Oscar Kylberg and Carl Philip Bernadotte arrive at Georg Jensen’s Copenhagen headquarters to the metronomic hammering of silversmiths at work in the ground-floor atelier. I’m guided through the smithy’s warren of rooms to meet them, passing artisans studying pieces of silver under the light of craned anglepoise lamps; Bunsen burners and alien-like probes stored in pencil pots sit beside them. It can take up to six months of patient bashing and polishing to make one of its largest pieces, including Henning Koppel’s iconic Eel dish, I’m informed along the way.
The metallic chorus is silenced as we enter a meeting room and the door closes behind us. Dressed head to toe in black, Bernadotte and Kylberg look relaxed as they nod by way of greeting. Both lean casually on the corner of a table within a space furnished with little more than a few old bookshelves. They need no introduction. Bernadotte, aka HRH Prince Carl Philip, Duke of Värmland, is the son of Sweden’s monarch, Carl XVI Gustav and fourth in line to the throne. Proof, if it were needed, that design really does course through the veins of every Scandinavian.
The 40-year-old prince and his wife, Princess Sofia of Sweden, a former model, are the epitome of the picture-postcard royal couple. They married at Stockholm’s royal chapel in 2015, celebrating their nuptials with a horse-drawn parade through the streets of the capital, followed by a lavish reception. Their first child, Prince Alexander, was born in spring 2016 and his brother Prince Gabriel arrived in 2017 – Kylberg is his godfather.
Bernadotte, as one might expect, pursued a traditional royal career in the military, completing his service as a combat boat commander in 2000. By 2014, he had achieved the rank of major in the Swedish Navy. But he also earned his stripes in design, attending a course at Stockholm’s Forsberg design academy until spring 2006, followed by the Rhode Island School of Design in the US. The pair’s first collaboration for the Swedish pottery company Gustavsberg, in 2012, resulted in Swedish Animals, a design that offered a hint of things to come. First and foremost it’s functional but it is also playful – the mole, forest hare, mallard and red fox morph into characterful ovenproof dishes. Bernadotte and Kylberg launched their design studio that same year.
Since then their output has been notably diverse: in 2014 they created waxed-cotton down jackets for the Swedish brand A-One and, in the same year, conjured a series of rugs out of discarded silk parachutes for Vandra Rugs. This led to a collection of home textiles – carpets, towels, bedspreads and bed sets – for the department-store chain Åhléns; there are 80 pieces to date. In 2015, Danish design company Stelton presented them with their first international assignment, resulting in Stockholm, a range of bowls and vases in polished aluminium and cold enamel. The Stockholm Aquatic version of the collection, infused with colours inspired by the Baltic seascape, received a Red Dot design award in 2015.
The subject of our meeting is displayed on a central bench on a polished tray – an elegant grouping consisting of a thermo coffee pot with a long ergonomic handle and a shorter teapot with a creamer and sugar bowl. Each piece is crafted in stainless steel and unified by a sinuous handle on the lid. Watercolour sketches are scattered across the table, revealing this simple “twist” detail to be the genesis of the design. “We cooked down the DNA of Georg Jensen’s organic style and put it on a little stage on top of the pot,” says Kylberg. Aptly, they have named their new collection Helix. “We’re ideas people first and then designers,” says Kylberg when asked what it takes to create a product that is integral to the daily rituals of life in so many cultures. “We’re influenced by everything around us – whether it’s through discussion, something we’ve read or that we’ve seen when walking around,” Bernadotte interjects, admitting that the two often call each other for just a few seconds to talk about an idea that excites them before hanging up. “The dialogue between us never stops,” he says.
The duo begin every project with a five-stage design process that is almost forensic in its rigour. First comes the critiquing of ideas – a conversational joust that, they say, helps them push the boundaries of possibility. “It’s something we joke about – our Swedish approach to the work,” says Kylberg. “We put everything on the table. There are no bad ideas and we lift every rock.” Nor are there any preconceived notions in this game of intellectual tennis. “We get excited by the fact that we have absolutely no idea what a product will be,” says Bernadotte. “You eliminate possibility when you come up with one concept and then say, ‘That’s it.’”
The pair put their theories to the test with an obsessional attention to detail. “For this project, for instance, we looked at everything from the weight of the pot when it is filled with liquid, to how a man pours differently to a woman. That’s why we designed a longer handle for the coffee pot – it gives it balance. Then there’s the precise angle of the spout and the radius of the pour – we’ve ensured there are no drips,” says Kylberg. “It’s mad looking back,” adds Bernadotte, “but there was a time when the guys at the smithy were sending us videos of the spout they’d made so we could watch and listen to how the coffee poured from the pot.” Nicholas Manville, Georg Jensen’s chief creative officer, who liaised with the pair throughout the project – first approaching them two years ago – refers to the “crazy physics” of this experimental phase. “We had a few private headaches about that spout but we didn’t want to limit them as designers in any way and made it work,” he says.
Manville’s desire not to straitjacket the designers extended to an open brief. The company has its own archive where every sketch and design in its 115-year history is recorded and stored. The facility is deemed so vital to Scandinavia’s heritage that it is now protected by the Danish government, even though it remains in the hands of a private enterprise. This is where the design process usually starts, but Bernadotte and Kylberg did not want to be influenced by what had gone before. “They’re pieces we’ve grown up with and are in our psyche,” says Bernadotte, alluding, perhaps, to his great-uncle Prince Sigvard Bernadotte of Sweden (1907-2002), a great-grandchild of Queen Victoria who as a designer created some of Georg Jensen’s most distinctive silver pieces. Clearly, Carl Philip has inherited the family’s “design gene” but does he feel the weight of this legacy? “Yes and no,” he says. “Unfortunately, he passed away before I began studying design but I would have loved to have sat down and discussed it with him. At the same time, we never allow anyone define how we work, and it was important in this project, as always, that we focused on our creativity.”