House + Home Q+A

Glimpses of world cultures inspire young Swedish designers

Updated: 2014-01-12T01:33:04Z

By ALICE THORSON

The Kansas City Star

They call themselves Glimpt.

Over the past several years, young Swedish designers Mattias Rask and Tor Palm have worked with artisans in South Africa, Vietnam and Peru to produce colorful ceramic lamps, boldly patterned woven plastic seating and expertly carved wood coffee tables that have captured the design world’s imagination.

On New Year’s Eve, as he was waiting to board a ferry to take him to the island where he lives, we talked by phone with Rask in Sweden and asked him to tell us about Glimpt.

What motivated you to work with local craftspeople?

Around the world, handcrafts are slipping away to industrial production, but in many developing countries, the crafts traditions are still alive and you still have a lot of people working in them. For us, it feels more interesting to try to create work possibilities in a country that needs it more — it’s kind of a social responsibility. But the works speak for themselves. We both have a background of working with our hands, and believe that when something is handmade it adds a bit of soul.

Tell me about the stools and chairs you designed and had made in Vietnam. They’ve been getting a lot of play in design publications.

Those were the second project we did. They’re made out of synthetic cord wrapped around tubing that is fitted onto a welded metal frame. It originates from a traditional Vietnamese technique where they wound paper thread around seagrass to make bowls.

We decided to scale up the dimensions to make something you could sit on. We also changed the patterns. The Vietnamese had beautiful patterns copied from African patterns they found in a catalog. We developed our own patterns. The line is time-consuming to produce. It takes a couple of days to make a seat with a back.

The colors come from the vivid-colored hammocks that we saw people selling everywhere. They already had the plastic cord for those, so we used that cord in the colors they had.

How did you get them into production?

One school we attended had an exchange program with a furniture program in Vietnam. In fall 2010, we lived in Hanoi for two months and also spent a lot of time in Ho Chi Minh City. There was an old Swedish Ikea guy who started his own company producing and selling furniture, and we hooked up with him. We developed the series because he knew a really good little factory where they did a lot of quality low-budget furniture.

Why did you name the line Superheroes?

We thought they looked very colorful and the patterns almost looked like superheroes. The name also refers to the Vietnamese people. Considering the old war with the U.S., we thought they might not be too happy with Westerners, but they were the most kind people I’ve ever met, even to strangers, and not at all bitter.

How did you two meet and get started?

We met seven years ago at a folkhogskola — a kind of people’s high school, very Nordic — where you go for one year to get better grades or just to study something of interest. We studied arts and crafts and design and different things that were fun and creative, and we had a great teacher. We got to know each other and applied to the Carl Malmsten furniture studies program in Stockholm and spent three years there.

Carl Malmsten is a craft-oriented school; they also teach cabinetmaking and turn out some of the best woodworkers in Sweden.

During our third year working on our bachelor degrees, we figured out we should work together. We’d each come back from apprenticeships and were disappointed that it wasn’t what we expected. We talked about what we wanted our work to be and if we could create our own philosophy. Our idea was to go abroad and work with craftsmen and do something different.

Your first project, the Forbidden Fruit lamps, was in South Africa. Tell me about that.

We got in contact with a Swedish organization that had been working in South Africa teaching wood technology skills, and got to go to Cape Town. We studied stores that carried African crafts and found these beautiful plates and bowls from the Potter’s Workshop. We asked to work with them.

The Forbidden Fruit lamps made at the workshop are molded clay. We used molds they already had of a vase and some of their bowls and pieced them together to make our own shapes. After that we developed proper molds.

The surface designs applied over the base color were made by men who develop their own geometric patterns based on Xhosa tradition. Two brothers, Ernest and Wendell, hand-painted the shades at the Potter’s Workshop.

Your latest trip was to Peru. What did you produce there?

A furniture line called Prehistoric Aliens. The Peruvians are really talented woodworkers. They were doing beautiful things, but they needed something new, so we developed this series.

They were so good at working with chisels — we were amazed by their preciseness and exactness — so we created a very challenging piece. After a lot of tests and rejects, we managed to get the shapes working. Everything becomes round. I don’t know why. That’s our design.

What’s the most challenging thing about the way you work?

Usually when we go abroad, I stay for two or three months, and Tor stays longer. The challenging part is to get money to be able to go. Communication in Peru was hard. We don’t speak Spanish, but we had an American guy helping us the first seven weeks. We studied Spanish and were able to communicate a little bit, but the language was still a problem.

I know you’ve shown at various international design fairs. Where can people buy your lamps and furniture?

The lamps can be bought from the Potter’s Workshop in Cape Town, and the Vietnamese pieces can be bought from Cappellini, which sells in the U.S. The Peruvian tables are not for sale yet, but we’re working with the Artesanos Don Bosco store in Baltimore.

What’s next for you two?

Romania. We’re going to work with Roma craftsmen. They do all kinds of wicker, weaving, copper, tin and silversmithing.

What does Glimpt mean?

It’s a mix between the English word and the Swedish word for “glimpse.” It’s a glimpse of a culture. We’re there for a little while, and we get a glimpse of a country or a craft.

Where to find it

We found the Superheroes line at NorthernIcon.com, where a small stool was $390, a large stool $787 and the chair $1,184.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4783 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

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