The Women Who Want to Revolutionise Swedish Design
In egalitarian Sweden, an exhibition has stirred up questions about design and gender
For international readers, this might seem contentious – is such a battle cry needed in one of the most gender-equal countries on earth? And is Swedish design male-dominated? As the exhibition is booked to move on to Paris and Milan, we talk to the founder and renowned Swedish female designers about the differences between male and female design, and how a better balance can be struck in the business in future.
Paola Bjäringer is the curator of the touring feminist exhibition Misschiefs, with works from 10 Swedish designers and artists. How does she define Swedishness in design? “Useful, clean and sober.”
Bjäringer says, “Even in more gender-equal societies and design industries like Sweden, there is more room to be taken up by women creators at large. This in turn affects the objects, the product, the industry and the consumer culture that is craving new kinds of proposals to live more meaningful lives. Women are central in this new production cycle already in motion and yet in its birthing moment.”
Sweden is one of six nations in the world to have reached economic equality between genders, according to a 2019 report published by the World Bank Group. (The other countries are Denmark, Belgium, France, Latvia and Luxembourg.)
French-Swedish designer Emma Marga Blanche describes her Misschiefs project. “I was pregnant during the creative process, and it really influenced
my work. I started with a desire to explore knitting, because it is the one specific craft that is related to motherhood and women in general, all generations combined.”
“I wanted to see what aesthetic could be explored with knitting and to put it in contrast with something hard, interlace it with something else,” she says. “So the idea of making a stool came up, something stable you can sit on, that your body can rely on. At the same time the stool took shape, my pregnant body changed form and this in turn changed my view on the project.”
Patricia Urquiola: “Controlling Time is the Ultimate Luxury”
to speak to the visitor. It deals with expression, materiality
and resistance in my relation to the contemporary world.” Photo by Kimberly Ihre
“It is interesting to reflect upon why and how some categories of objects are highly gendered,” Bjäringer says. “It is time that women designers invade and take space in these often male-dominated design areas, as producers, thinkers, doers and buyers.”
Outside the Misschiefs project, many established Swedish female designers feel there is a need to shake up the market a bit. “There are old structures and patterns in the design business, which has been very male dominated,” says Louise Hederström, who has worked with furniture and accessories brands Offecct, Skandiform, Kasthall, Maze and David Design.
“Maybe it’s some kind of tunnel vision. You employ someone like you, so if there are men in management, there’ll be male designers hired.”
“As soon as you’ve done a chair for a major company – preferably one that’s stackable and will sell in the thousands – that’s when you are a designer,” she says. “When I did the Tailor chair for Offecct [pictured], things took off for me. It’s a bit funny that it’s the chair that’s taken on the design icon status, but it has. And most chairs you can name have been designed by men.”
The Controversial Villa E1027 by Eileen Gray
Jobs believes there is such a thing as male and female design. “There is definitely a difference in expression, but maybe less so here in the Nordics than in other parts of the world. Maybe what is Scandinavian about our design is a sense of equality. For many companies it’s almost trendy to commission female designers even if the company is male-led –which creates a good mix.”
Sandwall thinks the design world is moving ahead when it comes to social sustainability, equality and multiculturalism, but it doesn’t come free. “We all need to fight for it! One improvement would be to have more female product developers, for example.”
When the Misschiefs exhibition travels abroad, it will both showcase Swedishness and take a localised approach. Part of the proceeds from the sales of the exhibition catalog and the art pieces go to a women’s foundation called The Case for Her.
Bjäringer says, “That Misschiefs begins in Sweden is logical, as it’s a historical and geographical focal point for gender equality. Sweden is a world leader in gender equality, but more can be done. Even in Sweden, women have things yet to be said, expressed, made and consumed, by women makers. Misschiefs will grow as it travels, making it a mobile message and yet a unique experience for its visitors in each country.”
Hederström believes that change is on the way. “We can absolutely change things, but it takes time. The end consumer in Sweden when it comes to interior design is often a woman, so we are seeing more women in the boardrooms too. At the same time we also have to think sustainably when we design, consider circular manufacturing and innovative materials. The manufacturers and design companies must in general take in new talent, in sound, inclusive company structures. If we shake up the design world a bit, changes will come. How could that ever be wrong?”
Which female designer or designers have inspired you most? Share your answers in the Comments.
Two Irish Women Win the 2020 Pritzker Architecture Prize
Q&A With the Headliners of Archifest’s Women & Architecture