Fredrik Paulsen

It started out with a skateboard without wheels. Since then, Fredrik Paulsen has developed a talent for handicraft and a deep love for wood as material. We met with the designer in his sunlit Stockholm studio to talk about playfulness, pragmatism, and the politics of design.

There is something un-designed about Fredrik Paulsen’s design. Echoing minimalistic functionalism, his design is both simple and sophisticated, raw and refined. With pragmatism as the ethos of his practice, Fredrik works with both head and hands, approaching his work from a theoretical as well as a practical point of view. Solving complex issues by simple means, he wants to make things that work well and last long, things that he can stand for. Mainly working with furniture and interiors, he’s also trying to bring about a more critical and sustainable view on design and consumption through various workshops and seminars, including the groundbreaking design auction Örnsbergsauktionen.

When we meet with Fredrik in his sunlit studio in a suburb south of Stockholm, accompanied by his dog Miguel, he traces his view on design back to his grandfather and a certain skateboard without wheels.

– My parents weren’t creative at all, Fredrik tells us. I grew up in a house built in ’86 and furnished the same year, solely with things from IKEA. It wasn’t a very creative environment. But my grandfather was a studio potter. He had a farm and was extremely practical; whenever he needed something, he built it. He had a great influence on me, and taught me that there are no real obstacles in life. If you happen to encounter one, you just find a solution.

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– The most striking example is when I wanted a skateboard. I wasn’t even six years old, but I really wanted a skateboard. My mum refused to give me one, because she found it too dangerous. I kept asking for one and she kept saying no. So I decided to build one myself. I called it a walking board, since you couldn’t ride it, but only walk it. Where the wheels are on a regular skateboard I put two small blocks, so I could still use it to practice some real skateboard tricks. When I turned six I got a real skateboard from my aunt, and by then I already knew some of the tricks.

After he had given up his dreams of becoming a professional skateboarder, Fredrik moved on to study art at a folk high school in the small town of Grebbestad in the south of Sweden, where he eventually would find himself immersed in cabinet-making. Being a real summer town, there wasn’t much to do during the winter, and Fredrik spent most nights in the workshop, building what would become the foundation of his design practice.

Things that are somewhat un-designed often turn out to be the best.

– It was a truly inspiring time, Fredrik says. After three years at the folk high school I applied to Beckmans College of Design and was accepted. By then I was rather confident with my practical skills, the mere handicraft, so when I began at Beckmans, I wanted to do something else completely. I denied materiality and worked solely on a theoretical level, no matter the assignment. I never even went into the workshop. My teachers wanted me to take advantage of my skills, but I just said no. I wanted to learn something else. At the graduation show, when everyone else was exhibiting nicely rendered prototypes for furniture, I set up a workshop where the visitors could come and build things.

– After I had graduated from Beckmans I went to London to do my Master’s degree at the Royal College of Art. By then I had both practical and theoretical skills, and could start searching for ways to combine them.

– It was during my two years in London that I began to find my way back to materials, allowing myself to make objects. I wanted to make objects that I could stand for, and choices of colours and materials were essential. In a way it was more about assembling materials. It may sound simple, but for me that was a revelation.

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Why furniture?
– I’m really interested in design. I think it’s so exciting. I don’t really distinguish between design and design, though; it can be a nice vase or a piece of clothing or whatever. But for some reason, I like to work with furniture.

How important is functionality to you?
– That’s kind of funny, a lot of people ask me what I find most important: that the things I make are functional or nice to look at. There are designers that mean that the visual aspect also is a kind of function, but I don’t know. I’m something of a practitioner; I want my furniture to last, work well, and be comfortable. I like it simple and straightforward. Things that are somewhat un-designed often turn out to be the best. When they are done for practical reasons. But then of course I like when things are made my way, I think that’s the best way, he says laughing.

I read somewhere that a chair is the most difficult thing you can design. Would you agree on that?
– Many people who try my chairs are surprised at how comfortable they are. It’s hard to design chairs, but it’s hard to design all kinds of things. Chairs have the advantage of having been made before. There has been a lot of research done on chairs, and there is a typology that you can make use of. If you find a chair that you think is comfortable, you can often work out why that is by looking at the relations between height, depth, and angles. A circle only has 360 degrees, so you only have those 360 degrees to choose from. You can just take one degree a day! No, but really, it is hard to design chairs.

How many chairs have you done?
– I have no idea, he says with a smile. It’s been a few.

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There is a sense of playfulness to your design, and your work has been compared to toy manufacturers such as Brio and Meccano. What are your thoughts on that?
– I can see why people do that, why they compare them to toys. I think it’s mostly because my constructions are so simple and clear. That’s important to me, to make things that are clear. There shouldn’t be any doubts as to what it is. That people find my design playful is a really good sign, as it means people can see that I had fun making it. I do this because I enjoy it, and I think that shines through in the things I make. If I didn’t enjoy it, I would easily get another job, because I don’t make that much money of it. But right now I love it.

Beautiful things are so
important for our wellbeing.

In addition to the simple, straightforward constructions, the swirling rainbow colours coating some of Fredrik’s furniture further add to the sense of playfulness. Reminiscent of watercolours or batik, the special dyeing technique is the result of a long and exhaustive search for a way to colour wood without painting it.

– I love wood, but back when I studied at RCA I didn’t like to paint it. I thought that the wood looked too good to be covered with paint, but at the same time I missed colours. So I tried to find a way to make the wood absorb paint by its own capillarity. I knew that you could colour white roses by pouring caramel colouring in the water, and it was something like that I had in mind. I experimented with all kinds of different pigments, paints, solvents, and water, but it never turned out the way I wanted. I finally found a way to do it, though. 

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So how did you do it?
–  I used to be very secretive about it, as I thought it was just too simple. It’s rather funny story. In the midst of all those experiments I was at the 30th birthday party of a friend of mine, and there were a lot of garlands and paper chains hanging from the ceiling. By the end of the night, one of the garlands had fallen down on a table where people had spilled all kinds of liquids, water, liquor, beer and such. The liquids made the dye come off the garland, which the table in turn absorbed. It looked so damn nice! I realised that it didn’t need to be more complicated than that. So I bought a whole lot of paper garlands to dye the wood with. I just love that you can attain such beautiful effects with so simple means.

What does your working process look like otherwise?
– That depends what project I’m working on. When I’m working with commissions and special orders, I work systematically, making analyses and doing research, which generates a lot of ideas. Then I buy materials and start building. When I’m done, I usually have a lot of rest materials lying around in the studio, so when I’m tired of thinking I do something with that. I find it very inspiring to combine the more or less concrete commissions with more spontaneous work. When you’re working on commission you have to be professional and deliver on time, so it’s nice to pair it with personal projects. They both benefit from one another. I can’t separate them.

So what does this studio mean to you?
– I moved back from London in 2010, and shortly after that I found this place. At first I shared an office together with a bunch of other designers, but that wasn’t the best idea. I had just graduated from school and didn’t really know what to do, and it didn’t help to just sit behind a desk with my computer. It was a rather miserable situation. Then I was persuaded into renting this studio. I had to earn money on the side to be able to move in here, but it was definitely worth it. It was when I had settled here that things began to happen. I never sat by the computer then, I just built things. I did things I would never have been able to do anywhere else. And when people saw what I was doing, I began to get commissions. So thanks to this studio, things began to flow.

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How do you relate to the design history?
– I’m very interested in the history of design, and sometimes I deliberately refer to certain movements or designers.

– I can relate to the modernists, the Bauhaus movement, the Italian anti-design movement of the sixties, and the aesthetics of the eighties. Since the late nineties, designers have mostly made sleek things, that might be nice to look at, but that are banal and uninteresting. However, since the last couple of years, the design scene is looking more and more interesting again I think.

Do you think design has to have a greater purpose than to just look good?
– No, I don’t, he says after a moment’s thought. Beautiful things are so important for our wellbeing.

I don’t see myself as a political designer, but I think that
my design can be political.

– What I try to push forward is that you should think about why you do things, and how you do them. It hasn’t been very highly regarded to design things according to your own taste, but I think that’s really important. You can’t satisfy everyone; that will just make it very shallow. I mean, imagine creating music in the same way. Music that everybody liked, that would be such boring music. You should create things that you like yourself, that’s so much more interesting. And I’m in no way unique; if I like something, there are probably thousands of others who will like it too.

What do you think about the mainstream mass production of today?
– When I graduated from Beckmans, I got a grant from IKEA, so I had an internship at their design department in Älmhult for six months. On the one hand I can appreciate what they’re doing, but on the other hand I’m extremely critical against it. Mostly because of their large-scale production and their prices. Why should things be so damned cheap? It doesn’t do anyone any good. Except the few ones earning all the money. I don’t think it does any good for society at large. You could say that it’s democratic design, as everyone can afford to buy a chair. But when things are too cheap, you can bet that someone will have lost on the bargain.

Do you see yourself as a political designer?
– No, I don’t. I don’t see myself as a political designer, but I think that my design can be political.

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On February 3, Fredrik Paulsen will participate in a seminar called True freedom can only be collective – a seminar celebrating Lina Bo Bardi, together with his fellow Örnsbergsauktionen organizers Kristoffer Sundin and Simon Klenell. Held in connection with the exhibition Lina Bo Bardi: Together, the seminar is initiated by Hall of Femmes, together with The Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design. Read more about the seminar here, and buy your tickets here.

The next Örnsbergsauktionen will be held on February 7. Read more here. The catalogue will be unveiled on January 28.

Photography by Fredrik Andersson Andersson.