Linda Johansson & The Design S Awards

Linda Johansson is one accomplished lady, with a background in art history and journalism, and years spent traveling and cultivating her love of art and design, she is perfectly suited to her latest role as Project Manager of the prestigious Design S awards.  Linda’s love of art and design was first inspired during a short internship at the Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis, USA. This initial spark led to her pursuing years of study into the arts, from Paris to Stockholm and eventually Malmö. 

Winning textile print Herbarium  from 2012 by designer Gunilla Lagerhem Ullberg for the client Kasthall

Designed for Panthera by: Leif Thies / Gestalt Industrial Design / Mikael Engblom / 2dd / Bjorn Alvtegen / Alvtegen Design / Jalle Jungnell / Panthera / Per Martensson / Panthera

 Winning Furniture Range from 2012 Artworks, Beast, Frank and Sea designed by Karl-Johan Hjerling / Karin Wallenbeck for Snickeriet

Linda Johansson 

Interview & words: Katie Grieve 
Photography courtesy of Design S

The Design S award is Sweden’s national design award. It is open to a wide range of design disciplines, including: Furniture and Furnishing, Architecture, Industrial, Service Design, Digital products and services, Graphic Design, Craft, Fashion and Textiles. Linda’s role within Design S is a challenging one, requiring a broad understanding of how design influences and improves lives, far beyond the aesthetic. Wolf had the pleasure of catching up with Linda to discuss her life, Swedish design and her hopes for the Design S awards this year. 

So, tell me a little bit about your background.
I was born here in Stockholm but grew up in the south of Sweden. I moved to London to study English and eventually I moved to the US to study at the University of Minnesota to become a journalist and started working as an intern at the Walker Arts Centre. It was a very short internship, it was just a couple of weeks but it made a great impression. When I moved back to Stockholm, I started at the University of Stockholm studying Art History. I studied art, art, arts as long as I could, in parallel with journalism because I thought I was going to be a writing art critic or something.  Then I took my Masters and I wrote my essays down in Paris, where I worked at a Swedish culture center. My boyfriend and I stayed there for about two years, and then we moved back to Stockholm, and I started working at the Opera House. I was all into ‘culture’ then, but I found it quite hard to work with arts in Stockholm, I wasn’t a curator and I always felt like I was too young and too inexperienced.

I wanted to try advertising so I worked as a copywriter in a firm for 3 years, because I wanted to see another way of life. I thought it could be good for me to be on that side for a while, and it was great! I did two digital magazines: one for interior design and one for food and wine, which are my two passions. My boyfriend is a chef so we’re always very much into the food scene. And then I got into design more and more. I did a magazine for Formex, which has to do with interior designs, and I did a lot of trend analysis, and then more and more design, less art. Art is in my spare time, my biggest interest, where everything began. And then I just got into design.

I got a project that was kind of similar to Design S called Kolla! for comic book design, graphics and illustration here in Sweden, so I ran that for 4 years with a partner, Nina, and we did a lot of fun stuff. We really dug deep into theories around graphic design. Four years later, the project had a ten year anniversary, so we did a big poster manifesto, and then we said “lets go”, and we headed off to something else. And then all of a sudden I moved to Skåne, the south of Sweden!  

What brought you to your current role as Project Manager for the Design S awards?
When I moved down to Skåne I got a job at Form Design Center, in Malmö, and all of a sudden, a girl who runs another project for Svensk Form, called Young for young designers, said to me, “You have to apply for this project, this job is written to be yours.” I contacted Ewa Kumlin, President of Swedish Design and she was like, “Of course!”

It sounds like it’s a pretty natural fit for you, marrying together so many of your interests and skills.
Yeah!  I have never got the question, “Who are you?’ It’s a really fun project.

Now, its my first year I’m not going to turn everything upside down. But I think the design scene in Sweden is very much about ‘seeking’ the design role, i.e Who am I? Where is design? I’m not into design that is just a shape or product, but more different levels of depth, I think that is important.

Do you think in a way that Swedish Design is trying to find its Identity?
I think it’s got a strong identity out of nature and industrialism. But there is a lot of theory building to do, I mean we always look at English or American design when we teach in schools. We are really quick to look abroad and not really into our own history. So I wouldn’t say we are seeking identity, but there are a lot of things to do. It’s a very “moving” phase I would say.

How exciting, to be part of that movement.
Yes, it is! I think Swedish design is extremely high quality, and it’s got a bit of humour to it, but still at a very professional level. A lot of designers have studied abroad and are coming back and I think that’s a good mix.

Could you tell Mr Wolf a little about the awards? They seem unique in that they support so many facets of design.
There are different parts you apply to get in to, and you can enter different categories. We have 8 categories, and that’s a first time for this year. Before there were no categories, so the jury had a really tough job, to try and compare a book to a building, or a knife to a wheel chair.  So now there are 8 categories, and also we are heading into the craft scene, where Design S has never been before, and a bit of fashion as well.

So you apply and then your work ends up in a catalogue, and exhibitions, and a big designers day where we invite a lot of people, and the work is judged.  This year, half the jury is international, so I think that is a big step for Design S. Sweden is such a small country, so after you’ve done a couple of competitions, everyone knows everyone and it's kind of a family meeting.

It's good to have fresh blood!
Yeah, it is, it’s really important, it’s important to have new eyes. I mean, of course there is always younger stars that come in, but it is really important to get an international point of view.

A key part of your role as Project Manager has been putting together a ‘dream team’ jury to judge the awards, tell me a little bit about that.
Well, it's not just me. I talk a lot to my colleagues and friends and a lot with my former colleague, Nina as well. We worked together for so long, so we really know each other.  I think it’s very important to get the dynamic right. I think about how the juror is as a person and where their niche is, if somebody is a really super duper graphic designer, how is he or she going to work alongside a fashion designer who is more of a social designer?  How can you mix and match people? Everyone in the jury is going to sit down one day and have to vote in all the categories, so they need to know a bit about architecture, or the aesthetics of the craft, to able to have their say. There are nine Swedish and four international jurors, but the international jurors won’t be joining us in the jury room on the day. They will vote from Holland, Italy or England, wherever they are based.  So the dynamics are really important to me, and that every category is well taken care of in the competition, well, the award. I don’t want to see it as a competition, because it’s more of an award.

So you’re not asking designers to compete against each other more to celebrate design?
Yeah, its not like, “Who´s running the fastest?” it’s more about a lot of layers of discussions and analysis, so it’s more of an award.

Looking at past winners of the Design S awards, there’s been some pretty diverse entries, and innovative projects, what criteria are the designs judged on?
We have a list of criteria. There is always the quality of the aesthetics but there’s also innovation. Swedish development is really high tech, so innovation, and how the piece would develop, is important. Last year, there was a wheelchair design that was really super duper good. It was really light and really easy to handle, and it took care of a lot of things that made everyday life better for the person who was going to use it. It’s very much a user perspective, I would say, which I think is really important. These days, to be a part of future design in Sweden you always need to take the environmental into account, and there’s a lot of different layers that need to be taken care of.

As you mentioned with the innovative wheelchair design, an important aspect of the awards is highlighting the role of design in improving society through improving quality of life. What are your thoughts on this?
There are a lot of improvements in design, ergonomically and in the medical world, it’s a really, really important space for design to go into. And then, equalization in society. Sweden is really up against some tough questions about feminism, and I think we need to think about how to make the world a whole world for all the people in it. And I think, not all the time, but there can be innovations in design, for example, brilliant design would be the inflatable helmet, the perfect match of good design and meeting the user´s perspective. Those women who made it really put a lot of work and a lot of high-tech people into the project. Social innovation is really important to design right now.

What does the future hold for designs that are successful at the awards?
It´s interesting I just had a meeting talking to a former winner and he said, “To me, it was really important to win and get the award,” but then another winner I talked to, for him, it was really important to be shown around the world in an exhibition. Currently, the exhibition is in Moscow, and then after that it’s going to Hong Kong, to the big world design exhibition there.

So the awards can be quite a platform really
Yes, Svensk Form, who holds Design S, they do so much for the people that win. They do a lot of international work and have great international contacts. I work very hard with the exhibition catalogue and the jury work until our big design day on November 26th, and then after that I will work with the touring exhibitions. And this year I hope its going to be more ‘touring people’ exhibition, because I’m not into having huge trucks taking exhibitions around the world, or by boat, all those transportations. I’m not sure if I want to be a part of that kind of environmental crisis. And for the people that win, I would think it would be so interesting, to actually go to meet Giulio Cappellini.  I think those personal meetings are so much more important, but we’ll see. We are working on those parts. I’m not sure what the outcome will be. But the winners really achieve a lot afterwards.

If you had to sum up Swedish design aesthetic in a few words, what would they be?
I wish I had an hour to think about that! Always a bit of humour and bit of fun, generally very good craftsmanship. And I will totally quote Li Edelkoort (trend analyst and jury member) who I did an interview with, because we recently talked about this for an hour. She was very much into the “perfect hybrid between nature and industrialism”, Those are her words, I think I’m going to quote her for the rest of my life!  I think those four sum it up, if that’s possible!

There are some very busy months ahead for you Linda, what are you hoping to achieve with the awards this year?
It’s going to be fun! I really get energy out of having a lot of things to do! For me personally, I really love meeting people. I think that’s the essence of life, to meet these wonderful designers. And to be able to help them in the way I can to show their work. I think sometimes it’s really hard to show yourself, to talk about yourself, but for me, to help by talking about others or helping them by taking them to the London Design Week or, I don’t know, Australia, you never know! That would be a dream!  And it’s fun work with great variation, from building an exhibition to doing strategies for tours. I think this year, I want to work a lot with the catalogue as well. I think I want to see it as a time capsule, “2014: What’s going on and where, where are we?”

Wolf looks forward to following the progress of Design S through out this year. The Design Day will be held in on the 26th of November at the Architecture and Design Centre in Malmö