Stockholm designers challenge perceptions

From brightly-colored plastic banana carriers, to bathtub plugs made to look like seaweed, to florescent dish-washing brushes equipped with funky faces on their handle, design is everywhere you look in Stockholm.

While decorative and functional design has long been a staple of everyday life in Sweden, it has penetrated society even further this year, declared a nationwide Year of Design by the Swedish government.

“Design is everywhere and this year even more so,” Anna Rygård, project manager of the Year of Design campaign office, told AFP, adding that more than 1,000 projects connected with the initiative are in the works.

In a small but productive design studio called TAF on the southern Stockholm island of Södermalm, three young designers eagerly show off some of the projects that will be included in several exhibits they are participating in this year.

Showing pictures of three lamps – one slender, elegant floor lamp and stouter table and ceiling lamps – Mattias Ståhlbom, 34, explained that they were inspired by “soda cans that have been trampled on. They’re like containers filled with light”.

Another ceiling lamp, shaped like a long, glass pendulum was inspired by the cone of light from a flashlight. “The cone of light itself has been blown out of glass,” he said.

In addition to their large collection of lamps, Ståhlbom and his partners Gabriella Gustafson and Daniel Franzen have designed color-coded hotel rooms, created furniture and a camping car camouflage system, among other things.

The trio’s many-faceted approach to design reflects Stockholm as a whole, where design – from the super-trendy coffee shops to the crowds of tall, blond men and women wearing the latest fashion and hairstyles – appears to have left its mark on virtually all aspects of life.

“We’re against a narrow definition of design. For us it is also about architecture, public transportation – what our buses look like – security measures, how food is labeled and so on. Design is an important tool that can be used to benefit society,” Rygård said.

One Swedish artist who fully agrees with this complex definition is Birgitta Watz, who for more than three decades has created ceramics and tableware, blown glass, designed fabrics, written books, run a business and taught university students.

“I work with wholeness,” she told AFP, standing in her large atelier, an old harbor crane workshop that sits detached from the city of Stockhom in Värtahamnen harbor.

The rough plaster walls have been painted red and white, and her pottery and artwork are everywhere on display. A home-made black plate filled with beautifully glazed porcelain apples sits in the middle of a huge marble table, and dried flowers hang from an old factory beam boasting that it can hold up to 500 kilos.

Watz strides over to a high cupboard brimming with the plates, bowls, cups, glasses, serving platters, vases and other dishes she has created. She carefully extracts several round, white plates with a square indentation in the middle that are part of her Quattro series which was put on display at the Louvre in Paris in 1990.

“With the Quattro series I experimented a lot with shapes. I wanted to make a plate that wasn’t so anonymous. With this series I get involved in the cook’s composition,” she said, pointing out that “the meal” is about a lot more than food.

“It’s about space, the mood and the products, how one eats the food, its about economy and not least about the meeting between people,” she said, adding that Stockholm is an inspiring city to work in both when it comes to food and design.

A city so saturated with design, from the tiniest fastfood restaurant to the multitude of design-themed shops, can however also be a bit stifling.

“The term design is over-used. Design becomes a commodity in itself and in the end it’s not worth anything,” said Martin Lasson, 30, one half of a small design shop called David and Martin on the Kungsholmen island in Stockholm.

The pair have had little trouble selling the large, smooth black plastic bracelets they produce under their own DM trademark or the jewelry collection they recently completed for Karl Lagerfeld, but they say it has been harder to raise interest for some of their more unusual black furniture prototypes.

“Everything becomes half-design. It’s all neutral and it’s hard to break through with something really new,” David Andersson, 30, said.

Gustafson of TAF agreed that the amount of often half-baked design in Stockholm can sometimes be overwhelming.

“Sometimes design in Stockholm can feel a bit too trend-dependent, with everyone desperately following in the tracks of what catches on,” she said.

“But as a designer you have to try to ignore that and work on a deeper level,” she insisted.

Nina Larsson – AFP