Southern Sweden Creatives: Looking South

Design has long been one of Scandinavia’s greatest exports, with an industry known for producing considered, organic and minimal objects that combine function and beauty. But a unique three-year project, Southern Sweden Creatives (SSC), is now shining a light on an exciting new regional design community and shaping it into a thriving and internationally influential movement.

“In Sweden the design scene is very orientated around Stockholm. So this is something else, something that’s strengthening Swedish design, but from a new, alternative perspective,” says Malmö-based designer Jenny Nordberg about the EU and government funded SSC initiative. She is among the nine studios who have been selected to present their work at the latest SSC exhibition, What’s Your DNA?, that is showing at Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven in October.

For many of the local studios taking part in the exhibition, it’s that distance from Stockholm – Sweden’s capital creatively as well as geographically – that has given them space to breathe and create on their own terms. There are also a wealth of small, expert manufacturers in the region, who provide an extra layer of collaborative possibility when it comes to experimenting with materials and ways of working. Designers have been quietly amassing in Malmö in particular, thanks to the cheaper rent and the availability of studio space. The proximity to the design capital of Copenhagen, only a quick train ride away, is also helpful. “Because there hasn’t been a ‘design scene’ here before, we have this amazing opportunity to work with the studios around us to redefine what it is to be a Swedish designer, by showing something new,” say Jenny Ekdahl, Ola Nystedt and Joel Herslow, the three designers who make up Stoft, another Malmö studio taking part in the Eindhoven group show.

The exhibition at Dutch Design Week is the latest effort from SSC to tap into the global design industry, following a very successful outing at Milan Design Week last April – the biggest and most important trade fair in the design industry calendar – and at London Design Festival in September. The design industry’s infrastructure of fairs have traditionally been places where designers show their latest innovations to the press, manufacturers and investors. If they’re very lucky, the latter will either back those products – or even invite the designer to create something new. Each fair is known for a different ethos related to the host country or city. Milan is the biggest and most traditional, while London is an obvious choice as an international hub, while Dutch Design Week is the radical choice – and that makes it more of a gamble for SSC. But some would also argue this makes Eindhoven a natural fit.

“Dutch Design Week is very interesting, because it focuses on the future and on experiment and innovation which is very much in line with what’s happening in southern Sweden” says Johanna Sjögren Duthy, manager of public activities at Form/Design Center in Malmö. “There’s a similar humour and they’re also both quite straightforward.” The Form/Design Centre has decades of experience shepherding design in southern Sweden. They are lead project partner for the design fair ventures and played a key role in selecting the exhibition curator, Kajsa Willner (who is also a local designer). “The designers in this SSC exhibition are focused on process, and it feels like Dutch designers have influenced the rest of the design world when it comes to experimenting with materials and techniques,” Sjögren Duthy says. “There are similarities in terms of the working method – it’s not very commercial, there’s more of a conceptual approach.”

At the design fair in Milan, designers need to spend a lot of money and shout loudly to be seen among the huge influx of talent from all over the world – so there are benefits to showing at smaller fairs like Eindhoven. “Maybe something much bigger will come of being at Dutch Design Week as opposed to being in a small corner in Milan,” Sjögren Duthy reflects. “But it’s also about creating international contacts and building relations with the Netherlands, England and other countries.”

An unexpected side effect of the SSC exhibitions has been to show the local designers that they are not alone – that they are, in fact, one of the Nordics’ most interesting and exciting new design communities. “The SSC platform has established a relationship between the designers. It is very important in order for them to be bold and brave, and to go out and do things outside of their comfort zone,” says Caroline B. Le Bongoat, strategic developer for creative industries for the City of Malmö. “They are working on activities within the project that might not be possible otherwise, like going to London or Milan or Dutch Design Week, because it’s very expensive to go on your own,” she says. “If you collaborate as a group, you get both more attention and you are a little bit forced to be more concrete and precise about what you want and why you are doing this.” By connecting a wide range of creatives in the Skåne region and combining this with a long-term strategic collaborative effort to strengthen the field of design, locally and internationally, SSC has the potential to lay the groundwork for an even more ambitious model – one that would promote and support the creative industries not only for Skåne, but for the rest of Sweden as well.

The potential of SSC to change the design industry on a wider scale is also empowered by the significant funding behind the project. The brainchild of a group of organisations spearheaded by Invest in Skåne (the regional business promotion agency), SSC was conceived together with the City of Malmö and the county council, Region Skåne. They managed to raise €1.7 million, the largest sum dedicated to a regional project anywhere in Sweden, and quite possibly the largest for similar projects in the rest of Europe, too.“It’s quite rare that so many partners are involved with a project, and that they are so enthusiastic,” says Maria Tuszynski, who heads Region Skåne’s innovation and entrepreneurship unit, “but we recognised that there was a need to work together and coordinate our activities so we can focus on what is best to support the entrepreneurs.” Stefan Johansson, managing director of Invest in Skåne adds,“we are quite good in south Sweden at using European funds for different types of projects. There are other regions that are quite envious – but we are also connecting with other parts of Sweden and national organisations.” The idea for SSC came out of recent years of brainstorming. “We saw this strong design industry emerging, and we thought about how to improve the internationalisation of the industry,” he says. Over the course of the project – January 2016 through 2018 – SSC is driving a wide range of activity across the creative industries from film to gaming, but the focus on design is just taking off, with more exhibitions planned over the coming year.

By promoting southern Sweden as a new design hub, the official agency, Tourism in Skåne is hoping that SSC will bring design curious visitors to the region to visit studios and take part in events. “As a design destination, it’s quite new and still has to develop,” admits Heléne Östberg, marketing chief at Tourism in Skåne. “But SSC places a focus on Skåne as a destination for design. It’s not just one or two designers, it’s quite a lot. And the designers are also more aware of each other as well,” she adds. “I think they’re reflecting on why they are all here and what it is about this place that makes their work so unique. It’s quite good to have a shared mission – there is so much potential.”

That sentiment is shared by the designers taking part in the SSC exhibition: “It feels like it’s in the air that we’re coming closer to a real shared experience,” say Kristian Andréason and Kristin Leibel, who make up design studio Andréason & Leibel, while furniture designer Ola Giertz describes the What’s Your DNA? project as creating “a magical atmosphere”. If southern Sweden has all the right ingredients for a thriving design scene that can attract the attention of the world, then the SSC project is the collective spoon that is stirring the pot.

What’s Your DNA? is taking place during Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven at Klokgebouw 50 from 21st to 29 October. For opening hours and directions visit the website here.