Text by Henriette Noermark
“Transport is absolutely crucial to the machinery of global production, but, given that it still makes huge use of fossil fuels, it is also one of the most problematic elements. During the pandemic, we saw what happens when transport does not work. We have become totally dependent on it.”
When the 400-metre-long container ship Ever Given got stuck in in the Suez Canal in the mid of the pandemic, it became all too clear that the world’s infrastructure is suffering from our ever-increasing need to transport goods from east to west and south to north. Moreover, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine at the beginning of this year, it was not just a tragic military and human catastrophe, but also a reminder of the vulnerability of the vast machinery of global production.
An apt subtitle for Active Cargo – the Swedish designer Jenny Nordberg’s solo exhibition at Vandalorum – might be: ”New shapes and forms made by activating materials by the movement within transport resulting in objects.” Since graduating as an industrial designer in 2005 and plunging into a world of mass production, she has been questioning the system and machinery of production to which society clings. Regarding them as problematic and holistically untenable — we must be able to find alternative solutions. She believes in local production and in the intrinsic potential of design to develop in its vicinity.
For decades we have been talking about the existential problem, which increased freight transport – whether by land, sea or air – creates for the climate and environment. This is the messy Gordian knot that threatens our society, and we have not yet been able to resolve it either politically or structurally. We talk about it. Companies shout about it, greenwashing their ambition to work globally, yet sustainably – at some point in the future. One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is ”Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure”, composed of subsidiary goals for ensuring longer-term results by 2030. They include making industry more sustainable, efficient use of resources and increasing clean, environmentally-friendly technologies and industrial processes. Meanwhile, according to Eurostats’ publication Globalisation Patterns in EU Trade and Investment, international transport figures are still rising steadily and the system is being optimised, making short deliveries and dropshipping the only solutions.
If we cannot prevent transport, perhaps we should take a different approach and look at the possibility of reducing the wasted time and energy? This is certainly what Nordberg believes. She is one of the designers sounding the alarm and not accepting any more excuses. After all, what are the arguments for doing nothing? Will we not gain something far more important if we turn our backs on low prices and fast deliveries? Are not close links and proximity to local production worth more than crossing endless national borders? Is it not time to change those structures we have endorsed for years as the only acceptable ones, with the excuse that things have always been done that way?
Nordberg’s call for action is reflected in her exhibition Active Cargo. She looks at whether we can transform passive resources into active ones by using the physical movements, which occur during the transport of products and objects, as potential production devices in themselves. “I want to make the passive active. When an object is shipped, it moves geographically, but the object itself does not utilise that movement or energy. During transport, it is totally passive,” she says, and questions whether continuing like this is not a pure waste of energy and downright inefficient. She compares it to going to work without working. In physical terms, she presents two machines and a five-metre-long ramp, each imitating their own movement during transport. The vibrations, which reflect the bumping of lorries on roads, waves from the ships and falls, which aim to reflect the many accidents that happen with lost packages. In other words, she removes the geographical dimension of transport, but retains the hypothetical movement. Local materials such as clay, bioplastics, wood powder and biodynamic glue pass through the machines and are turned into objects. The movement of transport becomes the actual machinery of production. Conceptually, she looks at the familiar Euro-pallets with frames, which she optimises with black details, and Perspex and glass elements. She cannot predict how the objects will turn out. Some of them are made in situ during the run of the exhibition, so there is a large element of chance and risk. But she is well versed in welcoming serendipity.
“I often deploy coincidences in my work. When it comes to aesthetics, I regard them as co-creators. There are certain decisions I don’t have to make, since coincidences or pre-established standard goals decide the aesthetics and what happens, happens. By relinquishing control, things can happen within a strictly controlled set-up. I love that way of working.”
Active Cargo is a natural successor to Nordberg’s previous projects. I have previously referred to her as “the designer who feels free.” What I meant was that she does not acknowledge limitations as other designers might, but feels free of restrictions and conventions. She takes an analytical approach and does not stop until she has resolved the situation. She approaches the world as an equation to solve. As a political being, she not only observes, but also engages and wants to change the world for the better. Rather than being naïve about, or blind to the potential of speed in mass production, she sees it as an artistic and conceptual hurdle for figuring out how she can use some of the same techniques in her own studio in Skåne and the local community.
In previous projects such as 3-5 sec and 3-5 min (presented at Vandalorum in 2015), she investigated the quality of the rate at which objects are produced. The same was true when she created hundreds of trays for the Vandalorum restaurant, made in collaboration with Åry Trays in Småland. First she painted the birch veneer directly, using a screwdriver and floor mop. The wood was then pressed into trays at the factory. The combination of Nordberg’s unique touch and the manufacturer’s input spotlighted how mass production does not necessarily negate uniqueness.
The local aspect is important. After all, why not make use of the carpenter, glassblower, ceramist or steelworks around the corner and who can keep a close eye on the process? For the exhibition Den Nya Kartan [The New Map] (2015–17), Nordberg paired a number of designers and producers from Skåne, Småland and Halland. The goal was to create products locally. Quality was paramount, and the project involved devising long-term sustainable strategies.
We need to find resources locally, and produce in our own locality, as opposed to subjecting ourselves to a system of capitalist values that involves millions of containers on the water and equally many lorries on roads throughout Europe. What she opposes is the capitalist, consumer mindset, which forms the basis of the way we operate and to which we have become accustomed. We demand fast delivery, optimal quality and low prices. However, when we order furniture, clothes and homeware from different parts of the world, we are becoming more and more aware of the price we pay in terms of climate, environment and sustainability. So, Active Cargo is an extension of her previous work: a design project that essentially sets out to solve a tangible, relatable and crucial societal and climatic problem. The project tackles the necessary changes, which we as a population, consumers and manufacturers need to make, if we are to continue moving around the globe.
When asked what role humour plays for her, Nordberg answers: “It’s probably one of my main purposes in life.” This positive approach clearly informs all of her work. It is not to be confused with superficiality. But smiling is invaluable when you are working with something as existential and significant as design. “I’m interested in communication and know that humour is a great way to pose serious questions,” she says. It is not simply a way of looking at her works, but a way of facilitating and guiding a conversation in the direction of the important topics we should all be relating to and tackling. The combination of aesthetics, subtle humour and a focus on sustainability is characteristic of her practice, which is essentially investigative, practical, scientific and highly tangible. With her trenchancy and humour, she spotlights challenges and proposes alternative solutions.
While some people only see the surface, others take an interest in the larger context. Nordberg finds both reactions interesting, since the Active Cargo project also involves a quest for new paths towards new aesthetic expressions. She is basically a geek. She dives headlong into things, investigates, dips her hands into the matter of ideas and develops them in a direction that goes against the current — but with Nordberg’s gut feeling and the potential she sees in design. In Active Cargo, not only does she ask questions; she also seeks answers. The exhibition can be regarded as a research project, which, with an optimistic spirit of trial-and-error, seeks knowledge and inspiration for a changed reality. Results are guaranteed: unpredictable results, of which Nordberg cannot be sure at the beginning of the project, but results we can use to discuss and shed light on transport, and hopefully change the current approach to it. Before it is too late.
Can a passive part of the enormous manufacturing and consumption system become active? In this case, can the transportation of an object also be the manufacturing of the object?
In 2020 128 Trillion tonne kilometers were transported worldwide. This is a number, an amount of shipped goods, that is impossible to grasp. But if one would try… it resembles 16 500 tons moved one kilometer per person living in the world that year.
What would happen if one activated this passiv part of the system where an item or material is moved from one place to another. The movement is happening but the goods are passive. Could they be active instead? Can the energy and movement that exists within transportation be used as energy and movement for production? What would that production look like? What kind of processes and manufacturing methods would that be? What kind of objects could be produced? What kind of aesthetic would come out of this kind of production?
Europe consumes approximately 25 percent of the world’s raw materials, but produces only 3 percent. The transport sector only within the EU, accounted for 25 percent of the union’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Approximately 80% of the Swedish wood is exported at the same time as 70% of the wood we use in Sweden is imported. This is a good example of how materials today have become global rather than local. We have made ourselves dependent on world wide transportation.
The fragility of this system, both access to materials and the need for shipping, has been vastly exposed by examples like the cargo ship Ever Given that got stuck in the Suez Canal, the delays in materials, spare parts and products caused by the Corona pandemic and how the West’s economic sanctions against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine have affected both material prices and delivery times.
In 2021, the cost of container shipping from China to Northern Europe increased by over 700%. We have developed a system based on the search for profit that now has become its own enemy.How can this system not already be maximised? Why is the energy and the movement that is within shipping not used? How can the system be totally maximised? Active Cargo is posing questions aiming to stress the ones that still believe in the globalised production and consumption system. Active Cargo is not presenting any solutions but rather highlighting a missed opportunity in an already broken system. Active Cargo is on no one’s side, it’s everywhere, but yet nowhere.
Jenny Nordberg, 2022
Made with support by Konstnärsnämnden (The Swedish Arts Grants Committee).
Open Infinity’s shape is directly picked up from a container and then reproduced fifty times over. The curve’s predetermined shape makes the design process more effective as many steps can be excluded. The result is a suggestion — ”it could be like this”
The 100% scrap-based steel wire is bent into shape in Värnamo, Småland. Pine grown in Central Skåne is used to create the lamp base. Like almost all the worlds electronics, the ready made light source is made in China. The light fixture is attached with velcro.
All lamps are numbered and signed.
Recycled steel wire
Standard lamp fixture
W 68 cm D 27 cm H 38 cm
– How do you decide if a smile is true
”One early morning during the covid winter of 2021 I had a rich and vivid dream. I woke up with a clear image of a smiling chair with alluring eyes. I tried to draw it immediately but it was impossible to describe and capture the chair correctly. The smiling chair I saw in the dream seemed to be more of a feeling than something visual.”
Later that spring Jenny Nordberg visited the saw mill of Ingvar Olsson in the woods on the ridge of where she lives. Big slabs of oak wood were lying around and suddenly there it was – the smile. It had the shape and expression exactly like that in the dream.
Most of what characterises Jenny Nordberg’s practice can be found in the Positive Enough chair: A locally based design process, but also a design object that in its brutal and humorous expression presents the materials and manufacturing methods and makes them significant. This is combined with a seemingly carelessly nonchalant aesthetic precision based on meticulousness and experience.
An idea derived from the 19th century neurologist Guillaume Duchenne says that the muscles of the eyes are crucial for a smile to be interpreted as genuine. Spontaneous contractions of the muscles give the right wrinkles, signifying that the smile expresses a true feeling.
Positive Enough challenges the idea of the chair as a utility object, not only because of its unusual proportions that doesn’t put usefulness first – it also appears as anything but a passive object ready to be used. With its roughly-sawn surface the chair has plenty of wrinkles, but eyes are missing. The chair seems to be conscious though, it wants more than just fill up space in the room. Practicality becomes secondary when the chair’s emotional life takes over.
Material: Oak from Trolleholm, Skåne, Sweden.
Surface treatment: Soap
Measurements (hxdxw): Approximately 100x45x300 cm
A 2 meter long cup made during Covid 2021 for the Between Objects project. Shown at The Classen Library during Copenhagen Art Week and at QB Gallery in Oslo, Norway.
The Accumulations lamp was born during the exhibition with the same name, Accumulations, shown at Olsson & Gerthel in 2020.
“The exhibition Accumulations (September 9-26, 2020) at Olsson & Gerthel is based on a library of rejected elements, which through Nordberg’s disruptions are given new function and potential. In the performative presentation, she joints these materials with an assemblage-like technique in order to make unique utility objects, stretching from brutalist bedcovers in textile and metal to lamp constructions, tables and vessels. The leftovers that are used have been collected from subcontractors to Olsson & Gerthel, as well as from Nordberg’s studio, and a declaration of each part’s origin accompanies each final object.”
The floor lamp was an instant favorite when presented in the exhibition. This way of working, presenting three dimensional sketchy objects as possible solutions either as one-offs or smaller series, is one of Nordberg’s preferred working methods .
The production of the Accumulations lamp is carried out in Småland, Sweden. All parts are made from leftover metal except for the brick shaped glass weights that are hand cast in a small glass studio at the island of Murano, Italy.
The lamp and made in close collaboration with Olsson & Gerthel.
A set of jewelry done for What Is Gold.
A digital vendor and loosely arranged art, craft and design initiative. Independent practitioners and non traditional jewelers are offering artisanal produced items, one-offs and more within jewellery. What Is Gold is the place for rare findings. There are no middle hands and the author of the item gets the whole cut. What Is Gold is also about the basic need for fun things to happen. We are starting with jewelry to see where it takes us 🙂
The origin of these objects are a group of mini sculpture. Typical office related stuff such as paper, pens, erasers and glue were cut into smaller pieces and then mounted together to resemble the shape of different jewelry. The “jewelry” was then scanned with a low quality mobile scanner and after that 3-printed.
PLA is a bio plastic produced by fermentation of a carbohydrate source like corn starch or sugarcane.
Am I a ghost?
For several years, Johnny Ståhl has held a position at my studio.
His primary task is to send emails, especially to manufacturers and subcontractors of various kinds. The responses he gets are always helpful, quick and polite. Whenever someone wants to talk to Johnny though, he is never there. He hasn’t even got a phone. Whenever someone wants to include him in a meeting he’s always home, often with sick kids.
Even if Johnny Ståhl doesn’t seem to be very present, he still deserves some credit since he saves the studio a lot of time and hassle. Johnny is hard to meet in person, the only way one can reach him is via email. By making this perfume dedicated to him, one can at least perceive his presence in the room.
The Ghost is a scent made in collaboration with perfumer Nenad Jovanov. Nenad is the last perfumer in Belgrade and runs the Sava Perfumery, which has been in his family for three generations. Nenad was asked to compose a scent for the ghost Johnny Ståhl. He came up with nine different directions and we continued working with one of them ending up with the final scent — The Ghost. Sava’s standard perfume bottle is used for The Ghost, but the cap has been replaced by a wooden piece manufactured by the Belgrade-based Carpentry Production Xylon, which is also a family business, and is now run by Sabina Simović together with her brother and uncle. The company has developed from a traditional carpentry into also having a high tech machine park. Along with the perfume and bottle a hand folded box with a pleated inlay was made. Nova Iskra assisted with graphic design and the production of a folder also included in the box.
Johnny Ståhl was invented after having problems getting in contact with manufacturers and subcontractors. Very few replied and even after a contact was established, it was often problematic getting the right information or even closing the deal. The Johnny-character solved all of this.
If you would like to get in contact with Johnny, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This project was made within the Made In Platform. Nova Iskra was the supporting partner in Belgrade. A special thank you to Relja Bobić for all the positive support, organizing skills, translator, negotiator and being the best chauffeur.
Strategies for moving freely
Book about the practice of Jenny Nordberg. Published in 2020 by Nilleditions. Buy it here.
“Jenny Nordberg is arguably the brightest shining star in contemporary Swedish design. Her experimental and forward looking design practice manages to bring together a series of values that for most designers is very hard to achieve, if not unobtainable – It is highly conceptual without feeling factitious, process based yet result orientated, entertaining without being banal, scientific without being technocratic, universal yet markable. At the moment she is running circles around her contemporaries, raising the bar with every new project. She is the guiding light leading the way out of the derivative cul de sac of retro-post-modern aesthetics that has highly overstayed its welcome by now. Designers and design lovers alike – let this book, and Jenny, lead us all forward, and keep moving. In freedom.”
Nille Svensson, publisher.
In several of her projects, Jenny Nordberg has composed new objects out of discarded or rejected materials – for example in the exhibitions Omkompositioner (Recompositions) at Rian designmuseum (2014), Most Common Element at OBRA (2018) and Possibilities at stockholmmodern (2020). The unwanted materials she works with can, as the British anthropologist Mary Douglas suggests, be seen as matter out of place – or as Nordberg self puts it: “assets in need of recontextualisation in order to regain their full potential.” To dig into rejected things is a way to renegotiate norms and to highlight more or less hidden value systems.
Nordberg’s use of waste instead of new materials is not only about optimising resources and sustainability; it is also about the joy of using a heuristic approach. This is a rapid method since it centres on existing knowledge and strategies from previous experiences. For Nordberg, working with elements with a predetermined appearance is a way to optimise the design process, and to find new possible paths despite of restricted parameters. Several decisions are hence avoided – such as material, form and origin – which makes the actual composition both the first and last step in the process. The different objects are put together according to a set of strict rules:
– The found parts can only be minimally processed.
– Size and shape are to be maintained, but bending and making holes is allowed.
– Quick surface-treatment is ok if needed.
– Pop rivets are used for assemblage.
– The materials must be classified as leftovers or trash.
The exhibition Accumulations (September 9-26, 2020) at Olsson & Gerthel is based on a library of rejected elements, which through Nordberg’s disruptions are given new function and potential. In the performative presentation, she joints these materials with an assemblage-like technique in order to make unique utility objects, stretching from brutalist bedcovers in textile and metal to lamp constructions, tables and vessels. The leftovers that are used have been collected from subcontractors to Olsson & Gerthel, as well as from Nordberg’s studio, and a declaration of each part’s origin accompanies each final object.
Tray concept for Vandalorum
The trays at Åry usually get their decorative top layer via a printed paper or fabric. Creating a pattern or illustration to be repeated on the trays does not lie within Nordbergs field of expertise. Instead she wanted to tweak the production process, especially the pressing of the multiple veneer layers which forms the tray itself. The initial plan was to experiment at the tray production site but then Corona happened. The factory was closed for outside visitors. Instead she got a stack of veneers sent to her studio and the process continue in a Covid-adjusted manner.
The standardised side of production, such as the making of canteen trays, has always appealed to Nordberg. Maybe not always the outcome but rather the un-used possibilities that appears around it. Nordberg searched for an interference with the material that would enable a seamless float into the standardised production but still allowing each tray to become different. Various paints, brushes, pens, antennas, tools and methods were tested to achieve a result that did not interfere with the next industrial step. The studio cleaning mop together with a screwdriver eventually became the ultimate interference tool. She then used this as a large rotating paintbrush and painted directly on the veenere.
275 canteen trays, each different, were painted for Vandalorum and the pressed by Åry Trays.