Studio-Adapted Industrial Processes

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

How would you describe the position of crafts in your professional practice overall?

It’s included somehow in almost everything I do. Projects or objects are either made partly or entirely by myself. My workshop has a lot of possibilities and I can produce almost anything. I have no intention to make things that come across as craft, though. Maybe being able to make things is more a tool for me than a purpose. A lot of the techniques found in my workshop are industrial methods being adapted to my studio, I call it Studio Adapted Industrial Processes.

Would you agree that, generally speaking, the Swedish (product) designers are increasingly creating in a peculiar middle ground that is between art and design, ending up with something between a fine art object and a design object? Or objects that are seemingly utilities get re-contextualized into a more aestheticized item. Where do you think this is coming from?

I think it is something that has grown stronger in the past ten years, and it is connected to politics. A lot of Swedish designers don’t want to work with these big, global brands. This comes from a sustainable perspective, both socially and environmentally. And then you have this other, design scene, where you don’t work with IKEA or H&M, but you do some kind of studio production. You can also make a living from that, and it brings much more freedom. You don’t have to be involved in all this capitalistic shit, that a lot of Swedish designers are not interested in anymore. That is one of the reasons, it is quite political, I would say.

Something we recognized while working on the MADE IN project there are many gray areas that pop up once you start thinking about what is design, what is craft, where are the overlaps, is the craftsperson also a designer etc. There is a multitude of approaches to how craftspeople or designers work. Sometimes it seems that design sees craft purely as a vendor, a point of a service provider. Did you stumble upon these gray areas in your work, Especially having in mind that many designers have also turned craftspeople, and are producing their own works?

I have been called an industrial designer and a craftsperson. Last year I got an award for the craftsperson of the year. But, you know, I am not a craftsperson. Or I am, I don’t know... For me it is not important to make definitions, I am not interested in them. I am interested in what comes out of it. If it is the best welder that we have, or it is the best designer — I really don’t care. I know that for some people it is really important to have the correct recognition, but I could not care less.


For me it is not important to make definitions, I am not interested in them. I am interested in what comes out of it.

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?

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.

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?

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.

Do you see craft as something related to the notion of heritage? Do you see any difference between old and new craft, or it is all one continuum that is now going to new horizons?

I would say that there is a strong division between traditional craft persons and the more contemporary ones. And that has to do with heritage. These two groups are not always on same terms, and quite often they are in conflict, which I think is a bit silly. The old school craft persons usually think that the younger ones do not respect the heritage. I think there needs to be development in everything, and development is not always bad. I think those conflicts and ongoing conversations around them are very interesting.

Sweden has a pretty developed support mechanism for the domain of crafts, when it comes to education and support to production. Knowledge transfer is one of the key points here, and still is part of the Swedish education system.

I would say that it is very established. If you want to learn a specific kind of craft, there is education for it. If I, for example, want to work with copper, there is an education for it. But, of course, I need to know about it myself. I would say that the skilled craft persons in Sweden are really the winners. 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. And this is really, really interesting.

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.

Are there any social implications, in the case of Sweden?

If you are a skilled craftsperson then you have high social status. But if you are self-taught, or more hobby enthusiast, then your status is not so high. The ones who make a lot of money today in Sweden are the ones who know a specific craft. I am maybe talking about the wider definition: if you know how to make a steel roof in a more traditional way, then you are so well off. If I would recommend to a young person today which profession to choose, one that they would enjoy and both make money from, it would be traditional handcraft-oriented work.

Are many people going for such professional opportunities?

No. Because they haven’t seen that yet. Persons who are 30 to 40 years old are often re-educating themselves for these types of professions now. In a way this could be compared to re-educating yourself to become a programmer through a three-month crash course. The bottom line is that knowing something very specific is very important today. For persons who know everything, like I am a DJ, photographer, fashion designer and..., I would say that it is not so much sought-after nowadays.

The circle is maybe closing again? Some ten years ago, multitasking was praised.

I think that is slowly fading out now, also from a mental perspective. If you work too much, burn out, and the quality of what you deliver is not as good as it could be. If one is working in too many things, doing too much, the brain is overwhelmed. This has been a big problem in Sweden, many people were sick or away from their jobs for years due to burnouts. The effect of that is that people go into much more focused work habits now, and this is also what is sought after. Being a country like Sweden, very privileged and with opportunities, this is maybe the other side of it. Which I think is healthy, like moving out to the countryside.

What has drawn you to come back to Belgrade and work with the local crafts(people)? Did it follow up on some of your previous experience with the city, or it was something entirely new?

Last time I was in Belgrade I visited a few craftspeople. A shoemaker, the brush-making sisters, the perfumer Sava, fashion makers and a stamp maker. I also saw a lot of craft at the markets for example at Bajloni greenmarket. But then also women and men from the outskirts of Belgrade selling their handmade items at the bus station Zeleni Venac.

What was your impression of the situation with crafts in Belgrade, or Serbia? What would be the main differences in terms of understanding the field between Sweden and Serbia?

During my first visit to Belgrade I realized that there is a closeness to craft that is missing where I live. People are still making stuff, either it is a skilled crafts person or simply for your own personal needs. This has gone lost in Sweden but we are now experiencing a re-growth of craft and it’s very much up and coming again. Serbia still has it, craft never disappeared — congratulations!

Could you say something about the experience and your learnings from your exchanges with Nenad Jovanov and XYLON workshop?

They are two totally different enterprises but both are built on family heritage. I can’t say our collaborations differed much from when working with manufacturers and makers in Sweden. There is still a person you have to get along with, and with some you have an immediate connection, while with others you need to work a little bit more on. 

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?

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.

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?

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.

in conversation with Tamara Panić (Faculty of Applied Arts, Belgrade)
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in conversation with Ania Rosinke and Maciej Chmara (chmara.rosinke studio)
in conversation with Lukas Wegwerth