In the 20th century, Swedish design was dictated by functionality. But now a new generation of designers is turning traditional form and function on its head erasing the boundaries between art, design and handicraft.
Designers Åsa Jungnelius and Anders Ljungberg discuss their different approaches to Swedish contemporary craft. Photos: Fina Sundqvist / Private
Silversmith Anders Ljungberg and glass artist Åsa Jungnelius mix the contemporary with the customary. While both work using traditional techniques and materials, the objects they create are surprising and inquisitive — a reflection of the modern Swedish craft scene.
Silver and glass have been the material of choice for generations of Swedish artisans. Silver has long been a symbol of wealth and status, used for decorative objects, while glass has primarily been used to produce household goods and, later on, art pieces.
Ljungberg says the modernist tradition that emerged in the early 20th century marked a shift from the creation of ornate items representing social status toward a more functional interpretation about the object’s purpose. Ljungberg draws on shapes from the modernist silversmith tradition in his work, although often in unexpected ways.
"Tin" and "Bowl" (2003) by Ljungberg. Photo: Håkansson / Mannberg
For glass manufacturers, the fusion of art and industry became a survival strategy with the rise of mass production in the early 1900s. The focus on aesthetics rather than function paved the way for designers such as Jungnelius, who says her objects “comment on a function of the world, but are not so functional.”
A gray zone
Ljungberg and Jungnelius are hard to categorize. Ljungberg works as a silversmith, but also collaborates with Swedish houseware manufacturer BodaNova to design cutlery and other kitchenware. Jungnelius is a glass artist, but also designs for Swedish glass company Kosta Boda. The border between “designer” and “artist” is becoming increasingly blurred and is to some extent a matter of self-definition.
Ljungberg prefers to refer to himself as a designer and a silversmith, rather than an artist. He says that many companies still understand design as something to do with shapes and forms, rather than something more conceptual. But working with a company allows him to reach a wider audience, as well as explore how people react to his creations.
Jungnelius sees herself primarily as an artist. “There are probably lots of other people who would be much better designers, but I have something else,” she says. “I have an aesthetic language and a story that I want to tell with my objects, and now I have to force that into a production line.”
By creating objects like these giant glass lipsticks (2006) Jungnelius explores the connection between shopping and identity. Photo: Fina Sundqvist
Invisible and provocative shapes
Ljungberg and Jungnelius both question the ways in which we interact with objects, and use their work to say something about the world.
Ljungberg makes recognizable objects, but plays with their function by mixing up details or putting them into unusual situations, calling into question the expected order of things. “I’m very much working with everyday use and aspects that we take for granted,” he says.
One of his favorite pieces is called “Jug Looking for New Views,” which encourages us to think about the roles that objects play in our lives. The handle of the jug slides over the edge of the table, as if it is searching for something. “There is something going on under there. It has its own life under the table,” he says.
"Jug Looking for New Views" (2005) by Ljungberg. Photo: Håkansson / Mannberg
Jungnelius is interested in how objects provoke. Her work questions why it’s acceptable to play with some shapes and not others. Her final project as a student included a candleholder, “Storstake,” which was in the shape of a phallus.
“It’s an aesthetic shape that is off-limits,” she says. “I think it’s interesting to explore what shapes you’re allowed to use and why some things are provocative and others not.”
Jungnelius distinguishes between her own artwork and the projects she does for Kosta Boda. “’Storstake’ is actually a candleholder, but it’s very bad as a candle holder,” she says. “The function is to question something. Now I have to keep that element of questioning, but I have to make functional objects. For example, I might make a plate using very traditional techniques, but I don’t make it completely round so that the user sees the object in a new way.”
"Storstake" (2006) by Jungnelius. Photo: Fina Sundqvist
The contemporary craft scene
Both Ljungberg and Jungnelius see a shift in the contemporary Swedish craft scene. The division between fine arts and applied arts is narrowing as artisans are becoming more conceptual and experimental.
Ljungberg says there has long been a hierarchy between fine arts and applied arts, with the latter receiving less recognition. “But,” he adds, “there is something happening in the craft field in Sweden today. People are working the way they want to, and they are being accepted for that.”
Similarly, Jungnelius says that craft-based artists are moving closer to fine art. “Traditionally, crafts experimented with the material, but now it’s really about expressing yourself and the time you’re living in,” she says.
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Charlotte West, an American writer living in Stockholm, has written for design publications such as Icon Magazine and covers art and design for The Local, "Sweden's News in English." After talking to Anders Ljungberg, Charlotte wonders if her household items really do have a life of their own. If so, she hopes the dishes will learn to wash themselves.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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