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Swedish Design: An Ethnography

0 Comments 🕔15.Sep 2016

It is a curious fact unique to Scandinavian countries that design is now associated with the nation. The labels “Danish,” “Finnish,” “Swedish,” etc. imply much more than merely design made in Scandinavia; such national branding brings with it ideologies of essentialized Swedishness, Danishness, and Finnishness, and points to intriguing connections between aesthetics and welfare state politics. How does social engineering happen through the faculty of taste and the concept of beauty? How do particular forms and lines come to symbolise a certain ethos, and become the cornerstone of a project of Swedish nationbuilding? How does cultural identity, quite literally, take shape?

These are the larger questions Keith Murphy addresses in his book Swedish Design: An Ethnography. The book combines a close focus on design work itself—material objects, design studio environment, interactions—with several wide angles to give a sense of the historical, cultural, economic, and political context of such work, which enables us to understand how design becomes Swedish design, i.e., how particular forms have become vehicles for a politics and a morality, or as Murphy explains, “Tables, lamps and chairs are not just things, in this perspective, they are just things” (1).

During the first part of the twentieth century in Sweden, a modernist aesthetic came to supplant what could be described as an aristocratic aesthetic based on costly materials and time-consuming artisan production processes. This new aesthetic fit industrialization because its shapes and forms were easy to mass-produce, which again resonated with social democratic ideals of equality, and also with ideas of modernity and development as it promised to solve problems in a rational and transparent way. Murphy thus traces the historical link between a social democratic ideology and this new idea of beauty. These visions were articulated and communicated by prominent politicians, artists, architects, and educators like Ellen Key, Carl Larsson, Gunnar, and Alva Myrdal etc. who shaped public debate and perceptions starting in the 1870s and continuing for the next hundred years, effectively establishing a “cultural hegemony.”

Such a link between social reform and modernist aesthetics is also seen in other Scandinavian countries, where social democratic parties managed to turn themselves into “people’s parties,” a trajectory which, for instance, distinguished them from their German counterparts and other parties that remained more class-based. In Denmark, popular enlightenment (“folkeoplysning”)—including a particular vision of the beautiful and the good—became a correlation to the social reforms of the 1930s, which heralded the welfare state. Consequently, like in Sweden, a version of functionalism came to be associated with political reform, a functionalism softer than the “brutal modernism” of Bauhaus.

I must admit that upon first receiving Murphy’s book, a question immediately arose in my mind: what is there to say about Swedish design? Denmark has a design heritage beginning with Arne Jacobsen, Poul Henningsen, Jørn Utzon, and companies like Bang & Olufsen; Finland has Marimekko and Alvar Aalto. Sweden would be hard-pressed to come up with designer names of the same stature. However, I soon realized those feelings were likely born out of a petty sibling rivalry of sorts (perhaps owed a little something to the fact that the book landed in my mailbox two days after Sweden had eliminated Denmark from the European championship soccer tournament). One need only to think of companies like Hennes & Mauritz or IKEA to realize that, in terms of global impact, Swedish design has no rival. Therefore, to do a study of design in Sweden is a happy choice, and it is indeed one of the great merits of this fine book that it does not focus on celebrated designers but, rather, views design in a broader context. As the title reveals, the strongest contribution of the book is the connection it makes between design and nation-building.

Although Swedish Design is primarily an exploration of design processes in context, it also contributes to discussions of nationalism. Analysts of nationalism have pointed out how such ideologies often create their affective ties or “primordial sentiments” through metaphors of kinship—“fatherland,” “motherland,” “homeland” etc. (Anderson 143). Such metaphors often refer back to an idyllic, pastoral past. Murphy argues, however, that Swedish nationalism is of a different kind. It is more demure and banal—more good-natured and subliminal—as its messages are ostensibly democratic and materialized in the inconspicuous paraphernalia of everyday life. It is revealing in this context how nation-building in Sweden has revolved around the idea of “home” rather than the “family:” from the 1930s and until the 1970s the social democrats managed to promote the idea of Folkhemmet and turned it into Swedish collective conscious. By invoking the “home,” explicit parallels between private, family relationships, and public, social ones are directly linked to the material context in which they are embedded. The home works as a physical manifestation of social relations—a home is made from things (tables, chairs, beds, household appliances). And through the idea of Folkhemmet, the social democratic party recast the home as a primary site for political reform and explicitly exploited the positive emotions and associations with the care and security, which Swedes had invested in their home lives.

To analyze how lines and shapes attain such powerful ideological significance, Murphy draws on Deleuze’s concept of “diagram,” understood as the relationship between “lines of enunciation” and “lines of visibility” (Murphy 38). In the case of Swedish design, lines of enunciation consist of policies and ideas focused on care, practicality, rationality, egalitarianism, and sustainability, i.e., the more abstract cultural ideologies behind a social democratically infused way of life and lines of visibility, which are unadorned forms like right angles, clear surfaces, and straight lines that come to connote or bear some iconic resemblance to the ideological values.

One of the great strengths of Swedish Design is to see design not only in a larger historical, political, and cultural context, but also to challenge ideas of design as the work of solitary genius and, also, to recognize it as a social process. Consequently, in a central part of the book, the reader is invited closer to the ethnographic ground as Murphy explores the work practices of two designers in a contemporary studio in Stockholm. Here we get an insight into the way that designers collaborate and share ideas. Murphy has a particular focus on the language that the designers use, and he suggests that they work through what he calls a “formal calculus,” defined by a binary opposition between angles/squares and roundness/curves. This calculus is continuously invoked when they discuss their work and deliberate whether to push it in either direction. Murphy pays particular attention to the vocabulary through which aesthetic judgment is passed, noting, for instance, how definitive and negative adjectives like “ugly” are carefully avoided, and how aesthetic evaluations are carefully calibrated through the use of more mellow adjectives like tråkigt (boring) or roligt/kul (fun/cool). He also analyzes how the designers explore creative possibilities through abductive reasoning—through comparisons they make links between emergent forms and existing objects, or people, thereby ordering the potential trajectories their designs might take.

Design inhabits an ambiguous position between “art” and consumer goods: designers must show a dual allegiance to selling and showing, and the measure of the accomplished designer is her or his ability to traverse those fields. It is also a key point that it is the design items’ movement between those spheres that afford their appropriation as political objects.

In the last part of the book, Murphy looks at what he calls “the exhibitionary complex”—public institutions like museums, design exhibitions, furniture fairs, and department stores like IKEA—which in their different ways serve to consecrate and transform objects into “Swedish” design. Such institutions have different relationships to time: Museums and design exhibitions are oriented towards the past and the future respectively, and together they serve to elevate and turn things into “art” and transform them into “heritage.” Furniture fairs and IKEA also put objects on exhibition, although at a more mundane, accessible, and immediate level: those exhibitions are oriented towards the present while representing an attainable future.

Swedish Design is empirically rich, well-argued, engagingly written, and speaks to multiple audiences. Apart from it’s regional focus and obvious relevance to studies in Scandinavian anthropology, along with its contribution to discussions of nationalism, it deserves to be read as an important contribution to the growing field of design anthropology. Its view on design is refreshing and new in its broad perspective, and not restricted to that which happens in the workshop—design is seen in context, as an assemblage of actors, practices, forms, institutions, and ideologies.

Reviewed by Jakob Krause-Jensen, Aarhus University

Swedish Design: An Ethnography
by Keith M. Murphy
Cornell University Press
Hardcover / 264 pages / 2015
ISBN: 0801453291




Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York, Verso, 1995.

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