In conversation with Jenny Nordberg.
Jenny Nordberg works exploratory and interdisciplinary to expand the contemporary notion of design, and of the designer. Her practice is always driven by a search for alternatives and counter-strategies to irresponsible mass production. Navigating between art and design, her research and studio work focus on how we produce and consume today, how we have done so historically and how this can be done differently in the future. By exploring questions such as these, Nordberg seeks to transform the preconditions of design and encourage it to take a more engaged position. The research and design studio of Jenny Nordberg mainly works with studio production, small series, limited editions and site or context specific commissions. She is also the initiator of the project S-P-O-K, which mapped the crafts eco-system in the Skåne region of southern Sweden.
RB Could you tell us something about your motivation to initiate a project like S-P-O-K, and why did you focus on the region of south Sweden — Skåne?
JN It all started in 2014. There was so much talk in the news how Swedish manufacturing industry is dead because of the movement of production to China, but for me as someone who is involved in production, I knew there were many manufacturing facilities left. Quite a lot, actually, in the southern part of Sweden. I got a bit irritated, as usual, and wanted to show that this is not the truth and that we still have production facilities left. So, the question was how to show this and how to make it available not just for an exclusive crowd.We set up a web platform, and today we have almost 200 registered workshops and manufacturers. This is also because this area of Sweden is traditionally known for having many production facilities, but also because we got funding from the region. I also wanted to do it in a small geographic area, to show that even in such a context, we can have all these possibilities. I think it is also connected to IKEA and H&M, because they are the ones who moved their production away quite early on. That is the general idea of Swedes about what happened with production in our country.
RB On a personal LEVEL, as an author and designer, what was your relationship to the production process and what were your experiences in those terms?
JN I always try to work as local as possible, because it goes faster. I also love building relationships with all these very skilled craft persons. I work both with very small, one-person companies, and with the quite big ones that might have 200 or 300 employees. I know I can do almost anything if I have a good relation to those persons, so I try to look for those (good relationships). Not everyone is a nice person, so you have to skip many. But then you find these amazing people, and now it is like a collection for me. I know that we can solve anything together, so it is definitely about finding and building relationships.
RB What is, then, the place of the production process in your projects and works? Very often it is the actual work in your case, not the final object that might be eventually exhibited.
JN I often have an idea that is based on an industrial technique, and I go to some manufacturers and they often say ‘No, we can’t do that’ or ‘No, we don’t want to engage in that type of experimental work’. I then usually go to my studio and do a studio-adapted version of this industrial production item. Then I go back to manufacturers and say ‘Look what I did in my studio, it is possible!’. And then there is a collaboration starting. I see that more and more often. It seems that this is how it needs to be done, as the Swedish production world is not that interested in experimental production. However, the clients and customers that they have are super interested in these experimental production ways.
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For me it is not important to make definitions, I am not interested in them. I am interested in what comes out of it.
RB When someone mentions crafts, most people probably immediately recall a stereotype of an older male in a dusty workshop with some tools. On the other side, craft can be viewed as an approach, whereas a programmer might be a craftsperson, depending on his/her skill and the ways in which he/she is using them. What is your take on that — is it about the approach of doing something, or is it also depending on the profession and the social context?
JN In Sweden there is also the third definition — craft art — which is often quite contemporary. If I needed to have a definition, I would say that I am a craft artist. Maybe. But I would prefer to say that even someone working with tech and software might be a crafter, or even a scientist dealing with mathematics. Because it is about some kind of freeness in the brain. But on the other hand, we have some craftspeople who are super skilled in a technique, but not creative at all. And they are also in the craft field. Maybe it is the ability to make, or build, or code something that could unite everyone.
RB Coming back to S-P-O-K after all that we discussed, how did you structure the research methodology for it? Did you in any way limit what sort of workshops should be covered by IT?
JN There was only one criterion. The manufacturers, no matter if they were small or large scale, needed to be willing to produce something for someone else. There were no requirements of having a company, or any certain level of turnover or anything like that. Finally, it is a mix of workshops that provide services, but also those that at the same time have their own design production. I just come back to the idea that if you can build a nice relationship with them then it is all that matters.
There are so many designers, and some of them are facing difficulties in finding a job in Sweden. But if you are a very skilled craftsperson — then there is always work.
RB Do you think there could be valuable cross-cultural collaborations between the (western/northern) European context you come from, and the Balkan context in terms of crafts? Is there anything specific that the crafts (people) in this region can offer, that is missing elsewhere?
JN Oh, yes. Even though much is similar, Serbian craft and manufacturing sometimes have different materials and techniques. I also sensed a different attitude but maybe that was because I had Nova Iskra as door openers, so much was possible. At first, I also thought the prices were low compared to Sweden, but I then realized that that more seemed to be related to old vs. new, city vs. countryside and small vs. big.
RB On the methodological level, what was your impression of the MADE IN project overall, and would you propose any changes in the approach or the structure of the project?
JN I think the arrangement was super professional. Very well prepared. When I have done similar projects in Sweden, I have just gathered 25 designers and 25 manufactures who were willing to collaborate, and then matched them together letting them do the rest within each collaboration. Many of these collaborations came out really well but some of them also failed, much related to the personal chemistry. I had to act as a guide or mentor for some of those miserable teams, and that is what you sort of took care of already from the beginning, being so involved in the process.