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Thomas Sandell

Av Leo Gullbring
What is Swedish design? Forget Ericsson, forget Volvo , forget IKEA. A mobile phone is just a phone without a cord. A Volvo is just another car. And when were IKEA lastly at the forefront of design anyway? Swedish design as it best is not made by the big companies or by official Sweden, but by young independent designers like Thomas Sandell.


  

Oh yes, that's him, the same black leather jacket as usual, black clothes, extremely large shoes and that straight forward honest face. Thomas Sandell is about to introduce a symposium on what is the essence of Swedish design, the result of a workshop lead by some internationally acclaimed designers like Stefano Giovannoni, Marc Newson, Konstantin Grcic. But Thomas Sandell does not doubt that there is something unique characterising Swedish design.

"It's something I myself have in common with other Swedish architects and designers, that the materials has to express themselves, that the wood, the bricks and so forth has to speak for themselves. "

"As Swedes we can relate to this blondness, we have a natural propensity for it, as opposed to when we try to copy the international trends. We only have to accept it, it's Swedish design, and it all has to do with honesty I would say."

Thomas Sandell has come up as one of the most sought after representatives of this new edition of Swedish Modern. We meet outside the Museum of History in Stockholm, under a pale blue sky, a few minute before the debate is going to start. He introduces his friend and working partner, the AD Ulf Sandberg. It might seem an unusual combination, but although their staff of 30 work on a lot of separate project, they also embark jointly on interior and house architecture, graphic design, furniture design, and PR.

While we are seating ourselves, I do consider Thomas words, and I believe he is right. London and Milan have no doubt lost some of their own identity in the plural society. Swedes might be square and naive, they might be too uncomplicated and too straightforward, but they have profound sense for nature and an eco-friendly concern. In the debate Marco Romanelli, Abitare, calls it our secrecy of silence. Whatever you call it, it lends Swedish designers an own identity, and probably this local quality and this tectonic sense is quite important in a world ever more virtual and detached from material life. Bereft of our connection to reality, we need to be reminded by the things we use. And Thomas Sandell does no doubt endorse this need. Just take a look at his chair 'Ängel'.

"Strange enough it has become one of my bestselling furniture items, he says after the debate, which anyway couldn't nail down the sense of Swedish design, although the confusion was quite liberating."

"I actually made it for my own countryhouse. It's kind of a play with tradition, and I gather it was kind of missing in the Swedish houses since it has been my best selling chair so far."

I would say that this playfulness, this predilection for wood, this way of relating as far back as the Gustavian era, to Carl and Karin Larsson and their Sundborn, to the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, is the very key to understand Swedish design. And Thomas' eclectic manner, where old references are born anew in another materials, shows a simplicity that makes you smile at the details.

"It's fun doing furniture, it's a kind of a hobby, a relaxation, it goes quite fast from idea to finished product, although a chair is among the most difficult things that there is to design!"

"I like it when I'm able to surprise colleagues with something different, of which they had no idea. A good example is Café Blom at the Museum of Architecture here in Stockholm. People says it's shockingly ugly or simply the best I've done. Then I'm proud!"

The international outlook is quite important to Thomas, and he has been commissioned to work for B&B Italia and Cappellini. It was quite an experience since the Italians have a very professional approach with extremely specified briefs and such. B&B Italia did probably choose Thomas not so much because he is Swedish, although his temperate design and minimalistic approach was appreciated. Rather it was the fact that he is an architect and as such is better suited to design furniture which are meant to be used.

"We started up having a discussion on what's design for young and old people. I argued that's an inappropriate classification since older people usually has a more developed taste, and a sixty year old can actually buy more radical design, while young people might dispose of modern design and search for things which reminds them of their childhood."

Thomas proposes that we should pay his office a visit, although it's Sunday. And walking the few blocks in the summer warmth, he underlines that a good chair has to have its own expression, adding something new, with a good function. Although he acknowledges that he is born in the modernist tradition, his minimalist approach can also be explained by the very fact that the interface between ourselves as complex beings and the act of sitting or lying down, needs to be fulfilled by spare sober, almost austere objects. But, and this must be a leasson learned at IKEA, a good price is important, design is not only for the very few.

Design is on the other hand something quite rare, even in a country where IKEA is one of the largest companies. True enough Thomas, and fellow architect Thomas Eriksson, were in charge of the acclaimed IKEA PS-collection, shown at the Milan furniture fair 1995, and since then a strong influence in Italian furniture design. But Stockholm is dominated by other trends. The Water Festival immerses the town with cheap booths and heavy drinking. The official conservative attitude, with working pits all over what is supposed to be this years European cultural capital, (Sandell and Eriksson made the logotype!), strives to impose Prince Charles ideas on both architecture and city-planning. The new Modern Museum by Rafael Moneo is no exception to this historicist agenda. Thomas admits his monochromatic interior for the restaurant didn't come out as expected, he had opted for red colours on his chairs, and on the walls, a sort of reminiscence of Sundborn, but instead it all turned grey. The reason was the politicians of Stockholm who forced Moneo to change the colours of the facade from grey to red, and therefore the Kantina Moneo was decided to have soft white and grey colours, more in tradition with the old small houses found in the Stockholm archipelago.

The office is located in a turn-of the-century courtyard, with a lot of successful young companies involved with design, publicity, journalism and such. True enough the new design is to be found in between, or rather at right angels to the populist and the conservative approaches. Behind the door is a large room filled with work-desks and computers, a space apparently neglected by the designers themselves. The prevailing preference for white in many design of his own designs Thomas interprets as a reaction to the postmodern look. (The plate on the door to the office is of course white on white.)

Last night I revisited Rolf's Kök (Rolf's Kitchen), designed by Thomas jointly with Jonas Bohlin at the end of the 80s. Here was the first mature examples of bar and restaurant-designs to completely change the night life of the 90s, this one a kind of Nordic Shaker. And this profusion of new places in central Stockholm has been almost hyped with some extraordinary design by more or less contemporary colleagues of Thomas: John Kandall, Love Arbén, Mats Theselius, Anders Wilhelmsson, Claesson-Koivisto-Rune.

"I believe that a restaurant has to be more than pure design. You must be able to take some liberties, add some values, a smile. When finished you've got to give your project away, as a gift to the people managing the place. You've done the shell, now it's up to them to do the rest. You might hate their decorations, but you must leave room for their own joy."

Thomas says he himself designed at least 11 advertisement agencies in the 80s. Together with Ulf he hopes will give a start to what he denominates communication design, which involves a lot of diverse disciplines and were PR doesn't have to be 2-dimensional.

"I think that companies has realised that it's not enough with advertisement, architecture and design are important additions to their marketing strategies."

Now his office feels ready for bigger projects, and they are already well ahead on an addition and interior design for the Swedish embassy in London and a housing project in central Stockholm.

 

 

Questions and answers....

1. What was the most important event of 1997?

working with the interior design and furniture for the Modern Museum of Stockholm

2. Who do you design for?

B&B Italia, Cappellini, IKEA, Gärsnäs, Källemo

3. Who, or what, inspires you?

I've always appreciated architects who deals with projects in their totality, like Alvar Aalto, Gunnar Asplund, and why not Renzo Piano, they all care about the small scale, designing furniture, fittings etc

4. What is your favourite building?

I spent three months in Italy on a scholarship visiting a lot of buildings, on my way home I stopped by at the church by Sigurd Lewerentz at Klippan, that's my favourite...

5. What is your favourite space?

Biblioteca Laurenziana by Michelangelo in Florence

6. Who is your favourite artist?

Donald Baechler

7. Which book are you reading right now?

I've just finished Gitta Sereny's book on Albert Speer

8. What really annoys you?

the retro-nostalgia which dominates the urban renewal scheme of Stockholm

9. What was your biggest design blunder?

I was working on a chair for Gärsnäs when I happened to discover an almost exact copy in their catalogue, that was a big blunder, not having check on their collection and that a similar design already existed

10. What do you think will be the biggest change to affect the design worldover the next few years?

I believe the millenium-shift will have a great psychological impact which will let loose a lot of creativity, not unlike the situation at the end of the 19th century at the event of modernism and personalities like Adolf Loos. And I really hope that the prevailing historicist attitude in Stockholm will come to an end!

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