You Dainty Rat

Posted inID Mag
Thumbnail for Regional Design Awards: 2018 Winner Galleries

(from left) Charlotte von der Lancken, Sofia Lagerkvist, Anna Lindgren, and Katja Savstrom, at their workshop in Grondal, Sweden

Front is a foursome of Swedish women who met while studying industrial design in Stockholm.

Recognizing a shared “bad attitude” toward conventional Swedish design, Anna Lindgren, Katja Savstrom, Sofia Lagerkvist, and Charlotte von der Lancken formed a clique that soon became a collective. Front was born before they graduated from Konstfack last spring. Where multiple intelligences are concerned, a spokesperson typically emerges early. Charles Eames, Lou Reed, and Elizabeth Diller come to mind. But Front is hard-core egalitarian. Even their email address,, doesn’t differentiate among them. No individual credit is taken or given for any project. Yet they don’t have a script; pick a topic and you get four distinct opinions that ultimately coalesce like an ancient mosaic.

If they are not inviting rats to gnaw through wallpaper or turning tables into robots that learn to walk across the room, they are igniting explosives to mold chairs in the ensuing crater. The work seems more comfortably seated in the theoretical lap of late modern art, especially the conceptual projects of the 1970s process artists. And in fact it has already been exhibited at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm’s contemporary art museum. It has also been distinguished with top honors in last year’s FutureDesignDays. As architect and Royal Institute of Technology faculty member Helena Mattsson observes, “Front questions distinctions between art and design, between functional and nonfunctional objects, and even between dead objects and living beings.” The result is schizophrenic—all crossbreeds are—and makes you wonder: Is it installation art or design? Is it a goofy performance gotten out of hand or randomness turned to insurgency within the precincts of high-church design?

The Design by Gravity floor lamp employs a motion sensor to “wake up” from its standard reclining position when it detects someone in the room.

What is clear-cut is Front’s infatuation with chance. The team entrusts its work to haphazard proceedings: gravitational effects, explosion patterns, and even, in its first projects, undomesticated animals. The Front website explains: “We asked animals to help us. ‘Sure we’ll help you out,’ they answered. ‘Make something nice,’ we told them. And so they did.” Indeed. When the rats got done chomping through vast bolts of white wallpaper, Front was left with a delicate lacy pattern that allowed old paper or paint to show through. Other partnerships with reptiles and bugs resulted in household objects that feel at home with the wall covering. A tube of clay squeezed by a boa constrictor became a textured wall-hanger for hats and jackets; a fly’s path around a light bulb (recorded by a stop-motion camera) produced a tubular lampshade dizzy with life; beetles’ tracks across a piece of wood yielded an intricately carved table.

For its “Technology” projects, Front abandoned the critters in order to domesticate home electronics. “Why is it so difficult to distinguish between a CD player and a VCR?” the designers wondered. Before long they’d transformed a white tear-shape pendulum of silicone into an answering machine—you pull on its elegant stem to play messages. Bulbous glass jars became see-through CD players. Petite rectangular boxes, highly crafted medleys of wood, lead, and antler, are MP3 players.

Front’s “Design By” series brought back nature in force. After detonating dynamite sticks buried in a winter landscape for Design by Explosion, the group translated the resulting crater into a mold for a wonderfully soft lounge chair. When displayed, the white mound of a seat is set against a slow-motion film of the 0.4-second blast that created it. Design by Mechanics is a table supplied with artificial intelligence and mechanical legs; turn it on, and in its first few days of life it acts like a stumbling Bambi while it learns to stand, balance itself, and toddle across the room. In Design by Morph, Front programmed a digital version of Verner Panton’s 1967 eponymous chair to morph into Ron Arad’s 1999 Tom Vac chair. Purchasers will select a hybrid along the continuum, which Front will produce as a one-off in fiberglass. Design by Sunlight, another wallpaper, features a white background that has been tattooed with a shadowy still-life pattern composed of classic Nordic design objects. Upon first glance, it’s all sanity and simplicity: a Poul Henningsen lamp, an Ericofon, fresh flowers in a typical Scandinavian vase. But the repeated image is UV-sensitive so that when the sun shines, the purplish silhouettes gradually materialize, only to fade again at day’s end.

Design by Surroundings vases have the reflection of a room permanently etched on their deep-purple glass surface.

Such a laissez-faire attitude toward the random would have been familiar to Dadaists and Surrealists. Marcel Duchamp, strolling the rue Claude Bernard in Paris, happened upon a sign over a tailor’s shop boasting stoppages (invisible mending) and adopted it as the title for his readymade Trois Stoppages Etalon, 1913. Fortuity was at the heart and brain of Duchamp’s art, as it is with Front’s. All five of them share a fascination with invisible meaning, if not mending. Scribbled among the elliptical notes in his Green Box, Duchamp refers to the Stoppages as “canned chance”—it’s a fitting description of Front’s work, too.

Ronald Jones is an artist and critic based in Stockholm, Sweden, where, with partner Laurie Haycock Makela, he established o-b-o-k, an experience design firm. He is professor of interdisciplinary studies at Konstfack and on the faculty at the Staatliche Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste, Stadelschule Frankfurt, Germany. He contributes regularly to I.D., Artforum, and Frieze.