Defyra | icon 020 | February 2005

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photo: David Levene

words Alex Wiltshire

These four Swedish designers are called Defyra.

Defyra, which means “the four” in Swedish, graduated from Beckman’s School of Design in Stockholm in 2001. Since then, they’ve created installations and shows in Sweden, London, Milan, Seoul and Tokyo. Their work – furniture, wallpaper, glasses and many other bits and pieces – employs a surreal sense of humour that, like the work of many of their contemporaries, subverts the typical image of Swedish design as bent plywood and clean-lined modernism.

We meet over coffee in the cafe upstairs from the installation and they’re immediately laughing about the nearby hostel they’re staying at. They were woken at four in the morning by a building being demolished outside, but, ever positive, they joke that they could be inspired by the hostel’s burgundy, orange and purple decor and fug of cigarette smoke. “Maybe go towards the darker side!” says Sanna Haverinen, who is (in relative terms, of course) the most serious of the four.

Defyra are following in the recent footsteps of compatriots like Front (another four-girl group), Angelica Gustafsson and Sarah Berner, as well as numerous others currently exhibiting in the Beauty and the Beast exhibition at the Crafts Council in London. The Defyra quartet has exhibited internationally over the last couple of years, particularly in Japan after meeting a Japanese trade delegation during their first show at the 2003 Stockholm Furniture Show. But their Swedish-language name was chosen because they never expected to be working outside their native land when they started. They assumed they would just work for one of the many furniture companies in the south of the country.

“When we were studying no one really talked about working abroad,” says Anna Lang. “The teacher said in the first week that 98% would have jobs as designers when they graduated!” But reality soon hit. There wasn’t the job availability they expected; the only sure opportunity was for IKEA, and it only takes one student a year. Lena Thak Karlsson began studying Korean and Lang got a job in a shop. But six months later they found a perfect studio in the centre of Stockholm and the four took the chance at working together as their own company. “It doesn’t work at all as you thought,” says Haverinen. “We had a totally different way to look at it then. It feels good that it’s easy to work abroad – it’s fantastic to meet …”

“To try different youth hostels,” interrupts Anna Hjert before breaking into gales of laughter. She jokes around the most of the four – again, in relative terms.

“… to meet and collaborate with different people from all over the world,” continues Haverinen resolutely. “Maybe we have more in common with people in Japan than people in Sweden.”

But while they say they feel more comfortable outside their home country, their work often references their native culture. They curated a show during Tokyo Designers Week in 2003 that used typical images of a wholesome Swedish life lived in summerhouses, eating berries and chopping wood. “We wanted the feeling of outside, just the feeling to be in the woods,” says Hjert. Similarly, the Ski Chair is a stool with a seat made from the ends of wooden skis. Created for an installation at the Nordic Light Hotel in Stockholm in February 2004, it alludes to the winter sports that go on in Sweden that time of year. The stool is a simple and light idea, almost naïve, but engaging and amusing; it initially seems silly but the flexibility of the ski is perfect for a seat.

So why do people in Sweden tend to think insularly? “I think that, not just in the furniture business, Swedes always have very high thoughts about their country. But actually lots of things have closed down,” answers Haverinen. She explains that the textiles industry, centred on a town called Borås, has largely disappeared, and the group bemoan the loss of skilled craftsmen in other industries, such as glass. They produced a range of elegant glassware called Cheers! using traditional glassblowers, and found their skills amazing. “The oldest guy you could see was the master – he had a cigarette and he was blowing at the same time,” laughs Hjert. “You could see which glass was his because it was the thinnest.”

In the summer of 2003, they toured Sweden in a bus with a furniture exhibition called Defyra in Home Environment. Designed to cheer up people’s homes, the range consists of interpretations of the traditional furniture owned by their parents that they grew up with.

“Where I come from, people tend to see design as something for posh people, so I think it’s a good thing to go back and show this is what you can do and that we don’t think we’re above anyone else. It’s a profession like anything else,” says Haverinen.
But can design really be democratised in this way when it is economically out of reach of so many people? “Even the expensive design will affect everything,” says Haverinen. “What we are doing might not be possible for everyone to get or see, but hopefully we can get some kind of impact to other people, that our thoughts and way of working will affect maybe in 50 years. Even though people won’t say,” and here she puts on an ironic voice, “‘it was Defyra that did this – their thoughts were so wonderful!’”

Lang agrees, explaining that she heard the head of FutureLab, the company behind the Future Design Days conference, saying that design was meant to be commercial. “We thought it was so stupid of him to say that. There are lots of people and groups that are not working in that way, like us, so that the next step of design can develop.”
It’s an idealistic stance; they regard the idea that design can be displayed in galleries as being extremely valuable to the future of the discipline. It gives young designers like them an environment in which they can play with and explore a wide range of ideas for an extended period after studying and – for some – before working more commercially.

And they’re making full use of their playtime. It’s fully apparent in the surreal promotional material. In collaboration with photographer Helena Blomqvist, they are idiosyncratically posed with their designs, often in Swedish national dress. And their website is … well, it features pictures of windmills, a gnome-like man and a reclining pinecone with swinging legs.

The lightness with which the four are developing their own sensibility of pleasure and fun is beguiling and endearing. Haverinen describes it, in a not terribly serious tone, as “a humorous aesthetic”. “If you find it pleasurable to do something it shows,” she says. So what role do they feel that humour plays in their work? “A cinnamon roll,” says Hjert, and she once again creases up. “It’s a big role,” says Haverinen. “We don’t really think about it though.”

“I think it’s really boring if people are so serious, and that they have thought about this and this and the technical thing behind it and everything,” says Hjert. “I don’t think you have to tell so much, or that you are so special that you have worked from a set of rules. I have the feeling that many designers put up a story after designing the thing – it’s more honest if we say we build this because it looks good and it’s good fun for us.”

The team return to the space they have been given to set up the installation in the Lighthouse’s tall atrium. It’s called, in full, A Winter Wonderland, or How to Dress a Cold Platter. Defyra meant to explore the notion of serving cold foods but the perfectionist ceramicist they asked to produce a range of plates for them let them down. Instead, they made a video about cold meats to show alongside their work. None of it really makes much sense, but they’re having such a laugh that it hardly seems to matter.

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