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Katie Larsen on love, life, seaweed and the ups and downs of life in Denmark

Rarely do I meet a person who has achieved so much in such a short time - 25-year-old Katie is one such firecracker! she has blown me away with all she's achieved during her 5 short years in Denmark. After being named by Material Source magazine in the article: Biomaterial designers: ‘Ones to Watch’ 2020, I can only second that opinion. She very kindly took time to zoom with me during the lockdown and shared her ups and downs of life in Denmark and what she's been up to.

Photographs: Kel Hudson / Anders Lorentzen

Text: Lyndsay Jensen

How did you end up in Denmark?

Growing up in the small town of Haddonfield, New Jersey seems so far away from where I am today. The eldest of five, I've always had a lot of responsibilities to balance. A weird overachieving kid who never quite fit in, I had a lot of energy and passion but was deeply insecure about my abilities because it set me so far apart from others. My parents always encouraged me academically, though, and tried to secure opportunities for me to travel, and take university classes while I was still in high school.

School was always the most important thing, and then sports. I was always really interested in foreign languages, history, and art, and I ultimately realised in high school that architecture could combine all those interests of mine.

Was it tough adjusting to life in a new country?

I lived in Japan before and considered myself an expert at living abroad when I moved here at only 20 years old. Unfortunately, all my cultural expectations of Denmark were utterly wrong, and I sunk into the worst culture shock I’ve ever experienced. I was expecting a culture similar to the US and hadn’t realised that Denmark was a lot more like Japan, in that the culture is hugely homogenous and conservative. I dealt with a lot of clashes by appearing overconfident, or egotistical to most Danes, and had to change how I handled most interactions in school, and work. As a whole, my social skills improved momentously here, because I learned how to listen and work a lot better with others.

It took me some time to really settle and feel confident here. I have to give credit where credit is due that my husband Lucas is my biggest cheerleader. He has been my solid rock since moving to Denmark, debunking the myths that Danes are cold, and helping me understand his culture. One of the biggest challenges is always the language, but he was so supportive, and I eventually learned enough Danish to be able to handle day-to-day interactions. This made the most significant difference in my comfort here and really brought me onto a different platform socially.

So if the culture was so different from the US, can you highlight the most obvious to you?

It might sound terrible, but the environment I grew up in defined your worth by what you achieved. The better your grades, the better the score on your exams, the name of your university, the faster you could run - this is what got you noticed. Even in Japan, I received so much respect from others for getting perfect scores on my kanji exams or being good at sports.

But here, no one places the same importance on achievements (well, not in the way we do in the US). I had to completely reformulate my identity of who I was, what did I want from life, and what makes me truly happy. These are all questions I dealt with for the very first time in my life - which seems to come more naturally to the Danish culture. Happiness is so negligible in the US, and the focus is on survival, and getting that job and keeping it. No one cares if you’re happy, that’s a luxury that comes when you don’t need to worry about money or healthcare, and that’s a luxury I’ve enjoyed here. I learned a lot about who I am as a human being in Denmark, and I’m very grateful for that.

"I'm going to wear red lipstick and stand out - Denmark will have to get used to me."

What was it like studying here, do you think it's easier to live here as a student?

I do think it's easier as a young student vs someone who is older with a family moving here. It's easier to kick off your career when you're younger as opposed to having to restart it again - so I think that can be a challenge. The school I attended (KEA) has made a tremendous effort lately to help ease the cultural differences, and it’s an excellent start. But there’s so much more work to be done to support international students, especially compared to what other countries contribute. Most people in the education system are aware that things need to change, and are usually really keen to help. The problem is often budget cuts, or lack of organisation at a high enough level to make meaningful change.

Because of that, I’ve tried to be active in the school’s mentorship programme after graduating. Students actively contact me for help and feedback for their exams, as well as for guidance entering the Danish labour market. But I would have to say that in my time studying here, there’s been a resurgence in negativity surrounding international students. There is an impression now that international students are lazy, or come here to steal money from the Danish system, which couldn't be further than the truth. As a result, the government cut admissions to English-language programmes in 2018, which has then forced many of the programmes to close, and I've lost many friends. I think it damages the quality and innovation of the Danish higher education system because it increases an already problematic echo chamber in academia here.

Tell me about your work with universities and industries in Denmark. Was it hard to organise funding as an international?

I was fortunate because I worked for a while on campus services at my school. I designed almost all the wayfinding, under architect Astrid Asmussen, while I studied. If you see a toilet sign around the school, I probably either vinyl cut it myself or put it up myself with the janitors.

The head of KEA’s Campus Service, Dan Korsgaard, has always given me a helping hand with everything, even though I’ve been a graduate for some time now. Dan is the man that makes everything happen at KEA and is in charge of the laboratories, and maintenance. He’s the reason why I was able to build my installations with Material Design Lab and helped find me funding for my first one.

The school allows alumni to use the facilities after graduating, so I still use the school as a sort of home base for my team and I. It means that my research is a bit less legitimate at this point because I am technically not affiliated with the school. It also means that I have complete freedom to follow and design my own projects and progress as I wish, and can still ask faculty for feedback or advice should I need it.

I’ve also been securing my own funding from an independent foundation called Boligfondens Spirekasse, since 2019. As a whole, obtaining funding here is much easier than in the US. Fewer people compete for funding, and there are less requirements for applications. I don’t think I could get funding for what I do in the US. I’d have to apply for artist residencies.

One of the things I feel like I’ve struggled with, in general, is organising lectures based on my research, work or knowledge. I seem to have a demand for lectures and talks in the Netherlands or other countries, I was recently invited to speak at the Dutch Design Week which was such an honour and a great experience. Other countries have a more avante-garde design scene, while Denmark seems to be more rooted in established industries and companies, and PhD. candidates lecturing. In the past year, I’ve found that there’s a lot of bureaucracy, which is one of the reasons why I started my youtube channel. I wanted to make lectures on Danish design history and architecture, and pull the veil away from the industry a bit.

Tell me about your very well known Seaweed Thatch project. Where did the idea come from?

I’ve always been obsessed with historical architecture, especially Japanese architecture. When I came to Denmark, I felt like this country had such a multitude of craftsmen and specialised trades. I don’t feel like these skills are valued enough here. People are too afraid to build with traditional techniques because it cost too much money, or is seen as too risky. I started by studying everything from thatching, to Danish fired brick, to half-timber framed construction in my free time and drawing it in my sketchbooks.

In 2016, I read about the Modern Seaweed House by Vandkunsten while trying to come up with a competition concept. I learned about how eelgrass, a type of seagrass, was a fantastic insulation material and became obsessed with the traditional Seaweed Houses of Læsø, where they thatched huge roofs out of it.

I wanted to figure out how you could modernise seaweed thatching and build with it, more practically. The only problem was, there was basically the same article in English copied and pasted around the internet. To understand how to build with seaweed, as well as this obscure part of Danish history, I had to learn more Danish, including lots of specified words. It became a process of learning more Danish and finding more information. Eventually, I started asking people who worked with eelgrass and interviewing them, and I eventually learned even more.

I decided to focus my specialisation report on it for my thesis at school in 2018 but decided to go a step further and begin prototyping and building my ideas. I wanted to combine prefabrication with seaweed thatch, by creating panels you could install easily on roofs and facades. It’s all very experimental so far, but my goal is to help show people the value in reimagining old construction techniques and rediscovering materials that we’ve forgotten about. The benefits of using natural materials, beyond the sustainability aspect, include healthier indoor air quality for us. Many of these natural materials ventilate spaces and regulate moisture far better than what we currently use. Current building regulations often don’t consider these traditional techniques, so I think we need to study them again and work with the authorities to approve them for use in buildings.

I'm assuming you've had a lot of job offers due to this great work you've been doing?

Not at first no, it took me a full year to find a study job in Denmark. My biggest issues at first were a lack of network and experience in my field. I also realised that there’s a lack of study jobs, especially in my industry, until you’re in the last two semesters.

I got a foot in the door by getting a study-relevant job at school first, while I improved my Danish abilities. Later on, I handed out my CV and dropped off portfolios in person, and approached firms only in Danish. I had about four job offers lined up at one point for a paid summer job before I graduated. The one I took ended up hiring me and sponsoring me for a Positives List visa after graduation. I hadn’t had a single job issue until now when I was, unfortunately, let go due to Covid-19.

My husband will attest that I take networking super seriously, maybe too seriously - but I cannot recommend it strongly enough, network whenever you can, it's key as an international. The architecture and construction industry in Denmark is tiny, everyone knows everybody. I’ve had the best experience by talking one-on-one with people and getting direct contacts to hiring managers. I know this isn’t possible for other fields, though, especially the ones that require multiple personality and IQ tests for jobs.

Tell me about what you love about living in Denmark. Tell me about your town?

I live in Slagelse, a small city in West Sealand. I always joke that my neighbours are cows because if you go five minutes outside of where I live, it’s just all farms. But I love living here so much. It reminds me so much of my home town because I’m always bumping into people I know.

It’s a wonderful bonus that the area has some magnificent architecture. There’s lots of religious architecture, like cloisters and brick churches from the middle ages, and there’s also a Viking fortress museum nearby called Trelleborg. My apartment here is a renovated tower from the 1900s, and I feel like I’ve been living my best Danish life here. The best part is that even though I live in a rural area, everything is still wonderfully connected to public transport. There is a swimming hall and a massive forest that I love running in. If I didn’t have to do my research in Copenhagen, I’d probably never leave. Both of the architecture jobs I’ve had after graduating were for local firms in the area.

Did you ever get the feeling that it was going to be difficult adjusting to life here?

I always prided myself on my exemplary grades before coming to Denmark. Here, one teacher warned me to avoid putting my grades on my CV, because it would make me look like a “12-talspige”. The connotation here is that girls with good grades have mental breakdowns if they don’t do everything perfectly. I think it’s quite sexist and a negative stereotype that woman that are good students are hysterical, and not “laid back” or “cool”. It was the first time I realised that being too good at something would be seen as something negative here. I learned that I had to dumb down or mask my abilities to an extent, to avoid freaking people out at work or in school.

It was amusing when my work started taking off internationally because I couldn’t talk about it with anyone at work apart from my boss. I felt a bit like I was living this double life, it was very surreal. My colleagues just didn’t understand why I was still working on a research project when I had already graduated and had a job in the industry. To be honest, my boss and husband were the only ones encouraging me to keep going at that point, and I might have quit if it wasn’t for both of them.

Even though I've had to change this aspect of my life, and am happy here I don't feel like I should totally change who I am. So, I'm going to wear red lipstick and stand out - Denmark will have to get used to me!

What are your future plans that you would like our readers to know?

I'm trying to turn almost five years of my watercolour sketches of Denmark into a little book, that follows my time here. I want to make the book available in pdf format for free on my website so that people can enjoy it in these difficult times. There will also be a print version that people can order online. It’s really my love letter to Denmark, and it’s been an emotional project for me because I’m leaving soon to study in the Netherlands. But I plan on returning after my education is finished and rejoining my life in Denmark.

What is your advice to other internationals living in Denmark - what would be your top three tips?

#1 Learn some Danish! I think if you learn some Danish, you also will pick up on some of the cultural nuances, and have an easier time navigating things.

#2 Go out for drinks with your Danish colleagues, if it’s something that happens regularly. You don’t have to drink alcohol, but just participating in events with your office means that you’ll be included more often in the canteen conversations.

#3 Conformity is overrated. Living abroad is tough, and it’s ok to change your expectations while living here. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, and it doesn’t make you a bad immigrant/expat if you do, or don’t do something - as long as you're not breaking the law. Don’t let anyone make you feel like an outsider. You deserve respect and kindness, even if you’re a little bit different - different is good too!

For more information about Katie and all her projects she has on the go,

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