Swedish designers are demanding to be noticed, judging by their expressive work showcased at the Stockholm Furniture Fair, writes Charmaine Chan
THE CHAIR IS often the holy grail for furniture designers out to unseat the competition. Which is why Peter Andersson created an instant buzz at last month's Stockholm Furniture Fair, when his Tilt chair was voted Piece of Furniture of the Year. Simple and humorous, the rockable chair prompted Wallpaper magazine to comment on how this young Swedish designer had won the hearts of connoisseurs with his understated, clever concept encouraging disobedience.
'I question rules,' says Andersson, 26, who also designs for Japanese home-furnishings company Franc Franc. 'Why aren't you supposed to tilt the chair, when everyone's doing it?'
Another home-grown designer unbalancing Sweden's straight-laced image is Anna Kraitz. Her Rapunzel-style Girl floor lamp has a hair-like plait to turn it on.
'When I was a child I always wanted a thick, long braid,' says Kraitz. 'This is a result of that dream.'
Despite the new blood, it may take a while before consumers stop thinking of Swedish interiors in terms of Ikea, blond wood, minimalist lines, functionality and pragmatic ideals - all of which is probably linked to the concept of lagom. The Swedish word, meaning 'just right', translates in everyday life as nothing done to extremes, so it's no surprise that designers have been accused of producing worthy, if stuffy, work.
But it could be that Swedish designers are accelerating in the opposite direction in a country famed for its safety-first Saabs and nerdy Volvos. Andersson and Kraitz are among many demonstrating how Swedish design can no longer be easily described in overarching terms, so deviations can be taken for granted.
'Sweden is breaking free of the Scandinavian brand and forming a label of its own,' British design author Bradley Quinn said last year. Kraitz agrees. 'Before, I was rarely representative of Swedish style,' she says. 'But now I've started to become so because it's not one style any more, and not just one way of doing things. Practicality is still there, but not No1. The most important thing is expression.'
And innovation, judging by the work of another designer gaining international recognition, Alexander Lervik. The Swede chose the occasion to exhibit his Dolphin chair, a sensuous, three-legged moulded-wood design that had members of the public caressing its curves.
Although it's a tad early to judge its success, Lervik should still be basking in the glow of Brighthandle - door handles that emit coloured light. Introduced at last year's fair, the products have gained worldwide exposure because of their look and function. They act as night lights and show whether a room is being used.
'Do Not Disturb' signs at hotels sparked the idea, Lervik told The New York Times. 'I thought it might be possible to design the function of that sign into the door, to use light to communicate the same thing.'
A spotlight for bright ideas, especially from Nordic countries, the Stockholm Furniture Fair has grown to include big-name companies and star designers from other parts of the world. B&B Italia, for instance, made its debut at this year's five-day festival, which attracted 40,000 visitors. There were guest appearances by luminaries such as Tom Dixon and Naoto Fukasawa, the ingenious Japanese designer who exhibited products created for Swedish producer Swedese, as well as for Muji and his own brand, ?0.
Following Sweden's Year of Design last year, the fair added resonance to a seemingly non-stop series of events promoting Swedish designers. So, while glassmaker Ingegerd Raman lured fans eager to hear about her life's work and recent designs for fine crystal and glassware manufacturer Orrefors, youngsters eager to become household names tried to turn up the heat in the Greenhouse, an exhibition space for emerging designers.
Often not as polished, but full of potential and charm, the designs included furniture made from suitcases, a lamp turned on by a zipper, clothes hangers that double as photo frames and a framed textile by Arvid Olsson that turned into a seat. In its fourth year, Greenhouse attracted Scandinavian freelance designers, as well as their counterparts in Japan, Italy, Britain and, for the first time, Latvia and Estonia. The rules allowing access were that applicants couldn't be associated with any manufacturer or already established.
In their late 20s or early 30s, the four women who make up Front are already light years from the Greenhouse hopefuls looking for their first break. Charlotte von der Lancken, Anna Lindgren, Sofia Lagerkvist and Katja Savstrom met while studying at Konstfack art school in Stockholm, and quickly made a name with their random creative approach, presenting their quirky Design by Animals collection at the fair in 2003. It featured a table patterned by boring insects, a lamp fashioned from a rabbit-hole mould, and wallpaper chewed by rats.
'They gnawed on the wallpaper rolls so the holes became a repetitive pattern,' says von der Lancken.
This year, the group exhibited their first items in production, among them an aluminium bin whose girth expands as it fills with rubbish.
The quartet - who showed their work at hip Dutch company Droog Design's gallery in Amsterdam last year, and at Art Basel Miami - appear to be heading for bigger commissions, judging by flattering comments about their work from the likes of Britain's Icon magazine, America's I.D. Magazine, Independent on Sunday and Johan Persson, of Swedish industrial design group No Picnic. Persson is now based in Hong Kong, where he heads Swedish Design, a new multidisciplinary industrial-design consultancy.
'We work with things you recognise and with things that act in a way you don't expect them to act,' says Lindgren, explaining why Swedish designers are becoming increasingly difficult to pigeonhole. 'It's hard to put all of us on the same platform. I just don't think there's a typical Swedish design.'