Swedish design firm Form Us With Love makes simple, charismatic products that fly off the shelves. Having collaborated with Ikea, and launched a loud new take on the acoustic panel, it is now venturing into electronics
Form Us With Love has brought a new toy along to Stockholm Furniture Fair. Wanting to give visitors a more tangible experience of its new Baux sound-control cladding panels, the designers have set up an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset on its exhibition stand.
Curious potential clients and journalists (this one included) are encouraged by co-founders John Löfgren and Jonas Pettersson to strap on the headset and explore a virtual building they have created, where the latest designs can be found in various rooms. It demonstrates the studio’s appetite for technology, which they hint could be its next foray, and its ongoing pursuit of that surprise element that peppers many of its designs.
This year the Swedish studio celebrates a decade in business, during which time it has created dozens of recognisable products including a landmark range with Ikea, and co-founded Baux. Yet, as always, they are thinking ahead.
“It’s a landmark, sure, but most of the things are not done yet,” smiles Löfgren. “I’m more energetic than ever. I think when you’ve been around 10 years, you can really start to make some changes.”
Keeping one foot in the world of furniture and lighting, where it made its name, FUWL is currently amid plans to broach new territories.
“The design industry is very mature and fun to work in, because everything is at a high level,” says Pettersson, “but it’s more challenging to move into industries where design is not as implemented, where you can make a bigger difference.”
They allude to projects in electronics, and the everyday technological items around us that they believe could use a less engineered, more human appeal.
“Take a vacuum cleaner,” says Pettersson. “Why does it look like it’s going to go 200km per hour? Maybe it could look more like a piece of furniture, so you don’t have to hide it.”
It’s this mentality that led to the launch of Baux at last year’s Stockholm Furniture Fair, but began four years ago within FUWL’s own studio. In search of sound absorption for its new open-plan, double-height workspace, the team came across Träullit, a small manufacturer of interior cladding panels made from wood wool and cement that insulate, absorb sound and regulate moisture.
However, as Löfgren recalls, they came in sheets of “grey and grey”, so FUWL began working with the factory to develop new colours and patterns. The before-and-after shots have the same pupil-dilating effect as that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the black and white film saturates with colour. It is a departure from the studio’s usual projects, but FUWL’s injection of vibrancy into such a functional, large-scale architectural construction product has so far proved a successful match; on display at this year’s Stockholm fair, the panels attracted passers-by like moths to a flame.
It was at this fair nine years ago that the industry was first exposed to FUWL, then a newly established designer trio fresh from Linnaeus University in south Sweden. Whereas many graduating design students spend the days after their degree show revelling in new-found freedom, then trying to figure out how the hell to break into design, classmates Löfgren, Pettersson and third FUWL founder, Petrus Palmér, officially established the studio the day after graduation.
“The environment in school is very stressful, with late nights, so you can scope each other out,” says Löfgren. “We had the same mindset towards design; we knew we wanted the same things.”
They applied to exhibit at the fair’s Greenhouse show for emerging talent, and were rejected, but these ambitious young Swedes persevered. “We called [the organisers] and said, ‘we need to do this’,” remembers Pettersson, “so they gave us three days to come up with something else.”
That something was Cord Lamp, an “instant hit” product still sold by retailer Design House Stockholm to this day, and one that says much about the portfolio of stripped-back-yet-playful designs that FUWL would go on to produce. It is simply a bulb plus a fabric-coated cord that is curled and set in place to form the lamp’s base; reductive design at its most artful.
This project paved the way for another with Design House Stockholm called Work Lamp (2009), a metallic caged bulb akin to the type you’d find on a building site, which tapped into the market’s obsession with ready-mades at that time.
Swedish brand Mitab was also an early collaborator, for which the studio has designed a number of chairs and tables over the years, beginning with the Highway steel wire chair. From the front, its tapering, slatted form looks like a road reaching into the horizon (hence the name), yet its side profile is as slim as they come. Compared with something like Work Lamp, it shows how FUWL can apply its simple but charismatic design to different aesthetics and brands.
“We’re not artists,” says Löfgren, when quizzed on the studio’s ethos.
“Our ambition is not to express ourselves, it is to go to the core of the [client] and push projects through the company’s DNA. Communication has always been a great part of our business idea.” As such, the studio isn’t limited solely to product design, but undertakes consultancy work, including creative direction for flooring firm Bolon, and interior design for retail and exhibitions.
Pettersson says that, in the beginning, the three founders’ roles were quite defined. “One of us was keen on starting things, one on creating things, and one on presenting things,” he says, explaining that he is the first in that line-up, while Löfgren is the third, which seems to correspond with their personalities – theoretical and analytical, retrospectively. When people with different personalities and ideas work together, Löfgren continues, “that’s when the magic happens.”
Palmér took a step back from the studio in late 2013 to concentrate more on his creative director role at design retail brand One Nordic, which formed in 2012. Online retailer Fab bought One Nordic in June 2014, and soon after launched spin-off online store, Hem, for which Palmér has continued as creative director.
There’s no bad blood between the three: Palmér is still a partner in Baux and TID (a watch company they also co-founded), and Hem sells two FUWL designs, the Bento range and Levels lamp. Meanwhile FUWL’s small team of designers has filled the gap left by his absence and as the studio has grown, the roles are less defined anyway,
says Pettersson, and the process has become more organic.
Maintaining their theory that different perspectives are the fuel to their creative fire, the team includes people from Germany, Korea and the US as well as Sweden, and the studio takes monthly trips together “to see something new,” such as skiing, a city break to Barcelona, eating in a new restaurant or seeing an exhibition.
“We need to explore things that aren’t about design,” says Pettersson, “to look at how people behave and live, find out new ways of doing things.” Each project begins with group discussion and brainstorming, analysing from every angle and gleaning the biggest variety of ideas possible, before slimming down to smaller dedicated project teams.
It seems relationships are central to the studio’s output, whether it’s the one between three university peers, a small diverse team of designers, or indeed the ones with clients. In this respect, the last 10 years have taught them to trust their instincts. “Design is so much about people. If you can’t have a beer or a coffee with the guys you’re going to work with, you shouldn’t do it,” says Löfgren. “It’s a gut feeling.”
He claims he can tell within 10 minutes of talking to a new collaborator whether it’s a yes or a no. “There were some collaborations in the beginning that we should’ve said no to, because the gut said no, but we did it anyway. Now we can just work with the right people.”
“We’re trying to be in the middle of rational and emotional”
Collaborations with Danish brand Muuto have been especially successful, with the Unfold lamp being one of the studio’s best-known products. In true FUWL style, it subverts the familiar; the industrial-style shade is made from silicon, so it’s softer aesthetically and physically, squashing down for more efficient packaging and transportation.
The designers are currently working on some new pieces for Muuto.
Similarly the three pieces produced with Swedish lighting brand Ateljé Lyktan, another early and ongoing collaborator, exemplify FUWL’s adroitness for problem solving with finesse. Ogle (2009) can shift from straight-down pendant lamp to angled spotlight, courtesy of a subtle groove in its spherical head; and Plug (2012) is a dumpy little table lamp housing a socket for charging laptops and phones.
Its latest is Hood (2013), another journey into sound control, which is a modular acoustic system and pendant light, designed to create a quieter, more intimate environment for office meetings without infringing on open-plan surroundings.
All are embedded with a clever trick or multifunctional aspect, without complicating the product’s honest, pared-back aesthetic. “We’re trying to be in the middle of rational and emotional. If it’s too rational, it’s boring and no one really wants it; but if it’s too emotional and abstract then it doesn’t have value,” says Pettersson.
Löfgren says that from the start the studio’s intention was to make things as easy as possible, and as such the overriding theme across FUWL’s portfolio is one of clarity, legibility and sophisticated simplicity, all with a friendly charm. The Bento range echoes traditional Scandinavian bentwood chairs but with rounder, stouter proportions, and a nifty construction; its four components come together by the turn of just one chunky handle under the seat.
It’s not just FUWL but the wider industry, says Löfgren, that is pushing for more transparency in the market: “I think a good development [over the last 10 years] is that people, customers, are generally more aware of production and want insight on how stuff is made, like in food nowadays.” Likewise, he says, the Swedish industry is moving away from low-cost production overseas in favour of nurturing its local heritage in high-quality furniture making.
Working with manufacturers closer to home allows FUWL to go to the headquarters, meet everyone from the CEO to the makers, and keep a closer eye on proceedings. Though the studio has worked with its fair share of international names including FontanaArte, Cappellini and La Cividina, the bulk of its work is with Scandinavian brands because of the close relationships it cultivates.
“We’re more inspired by being at the factory floor; that’s where our ideas are born,” says Löfgren. “Being a designer in Sweden, the production has always been just around the corner. I think this knowhow is something we have to keep, as people are going to want it in future.”
It’s a topic that lends itself nicely to talking about Ikea. The studio’s Janinge moulded plastic chair and stool for the Swedish megabrand launched in late 2014 to much laudation, not least because the partnership with a high-design name marks an about-turn for a company known for its cheap, mass-produced furniture. Full of praise for the company, Löfgren admits that this particular project was a big moment for the studio.
“We’ve had our eyes on Ikea from day one. If you’re from Scandinavia, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, it’s always something you’re aware of in this business.” So, how did it differ from other clients? “The processes and sheer size of the company is impressive, but the collaboration has been exquisite; we really found each other from the start.”
It’s the beginning of another beautiful relationship, as they confirm more works are in the pipeline. It also marks an internal renaissance for Ikea, which also launched a range by Ilse Crawford at Stockholm.
“Around four years ago they decided design should no longer be a cost, it should be an investment,” says Pettersson. “They have to be conscious,” adds Löfgren, “because what they do matters.” The collaboration speaks volumes not just of FUWL’s design dexterity, but its personal touch.
“It’s a tricky investment to make, to buy creativity,” Pettersson says, “but we’ve proven that it’s worth it.”