Text by Toby Skinner
What’s the big idea?
In short: really cool playgrounds. Visual artist Ole B Nielsen and designer Christian Jensen were working as theatre set designers in Copenhagen in 2003, when Nielsen’s son’s kindergarten needed a new playground. “We realised for the same budget the big playground companies charge, we could build a customised playground with a twist,” says Nielsen.
And the rest is history?
Sort of. Having formed Monstrum, they built a playground for toddlers that was made up of a rocket and a pink fairy castle, and cost DKK350,000 to make. They’ve since built almost 80 playgrounds for kids of all ages, featuring the likes of sperm whales, parrots and strange lopsided fairytale towns in the same colour scheme as neighbouring houses.
So it’s going well, then?
Last year they won a Danish Design Award for Copenhagen’s Spiral playground, which recreates the roofs of iconic local buildings such as the Stock Exchange and City Hall, and the spiral towers of the Church of Our Saviour. Monstrum soon featured on more than 100 design blogs and has been growing even faster since. Having recently moved to a bigger workshop, the company now employs 18 people, turns over up to DKK8 million a year and has projects from Moscow to Toulouse, though the vast majority of their playgrounds are in Denmark and Sweden.
“It is,” says Nielsen. “It’s kind of a mix between art, design and architecture, but without any of the strings attached. Kids’ playgrounds aren’t meant to be fine art – the wilder and crazier the better. And when we have fun, the kids tend to as well.”
How does the process work?
Nielsen is in charge of coming up with the initial designs – he’s the imagination – and Jensen is in charge of the “crazy” workshop where the giant snakes, submarines and acorns are built by hand. According to Nielsen, the initial sketches aren’t 100 per cent exact. “A lot of things get changed in the workshop – the idea is there’s creativity and flexibility through the whole process.”
How does the market research work?
“We like to watch the kids play,” says Nielsen in the least creepy way possible. “A lot of playground companies have a really strong focus on developing motor skills in children. We do too, but the key for us is that the playground feels like an adventure and has little things that will surprise the children. It’s also about being visually iconic and giving the area an identity. Kids will say, ‘I’m going to the big blue whale’ or ‘I’m off to the spider playground.’”
So what’s next?
Their next big project is a playground in Stockholm’s Kristinebergs Slottspark, which opens this summer. Nielsen rather cryptically tells us that we should expect “two big owls, five big mushrooms, dogs, ants, flowers and acorns,” plus 7.5m slides.
Any final words?
“No one is doing playgrounds like this,” says Nielsen. “If you want the same as your neighbour has, you’ll go for one of the big companies. We’re for customers who want to do things differently; who want something a little bit special.”