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, 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.