October 17 2009
“I’m glad you said that!” says Sofia Lagerkvist, one quarter of Swedish design outfit Front, settling into her seat in Hoxton’s fashionable restaurant the Rivington. “Because most people insinuate that four women working together so closely must be next to impossible.”
Blonde, tall and beautiful in a natural, non-haughty way (she’s Swedish, after all), Lagerkvist is pleased to hear that I think being part of a furniture-designing female foursome must be a whole lot of fun, rather than a hormonally-charged competitive arena. And also, if I’m honest, that I can’t see the same scenario existing between men. Philippe Starck, Arik Levy, Jasper Morrison, Ross Lovegrove – it’s hard to envisage the current stars of the design world wanting to share the creative limelight in such a way. Where men do work together, it is as brothers – the South America-based Campanas, the French Bouroullecs – or as partners, where one caretakes the creative side, another the financial. But it’s rare for a single-sex group of designers to share wholeheartedly, and seemingly without envy or competition, the designing responsibilities of a house with a profile growing as quickly and smoothly as Stockholm-based Front.
If you haven’t yet heard of Front, you will from here on. Each year there is a “name” that pops up at the international collections, and in 2009 it was Front’s. As Patrizia Moroso, creative director of Italian furniture brand Moroso, says, “They’re the trendy group of the year – but, of course, they’re much more than that too.”
Whereas just two years ago they were known as a quirky, marginal Scandinavian design house, this year saw them issue designs for large, commercially successful and forward-thinking international furniture manufacturers. There’s the clever, photographic-printed trompe l’oeil work for Moroso (in production), a surface-etched mirror, Shade, for Established & Sons that looks as if it’s been hand-drawn (from £863), and printed storage for Porro featuring, again, trompe l’oeil fringing and surface graphics (in production). There are also several intriguing pieces for Moooi, including a petite chequerboard gaming table (£560) and the Blow Away vase (about £570) made by the artisans of Royal Delft, which looks like a traditional blue and white Delft vase in the process of being blown into oblivion by a strong wind, and has already been picked up for the new ceramic galleries at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
You can see how the idea of four young, clever women gets people excited. The set-up is intriguing. Patrizia Moroso, with whom Front have been working for the past year or so since she was introduced to them by Italian style guru Rossana Orlandi at the 2008 Milan Furniture Fair, admits that part of their appeal is their youth and beauty. “Four beautiful girls from Scandinavia – yes, of course it’s interesting in its own right,” she says.
What is also interesting is how these four young women, Sofia Lagerkvist, Charlotte von der Lancken, Anna Lindgren and Katja Pettersson (who was on maternity leave at the time of this interview) – who are all about the same age, all from the same unremarkable suburban backgrounds, all friends – have managed not only to work together on all design projects simultaneously, but also rise to the cusp of international superstardom when none will admit to having that killer-instinct ego. “We do all the projects together,” says Lagerkvist when asked what each member brings to the Front table. “It’s much more interesting to have someone there to bounce ideas off. There’s no need for any of us to go solo – I don’t think any of us would ever want to. And then, of course,” she adds sheepishly, “you’ve got support when something goes right or when it goes wrong. It must be a lot of pressure to have to deal with that on your own.”
And they really do seem to relish this emotional closeness. When von der Lancken is asked to pinpoint her individual strengths, she won’t commit to anything other than that she’s very similar, with similar values and a similar sense of humour, to the others. And yet, she adds, “We all have different angles, different aspects from our backgrounds to add to the common discussion.” But then she can’t really explain what these different angles are. Not one of them will admit to being the natural “leader” of the quartet. “In fact,” says Lagerkvist, “I think it would have been an advantage for us to have had different skills – that one of us was great at business, for example. Whereas when we started out we were asking ourselves, ‘What should an office have? A printer? Pens?’”
Disingenuous? Perhaps. Lagerkvist later admits that, even as a graduating foursome in 2004, Front were “always really, really ambitious”. As undergraduates on the industrial design course at Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, they were always pushing their (exclusively male) teachers with challenging questions. “I think we were definitely annoying. We’d be asking, ‘Why do you have to do that?’ and “Why couldn’t you do this?’”
Their name, in particular, is provocative – and the girls know it. They like its many potential meanings, including the idea that the collective name, to some extent, protects the four women’s identities, while also being stand-out ballsy and having feminist connotations. For the Front women are aware that gender has been a key card to play in their rise from design obscurity. They picked their name for maximum impact just minutes before being interviewed for an article in one of Sweden’s leading dailies about their first collection. At college, where they met, they were aware that they approached industrial design in a completely different way from their fellow students, who would go on to design electronics or prosaic objects such as mobile phones (almost all, it should be noted, were male). And since none of the Front members had design training or even specialist knowledge prior to their education, Lagerkvist admits that their industrial design specialism continues to set them apart from other female designers.
But aside from who they are – the good looks and the glamorous dressing – their work is particularly attention-grabbing. Shortly after graduating, they produced a collection of experimental household goods made using animals to create the pattern or shape of the pieces. Design By Animals featured a table lamp moulded from a rabbit hole, wallpaper that rats were encouraged to chew until the nibbles produced interesting random surface patterns and ceramic vases fashioned from dog tracks in deep snow. “The cows were a bit rubbish,” laughs Lagerkvist, acknowledging that the results were tightly edited. But the collection was so quirky, well executed and fresh that it received considerable attention, even though it was never (and to date, still hasn’t been) commercially produced.
It was upon seeing this collection that Marcel Wanders, the influential Dutch designer, clocked Front as a future collaborator for Moooi, the furniture label he art-directs. Didier Krzentowski, from the just-as-influential (if not more so) Parisian design space Galerie Kreo, remembers it too, and has been representing Front’s more experimental work since close to that time. They stood out even then, says Krzentowski, because they were “doing something different, which, and let’s not underestimate this, is incredibly difficult today in design”.
What they do that is different is bring a humanising level to industrial processes and, moreover, that they tell at least one story with each project. For example, what’s interesting in their Blow Away vase, according to V&A ceramics curator Reino Liefkes, is that “they’ve taken a traditional handmade object and have used the most technically advanced design technology to take it apart and simulate how it would react to a gust of wind. That frozen moment shows how today can relate to a much longer tradition.” An added irony is that the vase was only ever intended as a computer game graphic – until Moooi picked up its potential.
And their first majorly commercial designs – the life-size horse (£3,200) and rabbit (£295) lamps, also for Moooi – were the result of research into what objects people really cherished in their homes after Wanders asked them to create a lamp that “even my grandmother would like”. One of the surprising conclusions – at a time when design was all geometrics and abstracts with virtually no human or animal decoration to be seen – was that the average person was attracted to the figurative.
The resulting animal lamps weren’t cynically meant to provoke, insists Lagerkvist. “People really connected to them and wanted to touch them. We were sent pictures from all round the world of where these animals ended up,” she says. “So it was about the life of the objects after they’d been bought as well as that instant feeling you get when you see something for the first time – what your gut reaction is, good or bad.”
Their new work for Moroso is multilayered too. What first impressed Patrizia Moroso was that they answered the brief she gave them “in a way no one else came close to”. The brief was to use photography in her furniture collection, but other designers or photographers took the idea too literally. Front’s idea was “not to make nice photographic images but to illustrate the illusions photography can carry”. They photographed fabrics or textures which, when enlarged, “gave the objects they were applied to an incredible character”. This effectively means that you can’t tell that a seat is soft until you sit on it because of the realistic, photographic wood-grain-printed fabric of the upholstery, and flat sections of a sofa appear “draped” due to the fabric depicting lavish textile drapery. This 2-D/3-D play was inspired, explains Lagerkvist, not least by the fact that much modern furniture design today is experienced as a flat image on paper. Most people never get to see the iconic furniture pieces they can name.
“The idea is the thing,” confirms Lagerkvist. “And often we won’t even know if something will turn out to be a table or a lamp. It’s the process that decides.” Which is where their technical know-how shines through. It can be a skill lacking in many purely furniture-trained designers, who rarely get to witness the production process between computer sketch-work and finished product. Moroso admits that it’s rare for young designers today to be able to produce their own work. “It’s a very non-Italian way of working, to be able to produce your own prototypes manually, but it’s so interesting because it means that their work is on the border with art installation, and is very cultural.” Equally, for Moroso, because the four are so involved in experimentation and project development, this is where their passion lies, and therefore where the majority of their time is spent.
The truth is that Lagerkvist has designed mobile phones (while at college, and would love to do one for real), worked with carbon fibre and is the kind of person who will study how a toothbrush has been put together for wider technical inspiration. Von der Lancken admits to being equally geeky – reading technology reports, or scouring fictional films and books for ideas. This leads to Front finding new ways to use techniques or materials that have been discovered in labs and have yet to be harnessed for domestic design purposes, but that they’ve read about in an obscure science journal.
For example, the aforementioned carbon fibre: “Most designers will want to use it for its extreme lightness and strength, so they’ll use it in steering wheels or something,” says Lagerkvist. “But we wanted to think about what it was really good for, which is that it can take extreme heat. Which means that you can use it to shape hot glass, which usually destroys anything it comes into contact with. And so we knitted a shape in carbon fibre and blew glass into it” (the resulting Carbon Fibre Vase in the Technology collection is not yet available for purchase). Similarly, with their experimental Sketch series (from $40,000), they used digital motion-capture technology “pens” to draw furniture designs in the air at a Tokyo design show. Their sketches were recorded onto a 3-D file and then materialised into furniture using laser sintering (where computer lasers fuse powder material into actual objects). “It’s those things we’re always looking for,” says Lagerkvist with relish.
Indeed, the approach is so idiosyncratic, so individual, that four young women throwing ideas around in their intimate Stockholm studio – or from thousands of miles away over the web, as Lagerkvist is increasingly London-based – seems like the perfect breeding ground for this particular brand of storytelling-meets-science design. In many ways it is their intimacy and understanding of each other that makes their work possible, and they know this. Of working with Moroso, Porro, Established & Sons and even Ikea, Lagerkvist says, “Although the companies we’re working with know they can rely on us to make strong, successful products, and we’re getting better at producing designs to fit a purpose, it’s crucial that we never lose the experimental thing. We’re still like students in the way we work – we’d never start making 3-D models or designing on the computer.”
The conclusion is that they want and need to keep the studio manageable. “We really want to keep it at a level where we are all able to be very close to every idea,” says Lagerkvist, insisting that they will always be a four-person design outfit. In addition, they employ an office manager and take on interns where possible.
Lagerkvist admits that she doesn’t know what the Front studio turns over per year (and later research gained no firm financial information). “I know we all take good salaries now and the rest of the profit – which I think is quite a lot – we put back into the business. But it’s taken a long time to get there because of how the industry works. It’s slow to get anything into production and you only start to receive royalties several years after first designing a product.”
And are they all happy with this? “Very happy. We were never in this to have a huge super-brand. Things have changed so much in design, even in the past five years since we started. Now when we’re teaching or talking to students, the young people want to be designers so as to be rich. It was never one of our goals, and it’s taken us a long time to get to the stage of making a profit from our work.”
The business model may sound a little naïve, and they admit that they are learning ever more about strategy and finance as they go on. At the time of writing, for example, Katja Pettersson is on maternity leave with her first child, as although Swedish childcare is superlative and free, they like the idea of supporting each other through the process of having and rearing children. So while Pettersson may be at home, she is voluntarily still involved in the design process. In fact, the system the Front team have stumbled upon sounds much like the ideal blueprint for modern womanhood and perhaps a more realistic approach to work.
“You know, we talk to a lot of other designers wherever we go, who will do anything to avoid having to travel to here or there. They sound jaded and tired,” concludes Lagerkvist. “Maybe we haven’t reached that stage yet. Or maybe it’s just that travelling to a new place with one of your best girlfriends is, well, fun. We love it – even if it’s to some industrial town in Italy. It’s just a lot of fun.”