Up and Coming
Hilda Hellström, designer

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.”

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Hellström is somewhat guarded about the exact process that goes into making one of her Sedimentation pieces — in part because she’d like to find a way to standardize them for production with a company in the near future — but to create her original prototypes she mixed the Jesmonite with dry pigment, building the pieces up layer by layer in a box mold then creating each vessels' curves using a CNC milling machine.

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An uncut block. As soon as she began her experiment, she noticed how the material looked like different types of stone depending on its consistency, or whether or not it was polished with marble wax. “I really enjoyed the idea of constructing my own little reality so I started to strive for the best techniques to make it look like some sort of fantastical stone.”

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Do you have a favorite collection? “I collect ceramics, mostly Japanese. My granddad was a diplomat for Japanese diplomacy in Sweden. My grandmother collected as well, but I’ve bought new things too. When I travel I always buy ceramics so in relation to how little I actually cook, my kitchen is quite cramped.”

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Design and/or art hero: “I have no one real hero but I’m inspired by many. A few are: Constant Nieuwenhuys (I love New Babylon), Gaetano Pesce (who doesn’t admire him), Riccardo Dalisi (and the Anti-Design movement in general), Allan Kaprow (the father of Happenings), and Max Ernst (especially for this one exhibition in a backyard which you could only enter through a toilet. He’d put an axe beside his sculpture in case any visitor got the urge to destroy it or to ‘continue’ sculpting).” Pictured: Gaetano Pesce’s Montanara couch

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Style movement you most identify with: “I’ve always had a thing for the Situationists and the Dadaists, who were both skeptical of reason. For example, the Dadaists believed that it was this ‘reason’ that had driven the world to WWI and to manifest these thoughts, they used irrational artistic processes such as Chance Technique and Automatic Drawing.” Pictured: Hans Arp collage, an example of Chance Technique

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What do you keep around your home for inspiration? “On the wall I have an image of an old anthropologist, Pitt Rivers. He has a very peculiar museum named after himself in Oxford. I have a framed cloth that smells like tar and linseed oil, colored in different shades of red from when I built and painted a playhouse for my niece last summer. I also have a boat rope, cramped with hundreds of baby-mussels (pictured), that I found left in the water by my family’s summerhouse in Sweden.”

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Most inspiring place you’ve ever been to: “I just did my graduation project inside the exclusion zone around the Daiiji Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. There is one man who still lives there and he’s determined to stay to take care of all the cattle and pets that were left behind by other farmers. I contacted him, he agreed on a collaboration, and he smuggled me into the zone in his car. I spent 4 days with him where I documented his day-to-day life in a documentary.”

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“Together we collected soil from his now useless rice fields in an attempt to create symbols that represented the situation in the area. From the soil I have made 5 food vessels that are, for their purpose, just as useless as the soil and the farmers of Fukushima. Despite the overhanging danger of radiation I felt extremely alive in there.”

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Favorite design ritual: “Before I studied design I studied painting for 4 years and I always enjoyed washing the oil brushes. I put green soap in the palm of my hand and circulated the brush until the oil was gone. You could see the colors fade into the green soap and then disappear. It was a great way to end the working day.”

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First thing you ever made: “When I was about 4, my brother and I made a 2-foot tall man out of Legos, that could wee. He had a hose running from his mouth down through his body. We thought it was very clever. My brother (pictured, right) is now doing a PhD in Aerodynamics at Princeton, so I’m quite confident he was behind most of the construction.”

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Piece you wish you’d made: “There are some great bronze sculptures by Constantin Brancusi I wouldn’t have minded being the author of.”

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Favorite everyday object: “I guess I have to say my bike. Compared to all the other cool bikes in London it is really shit, rusty and heavy, but still it takes me places.”

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Favorite design object: “Donald Judd made a series of furniture. I love them because they are awkwardly minimalistic.”

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Last great exhibition you saw: “My old RCA tutor Daniel Charny put on a great show called ‘The Power of Making’ at the V&A a few months ago. It was great because I think that anyone who came to the exhibition enjoyed it – designers and makers, but also families and people who aren’t as initiated to the process of design.”

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Favorite place to shop for materials or inspiration: “When I was in Tokyo I easily spent three hours at Sekaido, an art supply store in Shinjuku. It’s huge and they have everything. I bought some amazing pigments.”

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Last thing you bought on eBay: “A Geiger counter from Russia. I had it when I went to Japan to check the radiation levels.”

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If you had an unlimited budget for a single piece, what would you make? “I would build my own take on a Roman bath. It would be built up with different rooms you could swim through, but have secret underwater channels with mineral water running through it. It would be made for pure indulgence.”

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What are you working on next? “I’m working on a project for Swarovski, for their September exhibition at the Design Museum in London. As a response to the brief ‘Memory in a Digital Age’ I used my favorite pasttime—travelling with Google Earth — as a tool to develop a fictive memory about a place. When travelling to Wattens, the home of Swarovski, I started to envision the people of the small Austrian town and their lives in the Tyrolean mountains. Utilizing 3D drafting programs, I transferred the topography of Wattens from Google Earth to a digital milling machine that cut out the landscape in my self-made stone, which uses the Jesmonite and pigments from Sedimentation.” The final product will consist of a monument, a film, and a sound piece. Photo (c) Wai Ming Ng

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“I am also developing the Sedimentation pieces to be better fitted for production. As it is now, it is a very crafty and expensive process.”

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Right now, Hilda Hellström is: “Trying to get hold of a cheap ticket to go and visit a dear friend in the south of Sweden who I haven’t seen for more than two years. I have a lot of things to catch up with after two years at the RCA!” Photo (c) Wai Ming Ng