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‘When you live outside of your bubble, it opens your eyes.’
Gems in this
Content creator and art director Ruben Hughes had best-laid plans to build his career in his home city of New York. Then, after a trip to Copenhagen, Ruben returned to New York with an emboldened passion for design and two job offers. And in late 2017, he stepped outside of his bubble, moved across the Atlantic, and set out to explore life from another cultural viewpoint.
Since making the move to the Danish capital, Ruben has worked for luxury department store Illum, furniture and homewares brand Menu, men’s fashion label Son of a Tailor, lighting company Velux, and now as Creative Strategist for wellness platform Lenus. We chat to Ruben about travel granting him the freedom to find himself, Scandinavian charm and his top spots in Copenhagen to soak in Danish design and good food.
On following a hunch across the Atlantic
New York is a huge city that sucks a lot out of you. I reached a point where I felt like I was slowing down. I started to freelance a little bit on the side, working with Menu, the furniture design company here in Copenhagen, and also Bang & Olufsen. I decided I wanted to visit Copenhagen to get a feel for whether the lifestyle really fitted me. You don’t light candles in an apartment anywhere in America and inviting people for dinner is unheard of in New York. So I came to Copenhagen, visited the companies I was working with, and met a lot of people. I was lighting candles, I was having friends over for dinner and I realized that this was a place I wanted to explore. I ended up in Copenhagen in October 2017. From there, I was hired at Menu as a Content Manager.
On your first impressions of Copenhagen
The first thing that caught me is the light in Scandinavia, how the sun sets longer, because we're so far north. And it also rises for longer, which is a beautiful thing, especially if you are visually-minded or into photography.
On life in Denmark
I needed to satisfy my personal needs as well as my wellbeing. Copenhagen really does that for me. It's a place where there's so much quality, whether it's in the way you live and curate your home, or the friends you have. You don't have many friends, you just have the right amount of friends. You don't have a million things to do, because it's still a small city, but you have the right things to do. You have the right places to eat, you have the right locations to sit and relax.
On finding a balance
I love the idea of work-life balance and I love the European lifestyle. It was very magical visiting Copenhagen, seeing people sitting in a park drinking wine, jumping into the canal, or leaving work at 3.00 pm to pick up their kids – being able to structure their life in a way that makes them happy, but still fulfilled with work.
'I came to Copenhagen, I visited the companies I was working with, I met a lot of people, I was lighting candles, I was having friends over for dinner and I realized that this was a place I wanted to explore.'
On some early challenges
When I moved here, it felt like I was set up for failure, culturally. A week before I moved, the companyI was joining sent out an email with my picture and bio, letting everyone know that this ‘hotshot’ guy from New York was coming. On my first day, they asked me to give a speech. My go-to that I’d give in New York was ‘Hi, my name is Ruben. I look forward to meeting everyone. I am really excited to be at this company and believe that I can bring something unique to it. And I hope we can win lots of awards together.’ In the US you would get claps and whistles and everyone would be like, ‘Yeah, let's go. Love this energy!’ But here, less than half the room clapped. And the other half crossed their arms and stared at me like ‘Who is this guy?’ And that really set the premise for me understanding where I was.
On your creative beginnings
I started straight out of high school. I felt I wanted to pursue a pathway where I was able to come up with something that I created myself, whether that was through writing or photography. So I went to school for writing. But at some point, I realized writing wasn't enough. I needed to visualize the things I was writing about. So I got into photography, which led me into starting my own business. It was called Two Inch Cuffs. It was a men's blog, where I did lookbooks and directed photoshoots. It was a way for me to channel creativity, but also to get a foot in the door for the industry. It led me to Club Monaco, a clothing company in the US.
On your biggest source of inspiration
My father was a creative person, and he instilled a lot of values in me. He passed away a year ago, and it really made me think about my legacy, both while I'm alive and afterwards. I've always considered legacy in the work I do. What is the message? What is the value? What is the meaning behind it? Does it connect to me in a way that I can appreciate? Does it feel authentic? Asking these questions has always driven inspiration.
Since moving to Copenhagen, Ruben has found boundless inspiration in the city and has used its backdrop as a canvas for some of his campaigns. One particular site of ongoing inspiration is the Thorvaldsens Museum, where Ruben directed the 2020 Christmas campaign for Scandinavian design department store Illum. Images courtesy Illum and Ruben Hughes.
On the power of everyday people for inspiration
Recently I launched a project for Velux, which was about windows. It's a funny product because it's not sexy. I love the challenge. The campaign featured a family, a designer who's a friend of mine (Søren Rose), and a yoga teacher. They are real people anybody can identify with. In other projects I'm working on, the one thread between them is that there's real people involved. I think the shift away from using high profile models is happening. People want to see someone they can relate to, or who inspires them in a way that is tangible, and not so dream-like.
On visual storytelling and Instagram
I started out utilizing Instagram right around the time I started working at Gap in 2011. My title was Social Media Manager, so I didn't want people to go to my account and see random pictures of me doing stupid stuff. I told myself that I would always consciously take a photo. In the beginning, it was very hard, because you'd pick up your iPhone to take a picture of something, and you're just like ‘Whatever, I just need to take a quick picture’. But on that day, over 10 years ago, when I decided to do that, something clicked in my mind, and it trained me to see things in a different way. So I’ve almost had the art director lens on since that day.
'The shift away from using high profile models is happening. People want to see someone they can relate to, or who inspires them in a way that is tangible, and not so dream-like.'
On sparking your love of travel
My first trip outside the US was to Iceland. This was during the Iceland-crazy-tourism of 2013, where most Instagramers who were into travel, wanted to go to Iceland to take pictures of the fjords, the Blue Lagoon and the icebergs. I found myself with about six people in a camper van for a week. I thought ‘If I can go there, where else can I go?’ And, I continued the journey.
On the freedom of traveling alone
I love traveling alone because I can set my own plans and not worry about other people's opinions. I love that experience. I like to find a location, and look online for multiple places to see. Then I just pindrop these locations, find myself in a neighborhood and walk, constantly.
It was through his lens as a travel photographer on Instagram that Ruben was able to appreciate the creative impact of travel. In this campaign for high-end headphone and speaker brand Bang & Olufsen, Ruben explored the use of audio in Japan. Images courtesy Bang & Olufsen and Ruben Hughes.
On the importance of walks in Copenhagen
I love that people take walks in Copenhagen. It's a very simple concept. Someone told me that people here take walks like they're still in the Victorian age. I laughed because it’s so true. In New York, we take walks to go to art galleries, or to brunch, or because you want to go shopping. But that isn't the premise of why we meet up. Whereas in Copenhagen, walking is the plan.
I love walking in Kastellet because it has a bit of height to it. You can see the city landscape. You can also only walk one way so you can't skimp — you have to commit to the walk, which is quite nice. It’s almost like you're walking through an 18th Century army barracks while getting a glance at the city.
On interior design in Copenhagen
I'm really into design and I love furniture. Even going into cafés or wine bars here is like walking into a furniture exhibition — everything is old and has a story. It creates energy and gives me inspiration to reflect on. I find myself always taking pictures of the spaces. Not because I want to share them, but because I want to research and see if I can find that chair for my home.
'Someone told me that people here take walks like they're still in the Victorian age. I laughed because it’s so true.'
On what you’ve learnt from living internationally
I had my whole career planned before I moved here: the plan was to be in New York, succeeding at the things I was already doing. I've come a long way since then. The old Rubin moving here was trying to establish himself in a new place, and that's a very daunting feeling. I've found myself by riding this wave of life in a new country. And I'm still learning. When living in the bubble of my own country, I maybe didn’t see things that were right in front of me. But when you live outside of your bubble, it opens your eyes to more possibilities.
It was in the 1950s that Denmark made its mark on the global design scene as Arne Jacobsen came to prominence with his considered yet quirky chairs. To this day, the country continues to be a design powerhouse, with brands like Menu leading the contemporary charge for sustainable and functional design, as pictured here in Ruben's campaign for Menu back in 2018. Images courtesy Menu and Ruben Hughes.
On your quintessential Copenhagen activity
I like Ved Stranden 10, the wine bar. It’s one of my favorites. The owner's a cool guy, and there's a wine shop next to it that he owns called Lille Blå Vinbar. All of the interactions I've had with them are quite special. It’s also right across the canal and as anyone that lives in Copenhagen knows, sitting by the canal with a glass of wine is a tradition. It's highly European and a beautiful thing.
'It's a place where there's so much quality. You don't have many friends, you just have the right amount of friends. You don't have a million things to do, but you have the right things to do. You have the right places to eat, you have the right locations to sit and relax.'
On your favorite café
I love Sonny café. I know the owners well and it's a very personal place. You walk in and really get to meet the people who work there. They're very engaging, they always want to know what you're up to. Plus, the food itself is quite a treat because it's not just a café where they sell croissants and filter coffee to-go. It's a place that’s inspiring, that’s creating beautiful-looking food, with ingredients that are well structured and thought about. They're really into what they do.
On a hidden gem
In my neighborhood there's a florist called Tage Andersen. I had walked past this place multiple times but there’s a fee to get in. I thought, ‘Why do I have to pay to go into a florist?’ But it's actually a museum, and a place I find really magical because it removes you from reality. They play classical music that sounds like you've walked into the 1700s. And there’s this huge bird cage with one tiny parrot in it, which I find a bit quirky. You can buy three or four different types of flowers, there’s tons of different vases and beautiful handmade design items. It's almost like walking into a fairytale book.
On a window or an aisle seat
If I'm going back to the US, I usually would be okay with the aisle. Mostly because I like to get up to use the bathroom. But if I am flying to a place that I'm excited to go to, then it’s window because I want that window photo.
On Copenhagen in one word
People are okay with their life and where they are in it, even if it doesn't mean that they're on track to be number one. And work life balance. Whether it’s drinking wine on the water or being able to enjoy walks, it comes back to being comfortable.