Pettersson’s latest project, Form Survey, consists of a tray of 25 geometric shapes and scanned natural objects, printed on a 3D printer. Some appear clean-edged and mass-produced, some handmade or random, and others are evidently organic – seed pods, small chunks of stone or pebbles.

But aside from that, all other incidental detail has been filtered out; the shapes are all a uniform white and approximately the same size. Next to the tray, there’s a ballot box, where visitors to Stockholm’s Kleerup Gallery can drop a black bead into the numbered holes corresponding to each form to vote 
on which form they prefer.

“I think it is important that, as a designer, I have a better understanding of why we prefer one product 
over another, even if the function is exactly the same,” says Pettersson. At the time of writing, around 250 people had voted, and some clear patterns were already emerging. The designer plans to install the survey at future exhibitions, and people can also 
vote online, via her website.

“This is a project I will work with over time,” she says. “Will people choose the same shape? Will men and women make different choices? Would the choice be different on another continent? Is everything based on taste, or is it that humans prefer a specific ‘form language’, and, if so, what is it based on?”

The logic behind why we make the aesthetic 
decisions we do could fill tomes, and has baffled market researchers for decades, but Pettersson’s goal 
is, in fact, to bypass the conventional wisdom of design and create products with a direct appeal that isn’t mediated by trends and the traditional language of mass production.

“If we are aware of these little triggers, we can make sustainable objects,” she says. “Buying things is like a drug these days; it’s never enough. But if we can spell out why we have feelings for these particular shapes or colours, then designers can communicate with the end user in a silent way – we’ll have a more affectionate relationship with our objects.”

Pettersson originally studied textile design and worked in theatres for a stint before going on to study industrial design at Konstfack, Stockholm’s university college 
of arts, crafts and design.

During these studies she co-founded FRONT, in 
collaboration with some of her fellow industrial 
designers. The group’s working methods involved developing ideas through common discussion, so that the intellectual property generated was collective rather than belonging to a single member of the group.

Since then, Pettersson has maintained a similarly 
analytic and counter-cultural independent approach. “I could go and work for a big company, but I would rather do what I’m doing,” she says. “You have to be super determined, though.”

She works as a senior lecturer at Beckman’s College of Design in Stockholm, and after leaving FRONT 
in 2009, formed the Fifty Fifty Projects with Anders Landström, also an industrial designer. Based on similar thinking to the earlier collective, Fifty Fifty Projects seeks to address issues for small, independent designers with the economic framework of production.

The European royalty system is still based on the model introduced during the post-war boom in mass manufacturing, when there were fewer educated designers. “Producers set aside three to five per cent for the designer of a product, and six to seven for the logistics – so the company transporting the products earns more than the designer,” says Pettersson.

The Fifty Fifty Projects uses an economic model based on involvement in the production process, and social commitment to the designers it handpicks and with whom it collaborates on experimental design projects, sharing contacts, knowledge and profits 50:50, from the first sketch to the realisation of a collection. It debuted at Milan in 2011.

Pettersson’s personal work also questions both the design process and cultural assumptions about materials and functionality. Exhibited during Stockholm’s Design Week in February, the Glass Sausage and the Bubblegum Lamp are two objects that, rather than aspiring to a traditionally ‘beautiful’ aesthetic, aim 
to connect to people on a tactile, emotional level by creating a kind of synaesthesia between the work’s visual qualities and the other four senses.

Pettersson developed the Bubblegum Lamp when she was doing an exercise in thinking about what makes people happy. “I was playing with the subject of having fun,” she says. “Bubblegum means nothing in itself, but actually if you’re standing there blowing bubbles, you’re saying something. We are all part of a society where we have made agreements in order to understand the world around us.”

On YouTube, she points out, women are depicted blowing bubbles in a way that infantilises them or lowers their status, while men are breaking world records. “It’s this ‘nothing’ thing that everyone knows so 
much about. It’s something you can almost taste when you see it, and it’s a physical thing you do with your body – so I borrowed that expression for the lamp.”

Similarly, she has rendered the humble Glass Sausage: “Usually it’s a fast food, the kind of thing where you don’t even actually know what you’re eating. But they make people happy, and there are blogs, food writing, a community around them. Barbecues are a male thing. These small things have a gender, a weight, a taste – you know all these things without even having that object in front of you.”

Her next installation, Features of a Material, which 
will appear at the Spazio Rossana Orlandi during the 
Milan Furniture Fair this year, started life as a styrofoam ‘sketch’ Pettersson made in her downtime, using 
just her hands, a breadknife and glue gun. It wasn’t originally meant to be furniture, but she liked the way the cheap, fragile packing material trembled with each movement of the air, and visitors kept commenting on it, so she began rendering some of the pieces in aluminium.

“The pieces take the memories of the original with them,” she says. “Putting them on show, it becomes evident we are relying on our preconceived notions – when something doesn’t behave the way we think it will, it captures our interest.”  

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