do it on a minimal budget and decorate it with second hand furniture to create a playful and funky atmosphere.”
With that we leave Christina where we met her – in front of the raw brick wall and right next to her husband ready to embark on their next joint adventure.