Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Swedish Design - A Buzzword In Search of Meaning

(Article first published in Currents No. 1 2005).

Swedish design is a buzzword, and like many such words fuzzy. Seeking clarity, Currents interviewed design experts in Sweden and America, only to find that although there is a general agreement and appreciation for Swedish design of the past century, there is little consensus about what it stands for today.

“Swedish design held a unique status in the U.S. since World War II,” says Craig Vogel, who is chairman of the board of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) as well as design professor at the University of Cincinnati. Talking about Swedish furniture, he stresses its clean quality, an understated form, and respect for natural materials,” not unlike America’s Shaker and Amish tradition. He also points to glassware, tableware and lightning as examples of design that made Sweden famous.

“In the 20th century, Swedish design was by and large aristocratic, based on a sense of esthetics and technical execution. This is a critical component of what we consider to be Swedish design. Within that body of work, there was a movement from, say 1914-1917 up the present day, where this good design became increasingly available to a larger part of the public. This had something to do with an educated taste and refined production. The colors tended to be muted, the forms had a certain grace to them, which you never would mistake for German or French or English or American production. They spoke about an indigenous culture,” says the author Derek E. Ostergard, who was previously Dean of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture in New York.

But what happens to this tradition when production becomes mass production, and evermore globalized corporations’ head for the world market in a globalizing world? IKEA speaks with a stringent voice, according to Craig Vogel, and it has built an infrastructure for Swedish design in America. But is it Swedish design, or just a design that was mostly made in Sweden, and marketed in a Swedish context? Is flat packing and global brand management Swedish? Derek Ostergard loves Swedish design and believes that it has made an enormous contribution, but sees it as being shortchanged in today’s world. “The Swedes are just scrambling, like we all are, to find any niche we can to sell our products.” This upsets Derek Ostergard, who holds the prestigious Swedish title of the “Polar Star” (“Polstjärneorden.”) “The reason that I sound angry is that I am angry. Swedish products and the history of Swedish products are superb, but the Swedes are not looking in their own backyard anymore. They are looking to markets and cultures that they don’t get. They think that if they use the name Sweden, people are going to get it, but people don’t know Sweden anymore.”

Globalization, or at least Europeanization, of the design education could make it even harder to say what is Swedish about design coming out of Sweden, or made by a Swedish-born designer working in London or San Francisco. “We will soon have a three-year bachelor education followed by a masters program, and design students will be able to switch to another school after three years. We will have to educate them so that they immediately can adept to a new school,” says Claus Eckhardt, a German who is professor of Industrial Design at Lund’s University (LTH) in southern Sweden. These changes are part of a European-wide reform in accordance with the Bologna declaration. “Teachers are coming from international areas, which might result in an international style. Swedish or Scandinavian design has a quite strong position in Europe, but as we mix and match in the future, you might not be able to see if a designer is coming from Sweden or Germany or Italy,” he says.

It will be easier to preserve the national heritage in less globalized industries, like furniture and interior design. “We will still have the cultural roots there, but design will be more and more international when we are talking about industrial design; about big companies like Saab and Volvo. And Swedish designers will look abroad for jobs. They will be able to use design knowledge to find leading positions in huge companies. This could lead to a transfer of Scandinavian philosophy, but also of modifications of the design style.” Claus Eckhardt doesn’t see much of a common national design when it comes to Sweden’s multinational giants, maybe with one big exception: “IKEA is a super-international brand. It is accepted everywhere in the world. The interesting thing with IKEA is that they are spreading Swedish design. It is one of the biggest exporters of Swedish culture, both in how they present themselves, and in how they look. Their products are cheap, which means that everybody can have them. It’s in their positioning and in how they sell the product. They are socially oriented and their products are accessible for everyone, which is one of the core ideas of good industrial design.”

Ronald B. Kemnitzer, president of IDSA and professor of architecture and design at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, says that his own esteem of Sweden as a design country “revolved around some of the more traditional crafts and designs.” But he is open to the possibility that tomorrow’s designers might have gotten their image of Swedish design from companies like Ericsson. “I do have some very strong feelings about globalism and local cultural identity. I feel passionately that we as designers need to be on guard to protect it. If we move towards a truly global, universal visual esthetic, we may reduce some of the richness of the fabric of life.” He compares to food. “People from all countries enjoy food from other countries, but if we were all to have the same homogenized diet worldwide, it would be a really boring world.”
“Sweden has a very strong esthetic background, with attributes like light wood, purity of form and simplicity of the line. Those things are strong elements to build on. There will be a conscious move towards some globalized esthetic, but countries will then realize that everything looks the same, and start looking for something that really sets them apart. Hopefully they’ll go back to their roots, and think about what it is about their own culture that is appealing, and how to capture it in a positive and respectful way. It is going to be a tough thing to do,” says Ronald Kemnitzer.

Derek Ostergard sees globalization as a trap for Sweden’s designers. He admits that Sweden’s minimalist tradition and the relative plain-ness of many designs could fit into the goal of addressing a global audience. ”That is absolutely true, but when you compete in that market, you will always be beaten on price, whether you are Swedish or American or German. We are going to be beaten fast, because they can copy a design on a computer in a few days. They can produce things in China or India that are increasingly equal to, or better than what we produce in the West. If you are seeking to meet those global markets -- and I agree with you that it will work for a while -- you will eventually be caught up, because you can’t compete on the basis of price. Both the Swedes and the rest of us are heading for a collision with that formula.” His alternative? ”Swedes must learn what the French know: You must produce things that reflect your culture; that are based on quality or you will get killed. You can never compete with the labor markets in Asia. It’s not going to happen.”

But there may be more to Swedish design than esthetic sensibility. Sweden may like Apple Computer ride on an impression of being different, not because nobody else can do that, but just because they haven’t done it yet.

Bengt Palmgren, who heads the Umeå School of Design in northern Sweden, says that it is very hard to talk about a "Swedish” or even “Scandinavian” design, when it comes to industrial products. “Industrial designers works for companies that operate on the global market. Cellular phones, cars and technical equipment must function whether it is in Taiwan, the U.S. or in Colombia,” he says, but then suggests that there still is something, maybe a kind of “honesty when it comes to how the material is presented. If you are working in plastics that is what it is. There is this typical striving for simplicity, for purity, a preference for light-colored wood.”

Could there be something in Swedish industrial design that reflects the Swedish society? American trucks used to be rough and “square” with stick shifts that allowed the rough cowboy/driver to show off his skills. In Europe and other places the trucks are automatic, and the driver’s space is similar to a cars. Volvo Trucks has been able to challenge that, based on Sweden’s early interest in ergonomics, and there are signs that American truckers are warming up to the idea of a little convenience while on the road.

Robin Edman is chairman for Svensk Industridesign, a group that represents Sweden’s industrial designers, and is involved with Sweden’s national ”Year of Design” campaign. In his view, what makes Swedish industrial design Swedish, is the fact that it leans towards highly integrated projects and that it often takes a broad social view of building new products. ”It’s much more than bringing out a new physical object. Design can help us make a better society, whether it is improving healthcare, public transportation and many other things that make life easier to live. If you are designing a new light rail train, you are not just thinking about whether it should be blue or white and the shape of it, but of how a person gets to the train, how to cross the street, the lighting at the station, safety, and whether the environment in the car is friendly or scary to children, and if it is easy to use for an 82 year old with a walker.” The ”Year of Design” is an initiative taken by the Swedish government, and one of the goals is to make the public sector a better buyer design wise. The public sector spends 400 billion kronor (ca 50 billion dollars) every year, which to a degree could be used to promote good design. ”We are looking for less elitist attitude to design. If you are planning a new hospital, it is going to be built by private industry, but the result will be a public environment. Will Greta, 82, be met like if she was checking in at a hotel, when she goes to the hospital? In that case, she might feel a little better about the whole thing. and may be able to leave the hospital earlier because she feels good about the visit,” says Robin Edman, who suggests that this extreme focus on the end-user’s needs could be seen as part of today’s Swedish design.
”Integration is typical for Swedish design. We see design as part of a creative process, while other designers in countries may look for a cool new thing, another red chair that nobody can sit in,” he says. ”Of course, we have those in Sweden too, but that is not what we are known for. Some people criticize Sweden for not having star designers, but what we have is a thorough knowledge when it comes to ergonomics and safety. Just look at Volvo, Saab, Bahco and companies like Electrolux and Husqvarna. We have a tradition of making things that are practical and functional as well as beautiful.”

He takes another example.” We are involved in a project at a firehouse in the southern city of Malmö. The goal is to improve the firemen’s equipment, partially to open it up for more women. The designers soon realized that it is impossible for women and hard for men to carry around equipment that weighs 60 pounds. And the helmets with infrared cameras weigh about 9 pounds, which is heavy for both men and women. Design here is not about pretty, but about health and safety. We are good at these things in Sweden,” says Robin Edman of Svensk Industridesign.

Hans Sandberg