In any designer’s career, there are hundreds of split-second decisions that conspire to create the precise conditions under which good work can emerge. For the Swedish-born, London-based designer Hilda Hellström, it came down to this one: When she was asked to create a project for this year’s Royal College of Art exhibition at the Milan Furniture Fair, she says with a laugh, “the wood workshop was quite busy, but the resin workshop was nice and quiet.” Of course, there’s more to the recent grad’s breakout Sedimentation vases than that; Hellström is obsessed with the idea of imbuing her objects with a myth and narrative of their own. But in many ways the vessels — which are made from layers of pigmented Jesmonite, a non-toxic acrylic-based plaster often used in ceilings and restoration work — are a reaction against something else. “My father was a carpenter, so I was used to working with wood, and I was bored of how you have to consider that it’s a living material,” she says. “Wood tells you what to make, but working with a moldable material like Jesmonite is almost like playing God.”
So while material is king for most designers of her generation — think of Max Lamb chipping seats from stone in his quarries, for example — Hellström is more interested in creating the story and then finding the right material to inhabit it. Her tendency to create her own realities stems in part from growing up in the quiet countryside of Sweden, “very far from the next-door neighbors,” she says. But she also attributes her approach to a larger cultural shift: “The way we experience reality today I think is very different to when my parents were young. When my mom was growing up in the ’70s, she and her friends had one belief in common, and you had your one favorite magazine, there wasn’t much else. Today you’re exposed to so many options of what to believe. We live both online and in the real world, and everything is a bit more fluid. It’s easy to get lost in a sort of surreal state of mind, and I like to create a fantasy.”
In other words, Hellström is as concerned with thinking as she is with making, but the making part hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed: In September, she’ll debut new work commissioned by Swarovski for an exhibition at London’s Design Museum, the greenest designer alongside more experienced peers like Yves Behar, Arik Levy, and Maarten Baas. We recently caught up with the 27-year-old designer in her London flat, still flying high just two weeks after her RCA graduation.
What inspires your palette? “I think the color schemes in East Asia and the Middle East are great, but also the facades in Stockholm. I’ve also noticed that about 85 percent of my wardrobe is blue.”
Fictional character who would own your work: “When I told a friend about the RCA’s graduation ceremony — with the gown and the mortarboard — he made a joke about Frank Costanza’s caped lawyer from Seinfeld. Convocation is sort of exotic for a Swede as we don’t have anything similar, so it made me laugh. I am a big fan of Larry David so I would love any of his characters to own my work.”
Thing you love most about London: “London is very open-minded when it comes to design. There is a lot going on, you constantly meet new people and there are many opportunities if you work hard.”
Thing you hate most about it: “I really, really miss space. The sea, the horizon and silence.”
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be? “An anthropologist like Claude Lévi-Strauss, an investigating journalist like Tintin, or a painter like Cézanne.”