ANNA & CHANDRA – FOLKFORM

Since forming the Folkform studio in 2005, the Swedish duo of Anna Holmquist and Chandra Ahlsell has steadily developed a reputation across the Scandinavian design scene and beyond. Their relationship was nurtured while both where studying for an MA in Industrial Design at Konstfack College of Art, Craft and Design in Stockholm. In less than a decade, Folkform’s output has been exhibited and sold internationally, even acquired by The Norwegian National Museum of Art and Design and The Swedish National Art Museum. My first encounter with Folkform was in 2007 at a small display of their work at Designblok in Prague. Their showcase included furniture made from Masonite – a key building material used during the creation of the Swedish welfare state in the 1930s. The work investigated how perceptions of a simple mass-produced material such as hardboard, can be altered by design. The duo had interfered with the production line by scattering organic matter, flowers, leaves, spices onto the wet composite boards. Once pressed, a series of “quick fossils” were formed, resulting in a collection of mass produced one-offs that see value bestowed on the cheapest wood going.

This project is representative of Anna’s and Chandra’s obsession with materials and their interest in exploring the hierarchies that we bestow on them. The duo often combines original or authentic material with those that mimic the originals. For example, their works include a bench made from a patchwork of real and faux leather, or a cabinet combining Carrara marble with a laminate look-a-like more commonly used to make kitchen worktops. Nearly everyone who sees the pieces thinks the fake slabs are the genuine, forcing us to question whether authenticity should always determine an object’s value. Folkform has always felt the need to remain close to production and provenance, describing their work as an investigation of old industrial processes and craft techniques. Their shared enthusiasm for Swedish heritage coupled with a desire to work with small-scale, local production has set them on an inquisitive path to challenge the anonymity of global mass production today. That investigation has prompted them to explore struggling local industries and imbue such industries with renewed relevance while on the brink of extinction. Their work succeeds at challenging our general perceptions around the making of objects, while strengthening the contemporary relevance of old materials and processes in societies obsessed with the newest and latest. Max Fraser, Design author and commentator

FOLKFORM ON THE ORIGIN OF OBJECTS for LDF 2012

Bench series 'Patchwork' created for Skandium

The exhibition Origin of Objects at Skandium, presented during LDF 2012, is an investigation of old industrial processes and craft techniques. The product is deeply connected with the local context. We want our products to carry with them the spirit and history of the place where they are produced, tell the entire story of how the product was made, and by whom. This is the key to the narrative of our pieces. The exhibition will show items in glass, brass and bronze, wood, chipboard, leather designed by Folkform in collaboration with brands such as Skultuna, Svenskt Tenn and Skandium. The exhibition highlights some industrial processes and craft techniques that are threatened to disappear in our home country; such as the old glass cutting techniques; or the traditional casting of brass; or the making of chipboard Masonite in northern Sweden. I guess we are fighting for a fading industry.Today it is unusual for us as designers to work with the option of Swedish-based production. The only way to preserve craft is to think of all aspects of it. The process begins in our minds.

For the first time in the UK we will show new cabinets made from original Masonite hardboard from 1929, combined with the last few Masonite sheets which were made before Sweden’s last Masonite manufacturer shut down in April 2011. When the Masonite manufacturer in Rundvik closed, it was the last of its kind, a downturn which we want to help counteract by maintaining domestic production as far as was possible in our collections, and by highlighting quality craftsmanship behind our products.

REFLECTIONS

It has now been seven years since we added the first flowers in the production line at the Masonite hardboard factory. In May, the entire factory will be transported to Thailand. The Norwegian group has sold the wood processing to Metroply in Thailand and the old machines from Rundvik are to be reassembled at a new facility near the Cambodian border. Nordic pine will be replaced with Eucalyptus as the chosen raw material. For us, the collaboration with the Masonite hardboard factory was important since it marked the beginning of a series of design projects in which the vicinity to the production was a fundamental and essential part of the story creating the final product. The visits to the hardboard factory and later to the metal foundry and the glass grinders also became stops on a voyage into the history of a dying Swedish industry. By focusing on the places, the craftsmanship and the industrial manufacturing processes behind the products, we wanted to shed light on new opportunities but also have an impact on this manufacturing industry on the brink of extinction, before it was too late.

In a time where many of the products we consume are imported from countries where labour is cheap and production is anonymous, impossible for the consumer to trace, the sincere and transparent story of a product’s origins is more important than ever. Our project also reflects the current social debate reflecting on globalisation within the manufacturing industry and constitutes an attempt to initiate a discussion of the rate at which local craftsmanship and production techniques are disappearing. In the expanding global market it is near impossible for a designer to work with production still based in Sweden.

  

The first time we visited the factory in Rundvik was an early winter morning in 2005. The Head of Laboratory, Jan Persson, collected us from the airport. After what seemed an eternity in his blue Volvo on a country road lined with endless dark forest on each side, we came closer to the factory. We were completely taken aback at its building. It felt as if time had stood still since it was built in 1929. The beautiful brick building with its majestic chimneys was still being used and we were given a tour of the factory. Steaming wood pulp filled the space with its particular smell and the loud noise of the machines, so persistent, almost frightening. The heat was overwhelming. Jan Persson showed us the large steaming press that compresses the Masonite material. He showed us the machine hall where hundreds of gears and engine parts lay spread across the floor. We said a quick hello to the factory employees, sitting in a circle having their coffee break and further we went into the steaming noise of machine smattering.

What does the Masonite hardboard factory tell us about the time we are living in? Quite a bit, we would say, it tells a story of a globalised world in which the domestic manufacturing industry of Sweden has a hard time competing with the cheap products from low waged countries. The factory also symbolises a different story, namely the one about how energy consuming manufacturing processes and crafts are disappearing in Sweden. They will never make a profit, as the energy costs are too high. In their wake, a complex environmental debate follows. We live in a society of mass consumption that breeds a system built on long distance transports and production in low waged countries.

                     WOODSHIP PULP  - MASONITE

When the factory was still operating it was surrounded by ten meter high mountains of woodchips from the surrounding sawmills. This waste constituted the material that the boards were made of. The woodchips were mixed with water and compressed under enormous pressure.This cheap, local raw material from the great forests of Norrland  in Northern Sweden, was the fundamental element of the Masonite hardboards. Items made from wood have long been one of Sweden’s most important products. In Rundvik, Västerbotten, the first Masonite factory was built in 1929. Masonite was a cheap surface material designed to utilise the woodchips produced by the sawmills. The woodchips are mixed with water and then compressed. Thus the resulting board material is both environmentally friendly and renewable.

Masonite is closely linked to functionalism and during the Stockholm Exposition in 1930 (signalling the dawn of Swedish Modernism) it was used as a construction material in several of the model houses that were built for the exhibition. During the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, Masonite was one of the foremost  used construction materials. There are few materials with as much inherent versatility as Masonite.

 

The Masonite hardboard was part of the construction of the Swedish Welfare State and became a symbol of the period’s belief in the future. Since the hardboards were used all over Sweden at this time, and by a large part of the population, one can still find traces of them today. Many people have a well-established personal relationship with this material. Despite the fact that in later years the material has unfortunately mainly been hidden inside ceilings and behind veneers, it was definitely a challenge to breathe new life into a material with such an extensive history, incorporating mass production and craftsmanship in the production line.How did we come up with the idea of pressing plants into the boards? This is a question we have attempted to answer many times. To us, it seemed too obvious to just create yet another ‘product’, which was the aim of the particular design competition advertised in 2004, this in connection to the 75th anniversary of the factory. Instead, we wanted to alter the composition and expression of the material by blending in a new material in the wood pulp. We came to the conclusion that organic materials, such as thin plants, would be best suited for this purpose, since they would combine well with the wood pulp able to create patterns on the surface. We drew up a sketch of a Masonite hardboard with plants pressed into the surface, and submitted it to the competition. The material did not yet exist, only the idea.After a few weeks, we heard from the competition jury, who announced that we had been given an honourable mention and that the material would be exhibited at the architectural museum in only a few short weeks. However, the flower Masonite was still just a sketch. We now had to quickly get to the factory and initiate the practical implementation. We received an invitation from the Head of Laboratory, Jan Persson, an incredibly important person in this process, because it was he, who believed in our idea. We booked our flight and bought as many flowers and herbs as we could carry from the flower market in Stockholm. With a carrier bag full of flowers each, we arrived at the Rundvik factory. Our initial experiments were conducted at night, whilst the product line was standing still. Jan Persson helped to conduct all of the first tests in secret by scattering rose petals into the production process and it turned out, our idea worked. However, the colour of the rose petals disappeared once dried in the boards and we ended up with something looking like wilted leaves.

GooWe climbed up the side of the production line where the Masonite hard- boards were manufactured and scattered flowers on all Masonite pulp, in order to form the patterns we wanted. 3 minutes we had at our disposal as the regular production came to a halt on behalf of our flower experiments. With fear tingled delight, we found ourselves literally in the middle of a mass production, in the heat, the loud rumbling noise and the humidity from the press. It felt like being part of the fibres of this process of creating the material.

Once the boards had been displayed at the architectural museum and published, we were commissioned by a number of architectural firms to create interior designs using the Masonite, for the Fjällnäs Chapel and the head office of Diligentia in Stockholm amongst others. We received so many requests that we had to stop buying flowers at the flower market and instead initiate collaboration with various herb gardens in Västerbotten, Sweden, who would deliver sacks full of herbs directly to the factory so we could make our hardboards on a larger scale. When the first sack of thyme arrived early one spring morning, the staff at the factory entrance thought that the delivery had ended up in the wrong place and ardently argued: “This is a Masonite factory, not a restaurant.”We began designing our own furniture using the floral hardboards and after exhibiting at the Milan Furniture Fair, we started getting orders from all over the world. It is absurd to think that the last order of flower Masonite we received prior to the closing of the factory was from the Queen of Jordan, who ordered boards with pressed-in olive leaves. These boards turned out to be the last we ever made.

 MASONITE CABINETS FOR SVENSK TENN

On 4th of April 2011, the last Masonite hardboards were manufactured in Rundvik. The steam press is now silent. At about the same time as the factory closed, we received a call from a man called Per Wikström. He is the grandson of Carl Wikström, the man who founded the Masonite factory in Rundvik in 1929. Merchant Carl Wikström’s son, the engineer of the same name, followed in his father’s footsteps and was fascinated by the properties of Masonite. In the 50s, he started his own board processing factory in Eklången, just outside of Eskilstuna. The old warehouse of this Eklången factory held a few well preserved, original hardboards from the mid 50s of varying colour, surface structure, thickness and perforation. Per Wikström wanted to know if we would be interested in using these boards. We meet him, and full of excitement we went to the warehouse to take a look. Among the boards, we found Masonite leather boards which were manufactured in Rundvik during the mid 50s upon the initiative of Carl Wikström. Special cylinders with leather patterns had been designed for the steam press in the Rundvik factory. The Masonite was spray-painted at first, and would later be curtain coated whereas the leather board would be roller coated in a second shade to create depth. Manufacture of the classic, perforated boards often used for retail display, such as hardware stores, also started in the 50s. Here metal hooks were attached to the holes to hold shelves and tools, a mass produced product which soon was copied, using cheaper materials.

Based on these original boards from the 1930s and 50s and those very last boards produced at the factory in April of 2011, we designed the unique cabinets. Each cabinet is a collage of Masonite from different time periods and a memorial monument to the last of the Masonite factories that has now sadly been closed down.How come we chose to collaborate with Svenskt Tenn and in addition, work with material that is more than 80 years old? Perhaps we were looking for something timeless, something original and durable, a subtle criticism for the constant quest to find the next new thing. Above all, the cabinets constitute an attempt to make people see that production and craftsmanship is rapidly disappearing from Sweden. Svenskt Tenn is one of the few furniture and design companies in Sweden which existed at the time when the Masonite factory was started and is still here (Svenskt Tenn, founded  in 1924 by Estrid Ericson). The furniture of Josef Frank for Svensk Tenn does not fit the clean, strict and functional design in which Masonite is a common feature. Perhaps this is where the real challenge lies, using the last Masonite boards, the material epitomising Swedish modernism for Svenskt Tenn. To challenge, in terms of material choice, letting the mas produced meet the hand crafted as in the precious woods and materials preferred by Josef Frank. In his opinion, the long legs of his furniture were important in order to allow the eye to see both the floor and wall behind the piece. An idea  which has been our inspiration when creating the Masonite cabinets.There is also something alluring in investigating the way Josef Frank questioned the uniformity of modernism and was not afraid to utilise décor and patterns. He was a defender of pluralism, embracing individual expression. In his opinion, the best thing about the age of machines was the possible freedom it entailed. He would also emphasise the importance of craftsmanship, a subject that seems as relevant today as it has ever been. All the human encounters we had at the Masonite factory were amazingly inspirational. Ever since we scattered those first flowers, we have been returning to Rundvik. We wanted to introduce the people behind the production of the boards and put the place, the craftsmanship and the industrial manufacturing processes in the spotlight. For the same reasons, it is also interesting in this context to mention another important collaboration, notably that of Estrid Ericson and Josef Frank and how together they managed to create a functioning form of artistic expression. That two people collaborating can extract aspects of one another, which each, on their own, would not dare exhibit.

  EXHIBITION STATEMENT 22 OCTOBER 2011

We believe in a dynamic collision between the mass produced and the hand- made article, where crafts meet industry and the machine meets the hand. How can we create new expressions by combining the handmade surface with the machine cut? Can something new be created when traditional handicraft is combined with an existing industrial manufacturing process? The glass pieces are a result ofboth traditional hand-cutting techniques and high-tech cutting by robot combined in the same vase. Despite long traditions, the Swedish glass manufacturing industry is fading. As recent as May 2011, Orrefors closed down its glass cutting workshop. The glassworks of Orrefors and Kosta Boda may in many aspects symbolise the old and traditional within Swedish glassware. The old craft techniques of cutting glass in Sweden are threatened to disappear. What will happen when they do? Will the production move somewhere else? Will it come down to everything being about the brand and what is the brand? We want our products to carry the spirit and history of the place where they are produced. When manufacturing is moved to foreign countries, it becomes very abstract and people stop appreciating the value of the craft as the connection is lost. We want to tell the entire story of how the product was made, and by whom. This is the key to the narrative of the pieces.

Folkforms latest road trip went to the Tärnsjö leather Tannery established in 1857, built on the edge of Tärnsjö lake. In the new range of furniture different types of leather are combined in the same bench. For this new collection developed exclusively for Skandium, Folkform was exploring different Tärnsjö leathers and traditional leather upholstery methods. Tärnsjö leather tannery, close to the Tärnsjö lake, north of Uppsala.

Inspired by old glassworks from the Czech countryside, the collection Industrial Intervention, designed in 2011, explores the collision between mass-produced and handmade articles. Folkform invited Maxim Velčovský, one of the Czech Republic’s foremost contemporary designers, to participate in a series of material experiments with glass and porcelain to investigate traditional Czech handicraft techniques.

Glass blowing workshop Moser

Folkform talking to artisans at Bohemia Crystal

The walls of the old workshop in Harrachov are filled with grinding tools

THE BRASS FOUNDRY LIMHAMN Feeling highly connected to the Swedish artisan heritage, the duo has throughout their career spent time in craftsmen’s workshops across Sweden. Inspired by time spent at metal workshops, a collection of brass objects were designed for Skultuna founded 1607, a Swedish producer of fine brass and  metal objects.The very first prototypes where made at Rosengrens, a brass foundry in Limhamn, situated about 5 km outside of Malmö on the south coast of Sweden.

 Take Care!