Unmaking Democratic Design explores Sweden’s design identity through chairs
- Jyni Ong
- 27 February 2019
As we all know, Swedish design is somewhat synonymous with Ikea and its accessible design for the masses. Otherwise known as “democratic design”, the country is famed for delivering easy-to-use, cheap, flat-packed furniture to the rest of the world. Priding itself on an all-encompassing universality that provides everyone and anyone with affordable and ergonomic design, the notion of democratic design is synonymous with Sweden’s design identity.
In a new exhibition at the Röhsska Museum showing this Spring, Umaking Democratic Design: Fredrik Paulsen sees the furniture designer interpret his idea of democratic design through chairs. Curated by Johan Deurell and with a visual identity designed by London-based design studio Europa, the upcoming exhibition allows visitors to create chairs alongside guest designers.
Mia Frostner, a designer at Europa tells It’s Nice That: “Our work for Fredrik is almost absurdly literal. We designed letterforms as if they could be built out of planks of wood, but often a restrictive logic like this can lead to a design solution that you could not imagine without it.”
The visual identity is composed of two main design elements. Firstly, a bespoke typeface that uses “a strict, chair inspired grid broken up curves”. Secondly, Europa’s definitive use of spot colours throughout the printing of the catalogue. Both these elements, in turn, reflect Fredrik’s making process. He colours wood with pigments and dyes to create bright and vivid furniture. Similarly, the graphic designers translate this process onto paper with their identity. “By using special inks instead of CMYK, we have paralleled the brightness and vitality of the pure colours used by Fredrik – which would otherwise be dulled through a standard CMYK colour mixing.”
On the other hand, the custom typeface was designed with furniture directly in mind. “We tried to imagine a what-if scenario of Fredrik building the letterforms in the same way he builds his exuberant chairs,” says Mia. Influenced by the typographer Edward Wright, the designers manage to design a balanced typeface that possesses the rigidity of a chair, as well as “occasional curvy bits” reminiscent of Fredrik’s Arch Chair and rocking bench.
When asked about the significance of the humble chair’s social design, furniture designer Fredrik comments on his new show saying, “I always wanted to destroy the mythology surrounding the chair, many designers claiming that it is the hardest thing to design.” As the chair is something that most of us use on a daily basis, its concrete place in society is not only essential, it’s also political. The exhibition has a fully-equipped workshop shed in the middle of the space, encouraging visitors to make their own chairs that will build-up into “a real-time contemporary collection”. And at the end of the exhibition, Fredrik will return “to make one last chair with ideas from this collaborative design process”.
The show’s curator Johan Deurell says on the concept of his first exhibition at the Röhsska Museum: “The mythology of democratic design still permeates how Swedish design is seen. We decided to use the chair as a subject, as that is often used to tell a modernist story about design as ever-progressive.” Together with the museum’s director Nina Due, the pair considered, “How can the Röhsska Museum, who has had an active role in creating and maintaining this myth of democratic design as something particularly Swedish, now unmake it?”
Fundamentally, with this new exhibition, Johan hopes to present alternative interpretations of the concept. “It feels necessary to move away from the consumerist definition of democratic design, and to say something about labour value rather than exchange value.” The show explores the social aspect of chairs in design history, “we play with chairs that tend to be talked about as democratic. But I don’t think there is any true democratic design.” He goes onto conclude, “democratic design is about more than just cheap stuff. We also wanted to explore some of its other building blocks such as usability and functionality, materiality, aesthetics and craftsmanship.”
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.