words Kieran Long
The four women who make up Front work in an old bus garage in the south of Stockholm. The building is soon to be demolished, so there is an eerie vacancy to the place, and a sense of imminent change.
To get to the Swedish designers’ office you ascend in a goods elevator, emerging in a disused kitchen. You wind your way through what used to be a canteen – no furniture is left, just a couple of scraps of curtain over the windows suggest human occupation.
“The bus drivers don’t really like us using it this way,” says partner Sofia Lagerkvist, who meets me at the door of the massive building. It emerges that the drivers still using the facility find it disrespectful somehow that their former social centre should be relegated to a corridor. Front and a bunch of other design and art-related practices will occupy the building cuckoo-like until its likely demolition in a year’s time. Rents are high in Stockholm, and this building is one of the last bastions in the rapidly gentrifying Sodermalm area.
The four partners of Front – Lagerkvist, Charlotte von der Lancken, Anna Lindgren and Katja Sävström – began working together while studying industrial design at the Konstfack school of arts, crafts and design in Stockholm. They graduated in 2003, and then set up in practice together. They are soon going to be very famous.
With exhibitions in Droog’s gallery in Amsterdam in September, Art Basel Miami and elsewhere, as well as their first things in production for a Swedish manufacturer, expect them to make a major splash at Milan next year.
The speed of their rise to fame surprises them. Lindgren says: “I was on the bus to the airport last weekend and there were two students from the Konstfack discussing us!” All four laugh loudly but nervously, clearly still new to this idea. “The girl liked us, and the guy was like, ‘I don’t know really, I guess they’re OK.’ It was more that it was so strange to hear that they were talking about us.”
Much of Front’s best-known work, such as their Animals series, was made while they were still students. This set the tone for a developing oeuvre that is markedly outside of the conventional Swedish modernist tradition. All of it has a strong sense of narrative, and is generated from an interest in what they describe as “the emotional function” of objects. Von der Lacken says: “We wanted to look at other aspects than really practical functions; rather, why do you choose one object above something else?” They also interrogate design processes, enjoying the uncontrollable factors that are involved in making objects.
Their spoken English is pretty good, but what one feels to be a deliberately rather naïve tone and their preoccupations sound rather elemental and seductive. This simplicity is followed through to sometimes extreme conclusions, as in their chair that takes its form from the hole left in the ground after a small explosion.
Savstrom says: “In every design project a lot of people are involved and there’s a random factor. When you are making an object, it won’t turn out the way you wanted it to from the beginning because there is, for example, technical stuff that you have to think of. We just wanted to enlighten this specific part – the random factor.”
With their Animals project, they allowed rats, beetles and other beasts to create the patterns on wallpaper, tables, or lampshades. This was typical Front – a dramatisation of the design process, an abdication of the normal role of the industrial designer and a rather contrary joke. Savstrom says: “We let the animals do it. You can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do.” Lagerkvist chips in: “Sometimes we really hope that it turns out really ugly.”
Some of their ugliest productions are the Design by Scanner objects: 3D scans of famous objects such as the Juicy Salif lemon squeezer. Each scan has different mistakes, and each product is the same, but different. “Each new scanning gives the object a new character. Every object is both unique and a duplicate,” they write. It is iteration that interests them, and the diverse reactions inspired by apparently banal, mass-produced objects.
There is a sense that their rather intuitive semiotic approach has been allowed to grow freely in the calm and supportive creative scene of Stockholm. They say they were very much outsiders at university, carrying out works on weekends while completing their studies. They are less than complimentary about the formal education they were given, and their work has grown as a conversation between friends might, rather than as the theoretical or commercial strategy that might be produced in a hothouse atmosphere like London, Amsterdam or Milan. Their first project as Front was an interior for the Tensta Konsthal gallery in Stockholm (icon 022), where they were given a lot of freedom by the young curators. The project is an essay in how to make a place that changes as it is inhabited. The floors gradually turn gold as people walk on them, and flowers grow and change with the seasons. In its detail it has typically beautiful and humorous Front touches. The mugs in the café reveal an image of the interior of the gallery when hot water is poured into them.
The four partners’ tone is straight-faced, but talking to them you get the impression that they’re telling a joke that you are not quite in on. Being in their office is like wandering onto the set of Friends: the two rooms are light and generous, there is a picturesque bowl of strawberries on the table, and shelves with teacups as well as books and more regular office accoutrements. It is like a strange warehouse apartment, domesticated and relaxed. As one of them tells me later: “It is really great to work with your best friends.”
The essential part of their working method is the conversation between the four of them. Lagerkvist says: “We start off with discussions about different topics. And it’s good to be four when you have these discussions. Always start off with putting all the ideas in and building on each other’s ideas. That’s the important part. It’s very focused, but it could be about anything. We get to a point where you don’t know whose idea was the first.” Savstrom adds: “The good thing is that we know each other so well so we can talk about anything.”
Lagerkvist brings out a ring binder, which is full of collaged sheets with tiny sketches and line drawings on them, charting the development of the discussions. The sketches look like the kind of notes you might pin on the fridge to remind yourself of something. Savstrom says: “When we are discussing, we are making notes like icons,” they laugh self-consciously, “Small sketches, and we get really a lot, and then we go through it.” “We don’t do fancy sketches,” says Lagerkvist.
Savstrom adds: “We always want to show the discussion behind it – the product is a messenger of that discussion. But people don’t have to be interested in the discussion, they can be attracted to the project.” Their installation at the Salone Satellite in Milan this year was a further investigation of this, engaging the consumer in this conversation. They interviewed 100 people about the possessions they like best. These included a mouth plate from a South American tribesman that was being used as an ashtray, a porcelain dog and a strange broken pot. They cast these objects in red resin, and printed the text of people’s stories onto them.
Lagerkvist says: “I think all objects collect memories. They always have something added to them. We realised that people have so many things that don’t have any practical functions – and they are never using them, they are more building the scenery of their life.”
There is no natural leader of the four – they contribute almost equally to the interview – but they have a tendency to seek each other’s approval for anything they might say. How, I ask, will they maintain this communication given the increasing demands of the global lecture and exhibition circuit? “We already handle this, you can’t just work on projects the whole time all together. But the part when we come up with the ideas is still together,” says Lagerkvist. “I don’t know, we’ll have to have some kind of a loudspeaker telephone.” They all break into laughter, not for the first time that afternoon.
It is their forthcoming exhibition at Droog’s gallery in Amsterdam that most signals Front’s arrival. Their work has a similarly critical relationship with the conventions of the design process as the best of Dutch design, and designers and curators in the Netherlands have been the quickest to recognise the quality of Front’s work. But there is a lightness and humour to their work that is more ingenuous and less self-regarding than the work of Droog and their many imitators. Their work is a subtle progression, more intuitive in terms of form-making and decoration, with a certain folksiness that is becoming their trademark. Front is in the vanguard of a group of designers in Sweden that could make Stockholm a global design centre again, but this time for work that understands that the modernist hopes of a sytematic world are in vain. Front makes products that play off people’s individual desires, things that emerge as if from a very strange and beautiful daydream.