words Lesley Jackson
In September, icon published a letter from a Swedish professor saying the country’s design scene had fallen flat. Not true, says Lesley Jackson, a writer and curator who visited Stockholm last year to gather material for an exhibition on Swedish design – it’s as dynamic as it ever was. Here she picks half a dozen young practitioners that represent the new spirit in the country.
Having recently returned from a trip to Sweden to research contemporary Swedish design for a forthcoming exhibition at the Crafts Council, I was rather mystified by icon’s suggestion that the design scene in Stockholm was “pretty flat” (icon 006). I was there for a fortnight in early September, and although the latter part of my trip was overshadowed by the murder of the Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh my impression of Swedish design was not one of stagnation, but of growing self-awareness and quiet resolve. As well as meeting the big names of Swedish design, my mission was to unearth the next generation of wunderkind.
Wallpaper*’s brief, passionate fling with Swedish design back in the mid-1990s was not a hot topic in the design studios of Södermalm when I was there. But perhaps that’s because many of the designers I was talking to had graduated since then. Erik Stenberg’s comparison of Sweden to a shy girl on the rebound, confused after being told she was pretty and then studiously ignored, is not an analogy I recognise. In any case, surely we haven’t forgotten that Wallpaper* in its infancy was the media world’s most outrageous flirt. But more to the point, Sweden’s beauty is much more than skin deep. The Swedes have been design pioneers for the past 80 years or so, ever since artists such as Simon Gate and Edward Hald began to infiltrate the applied art industries, and introduced a programme of aesthetic and functional reform. The first time Sweden’s designers were courted by the international press was after the Paris Exposition of 1925.
My impression of the Swedes is that, in spite of their astonishing good looks (the people and their products), they are remarkably unassuming. That’s not to imply they’re unimaginative; simply that, by nature, they’re somewhat insular and reserved. What fascinates me, though, is what goes on under the surface - the dark undercurrents, the wild flights of fancy, the strain of melancholy in the Swedish psyche. These darker and more complex traits are just as integral to Swedish design as the predilection for ravishing beauty, and what’s interesting just now is that they seem to be rising to the surface more and more. Look back over the history of Swedish design, though, and you’ll find they’ve always existed - in the work of maverick post-war glass designer Erik Höglund, for example, with his obsession for naked primitive figures. But being less comprehensible to a foreign audience, the wild side of Swedish design - beauty’s alter ego, the beast - is something that the Swedes have tended to keep to themselves.
In November when the exhibition Beauty and the Beast - New Swedish Design opens at the Crafts Council, I’ll be letting the panther out of the bag. But in the meantime, here are a few tasters of revelations to come.
Matti Klenell is one of the rising stars of Swedish design. Along with his talented classmates Peter Andersson, Lars Petterson and Thomas Bernstrand, he graduated from Konstfackskolan (University College of Arts, Crafts & Design in Stockholm) in the late 1990s, and now shares a studio with his friends in Södermalm. A recent recipient of the prestigious Ljunggrenska Formgivarpriset (a year-long bursary for young designers), Klenell held a solo exhibition at Färgfabriken last August.
In a country where light is something of a national obsession – an extreme reaction against the long, dark winters – Klenell’s choice of lighting as his design speciality, although purely instinctive, is also highly astute. He made his name initially with a design called Enlightenment, a translucent white plastic lamp in the shape of a large book. His main client now is Örsjö, a small company with which he has built up a good relationship based on mutual respect. Örsjö produces his Kapoor pendant lamp (named after the sculptor Anish Kapoor), which won Best Product at the Stockholm Furniture Fair in 2003. When switched off, its flared cylindrical form is unremarkable, but once illuminated, a curious central funnel is revealed through the veil of the metal net shade.
Another recent design, the Mushroom floor lamp, has a wide, shallow mushroom-shaped steel shade. What is most striking, though, is the colour: white on top but bright orange-red on the underside. “I chose red to warm up the colour of the fluorescent lamp,” explains Klenell. “The foot of the lamp is bigger than the shade to accentuate the surface the light hits.” The irony of a mushroom (a plant that thrives in the dark) providing the inspiration for lighting, sums up the surprising ambiguity of contemporary Swedish design.
I first encountered Kjell Rylander’s intriguing ceramics at his degree show at Konstfack in 2001. Rylander works primarily with found objects, which he cuts up and modifies. His work is extremely recessive; he subtracts rather than appends. Among the pots he uses (and iconoclastically abuses) are
some well-known classics of Swedish design. Central to his degree show was a piece called Resistance, a dish rack stacked with plates, each with the centre surgically removed, leaving halos of patterned rims.
Rylander worked as a carpenter for ten years before he studied ceramics, and it was from this trade that he learnt his cutting skills. His wry take on ceramics and irreverence towards Swedish design history reflect his unconventional route to design. When I visited him last September, I found him quietly beavering away in his studio, cutting up blanks (undecorated industrial ceramics) and flea-market finds, then reassembling them into mutant composite forms. Some pieces, such as a cup sprouting a cluster of ear-shaped handles, evoke associations with genetic modification. Others allude indirectly to issues such as social exclusion and multiculturalism. However, Rylander is not prescriptive. “I want people to respond to the work independently,” he says. “With the old pieces I like the fact that they already have a story from before.”
As well as modifying objects to transform their underlying character, he also creates subtle installations. Two rows of slivered plate rims high up on the wall in his studio, for example, conjured up a ventilation grille. “I experiment a lot,” Rylander explains. “Sometimes I don’t like the results immediately, but resistance triggers new ideas.”
Anna Kraitz is half-Swedish, half-Hungarian, an odd combination, and I soon discovered on talking to her that her views are pretty eclectic too. Not for her the path of Swedish purity and righteousness. Wayward, asymmetrical forms – even, dare I say it, ugliness – characterise many of her designs. “I like the fact that my work is a bit disturbing and irrational,” she says.
Kraitz originally studied fine art in Budapest and Stockholm. It was only later that she switched to design, graduating from the free-thinking Beckmans School in Stockholm in 1999. The decision clearly paid off. Three years later she won the Ljunggrenska Formgivarpriset. Her most high-profile work is a weird, ungainly two-headed floor lamp produced by BSweden, which has dancing, branched, tubular steel legs and arms, strapped together forcibly at the waist, topped by an irregular, undulating double shade.
Kraitz’s furniture is often bulbous and organic – benches with swollen limbs and joints, a stool whose rubber top seems to be melting and sliding off. “I want to make my forms tactile,” she says. “My designs often have an anthropomorphic quality. I try to make a connection between us and things.” Each piece is laboriously hand-crafted, more like sculpture than furniture. “My objects are like a family of brothers and sisters – all different and alike at the same time.”
If I tell you that Sara Berner does embroidery, this may give the wrong impression. There’s nothing remotely twee or girly about her work. Berner specialises in melancholy, cartoon-like embroidered images which reflect on the ineffectuality of human relationships. In one piece, a man and woman roll around on the floor locked in an embrace. She asks him what he is thinking about. I’m fantasising, he says, but a thought bubble indicates that he is dreaming of giant trucks. It’s no surprise to learn that Berner also practises as an illustrator for magazines.
For her MA in textiles at Konstfack last year, Berner created an elaborate installation called About Håkan, which used embroidery and other forms of mark-making (burnt, knitted, printed) to convey the thoughts, feelings and dreams of an ordinary man. She found her real-life subject by advertising in the newspaper. Episodes from Håkan’s story were transformed into images that flowed over various surfaces of a room, spreading from the floor to the furniture and then spilling up the wall. “I’m interested in the way people use tattoos and graffiti to tell their stories,” explains Berner. “The processes I’ve used also hark back to the Swedish tradition of decorating furniture by burning pictures into the wood.” The resulting ensemble combines the confessionalism of reality TV with the snaking, balletic movement of Theatre de Complicité. Where Berner goes from here, it is difficult to say, but an imaginative voice like this cries out to be heard.
Although most of Sweden’s leading designers tend to emerge from either Konstfack or Beckmans, HDK in Gothenburg is another important centre for design education. This was where Anna Kristina Lundberg studied, and if her work is anything to go by, the school is fostering a quietly thoughtful approach.
Lundberg believes that most modern design is too impersonal. It doesn’t recognise the way human beings interact with each other, and it doesn’t engage with people’s emotional attachment to the past. Her work represents a conscious attempt to address these needs. “I want to make things that my parents can relate to, so I’ve decided to work with Swedish culture and tradition,” she explains. These ideas prompted the design of Sagan, a simple wooden rocking bench which alludes to traditional rocking chairs and cradles. Her idea is to encourage communal activities such as fireside storytelling, as an alternative to isolated, antisocial pastimes such as watching the TV or playing computer games.
Interestingly, this project was sponsored by Ikea. But like many Swedish designers, Lundberg has an ambivalent attitude towards the company, which has a poor reputation for its cavalier treatment of freelance designers. “I like the fact that IKEA doesn’t dictate taste; they make things for everyone,” says Lundberg. “But as a designer I’d rather not compromise in the Ikea way.”
I hadn’t heard of Front before I arrived in Sweden, but so many people mentioned them during my visit that I soon realised this was an outfit not to be ignored. Front is a group of four female designers - Sofia Lagerkvist, Katja Pettersson, Anna Lindgren and Charlotte von der Lancken – who challenge the basic conventions of product design. “We want to discuss, ask questions and experiment,” they proclaim on their website. “Why do things look like they do?” Since their formation in 2002, Front have explored radical new ways of interpreting everyday things. At last year’s Stockholm Furniture Fair they presented Design by Animals, a series of objects inspired by the habits and habitats of creatures. The results included a wooden table decorated with patterns bored by insects; porcelain coat pegs squeezed into shape by a snake while the clay was soft; and a roll of wallpaper gnawed by rats so that, when hung, layers of previous patterns are exposed through the ragged holes. “The process of product designing is not entirely free, but is controlled by different circumstances,” point out the designers. “We want to show the designer’s role in giving legitimacy to the artistic content of an object. Will the relationship be different if an animal created the shape – even though the function is the same?”
What is impressive about Front is that they’re not yet fully fledged practitioners. At the moment they’re still studying on the MA course in industrial design at Konstfack. Already, though, their provocative activities have generated a high level of excitement and expectation in Sweden. With their combination of playful inquisitiveness with hard-nosed professionalism, are we looking at a future Droog?