Whittle While You Work

Swedish design duo TAF has more talents than you can shake a stick at.

Click here to view a slideshow of TAF products

You can tell a lot about a design when you see it in miniature—not every product’s proportions survive being reduced to the size of a kiwi. The work by Swedish duo TAF has a way of dodging that fate. “We always start with models,” says Gabriella Gustafson, 34, plucking a dainty garden chair from the table between us. Nearby is the full-scale version from TAF’s recent IOU line, every bit as slender and elegant as the original. Model-making, says Mattias Ståhlbom, TAF’s other half, is their way of weeding out ideas. “Maybe only one out of 10 works,” he says.

He’s being modest. We’re sitting in a low-ceilinged alcove in TAF’s shared studio on the ground floor of an apartment block in Stockholm’s hip SoFo district. Apart from what’s on the table, the usual rash of models has been packed away while the designers redecorate. But beside us sits a pencil holder made from folded, powder-coated metal, a shrunken version of their waste bin series for the Swedish company Nova, based on standard paper sizes. The idea came from modeling the product with two sheets of stiff cardstock—the four corners hang slightly open, adding a nice barely-there quality. And, like the IOU garden furniture, the piece works brilliantly at either scale.

Gustafson and the 37-year-old Ståhlbom (both are tallish and fair, he a little more ash blond than her) met a decade ago on the interior architecture and furniture circuit at Stockholm’s Konstfack university, before starting a business in 2002 (originally with a third designer) and finding the “meaningless” name TAF in a syllable of Gabriella’s surname. They work well as a pair. “We have a lot of fun,” says Gustafson, “and I think we see the same things.” It annoys them though, when people think they’re a couple, and it particularly annoys Gustafson when clients assume Ståhlbom is in charge.

Not surprisingly given their un-gushy personalities—Ståhlbom once did time at Karim Rashid’s studio, and while he may have a touch of Kraftwerk styling about him, frankly, I can’t imagine a more unlikely pairing—the TAF aesthetic is subtle. They call it “ordinary life, less ordinary.” From a distance, their IOU furniture could be standard patio fare. Up close it’s anything but. “People often feel they’ve seen our pieces before, but something is off,” says Stahlbom. Usually it’s the materials, treated in a slightly unusual way. “The word in Swedish is igenkanning—recognizable,” says Gustafson.

Sometimes it’s just a color that surprises. Fans of beauty in the everyday, they find their palette in existing archetypes. For the 2006 Nest coat rack for Karl Andersson & Söner (a deceptively simple assemblage of criss-crossed beams) and a concertina room divider prototype (inspired by the emergency roadwork barriers of southern Europe) it was the yellow of a standard pencil. For their new collection of pine Trestle tables for the Japanese manufacturer Cïbone, they picked out cast-metal joints in red, white, and blue. The designers scarcely know where the colors come from themselves. “There’s a Swedish expression ‘you dig where you stand,’ meaning you use what you have around yourself,” says Ståhlbom. He thinks the saying dates from the time, not so long ago, when the Swedes were all farmers.

And craftsmen. It’s not long before you find yourself drooling over the details in a TAF product. In IOU’s case, it’s the varied, almost abstract widths of the planks (“more sustainable because it uses the mixture of dimensions you get from cutting a log,” Ståhlbom says), and the lo-tech, colored pegs that hold the table’s bracing rail in place and keep the piece from veering toward the overly stark.

IOU is a collaboration with the Swedish charity CRIS, which stands for “criminals return into society”—the idea being to dream up furniture that can be made by convicts who will leave prison with a useful trade. As part of its research, TAF traveled to a Russian prison in Novgorod. It was a shocking experience but one that had a positive impact on the design. “In prison, they get really good at wood carving, so in the end we asked them to customize the pegs so that each piece is unique,” Gustafson says.

That spirit of practical adaptability pays off in many ways. Imagine Dieter Rams’s Vitsoe wall shelving rendered in standard 45mm x 45mm timber—the cantilevered shelves resting in the gaps between two horizontals—and you’ll come close to the effortless, versatile elegance of TAF’s latest product. It arose from a zero-budget fit-out for the Stockholm fair-trade retailer Afroart; the designers turned the whole job around in a month and came up with a cracking new display system in the bargain, now being produced by NC Mobler.

“From the beginning we had very poor clients, and it became our method to solve problems with cheap materials,” explains Gustafson. “Now,” says Ståhlbom, “we like to work that way. It’s durable and pragmatic.” The ingenious attic staircase they designed in 2006 for a private client is another good example. It’s formed from a seemingly unsupported tower of staggered wedge-shaped treads. And while it may look like an expensive piece of interior sculpture, the whole thing was made from a solid pine kitchen worktop. Similarly, TAF’s new flat-pack garden pavilion, launched at this summer’s Gothenburg garden festival, makes use of standard-issue materials: panels of ply, plasterboard, galvanized steel, and glass. According to Ståhlbom, it’s a customizable design that looks “like a fancy version of a shantytown.”

TAF’s principals see dignity and strength in the simplest things. It’s why Ståhlbom’s Foto lamps, designed with Thomas Bernstrand for the Swedish lighting company Zero, owe such a debt to classic photography equipment, and why TAF’s latest Zero design, the Last floor lamp, is as tough as old nails. Contained in a swiveling aluminum drum on a tripod base, the bulb is protected, building-site-style, by a layer of wire mesh. “Lamps are not built to last anymore,” says Ståhlbom. “I like those old vintage lamps with patina. It doesn’t matter if it gets a bit bent, it still works.”

Theirs may be a serious, exacting approach (just think of all those discarded models), but it’s not entirely humorless. The “Faces of Time” exhibition at Sweden’s National Museum this fall will include TAF’s take on the Swiss cuckoo clock. The designers were inspired by a 2005 trip to Zurich (they went in search of Herzog & de Meuron buildings but found only “Advent-calendar houses”); their rough-hewn wood cuckoo emerges from its minimalist casing to the sound of different birdsong every hour.

Until recently, only three Basel clocks existed (though it will soon be produced by Design House Stockholm), and for good reason. According to Gustafson and Ståhlbom, every first-grade Swedish child has a little knife and learns how to whittle. The designers each made a cuckoo while their French intern sat for two weeks looking forlornly at his block of limewood before cutting himself rather badly. For a split-second I picture TAF, Bogart-cruel, teasing the boy: “You do know how to whittle, don’t you?” But the truth is, this duo’s talents are so natural, so second nature to them, they simply don’t realize how good they are.

Fiona Rattray is a freelance writer based in London. Formerly deputy editor of Blueprint and style editor of The Observer, she has also contributed to The Independent, The Telegraph, and Elle Décor.

Photography by
Felix Brüggemann

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