Tracking down three Nordic design studios doing things differently.
Scandinavian design has existed on a bedrock of core values since the 1950s; a set of clearly-defined principles that favour functionality, simplicity and minimalism. They are principles that apply equally to industrial design as to hand-crafted products — you’re as likely to find examples of minimalism in the ceramics of a Finnish potter as you are in the warehouses of IKEA — and can be found throughout all of the Nordic nations (which is particularly unusual as there’s anecdotal in-fighting between countries; I’m told that the Finns are arrogant, the Norwegians speak an inferior form of Danish and nobody likes the Swedes).
In the product design world in particular, the Scandinavian identity has been hard to escape. Brands like Bang & Olufsen and Electrolux have dominated the international market, controlling the perception of their respective nations abroad and enforcing their aesthetic of clean lines, neutral colours and functional simplicity. But the market has shifted, the economic climate has changed and increasingly young Nordic designers are breaking out of the mould in which they’ve been shaped for half a century, producing products that satisfy their consumers’ demands in entirely new ways.
In light of this we went to chat with a handful of product designers in Sweden, Denmark and Norway to see how Scandinavian design is moving away from a single vision and producing products in completely innovative ways.
AM are a Danish company based in Copenhagen with a two-part history. Founded in 1971 by Anders Moesgaard they established themselves as a leading brand in the then unexplored field of vinyl cleaning. Anders was 17 years old when he produced his first product, still living with his parents and finishing his last year of school. “I had a good friend who made a lot of products and was producing small, easy objects like salt and pepper mills, and he always told me that I should start my own company. He drove a Mustang and had a big swimming pool so I thought ‘Yeah, why not, that seems like fun.’”
Anders initially struggled to find a product with which to start his company but was inspired when his older brother threw a party at which his guests nearly ruined his record collection. He couldn’t find anything to clean the records so sought the advice of a friend who told him to get himself to the pharmacy and buy some alcoholic face wash. It did the job and Anders realised that if he could give the cleaning fluid anti-static properties then he’d have a record-cleaning product that was utterly unique. So he began experimenting in his garage until he had something that worked, then dyed it blue so it would be instantly recognisable.
“Then I went down to the local record shop with my products and the guy that ran it just said no, there was no demand for what I was selling and sent me away. The day after I sent my mother down to the shop to ask for this new, blue record cleaner that everyone was talking about. The owner called me up that afternoon to order a bottle, but I told him he had to buy twelve. After that my mother was always scared to go past the shop.”
Two years later Anders was selling record cleaner and a whole host of other vinyl-related products all over Europe and began to realise that his stock needed to look as good as it performed. “I was very focussed on producing something that looked polished, so I told my designer Søren Balle that the products had to look so good that they could sit next to a Bang & Olufsen or a Braun, who at the time were the number one selling audio designers in Denmark. Whatever I did I wanted to match the best products available.”
Forty years on AM are a very different beast, still successfully producing desirable and functional products but now aiming themselves at the tech world, their sights set on Apple loyalists in particular (the B&O of modern design). They’re still all about cleaning, but with the vinyl market failing they’re keen to be part of a new digital generation. Anders is no longer involved in running the business and his son Jacob stands in his stead, a man more than qualified to do his father’s old job.
Jacob cut his teeth pursuing a business degree and, during evenings and weekends, ran club nights around Copenhagen with his friends. They had achieved moderate success so found themselves an abandoned building and started making their shows more regular.
“We had the club up on the roof and were doing events every weekend so we got to know all of these people that were part of the creative scene. We knew the developers were waiting on planning permission for the building so we decided to stop it from sitting there empty for two years and fill it with stuff instead. We had events upstairs and artist studios in the rooms below. At first we only had about ten people and then all of a sudden the place was full.”
The A-Huset, as the building was known, ended up playing host to some of Denmark’s finest creative talent, with artists like Tal R, Asger Carlsen and Husk Mit Navm all housed in their studios and Henrik Vibskov using it as the venue for his first ever show. It was also the place that Jacob met the creative collaborators with which he set up his highly successful designer headphone brand AiAiAi.
With club nights and audio equipment already under his belt Jacob is hellbent on taking his father’s products to an international, design savvy audience, appropriating Apple’s visual language to transform mundane cleaning products into attractive objects of use. If his previous endeavours are anything to go by, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Teenage Engineering was founded in Stockholm in 2007 by Jesper Kouthoofd, David Möllerstedt, David Eriksson and Jens Rudberg, four friends who’d been working across sound engineering, game programming and ad directing in their previous careers. All of them had achieved success in their respective field but were looking to channel their energies elsewhere, creating physical objects in an environment of experimental collaboration. Now they spend their days working out of a garage in Stockholm surrounded by their team of 17, their tools and a collection of vintage Lamborghinis — “that’s just a hobby.”
Despite setting up shop in 2007 the studio didn’t actually produce its first product until 2011, the OP-1; a portable synthesiser released to extraordinary critical acclaim and widespread support from the music industry — Beck was a beta tester, Depeche Mode are huge fans and Yuri Suzuki is rarely seen without one (though to be fair, he was involved in its design). It was created in response to the increasingly digital landscape in which music production, and often composition, are carried out on a single, multipurpose computer. By producing a product dedicated to a single function, Jesper hopes that the object will encourage its user to be that much more creative, to channel their energies in a single direction instead of many. It’s also important to him that the functions of the OP-1 exist on a physical platform.
“I think the popularity of physical objects is a reaction to all the non-physical things that have been dominating the tech world in the last five years, like touch, analogue emulation and stuff like that. People are starting to understand that developing software on bad hardware is a waste of time.” As a result “bad hardware” simply isn’t an option for Jesper and his team, which explains the four-year wait for a first product and, more importantly, is testament to the process-driven approach they apply to their practice.
“We build a lot of prototypes and mock-ups; we study them, modify them and experiment with them. To be honest our imagination is very limited so we need to go through this process to get ideas, understand the world and ourselves. Sometimes we’ll feel something instinctively and start pushing ourselves in that direction until more and more people in the studio get interested and involved. Finally everyone’s visions are united and in harmony, and that’s when we know we’ve found a project worth spending two to three years of our lives working on, to finalise and make into something real.”
The design process doesn’t just end when the final physical product is delivered. The Teenage Engineering philosophy means that customisations and improvements are made to fix bugs, satisfy user demands and amplify the experience of using their products. In the case of the OP-1 that meant adding bright plastic crank arms, pitch-shifters and even an attachment that allowed integration with pieces of Lego, meaning you could control your synthesiser with miniature car wheels and bend the pitch of your samples with a simple rubber band.
This might seem like a gimmicky approach to product design but it satisfies a variety of demands, developing that all-important physical interaction with the product and keeping the needs of their loyal fan-base met, no matter how whimsical. This is crucial in an enterprise as small as theirs. Every new project they undertake is self-funded, which means Jesper and his team still have to go out and work on side projects to ensure their financial stability. “We believe in mixing it up a bit and doing other things, but we also have to fund our own projects with money from advertising. It’s our blood money.”
Theo Tveterås and Lars Marcus Vedeler met in 2005 while studying industrial design at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. Five years later they started Skrekkøgle as a side project while both working at the same software corporation. Over the past few years the pair have gone from producing strange, conceptual, fine art focussed projects to making actual functioning products.
“We started Skrekkøgle as a side gig to have a place to play with ideas. As we had a day job we never thought much of the financial potential of our work and that may have given it a more artsy feel. After two years or so we decided to make Skrekkøgle our main source of income, so we both quit our jobs and started this full time, which probably makes our projects seem more commercial.”
Commercial might not be the right word for Skrekkøgle’s practice, although they are making money from their products. The projects they undertake certainly don’t seem to be financially motivated and instead come from the collaboration of two instinctively enquiring minds. “We don’t make products that solve problems. We make things to investigate or just enjoy concepts and have little thought for the functional aspect of things. Stories are usually more interesting than functions anyway and there are few problems we could solve that are actually worth solving.”
Despite this humble attitude to their work Theo and Lars Marcus have already produced some incredibly impressive pieces of equipment in their short time together. Plugg is a prototype DAB radio they they’ve been working on that investigates the physical way we interact with electronic devices. Functionally it’s as simple as a product gets — a small yellow box with a cork that’s removed and replaced to turn the audio on and off — but the ideas behind it are incredibly focussed. “The physicality of things in meat space [as they put it] makes for very tactile interactions, but the lightweight nature of digital enables a more dynamic product. What we are most interested in right now is exploring the digital embedded in the physical, to slightly animate products in the real world.”
“Most products that we’ve done have been decided upon after maybe two minutes of discussion and the project outline is set from the beginning. The best things we produce have one purpose, not many, which makes it easier to have a clear view of what we want.”
For a team of two making limited-run products you’d expect Skrekkøgle to be advocates of a new generation of cheap home manufacturing. It seems you can’t move for 3D printing serving as a focal point for many new design concepts, particularly where small studios are concerned. But the boys aren’t convinced that these much-lauded new technologies offer the quality their manufacturers suggest and are sceptical about the so-called democratisation of 3D technology. “The tools that are cheap enough to be defined as democratised are good for prototyping but not for final production. Laser cutters and CNC routers might be useful very soon, but 3D printing still has a long way to go.”
That said they’re prepared to concede they may jump on that bandwagon in future. One thing they won’t be doing is producing any work that feels Norwegian, an idea that they feel is entirely outdated. “It might be more helpful to think of today’s design cultures in a temporal sense more than geographically — as fads in a way. Nowadays the internet is the dominant form of communication and I think people should be more aware of how it shapes their work.”
Originally published in Printed Pages Winter 2013.
Illustrations by Emily Robertson.