Beyond IKEA pix
Government is leading the charge to reclaim Sweden's place among the stars of design
Judith Gura -- Interior Design, 6/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Commemorative stamps issued in celebration of a government declaration that 2005 is Sweden's Design Year.
Wherever large institutions and governments embrace design, the industry thrives. So imagine what will come of an official program this year—planned since 2002, mandated by the Swedish government, and coordinated by its Ministry of Education, Research, and Culture—to mark 2005 as Sweden's Year of Design.
Sweden's ministry of culture has launched related events Web site designaret.se and commissioned the 160-year-old Svensk Form (founded as the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design) to coordinate an international campaign. That has translated into heightened show-floor presence for Swedish designers at this year's International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, Salone del Mobile in Milan, and even an all-Swedish show house in Milan. These activities are set up to "make Swedes the best design users in the world," says cabinet minister of culture Leif Pagrotsky.
It won't hurt them as producers either. Offecct, a collective of designers for everything from accessories to interiors, already claims benefits. "We've been to Milan four times in the past," says Offecct CEO Kurt Tingdal. "This year was a chance to present ideas with a much more Swedish perspective. That gives our work a value and visibility around the world." Offecct's Mårten Claesson, Eero Koivisto, Ola Rune, Anki Gneib, Tomas Eriksson, and Monica Förster all participated in the Milan show house called Hotel Town House. Tingdal intends to involve the collective in the next show in Tokyo.
Another huge boost for Sweden's design image outside the country? Commemorative postage stamps bearing the sketched forms of chairs, watches, cars, and vessels with iconic homegrown designs.
Meanwhile, a Swedish pavilion designed by students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design appeared on the trade-show floor at ICFF in New York. Australia and China are also in the country's crosshairs. London's Swedish Embassy is celebrating by enlisting galleries in Yorkshire, Manchester, and Glasgow to host its "Designed in Sweden" and "Scandinavian Design" series.
However, not every aspect of this effort concerns furniture. Like the postal service, more than 100 government agencies are charged with advancing a design focus in their individual areas. An example is the planned formation of an international congress to address various topics, including "Stealth Design," which is the development of such products as camouflage and radar-resistant ships and planes.
As a guide, the ministry of culture has identified seven instances for a design focus: in "working life," "cultural expression," "public procurement," "design as a growth factor," "sustainability," "education," and "design for all." These were announced at regional kickoff conferences last year in Malmö, Stockholm, Växjö, Göteborg, and Umeå.
Why this obviously costly push? Marketing to boost homeland commerce is the quick answer. For many consumers elsewhere in the world, an image of Swedish design has become synonymous with IKEA. Yet how many know of that company's more than 50-year history, or that the founder was Ingvar Kamprad? (The corporate name is composed of his initials and the first letters of the farm and village where he grew up.) And while the annual Stockholm Furniture Fair may be formidable, its name hardly conjures up images of the crowded pilgrimages each year to the furniture fairs in Milan and New York.
Yet Sweden's creative thinkers wielded international influence much further back: "Japan and Sweden have had close relationships for many decades," minister for industry and trade Thomas Östros asserted at the "Design and Lifestyle Exhibition," held at Sweden's embassy in Tokyo this April. Swedish designer Stig Lindberg exhibited at Tokyo store Seibu in 1959 and even designed wrapping paper for the store.
Today's designers, of course, seek to recapture old footing in the world market. "Sweden is breaking free of the 'Scandinavian' brand and forming a label of its own," says British curator and design author Bradley Quinn.
Swedes, though, insist the reason is closer to nationalistic pride. "This is truly a project in which everyone in Sweden is invited to actively take part," explains Swedish architectural historian Anna Rygård, who is directing a related program of exhibitions and seminars. Pagrotsky adds that it "raises awareness of designers' societal contributions."
And a statement by the Swedish Trade Council proclaimed ambitiously that the new designation will "set the stage for fresh, cutting-edge, luxurious yet practical contemporary design."
"For us, design is a means to both economic growth and social justice," Pagrotsky says. He lists ethics, recycling, and design for the physically challenged as related concerns.
That attitude, while not surprising for the humanistic Scandinavians, would be almost inconceivable in the United States. Just imagine the U.S. Congress passing a resolution that implements activities just to illuminate Americans about the importance of design. But perhaps the Swedish government's new appreciation will rub off. Already there's buzz that Norway and Finland could soon follow suit with similar efforts. Dream the impossible dream.