Ties that bind the Swedish design ecosystem
Posted on March 22, 2013
Folkhem (the people’s home). Sometimes referred to as “the Swedish Middle Way”, where capitalism and socialism reaches a compromise. Folkhem is a political concept that played a pivotal role in the history of the Swedish Democratic Party and the Swedish welfare state since the post-war period after World War I. Its ideals are founded on the belief that the entire society ought to be like a small family, where everybody contributes.
In 1919, Gregor Paulsson, general director of Svenska Slöjdföreningen (The Swedish Society of Crafts & Design) published his seminal text Vackrare Vardagsvara (More Beautiful Everyday Things). The text firmly advocated that, “Design should be part of everyone, every day and every detail. Every Swede should be able to enjoy well designed products.”
Paulsson’s beliefs were immortalized in the Stockholm exhibition he led in 1930 as Director General. Over the summer, the event reportedly registered over 4 million visitors, some travelling from as far as the USA. For many Swedes it was their first contact with Modernism. The works on exhibit were a collaboration between art and industry, a first during that era. The alliance resulted in a collection of affordable and well-designed Swedish home goods made for day-to-day living.
Ellen Key, a prominent Swedish writer, previously wrote in her book Skönheit för Alla (Beauty for All) published in 1899,
“Design is a designer’s oath to society. A designer bears the responsibility to create beautiful and functional home furnishing for every home. Their prime target audience should be every Swede, so that they [the Swedish people] may enjoy the fruits of labor found in good design.”
Though Paulsson and Key have never met, their ideas represented the Swedish culture of its time where home, family and society comes before self. Where everyone is taken care of in a welfare state and has access to free healthcare and free education.
Richard Feigin, organizer of CreativeMornings / Stockholm and a Swedish native adds, “The bottom line is that Swedes have traditionally been raised with a healthy view on work/life balance. The Swedish welfare system makes it possible for people to share time between career and family. We [the Swedes] have equal expectations on running a career and family.”
The distinctive functionalism and warmth we feel through Swedish design is simply a product of its environment and culture.
Sweden’s Evolving Ecosystem
Presently, Sweden ranks first in the Global Creativity Index determined through a comprehensive study done by the Martin Prosperity Institute.
Svensk Form, once known as Svenska Slöjdföreningen (The Swedish Society of Crafts & Design), presently exists as a not-for-profit membership association madated by the government. As one of the many stakeholders in a vibrant design ecosystem found within Sweden, it leads the efforts to promote Swedish design within the country and abroad. Its outreach initiatives include FORM Design Magazine (in print since 1904), annual awards & scholarships, local & international exhibitions as well as local Pecha Kucha events: a growing global phenomenon, originally from Japan, featuring highly condensed and fast-paced speaker presentations.
CreativeMornings / Stockholm, a free monthly breakfast lecture series originally from New York City, has been organising events for more than a year now. Feigin, its organizer, adds “Small collaborative workspaces around town are popping up and I think they will play a crucial role for people to exchange business opportunities and to source skills. We’ve organized our events in some of these spaces. And over the months the mix between location and speaker selection have helped create buzz around town for some of these new and upcoming creative companies. People generally attend our events because they’re interested in design and wish to be inspired by like-minded professionals.”
A familiar quote echoes within the buzzing hallways filled with creative professionals,
“Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”
Quoted from Design House Stockholm and words that many designers live by. Design House Stockholm is a publishing house which represents over 60 independent designers; a handful of them fresh from graduating from a college like Konstfack, one of Sweden’s most established universities for Arts, Craft and Design.
Unlike young Italian designers in Milan, talented young Swedish designer do not need to work on gaining recognition through media before a company like Design House Stockholm is willing to take its design and distribute it domestically and internationally. Companies like Design House Stockholm understand the necessity of breathing new life to its collections and are often willing to give young designers an opportunity to shine.
Maria Eriksson, currently the Partnership Director for Hyper Island (a Swedish tertiary institution specializing in digital media), puts it aptly when describing the organizational culture in Swedish companies, “There’s generally a more relaxed attitude towards job titles, and employees are usually expected to operate with a high degree of independence. Leadership revolves around mentorship and takes a consultative approach. Positions of authority are earned largely on the basis of individual achievement.”
The Epicenter of Sweden’s Creative Industries
In the book, Swedish Design Economics: What Taiwan can learn from the success and challenges of the Swedish Design Industry, author Max Wang dedicated an entire chapter to the growing importance of SoFo or “South of Folkungagata” and its influence to the design ecosystem in Stockholm. He notes that SoFo is Sweden’s answer to the SoHo district in New York City, USA; an enclave where many artists live and work in an area densely populated with artist lofts, art galleries and trendy boutique shops.
SoFo is home to multiple creative industries in Stockholm, including advertising agencies, media companies and fashion retailers. Wang notes, “SoFo thrives due to the talent density of its community within a small area, where creatives find strength in numbers. Every young designer wants to work there and the friendly competition creates a forward momentum, which leads to work that are avant garde in nature.”
Pebbles Lim, a Singaporean native, who has been working and studying in Stockholm for the past 3 years, agrees. “There is so much love and respect shared within the design community that all designers only keep trying to say that somebody else is more talented than they are. They welcome the idea of collaboration, and never necessarily in the name of money or for the name to be flashed across media or big awards show, but just getting their hands dirty in the barn at their summer house making some prototypes of a chair you cannot sit on, just for the fun of it.
Swedish designers also often enjoy working in anonymity, with multiple identities on varied project nature spanning across film, product design, motion arts, graphic design and etc. My creative director at work has a workshop up North of Sweden and is secretly designing his own chairs under a pseudonym, and my design director designed lamps for New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). I didn’t realized it even while I was sitting next to him for the past 6 months.”
Lim works as the Associate Creative Director of Morgenland, a digital advertising agency based within SoFo.
A vibrant design ecosystem is by no means an accident. There will always be a few key organizations driving initiatives that put all stakeholders on the same page. And in the case of Sweden, the government has been playing a pivotal role in shaping the design ecosystem and the Swedes’ deep appreciation for creativity.
But what does the future hold for Sweden in an increasingly globalized world, where rising design capitals like Seoul and Istanbul mature and competition intensifies for more established design hubs like Milan, New York and London?
Young leaders like Feigin believe that the future sustainability of Sweden’s vibrant design ecosystem lies in the entrepreneurial spirit of its people and their mastery of craft. “We see a lot of technology start-ups like Spotify (a commercial music streaming service) going global. Design is playing an important role in digital experience and that is one field where Swedish companies excel. I think Interaction Design will be the new face of Swedish export after industrial design.”
Eriksson quips, “While we can talk about Sweden and its potential greatness, it isn’t as interesting as the fact that the Swedes have been working with companies all over the world, despite stark cultural differences in some cases. Ultimately, it’s our shared values that matter.”
Just as a strong technology entrepreneurship ecosystem requires ease of access to capital, solid infrastructure, company friendly policies, strong intellectual property laws, collaborative channels and skilled talent; a vibrant design ecosystem requires all that as well as the right set of common values. Values that are deep rooted within a country’s political and cultural undertakings. Values which will help a nation like Sweden remain firm on the belief that design is a service to mankind.∗