“Everything is scenography”
Architect Johannes Norlander on sweeping design, the lack of care about the public space and why his own attempt to furnish the city failed.
Why did you choose this place, Skogskyrkogården (the Woodland Cemetery), for a talk about public space and the themes addressed in the exhibition Public Luxury?
“I think it’s a tranquil environment. But it’s also well designed and contains good examples of care taken on many levels. And it’s close to home too. Skogskyrkogården is a public space and our contribution to the exhibition is a comment on public space. This is a place that is characterised by peace and harmony, where everything is in symbiosis. That’s not easy to accomplish. And this is a place that must be managed well, but we can’t take for granted that it is. It’s very easy to add details that don’t really work.”
Is that where the connection is to the furniture that is your contribution to Public Luxury?
“That could be it. I have no idea how things have been chosen for this place, but one can question how you can put a waste bin in this environment and what it conveys here. These are sensitive questions. The exhibition is a bit about the visual noise in the public space and there are no answers to what’s right and wrong. But it’s important, because the urban environment reflects its time extremely well.”
What does this place say about its time?
“Things have remained fairly unchanged here. That makes it a calm and harmonious place. But clearly it must always be well managed when it comes to adding new things, when new needs arise and so on. This area is sacred by nature, it’s about death of course, but there are also many thoughts about sequence here, and movement. It’s very obvious when you’re here, and I experience it as conveying a sort of stimulus.”
The exhibition is called Public Luxury. What is public luxury for you?
“I don’t know what the title refers to, but I would say that public luxury is the fact that there is someone who is responsible for overseeing the care and management of the public environment. It’s part of our shared capital. It’s very luxurious to have it, but it must also be managed well.”
Tell us about your contribution to the exhibition.
“We made three pieces of furniture for the public space. A park bench, a waste bin and a lamppost. We chose these three objects because they are quite iconic products in an urban or park environment. They are easy to refer to in some way, and our idea was to try to create generic products, something like a basic collection, where the design is a result of a function and the object blends in, unlike visual background noise. It was a very exciting experiment, allowing these products to be strong in themselves but nevertheless subordinate to the urban environment. Can’t say we were totally successful, but it was a brave attempt.”
In what way were you not successful?
“It’s impossible to create something generic, because all design is personal somehow and it always has a reference. The basic concept was visual noise, and to question whether anything can be done to calm down the urban environment and take away the visual background noise.”
What do we gain from that?
“Yes, that’s a very good question. I do feel that things should be able to take up visual space, but the things that do should probably be relevant to the context. A waste bin that stands next to a public building with an important position in society should perhaps have a subordinate role – the reason being that there are existing hierarchies.”
I imagine that it’s just the hierarchies in public space that make it possible to orientate oneself within it. If I understand you correctly, you want to comment on a sort of dissolution of the hierarchies, which in the long run creates disorientation and public space that is difficult to use.
“In some way, everything is scenography. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you don’t always have to be on the barricade. Subtle expressions can be at least as strong as dramatic expressions. Almost stronger.”
That’s what populism is of course, giving incredibly simplified answers to complicated questions.
“It’s also easy to achieve an effect with big, sweeping gestures. But I’m a little opposed to that.”
It sounds like what you’ve done is both a design exercise and a commentary.
“What I’ve done is a comment on contemporary manifestations. It feels to me like the busyness is increasing for each passing year. Now one shouldn’t say that architecture will change the world, but I think that if one is raised in an environment that has been created with care, it will also make you a more reflective and humble person. If you go to a preschool in a bad building with bad materials and bad lighting and bad air, or if you go to one in a beautiful environment – clearly there must be a difference. It’s not rocket science, but I don’t think it’s discussed to a great extent. A phenomenon that I think is interesting, and also the reason we’re sitting here, is urban uglification. I’m also interested in our cultural heritage. My starting point is the Swedish architectural and furniture design tradition. When I was younger I probably made a bigger break with it, but now I’ve started to rediscover what a fantastic heritage we have. That’s also why I can get very upset when I see it not being managed properly.”
What stance does your project take on the debate about public space?
“I see just two trends. One is that the public space has become very commercial. The other is that functionality is very distinct. Today, a waste bin should have Wi-Fi, you should be able to throw disposable grills in it, you should be able to use it as an ashtray and it has to have a lockable timer. And on top of that it should look like some space rocket – and in some way, the industrial design has been lost on the way. Function and form must interact.”
How will that be achieved?
“Just like there are municipal architects, there should also be someone on the municipal level that is responsible for signage, waste bins and things like that. I don’t mean that it isn’t unregulated, because it surely is. But when it comes design, everything feels very haphazard. There just doesn’t seem to be anyone in charge of the overall design. There should be a design plan for how to work with public space. It’s that kind of care that I think we’re missing today.”
What have you learnt from the project?
“Reflecting on these questions is enriching and stimulating for me as a designer. But I have a hard time seeing any change, and unfortunately, I think this development will only escalate. But maybe it’s a good thing that society becomes more incongruous. I also don’t believe it’s an issue that the general public experiences as particularly important.”
Have you had any reactions to your furniture?
“No, but the reason the furniture hasn’t caused reactions may also be because the pieces don’t stand out too much. In that way, maybe I have succeeded.”
Text: Daniel Golling