How design creatives in Skane are challenging Stockholm and the norms of Swedish design

Melissa York
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The western harbour (Source: Kentaroo Tryman)

For ancient history buffs, it’s Rome or Stonehenge; for foodies, it’s Le Marais or Tuscany; for design nerds, home is Sweden.

There’s something about its laidback charm, its rustic, uncluttered decor that’s universally appealing. But there’s a feeling that its capital, Stockholm, has lost a little of its moxie. Sky-high property prices and an ultra competitive atmosphere have bred a scene that keeps its production costs low and its contacts book tight shut. At least, this is what designers in Malmo say fuelled their decision to move to Skane, the southernmost region of Sweden.

“The thing that’s so special about Malmo is that the people are so helpful, they share contacts because they know they will all be stronger because of it,” says Terese Alstin, from the Form/Design Center. Accessed through a quaint courtyard just off Lilla Torg, a rowdy tourist-packed piazza, it’s a wooden, almost Tudor-like building, accessed via a glass atrium that was added during a renovation two years ago.

The glassblowing exhibition inside the Form and Design Center

Crammed with products from local designers, it’s proved an essential meeting place for the city’s creatives. “I get emails all the time from new designers who are moving here. More and more people are coming because Stockholm is so expensive and we’re very open and welcoming. It isn’t like that everywhere. There is definitely an underdog attitude directed towards Stockholm.”

The centre hosts free exhibitions – the current one is celebrating the region’s glassblowers – as well as workshops and networking events for the city’s designers, and it’s proved an indispensable source of support and advice for the burgeoning design scene in Malmo. Terese says it’s “the bridge between the designers and the public”, and, as a freelance designer herself, she’s able to give practical advice on how to create experimental projects, and cover the rent at the same time. “More than 80 per cent of the designers in Skane are one-person companies,” she says. “So it helps their self-esteem and confidence to see each other grow and grow.”

And grown they have. In fact, the scene is so abuzz with new talent that it’s made the city exponentially younger. The average age in town is 34 and Malmo’s 15- year-old university, which is gaining a reputation for design, adds some 24,000 students to the population. But it wasn’t always this dynamic. For about 10-15 years, things were actually pretty dire. Malmo has a mixed reputation in Sweden, resulting from its years in the economic doldrums following the closure of its shipyards in 1986.

Malmo station. Photo: Werner Nystrand

The once thriving submarine manufacturing industry was outsourced to cheaper climes and 6,000 jobs were lost overnight. A period of massive unemployment followed and certain parts of the city gained a reputation for their crime statistics. Its recent fame, as one half of the setting for The Bridge – the popular TV thriller centring around a murder on the Oresund bridge connecting the city to Denmark – probably hasn’t helped matters.

These days, the Turning Torso, a neo-futurist vision of glass and steel, twists out of the skyline, a symbol of the city’s struggle towards regeneration. The 54 storey skyscraper by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava claims to be Scandinavia’s tallest residential building and the world’s only ‘twisting’ tower. It stands proudly in the midst of 6,000 new homes built along the old docks for the European Housing Expo in 2001, which form Sweden’s largest settlement of eco-properties.

There are a tangle of bikes on every street corner, while new hotels – notably foliage-swamped Oh Boy Hotel and Story Studio Malmo, an ultra-modern co-working space that opened at the end of last year – offer bikes to rent. They sit alongside the city’s new tech and digital media hub, which employs around 800 people, leering at Copenhagen across the sea like upstart challengers.

Students from nearby Lund University and Gothenburg in western Sweden have also been persuaded to set up shop in Malmo in recent years. One of them is Anna Gudmundsdottir, a former industrial design student at Lund, who takes me for a tour of local design studios, which showed for the first time at London Design Festival this month.

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A group of 11 designers, all from Malmo and its environs, are setting up shop in the Swedish Embassy as part of a Southern Sweden Creatives initiative and tourism board Visit Sweden’s effort to bring the work of these plucky upstarts to international attention.

And Stockholm isn’t the only name that brings out the underdog in them. “Most designers I know have worked for IKEA at some point. They make a lot of products!” Anna says. “But we’re really all about taking control and being in charge of our own production. I’d say that’s the common link between a lot of designers here.”

Anna’s degree focused on the whole design process, from concept to production to marketing, and like many of her peers, she works on a small scale, making custom designs to sell in boutiques, studios or for one-off projects. Many of the furniture stores in Malmo sell local designs, but fairly big names – like String and Mats Theselius – tend to dominate in the department stores. “I can see that changing,” Anna says. “People are into art in the home and they want different stuff, not the same things everyone else has.”

Jenny Ekdahl from Stoft with one of the studio’s lampshades. Photo: Melissa York

Malmo is an eminently walkable city, and you can hit all the cool design stores in a day, making it the perfect relaxed city break, or a furniture frenzy to tack on the end of a trip to Copenhagen. Clustered around the centre of town, Engelbrektsgatan, a cobbled street in between Lilla Torg and the other big public square Gustav Adolfs Torg, are smaller, local boutiques such as Formargruppen.

These showcase only Skane designers, with a story and headshot accompanying each product; brands include Norrgavel, reminiscient of an upmarket showroom you’d encounter on a side street in Chelsea; and Olsson & Gerthel, which has showroom after showroom of inspiring Scandi-interior setups.

“I get emails all the time from new designers who are moving here. More and more people are coming because Stockholm is so expensive and we’re very open and welcoming"

Further down the road, Svenssons i Lammhult, a grand former cinema, is home to Malmo’s bigger names. The entrance is decked out with Hollywood walk of fame style ‘stars’ dedicated to product legends such as the Eames chair. AB Smaland, meanwhile, is a traditional Swedish furniture store named after the region where IKEA itself was born.

Malmo’s proximity to Smailand’s manufacturing hub is part of the reason Malmo designers are so much more in touch with the production process, suggests Ingrid Wingard, of ethical producer Minus Tio. Malmo is only a two hour drive away, whereas you’re looking at twice that if you’re coming from Stockholm.

Her company, based in up-and-coming Slottsstaden only uses sustainable, recyclable wood, steel and leather made in Sweden and has made £5,000 chairs for Mats Theselius, as well as bar stools for the BBC’s headquarters in London. “From here, you can visit your manufacturers and really understand them,” she says.

“It’s not just a trend, it’s a global way of thinking; people want to buy smaller and more sustainably,” says Petra Lilja, a designer who started selling her one off pieces in 2005. She shares a warehouse with a photographer, a jewellery designer and a painter in Kirseberg on the industrial outskirts of Malmo.

From here she reaches across the Scandinavian divide with her 1Plus1Plus1 project, where she agrees on a concept with two other designers in Iceland and Finland – a candlestick or a cabinet, for example – designs her third, then meets up with her Scandi counterparts 24 hours before a show. Then they use 3D imaging to put the combinations together and manufacture their favourite ones.

On the cheaper outskirts of town in Varnhem are Stoft, a studio set up in 2013 by three Lund university students. Their studio, displaying brightly coloured light fixtures and quirky dressers in the window, gives way to a workshop underneath where they make their products. Stoft roughly translates as dust, the thousands of tiny particles that make up our everyday existence; it’s a philosophy that drives their ideas-led design ethic.

I point out some glass-blown light fixtures, a series of concentric circles bulging out of brass rings, a bit like lopsided beehives. “They’re about when you’re trying to be something you’re not, when your real self is bursting out, like when you’re wearing a belt that’s too tight,” says Jenny Ekdahl, one third of Stoft. From conception to production, those fixtures took two years to make, she explains. Stoft specialises in what it calls ‘story-based’ design: “It makes us feel honest; we’re inspired not by others in the industry or a problem that needs to be solved, but by an idea within us.”

After years working for corporate giants, many Malmo-based designers are using international fairs, like the Design Festival in London, to show their creative faces. One such pairing is Andreason & Leibel and FutureDays, two design studios who exhibited together at the Swedish Embassy.

Kristian Andreason and Kristin Leibel worked for IKEA and in graphic design before doing commissions and venturing out on their own. In their workshop, busts of Putin, Trump and Kim Jong Un, a commission from a Russian artist, sit alongside their handmade cabinetry and ‘Hedonist Skulls’, 3D-printed industrial-style human craniums cast in porcelain.

“We had a very strong urge to do something creative with no limitations. In Sweden, we didn’t really have the word ‘designer’ for a long time, people just called them artists,” says Kristin. And Kim Walltin, the one-man-band behind FutureDays, worked for packaging giant Tetrapak before branching out on his own to make vividly-coloured origami-shaped sculptures and cocktail tables inspired by Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

Nearby Saltimporten is a series of old shipping containers now full of young designers who gather to eat in the ground floor canteen. They queue up alongside long tables or brave the choppy winds on picnic benches for a choice of two locally sourced, healthy dishes – ox cheek tartare or a vegan curry on my visit – and a rustic hunk of sourdough you saw off yourself from an enormous chopping board on the side.

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Upstairs, surveying the rapidly changing urban landscape from his pristine white office is Milan Kosovic. His staff are poring over a 3D model of a baby’s car seat: “Some of my friends see this work as a means to an end, but I love the car seats,” he says. “It’s a different kind of challenge. I wouldn’t show them at a fair though.”

For London, he worked with a ceramicist he met through a competition organised through the Form/Design Center to create hefty, clay centrepieces, ambiguous sculptures meant to provide a focal point in the home. “Those companies grew too big, they destroyed so much, so there’s a natural reaction to that,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Malmo feels new, we have a lot of good studios around and, importantly, people that are driven. As a result, we’re getting more funding and attention.”

It may have taken some time­­­, but Made in Malmo is on its way to being a designer label in its own right.

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