Swedish design group Front

“They are soon going to be very famous.”

These words were highlighted in extra bold face in British design magazine Icon in autumn 2005. The article presented the Swedish design group Front who were also featured on the cover of the same edition. A prediction to be taken seriously, not least because just over a year later it seems close to be coming true.

Front consists of four young industrial designers, all female. Sofia Lagerkvist, Charlotte von der Lancken, Anna Lindgren and Katja Sävström met while studying industrial design at Stockholm’s School of Arts, Crafts and Design. They already made a real splash with their first joint project shown at the 2003 Furniture Fair in Stockholm.

Greatest interest was evoked by their “Design by animals”, where they had allowed animals such as rats and snakes to create patterns and shapes on carpets and furniture. By letting the animals produce the final result, the element of randomness was introduced as the decisive factor in the design process. The culturally conditioned question as to what constitutes good and useful form was quickly turned on its head, acquiring a new and unexpected perspective.

“Actually, we had hoped that what the animals did would be really hideous”, says Sofia Lagerkvist. “Sadly, however, all the things turned out to be quite nice.”

The second premiered project, “Technology in new form” aroused no less interest. Here the ladies had come to grips with home electronics. Or rather with the fact that technical gadgets such as CD players and mobile phones always seem to have such an identical appearance. Black square boxes. Why, they wondered? And turned pretty decorative glass vases into housings for loudspeakers…

In summer 2006 they still hang out in a ramshackle bus depot in the south of Stockholm. Dilapidated premises redolent of their industrial past with enormous floorspace where visitors have to be met at the door in order to find their way through all the winding corridors and echoing abandoned concrete vaults. Other groups of artists, musicians and painters, have also moved into these desolate premises that the planners soon want to pull down.

“A pity”, thinks Anna Lindgren, who opens the door to me. “Typical that this sort of creative and inspiring surrounding has to disappear.”

Their headquarters high up in the building are marked by the group’s characteristic conceptual and investigative activity. A slender coal-black plastic horse as large as life – actually a lamp-stand for radical Dutch furniture company Mooi – is the first thing one sees. It stands right up against a set of comfy armchairs for meetings. Piles of boxes and prototypes line the walls, among them one of the more realistic waste-paper baskets for Materia. A rotund shape that becomes further distended as more rubbish is shoved into it. The second room accommodates neat desks for each of the members of Front. People come and go, there are quiet focused conversations in every corner.

Among the most interesting aspects of this group is that they move with equal ease in the worlds of art and design. Both art galleries and the industrial production process are their natural territory. Even the most bizarre ideas often lead to the experimental development of real products, not merely a one-off art project.“We are obviously interested in mass production”, says Charlotte von der Lancken. “But not so much to make things that sell, but rather to highlight the role played by objects in our lives.” They have put in a lot of effort into examining this topic, which has resulted in their “Red Collection”.A suite of fetish-like objects such as a cute recumbent roe deer, all of them in intense clear-red resin with letters written all over them. The first step had been to interview hundreds of people about possessions that had meant a lot to them. Some of the objects were then selected and reproduced in red resin with their owner’s stories printed onto them. The next step is to disseminate these red icons over the world. As well as to wait for the reactions, images and stories of new owners.

“A long-term project”, observes Anna.

Front has also been seen as an eagerly awaited and wholesome counterweight to the traditionally strict and untrammeled style of Scandinavian design. A typical aspect of the group’s way of working is that their ideas often start from and work with production processes. They are less interested in what things look like than how they are produced. Which in turn generates specific forms.

A Front project always starts with an open discussion free of any preconceived notions. Which gradually leads to a selected complex of problems that’s quite unique. From there, the group’s members move over to what most closely resembles a research role.They examine everything around the selected topic. They investigate, read and interview people.

“We like to talk to experts with futuristic knowledge. And to use this in a new way”, explains Anna.

That’s just the way it happened when a collection of “animated” furniture was produced a year ago for New York gallery owner Barry Friedman’s exhibition at Art Basel/Miami in Florida. At the time of writing, the project is still amazingly unknown in Sweden and the rest of the world. But the prediction in Icon magazine applies here. This Front project can be expected to become EXTREMELY famous.

What the designers did was to combine two digital techniques. One of them, namely motion capture, is typically used in animated films. The other one, a variant of rapid prototyping, is well known in industrial product development. Motion capture acquires realistic patters of movement so that they can be applied digitally to cartoon figures. Rapid prototyping transforms computerized images into three-dimensional prototypes.

Charlotte clicks onto her computer screen to show one of the group’s members moving her hands rapidly in the air – with a few movements she sketches an invisible chair.The next sequence shows how the invisible lines are transformed into physical matter. Slowly, a chair takes shape from out of a plastic bath. Finally the completed furniture is set up in a room.The peculiar lamp and chair, the result of a symbiosis between digital film and industrial technology, look as if they had come directly from a comic strip. But they stand in glorious three dimensions on the gallery floor in Miami.

“We’re still not quite finished with this”, she says. “But we will carry on with it, and are also planning a press conference in the autumn.”

Everything has moved so quickly, they think. In only a few years from anonymous lives as design students in Stockholm to wide international recognition. Exhibitions in Milan, Tokyo and Amsterdam. But their everyday work schedule is amazingly unchanged.The same discussion method. The same hard graft on all the practical aspects. Gadgets to be fetched from the cellar, heavy objects to be lugged here and there.

“It’s both aspects”, says Anna. “Mundane and fantastic. The nitty-gritty of a workshop as well as glamorous parties with masses of attention.” “But we’re always dependent on each other. On our different angles and skills. Together we can realise something that none of us could have managed alone.”