Design has a lot to do with this. Everything is ‘designed’ here, conceived with the user in mind. And, unlike how it occurs in other countries, this does not necessarily mean that chairs in train stations look flashy or that signals in public spaces feature odd graphics.
The Swedes have been able to turn the focus on design into actual comfort zones for citizens (and, luckily, visitors), paying great attention to clarity of information and communication, functionality and, of course, aesthetics.
For someone like me, coming from Milan, the town seemed strangely quiet. The Design Week here is not an event that changes the face of the city, as in Milan. It’s a small happening, intriguing only the professionals and the companies involved rather than the public at large.
The Furniture Fair is tiny – possibly as big as only two halls of the Milanese one, and can be seen easily in one day. But it’s in this size that lies the value of this event. There is simply no room for rubbish, and the town is honest in presenting its true self: a city that has always invested in creativity – economically, and not just with words – and that wishes to continue to do so.
This is clear in everything. Thomas Bernstrand, a designer who works mainly on urban furniture, welcomes us to his studio and explains that, for example, “One per cent of all money spent on any new building or in restructuring any old one is by law invested in refurbishing the area in which it is located”.
Which means commissions for designers (often here the word designer is very much synonymous with highly skilled carpenters) to realise good quality, long-lasting solutions for the district. He has, for instance, created nice orange fences that people can lean on while chatting and wooden easy chairs and umbrellas to rest on during the summer.
Sweden has always invested in urban design. Stockholm tube stations often feature works of art and are actually welcoming places. So when we were told by curator and editor Hanna Nova Beatrice that Alexander Lervik and Johan Carpner were building a lamp out of camping-tent materials in the underground, we decided to pay them a visit. We were welcomed in a heated room, with a bar and even a pétanque field!
The idea of the two friends (a product designer and a lighting designer) also says a lot about the way creativity is often put to the service of public spaces: their lamp was designed to be huge and to hang in shopping malls or hotels, and to be assembled in situ as it’s so large.
For this reason, they used the same cloth that is normally applied on professional trekkers’ tents as well as the same construction techniques – with poles sticking into each other.
It comes as no surprise, then, to notice that so many non-Scandinavian designers have decided to work (and often even live) in Sweden. Inga Sempé, the French designer, last year presented a collection of chairs for Gärsnäs.
“In France we have a very old tradition of craftsmanship in working wood,” says Sempé. “But artisans know they can make more money by continuing to do the same Louis XV imitation chairs and show very little interest in exploring new techniques – like those that my chairs required. It took a long time in Sweden to get them done but the enthusiasm was always there.”
The Swedes are very proud of such statements, to such an extent that in 2012 Sempé was nominated Guest of Honour of the whole Furniture Fair. Another company that she works for – lighting brand Wastberg – also featured an exhibition of her work at the beautiful Skating Pavillion in the city: a 1882 room laid out with long tables (lit up by Sempé’s new lamps for Wastberg) filled with mini prototypes and sketches that illustrated the evolution of ideas towards products.
Sempé is not the only French woman to consider Sweden a land of opportunities. Pascale Cottard-Olsson is a gallerist and has lived in Stockholm for 20 years. She is the proud owner of a small gallery (Gallery Pascale); she selects designers and puts their ideas into production. “Sometimes in small batches, sometimes in larger ones,” she explains.
Her work is highly regarded in Stockholm: “What she does is great,” says Frederik Mattson who designs for her. “She has courage and often she turns out to be correct in the choices she makes. Of course that means that she often takes risks.”
For instance, one of the items that she firmly believed in – a highly sculptural object by Claesson Koivisto Rune, Sweden’s most well-known architecture and design trio – actually got the iF Award. A lot of Mattson’s pieces sell very well indeed.
The latest project that Cottard produced, together with Mattson’s colourful candle holder, was a series of beautiful ceramic and glass vessels and vases, conceived by Italian designer Luca Nichetto (who, incidentally, also elected Sweden as a second home, having opened a new studio in Stockholm last year; his first one is in his native Venice).
“It’s a collection that talks about multicultural influences that all meet here,” explains Nichetto, whose pieces were on show at the Hallwylska Museet, in a small but very seductive exhibition in the kitchen of the museum, curated by Hanna Nova Beatrice.
“For the forms I was inspired by Ettore Sottsass and Timo Sarpaneva, so they are kind of Italian and Scandinavian; while the glass parts were blown in the Czech Republic and the ceramic ones in Italy. And now they will be sold by a Swedish gallery, owned by a French woman!”
“Design is experiencing no economic crisis here,” admits Ola Rune, one-third of the aforementioned trio Claesson Koivisto Rune. We meet him at the Nobis Hotel, a very central, stunning building, dating back a couple of centuries and completely renewed by his firm.
“The reason is simple: people expect quality because it’s a concept that they have been confronted with since they were born. They would not go for something cheap just for the sake of saving money. They’d rather spend a little more but have something that lasts. But there is also another issue related to this cultural approach. The glamour element of design has never really picked up here. Companies have always worked following the idea that things have to be straight-forward and of the highest possible quality within a given cost range,” explains Ola Rune.
“In Italy, for instance, the quality of craftsmanship is extremely high and companies always go for the most expensive finish and detailing. This is good, but it also means that the final price to the consumer is high and that, in a moment of crisis such as this one, companies need to readdress their production approach. Which is not easy, and is costly in itself.”
Quality at a decent price seems, therefore, to be the Scandinavian way. Again, no surprise, then, to see that a new business concept (an upmarket Ikea-meets-e-commerce) was launched this year during the Stockholm Design Week. It was envisaged by Finnish entrepreneur Joel Roos with his One Nordic brand who presented his first item, a chair.
“The idea is to work on the design to make things easier to manufacture, to ship and to later put together,” says Roos. The Bento chair, for instance, consists of very few pieces that click together with no mechanism. The result, needless to say, is a nice product for a lower price, which, Roos explains, is “packaged in an attractive way and delivered through an excellent service”.
Roos worked on it with Form Us With Love, an upcoming team of three young designers who also had a personal exhibition at the Architecture Museum – Sweden allows plenty of space and opportunities for its talents, when it spots them!
Further proof of this came from the most institutional part of the Design Week, the International Furniture Fair itself. Here, one-third of all available exhibition space was dedicated to schools and academies, which were allowed to put up huge shows, while the French–Swedish duo, Färg & Blanche, were given a huge central area in one of the halls for their fabrics and furniture installation.
The week proved that trusting in talent and investing in it pays off. Not only for designers and for the creative world, but for all those who then benefit from their creativity – the public and the city as a whole.