Studio Visit
Uglycute, Furniture and Interior Designers

For Uglycute, it all began with a Bruno Matthson knockoff. It was 1999 and Swedish design was having a moment, but not, it seemed to the group’s four fledgling members, for the kinds of edgy experimental crafts and artistic hybrids being made by the emerging scene at the time — Wallpaper magazine and its ilk were still peering into the long shadows of Sweden’s old modernist icons. And so architecture grad Fredrik Stenberg and artists Jonas Nobel, Andreas Nobel, and Markus Degerman vented their frustration in the only way they knew how: by mounting a show around a sarcastic simulacrum of Matthson’s Eva chair made from a clunky particle-board box and cheap nylon straps. Complemented by a set of primitive clay pinch pots and a crude plywood table, the installation served as a launch pad for the group, and its subject matter — elevating cheap materials in order to question traditional norms of beauty and value — lent their firm its distinctive name. “It was meant as a new take on formalistic values,” says Nobel, who with the other three partners has since built a thriving practice known for its work with museums and clients like Cheap Monday.

Back then those themes made particular sense to Nobel and Stenberg, friends since they were 15, who had spent a great deal of time together during their university studies pondering the overlap between art theory and architecture theory. (Nobel’s art practice also happened to revolve around inspirations and narratives taken from architecture, which wasn’t uncommon in the Swedish art world at the time.) One idea the pair circled around went something like this: “The art world has its own economy and rules, the design world another, and architecture a third,” explains Stenberg. “If you sell a piece of chipboard in an art context, there’s no limit to how much money you can take for it. If you sell it as a design object, though, it’s something completely different. And this interplay is something we find very interesting.” Plus, they reasoned, why is marble considered unequivocally better than concrete? Is that a heirarchy we can debate?

If that approach to materials sounds familiar to fans of the Memphis group, which took a similar tack as it attempted to skewer modernism back in the ’80s, it certainly isn’t lost on Uglycute. “We are absolutely following in the Memphis tradition,” Nobel says. “We relate more to Memphis than we do to Droog, for instance, because they were more interested in the value of materials than the value of imagery or concept.” They also shared Uglycute’s obsession with muddying the waters of good taste: “If you go to school, you develop what’s considered taste, but there’s a risk in that because it becomes very hard to surprise yourself,” Stenberg explains. “You begin to reproduce what you know already works. You have to get past your own good taste and be able to open the wrong door in your head to create something new.”

The irony, of course, is that doing the wrong thing is cool, and ultimately it becomes the fashionable thing, until in a way, you’re left right back where you started — a fate the postmodernists ultimately suffered. But Uglycute are perfectly happy with their success, and looking forward to their first retrospective this February in Stockholm, which will come with an accompanying monograph. And they still have no shortage of provocative ideas, as Sight Unseen learned when we visited their studio in February during Stockholm Design Week, documented in the slideshow at right.


The magic of Uglycute lies in its members’ ability to turn ordinary, low-cost materials like plywood, particle board, cage mesh, or crappy carpeting into striking installations and covetable furniture, like this tessellated shelving unit. It was developed for Alisa Grifo and Marco Romeny of the New York store Kiosk, who use it as display for shop-in-shops they’ve installed in places like Melbourne and London. The couple, who keep an apartment in Romeny’s native Stockholm, have a longstanding friendship and ongoing collaboration with Uglycute — they were the ones who first introduced Sight Unseen to the group’s work.


Uglycute first tested their aesthetic at an exhibition they mounted in Stockholm in 1999, conceived as the firm's launch. It included the Bruno Matthson knockoff at right, made from particleboard and nylon webbing. The group's work has evolved quite a bit in the past 12 years, and no longer has such an obvious truck with Swedish modernism, but they've hung onto the same basic working methods and material interests they had from the beginning.


When Sight Unseen visited the Uglycute studio during the Stockholm Furniture Fair earlier this year, it was filled with newer experiments and prototypes, like this oversized beanbag chair. When the art school Konstfack organized a summer film camp for kids in 2008, they invited Uglycute to design a kind of public screening room to be installed in a local shopping mall. “They needed something for all these kids to sit on while watching the films,” Jonas Nobel explains. “In a mall there’s so much going on, so we used stripes because it’s the clearest, most noticeable pattern with the biggest visual contrast. We get asked a lot if we can produce these beanbags, but we haven’t done it yet. We might flat pack some and ship them to Kiosk, and they could be filled with styrofoam there.”


In a back corner of the studio, a clothes rack that once served as a store fixture for the now-defunct Swedish clothing brand Blank sits alongside a chair with an interesting backstory. “We made it for the Swedish company that bought the patent for Masonite,” says Nobel. “That material is from the ’30s and was very connected to the early social Democratic welfare-state architecture in Sweden. The government made a lot of furniture and houses in Masonite. In 2005 the company had their 60th anniversary and asked us to do a series as a promotion, so we made this chair. It’s a very interesting material — it’s actually made without any glue, so it’s really ecological. But unfortunately the factory in Sweden since went bankrupt because of new materials that people think are better, even though this is just as good as MDF.”


“It’s funny because we bought the last stock from Masonite exactly when they went bankrupt, and we recently built a restaurant interior with it (pictured, Stockholm's Bar Central). The owners were really sad, like, ‘Oh shit, now you’re building a restaurant from our material, but it’s too late.’” The project's chairs and stools were designed by Lasse Stensö, who taught Nobel's brother at Konstfack and whose decades-old work the group was long influenced by. Stensö now has a new company called Woodstockholm.


The day Sight Unseen visited the studio, there was another relic in our midst — Nobel’s old drawings from 1997, made before Uglycute was born. “They illustrate my interest in architecture and design,” he points out. “I always did loads of drawings like this, and when I showed them, there was always some sculpture in the room. In a sense it’s quite close to what I do now, a lot of text on the walls paired with an installation. And I still draw a lot.”


A view from one of Nobel’s most recent exhibitions, at Stockholm's Gallery Charlotte Lund. "The installation was accompanied by a text on a poster telling a story about a shipwrecked crew surviving on an island from the scraps of their cargo," he says.


Next to Nobel’s desk, we spied this strange unintentional assemblage containing neon posterboard, some scrap materials, and a Boskke sky planter, which grows plants hanging upside down. It caught the eye of the Uglycute partners and they bought it, but never put it to use. The flash of neon prompted us to ask Nobel about Uglycute’s use of color: “Early on, we almost all the time only used the true color of a material,” he says. “We thought that was crap, so we started working with color. The Color Cube was our first attempt, and the Reindeer Chairs came after that. Now we consciously try to work with colors more often.”


The aforementioned Color Cube. “Normally when making furniture you construct the product first and then you paint it, but for the Color Cube we paint a whole board of plywood with watercolor, then we cut it up and put this together,” Nobel says. “In a way, it’s part of our quest to break up the production process, to do things another way. It's also about testing methods — now we’re waiting for an interesting interior commission we can use this technique on.”


The Reindeer Chair began as a simple colored chair sans fur, created for a Stockholm art fair as an attempt to test a new series of wood stains that used Sweden’s NCS coloring system, which had just been released. But when Kiosk’s Alisa Grifo hooked the group up with a source for cheap reindeer hides, they added the fuzzy flourish. “It’s about making a really comfortable but extremely cheap chair, one that’s simple to produce,” Nobel notes.


Despite their late-blooming enthusiasm for color, though, when Uglycute’s first monograph comes out in February, its cover will be all black. Laid out on a table during our visit was a cache of materials the group’s studiomates, the graphics firm Research and Development, were using as references for the book’s design.


At right, a magazine rack made by Nobel’s brother Andreas, an original member of Uglycute who’s now off pursuing his PhD. Made from green Masonite, it represents a direction the group had begun to pursue before they became too inundated with interior projects to devote substantial time to their furniture work: “We spent a long time discussing how to use corners in new ways,” Nobel says. “We have a lot of sketches about the topic that we never realized, but I think it will come in time. The silver material in this photo is an attempt to get a little bit more light in the studio; we're in a basement, and this wall is the only one the sun actually hits.”


A dragon-shaped pinch pot holding pens and other small items. “In 2003 we did the design for an important exhibition here in Stockholm called Modern Talking, which connected artists and musicians and designers and architects in an interesting way,” says Nobel. “Front was in the show — it was kind of the first thing they did. During the opening, we invited people to come and be part of a small production line. Everyone who wanted to could help us make pencil cups, and we gave them beer and food. This was one of those pieces.” The project was the first in an ongoing series of experiments with group production, where Uglycute specifies the materials and techniques to be used and then leaves the rest of the making process up to a crowd of friends or design students.


Another pinch pot in the studio had similar origins: Asked by a choreographer to collaborate on and develop the scenography for a dance performance, the members of Uglycute suggested that the dancers themselves be employed in a live production process. “It was 7 kilos of clay, and make it into a ball as fast as you can,” Nobel recalls. “The dancers also made a wood and textile bench, and one-eleventh of a carpet each night of the performance that we sewed together at the end. It was a way of debating the production process and the fact that no one knows how anything is made — we created a system where people paid to go and watch a product being made, and then they could actually buy it.”


When this sauna gets built, it will be the first actual structure Uglycute has ever erected — a coup for Stenberg, the sole architect in the group. A commission for a public recreational area just outside Stockholm, its shape was conceived in part so that it could serve as a symbol or an icon for its locale. “The idea was that the people who run the recreation area could rent it out for events, so they need something that could work as a logotype to attract clients,” says Nobel. “The shape of the building also references traditional Swedish coal making, when you’d pile up logs just like this and burn them really slow to create wooden coal. The recreational area already has an electrical sauna, but this one is going to be fired with wood, which is much better.”


The shape of these benches references sausages — not to mention Uglycute’s formative love for lowbrow solutions. “They’re styrofoam with an elastic fabric on top,” Nobel says. “All designers talk about the complication of upholstering furniture, and this is the cheapest way of doing it. We made some films and needed benches for them when they toured to exhibitions, and we could have these recreated anywhere in the world. We didn’t even send drawings, just told them the measurements and sent the fabric. It’s a very pragmatic way of making a bench.”


“We had collected these juniper branches, which smell really good when you work with them,” says Nobel. “We had them in the studio, we needed a hanger. They did the job.”


By the door to the studio, a sign that Uglycute and Research and Development use as a joint logo for the office. “When we have openings or bars or exhibitions in our space, we put this out on the street.”


Uglycute have made it their mission to help raise awareness of forgotten Swedish designers from decades past, so one of those exhibitions held in their office space highlighted the work of Curt Lagerström and Anders Söderberg — both in their 70s now — which they found in an old catalog from an influential 1982 exhibition at Kulturhuset, called Provocations. It featured the work of Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis group alongside a group of young Swedish designers who were working in a similar spirit. “We sometimes talk about how Swedish design history has 20 missing years, between 1980 and 2000,” Nobel says. “In a sense it’s true I think.”


Above the large space where that exhibition was held, which was empty the day we visited, hangs this triangular speaker that Uglycute originally designed for the first Cheap Monday store, in Copenhagen. The award-winning shop design won the group international recognition, and Cheap Monday (now owned by H&M) has become their biggest and steadiest client. Triangles recur throughout a great deal of Uglycute’s work, but when it came to this project, there was a reason: “At the time we hadn’t done a retail job before, and when we started to study what sold the best in that environment, it’s the pile,” Nobel explains. “You pile the clothes in a pyramid, people think they’re less expensive, and then they buy more. So the triangle is the ultimate pile. Now the triangle has become a theme for their interiors, and the work we do with them.”


Pictured, the Copenhagen store interior, with its prismatic mesh fixtures. “Also with the amount of jeans they have, they needed to display them in piles,” says Nobel. “So there’s a big pyramid in the back of the store that’s filled with jeans.”


After the success of that shop design, Cheap Monday hired Uglycute to outfit their new headquarters inside a massive former brewery building in Stockholm. In the design department, the partners installed pyramid-shaped conference rooms and bookshelves, and painted all the ductwork bright yellow. Stenberg describes the experience of working with fashion brands on interiors and trade fair booths: “It’s interesting for us because we get a brief from the designers about their new collection, and they only get, like, three words to describe it: ‘This line is about dystopia and the movie Idiocracy,'" he explains. "Then you have to work with that. And it’s a challenge because I’m an architect, and that’s a very slow and deliberate process. When you collaborate with these people it’s super fast, and you have to quickly and intuitively create something that captures them.”


Back in the studio, more triangles: This is actually a mini prototype for another beanbag chair like the striped version earlier in this story, but in a new fabric developed by Nobel’s former students in the textile department at Stockholm’s Academy of Arts. It’s an acoustical insulator for use in engines, but the students — whose company, Y2K, seeks out ways to find mainstream uses for industrial textiles — discovered that it could be quite easily produced in various metallic colors. “It turned out to be too expensive to use in this way,” Nobel says. “It would be interesting to work with it, but we need to find a big commission for it.”


Most of Uglycute’s furniture, while not in production in a traditional sense, has found its way to Kiosk at one time or another. Grifo once toyed with starting an in-house furniture label, and in 2008 Uglycute designed the first collection. “We gave Rich Brilliant Willing a Festool saw and router, and in exchange, they helped us produce these pieces at their space in the Lower East Side,” says Nobel. “In a week we made two tables, ten lamps, and a few stools in flat-pack, pre-routed chipboard. To assemble, you crack it along the perforations and fold it.”


Digging through Uglycute’s archive, we found this project, a Sight Unseen favorite, in which the group was asked to develop an exhibition design for other people’s furniture: Namely, iconic Polish designs from the ’60s and ’70s. The commission came from Warsaw's Modern Art Museum, which was operating out of a temporary building while its new space was being constructed. Instead of planning the show in the official building, though, Uglycute proposed showing the works inside Emilia, a furniture store situated just behind it. “At the time it was kind of the state-owned Polish Ikea,” says Nobel. Adds Stenberg: “It made the worst-crafted furniture you can imagine. All these thin layers of veneer on everything — just crap.” But the contrast between the store’s wares and the furniture from the national museum collection — high meets low, in that signature Uglycute way — was priceless.