Words by Kerstin Zumstein Monica Förster is one of Sweden’s most celebrated designers, and in the last five years she has risen to international fame with clients such as Poltrona Frau and Tacchini. Kerstin Zumstein catches up with the designer at the Stockholm furniture fair to get a glimpse of her newest products.
“My designs are light,” says Monica Förster, sliding into Spoon, her new easy chair for Offect. She is wearing a short black dress, with comfy boots and a funky necklace, her nails painted black. There’s a healthy radiance about her. “I like to design things that seem to float,” she adds. There we go, that’s her current design aesthetic in a nutshell. Spoon is nimble – an all-rounder, it can be placed in reception areas, lobbies or hotel bars. The body of the chair is like a drop of fluid, forming naturally, then being supported by an obligatory frame to hold the seat, as thin as it can be.
Förster’s first designs, which shot her into the limelight in 1999, had a certain loudness about them (her early projects for Swedish company David design, like the Silikon lamp or the soft Bob sofa poufs, got her into every Swedish newspaper). Big and bold objects were her thing then, while today her design has a lighter quality. “Yes, I used to design strong things, but now I like subtle forms. I think it’s far more difficult to design something that looks striking but still can fit anywhere with anything. After all, it’s not as if my product is the only item that will be placed in a room – people don’t live or work in showrooms. So it’s vital and challenging to design a product that fits without taking over.”
For Förster, that’s exactly what Spoon does. It fits anywhere – like blobs dotting a room. “I love the material too. There’s a certain warmth to these three-dimensional fabrics.” The colours on display are natural, autumnal colours of green, brown and grey. “I like these colours, although the shades the chair comes in are Offect’s choice. I used to use very bright colours but I think that trend is over now. You’ll find more natural tones around at the show here,’’ she says, looking around. “Nonetheless, I see Spoon positioned in a room with a powerful pink cushion in it.” The chair as the accessory for the cushion, not the other way round.
Her latest product for Tacchini, Glide, is completely different. The prototype of this chair was shown last year at Milan, with the production version lined up for this year’s show. “Glide is far more extreme,” Förster explains. “It takes more energy out of the room.” But it’s a true Tacchini piece. “I try to adjust to the different companies I work with. Of course I have my own style, otherwise companies wouldn’t want to work with me. But I like to feel the soul of a company, and create in accordance with that.”
She made use of the new vacuum technique to create this object without any seams. The Glide chair has a movement that “recalls the fluid transformation of the elements and the coexistence of different states, through the use of soft and enveloping forms”. Förster has also designed a new sofa for Tacchini called Pinstripe. It’s highly versatile and can be moved into different configurations, with the lines creating new dynamic patterns every time the sofa is arranged differently. Her newest Tacchini product, however, is the Kimono table, unseen in the UK so far, which will be launched at Milan’s furniture fair in April. The round glass tabletop rests on what looks like a three-pronged propeller, again evoking a sense of movement.
Indeed movement is the quintessential motif in Förster’s work. She has described the Glide chair as a transition “when the Artic ice and snow start to melt in the spring and slowly turn into water”. Likewise about her Breeze table for Swedish firm Swedese, launched this year in Stockholm, she tells me: “I came up with the tabletop form by imagining that moment when you look out onto the water and the wind comes, those waves that follow, that natural movement, that’s the effect I’m looking for.” We look at the beautifully curved wave at the side of this round coffee table. “Maybe also water lilies it looks like a water lily, doesn’t it?”
Förster is opposed to referring to her style as organic, but feels the company ethos of Swedese, with its eco products and forest-themed stand, led her to design such a nature-inspired object. “Ideally, I’d like my objects to float in the room,” Förster says. “Like the Breeze table, I wish I could get rid of the legs – that’s why they are as thin as engineering permits.” This lightness and the aspiration to design floating objects may sound impossible, but when Förster told me about her Mirage exhibition in downtown Stockholm, I was more convinced.
Every year, in conjunction with the Stockholm furniture fair, Förster puts on a non-commercial show of her work, “to give something back,” she explains, “give the onlooker an experience they won’t forget.” This year she installed Flame, produced by Design House Stockholm in 2007: a burning flame seemingly floating in mid air in a black darkened room. Ultimately, it’s an illusion. Two curved mirrors reflect the light of the actual flame above a black oil lamp, using a method based on the theory behind Hubble’s telescope. If you go to touch, you realise it’s not actually there, and while you may see it, the person next to you may not. Magic!
“It’s fun. I see myself as an industrial designer who focuses on furniture and objects. I’m also very interested in architecture [see Förster’s inflatable room Cloud for Offect, 2003], I guess I’d design anything.” Even though she wants to continue with what she’s doing, her ambition is to collaborate with more architectural projects. “Also, I’d like my company to grow,” she says. Many designers talk about wanting to keep their studios small (see our PearsonLloyd cover story this month, or the Sevil Peach cover story, onoffice 04), but Förster says: “No, I like having people around me. Currently it’s only me and my two assistants, but the best thing about my projects is working with all these people. A design process is always about collaboration.”
Hasn’t working with the big ones, the classic design companies like Poltrona Frau with their weighty heritage, added pressure to her work? “Quite the opposite,” Förster exclaims. “For one, they have money so when they show me a sample of materials, there will be this vintage leather, for example, that just takes your breath away.” She also thrives off working with craftsmen that have been in the industry for decades. “When they say, ‘we worked with Oscar Niemeyer,’ I must admit I get a thrill from it. These are talents I’ve always admired and now I’m working with people in the same way.” However, she thinks that manner of working is dying out. “These people, craftsmen that have been in the same company for 20 or 30 years, that know the philosophy, the process, the products inside out – that degree of experience won’t be around for much longer.” People move on quickly these days, feeling loyalty only to themselves, not a company.
So what directions does Förster predict? “Currently, four main trends. One is that things are being industrialised but look handcrafted. Today, that’s seen as ultimate luxury. It’s about that low-key approach, no brand, simple understatement, something very British, am I right? Secondly, there’s art in furniture. At present, most are still one-offs, at least in Scandinavia they don’t seem to go into production, but it’s an important movement. The last two are current fashions: monochrome shapes and seamless designs – think Glide – and lastly oversized objects [like the B&B Italia giant lamp concept design].”
Förster has an intuitive approach to design – her recent products glide, breeze … well, they move effortlessly. Her designs have found a certain calmness, a maturity that is most evident when comparing her current products to those early forms. Her objects on show in Stockholm this year are cool and serene to a degree that you think they have always been there – simple, light, seemingly floating. Monica Förster is one to watch out for and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day she creates a chair that really does hover in mid air.Awards2005 BEST PRODUCT 2005, TIME MAGAZINE 2004 THE ART GRANTS COMMITTEE, FIVE-YEAR GRANT 2004 COOLEST INVENTION OF 2004, TIME MAGAZINE 2003 DESIGNER OF THE YEAR, YO STOCKHOLM 2002 FUTUREDESIGNDAYS AWARD 2002 EXCELLENT SWEDISH DESIGN WITH HONOURABLE MENTION 2000 DESIGN PLUS, GERMANY