Fredrik Paulsen’s work, both as a designer and as a co-founder of Stockholm’s brilliant Örnsbergsauktionen, is shaking the foundations of what you think Scandinavian design ought to be. “Here you are taught to produce work for the everyman,” Paulsen says. “It’s the legacy of IKEA: Good design for everyone. But if your work doesn’t really fit into mass production and it is not intended for it, then there is no platform or venue to show it.”
It was this void that led Paulsen and his friends and fellow designers Simon Klenell and Kristoffer Sundin to stage their first auction during last year’s Stockholm’s Design Week. They invited contemporaries — some they knew, others they only knew of — to submit diverse, self-made works that went beyond the cookie-cutter forms they’d grown tired of, and put them up for bidding. It paid off: The auction clocked column inches and, more importantly, sales, and was so popular that the trio repeated the exercise this February.
I was in Stockholm on the morning of the auction, and I sat down with Paulsen at a coffee shop around the corner from his studio for fika (that’s a Swedish coffee break with something sweet on the side, for those not au fait). Paulsen was buzzing. No matter how hard it must be to organize and promote an auction toting 49 lots, whilst squeezing in his own work as a designer, it’s clear he enjoys the experience. “We are not curators, we are designers. But it is super nice,” he beams, brushing icing sugar from his unruly facial hair. (“It’s hard to eat Semla with a moustache,” he says.)
Paulsen’s studio is just west of Stockholm’s centre in Örnsberg, an area with a quiet, suburban feel, away from the fashionable slog of nearby Södermalm. “I like the location as it’s outside of town,” he says. “I can fully concentrate here, and there’s a nice vibe.” The designer lived in London for a few years, studying at the prestigious Royal College of Art. On moving back to Stockholm he was struck by how comparatively small the city was, and how much easier that makes many aspects of everyday life. “Most things I strap to my bike, and I cycle from the woodshop to the studio.”
When we arrive back at this studio post-fika, Paulsen circles a mound of belongings, packed away in order to host auction viewings in the space, and begins plucking out chairs and stools for me to look at. Rational in shape and construction, the swirling, wild color and pattern he applies to them transforms the solid and rigid forms into something acid-tinged. He developed his wood dyeing technique at the RCA — bright turquoise diffuses into deep purple, and then ochre. He decorates surfaces with off-the-shelf industrial floor flakes, providing a braille-like pattern to the touch.
Although the auction was born out of necessity and not necessarily a self-prescribed manifesto, Paulsen admits he is political in his design approach. “If I wasn’t then I would just go on and design really commercial chairs,” he says. “But if you’re not doing something that’s pushing design forward, then what is the reason? We have so many nicely designed objects already. There are enough for so many lifetimes.” He has a good point.
Believe it or not, Los Angeles–based designer Brendan Ravenhill owes the success of his Cord Lamp, at least in part, to Etsy. It’s not that the designer spends his days hawking the spare, Prouvé-inspired insta-classic on the online crafters’ marketplace. But a few years ago, Ravenhill was coerced by his wife to participate in something she’d created on the site called Mail Order Pals. “It was basically a penpal for purchase," Ravenhill told me when I visited his Echo Park home and studio earlier this summer. "People could buy you in order to receive a letter or a surprise package in the mail.” After someone “bought” Ravenhill, he went to the hardware store and whipped up an elegantly simple wooden swing-arm lamp in one night. Upon seeing his creation, the designer’s wife convinced him it was just too nice to send. The penpal ended up getting a wire sculpture of a penguin, and the couple began living with the lamp. In the months that followed, Ravenhill became obsessed with the design, refining and tweaking it in his head to the point that by the time he was approached to create a piece to show with the American Design Club at a trade fair in New York, he was able to fashion a prototype in just one week. The final lamp — composed primarily of porcelain, cast aluminum, a cloth cord, and a bare bulb — packs and ships flat and sells for less than $200 at places like The Future Perfect, cementing the young designer’s status as a rising talent to watch.
To any reader who went to design school and is, years later, still making student loan payments month after month, you might want to close your eyes for this one: Rodrigo Almeida — the 34-year-old Brazilian furniture designer who's pals with the Campana brothers, has been featured in Wallpaper, and has made pieces for top galleries like Contrasts and FAT — didn't go to university, not even as an undergrad. What you're looking at here is raw talent, and a career that began when Almeida simply picked up the Brazilian magazine Arc Design six years ago and thought, "I want to do that."
Growing up in Birmingham, England, Lee Broom had dreams of becoming an actor. So it doesn't come as a shock to learn that his first proper job was in the office of Vivienne Westwood, the dramatic doyenne of women’s fashion. What’s surprising is how he got there — at age 17, no less: “I was in theater school at the time, and I was into design as a hobby,” explains Broom. “Somehow I decided to enter a fashion design competition judged by Vivienne Westwood, and I won. At the event, I asked Vivienne for her autograph; she wrote her phone number instead and asked if I wanted to spend a couple of days at her studio. I hopped on a train to London and literally spent two days, just Vivienne and myself in her office, while she talked me through her work. I showed her a portfolio of around 100 outfits I had designed, and she said I could stay on as an intern. I ended up being there for seven months.” Broom’s career since then — though wildly divergent from both of those original paths — has been full of moments like these, where by some alchemic mixture of doggedness, talent, and sheer pluck, he has managed to end up in the exact right place at the right time, sending his career spinning into another unplanned yet deeply satisfying trajectory.