Front Line Assembly: Experiments in Design by Front

Text by Mila Zulo

Many of Front Design’s projects begin with a philosophical question. “Can a designed object exist without being materialized?” “What defines a home?” Through such Socratic dialogue, the four women who comprise the Swedish design group answer these questions with a collectively conceptual mind and a spirit of healthy rebellion. SOMA spoke with resident Iggy Pop-loving, bicycle enthusiast and ex-rat owner Charlotte von der Lancken on her cell in Sweden on her first few days of a much-deserved holiday.

In 2003, von der Lancken, Sofia Lagerkvist, Anna Lindgren and Katja Sävström met in their industrial design class at the Konstfack School of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm. Becoming fast friends, the foursome began partying and collaborating together after school and on weekends. Shortly thereafter, one of their first group efforts, an eccentrically organic series called “Design By Animals,” nudged the then-undergraduates into the international spotlight. The aptly named series called upon the help of animals to construct household furniture: desert rats chewed abstract patterns into wallpaper, a snake’s spiraling grip became the mold for a hanger, and a rabbit nuzzled a nest that gave shape to a desk lamp. While Front may give a charmingly naive explanation of the series on their website, (“‘Make something nice,’ we told [the animals]”), a critical investigation into design was taking place. They posed the question, “If animals dictate a design, does that negate the role of a designer?”

Another of their early projects transformed the interior design of Tensta Konsthall art hall in Stockholm. “Our interior design is based on a thought of change,” von der Lancken says. “Most of the time, designers don’t want their stuff to change, to get old, to be stolen, or [to] break or anything. But we factored change into the part of the design instead.” The changing design includes a seemingly mundane gray floor that gradually turns gold as people walk on it, ever-changing flowers that act as a three-dimensional wallpaper, and coffee mugs that reflect their surroundings when hot coffee is poured into them.

Aside from the fact that Front’s designs are beautiful and extraordinarily charming, the conceptual and social undertones of their work separate them from others in the design community. Front filled the exterior of Tensta Konstall with 200 white plastic chairs, the most common chairs in the world. The chairs, each stamped with “Tensta Konstall,” were free for the taking. Von der Lancken says, “People could take these chairs and move them and spread them around the area to remind other people about the art hall, almost like a flyer or something. And people did – it was possible to bring them wherever you wanted to.” They also doctored a few of the chairs with “exclusive leather” and wheels to create a kind of high-end version of the $5 chair.

The notions of public space and sharing seeped into another of their designs when Front made a generic red sofa for a housing and retail complex in Stockholm, a project which von der Lancken says is based on democratic ideals. “We collaborated with an artist, and the project was about a building that is based on a political idea that common people should be able to live in this very posh part of Stockholm. So they built this house in the middle of the mound and wanted to collect all parts of Sweden within it.” The sofa remained in the public space sans owner and has elicited controversy and debate in local papers, as many were afraid that it would attract homeless people.
While designers love Front because they deviate from conventionality, the art world also embraces them for their experimental tendencies. “I think that we get a lot of inspiration from the art field,” explains von der Lancken.

“When we do design, we are always after questions about what we do and why things look as they do.” Their more avant-garde work includes a table that stumbles awkwardly like a newborn fawn and eventually learns how to walk, a lounge chair molded from a crater, household objects created from flawed 3-D scans, and a lamp that lies down after you leave the room. One of their most recent experiments involves motion capture technology, which is typically used to make 3-D animations in film or video games. After making sketches in the air with light pens, Front employed the technology to materialize their air sketches into pieces of furniture, as if to preserve the design in its most organic form – imagination.

Unsurprisingly, art galleries like Tensta Konstall and Art Basel commission Front as frequently as furniture fairs and design studios. Von der Lancken recognizes the convergence of art and design in Front’s
wayward techniques. “We say that we are designers and we are doing product design. But since we work a lot in exploring, we also have some contact with the art scene and some people think we work in a crossover between art and design. And I guess in a way we do, because we work with exploring and stuff.”

There’s also an undeniable element of light-hearted fun within Front’s ingenuity. The group was asked to coordinate a dinner at Droog Design studios, and they decided to structure the proceedings around the rules of speed dating. “We talked about the fact that the design process always starts with a new contact,” von der Lancken recalls. “We wanted people to get to know new people so they could start to work together. That’s actually a part of the design process that we wanted to enhance.” Guests rotated every seven minutes, prompted by questions printed on the tablecloth to engage them in conversation. Much to von der Lancken and Front’s delight, “people talked really, really loudly in the room, and I actually think that some have started to collaborate with others.”

In regards to Front’s own symbiotic process, von der Lancken says their individual differences only strengthen the end result. “It’s something that makes our ideas better because we build on each other’s ideas and everybody molds it. It’s really good because it makes us develop our ideas much more, and it also becomes much more fun.”
At the rate they are going, Front will likely permeate every facet of design with their infectiously witty and gracefully absurd creations. “I think our long-term goal is to be able to work, as we do right now, with products in different fields and to have variation [in our designs], because one thing that we really enjoy is that we can work with galleries, make things for mass production, and we can also make things that are very unique pieces. It’s really interesting because somehow everything comes from the same process. It can end up as art, an object, or it can end up as a mass-produced thing, and it’s something that’s really interesting.”


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