“The Design Industry is in a Prolonged Identity Crisis”
When you think of Scandinavian design, visuals of timeless furniture crafted from classic materials in understated color palettes are probably what spring to mind. The region has a long history of producing objects and buildings grounded in simplicity, minimalism, and functionality, with Modernist icons such as Arne Jacobsen, Nanna Ditzel, and Verner Panton all hailing from its countries.
For the well-established heritage brands – think Fritz Hansen, Louis Poulsen, or Carl Hansen & Son – it’s been a case of carrying on in a similar vein. Many employ a strategy that sees them work alongside the families of past greats to reissue pieces from their archives, while also collaborating with new designers to introduce fresh, yet fitting pieces to their collections.
But when Petrus Palmér founded Hem, he had a different vision from both a business management and an aesthetic standpoint, which he felt went beyond what his industry predecessors were offering.
“There was a time in the 90s and the beginning of 2000s when there was an idea of promise – the Jasper Morrison’s and the Patricia Urquiola’s of the world cemented the idea that design can be successful, but that translated into success only being possible if we work with these same people” he says. “To me, that hasn’t changed at all in 20 years, and as a result, I think the design industry is in a prolonged identity crisis.”
Petrus Palmér, Photo by Erika Svensson
Having trained as a designer himself in the early 2000’s, Palmér went on to launch a studio named Form Us With Love (now led by Jonas Pettersson and John Löfgren), and during that period worked alongside big-name design brands and clients to create objects and furniture. Some years later, though, his role had changed from being hands-on with the design process to becoming what he described as a “management consultant”. “I got quite tired by by the industry being so slow,” he says. “Many of the businesses we worked with are still family run, and I was always saying to them ‘you can’t market this way’ or ‘you can sell this way’, and in the end, I thought I’ll just do this myself.”
“Design is no longer about having another chair”
Soon after, he found a collaborator in Joel Roos, an entrepreneur whose family owned a large furniture chain in Finland named Skanno. According to Palmér, Roos had become “fed up” with customers coming into the store to see the product before purchasing online – which, at the time, was a growing trend brought about by the rise of the direct to consumer business model. They channeled their respective frustrations into creating a company that would lean into the future of consumer behaviours, while targeting an entirely new demographic. “[In Scandinvia] we have a strong tradition of functional design – it’s not to be forgotten, but [design] is no longer about having another chair or something to sit on,” he says. “It’s about culture and lifestyle.” With all of that in mind, Hem was born in 2014, designating itself as a “platform for progressive thinking”.
Two years later in 2016, and having been through a couple of different investors – “we were really struggling to get the ownership right” – Palmér finally found the right business partners and moved Hem’s operations from Berlin to Stockholm. Despite describing the transition as a “return to its Scandinavian roots”, he remained ambitious to go beyond the Modernist associations – a quick scan of Hem’s current catalogue shows that still stands.1 of 5
Sabine Marcelis’ Boa PoufCourtesy Of Hem2 of 5
Supergroup’s Bronto TablewareErik Wåhlström3 of 5
Philipe Malouin’s Chop collectionErik Lefvander4 of 5
Faye Toogood’s Puffy lounge chairCourtesy Of Hem5 of 5
Formafantasma’s T ShelvesErik Lefvander
Over the company’s history, Palmér has teamed up with designers from around the world to make works that are typical of their own, personal aesthetic – resulting in statement pieces that stand out as unique among the wider collection. Among them have been South Korean designer Kwangho Lee, with his chunky Hunk chair, and Milan-based studio Formafantasma, whose modular T Shelves have sustainability at their core.
A key quality that Palmér looks for in a collaborator, though, is curiosity. He wants Hem’s designers he works with to feel as though they’re creating from an internal desire, rather than solving an external problem. With that in mind, he describes the Hem collaborators as being more gallery-adjacent than commercially-minded, “we gravitate towards those that take a much more artistic approach than what an industrial designer perhaps does”.
Aesthetically, this results in a wide range of outcomes – from doughnut-shaped poufs, to lounge chairs layered in puffed-up blankets. A far cry from anything archetypal.
“We get put in that ‘Modernist’ or ‘Scandi’ bucket – but I really dislike being described as that”
The brand’s intention to sit apart from its Scandinavian peers is arguably most evident in the Hem X range, which focuses on limited-edition designs in hand-made editions of 100 pieces or less. Most recently, a collection of five stools designed by five different designers were released under the imprint, with all proceeds going to Design Can – a UK-based charity that is working towards creating a more inclusive and accessible design industry.1 of 5
The New Hem X Stools2 of 5
The New Hem X Stools3 of 5
The New Hem X Stools4 of 5
The New Hem X Stools5 of 5
The New Hem X Stools
“I think it’s inevitable that we get a bit of Scandi label – but that’s never been our intention,” Palmér says. “We are a global brand with a very international approach. “We are playful and progressive, but because people don’t have the verbiage to describe that, and there’s only a few available labels that you can choose, we get put in that ‘Modernist’ or ‘Scandi’ bucket – but I really dislike being described as that.”
It’s a strong stance, and in all fairness to Palmér – sticking to his guns appears to be paying off. Since he moved operations to Stockholm in 2016, both his team and output have grown considerably – a brand that was once a small infant on the scene now employs around 50 people across offices in Stockholm, New York and Los Angeles.
So if not a Scandinavian label, what would Palmér like his brand to be remembered for, and what does he see in Hem’s future? “The dream would be for Hem to become an instigator for a movement that captures today’s zeitgeist, like the Memphis group did in their day – I want us to be distinguished and remembered in the history books.”
Read on for an edited transcript.
What role design has played in your life?
I’m a designer by training and education, and after I graduated, I started a design studio called for Form Us With Love. We worked with quite a few of the Swedish and Scandinavian brands, and also Italian brands. It was a great time in my life, and I got to learn from some of these companies about how they think about furniture and how they think about the aspects of lifestyle, which I think is kind of the the most important aspect of furniture today.
But eventually, I got quite tired by by the industry being so slow. Many of the businesses we worked with are still family run, and I was always saying to them ‘you can’t market this way’ or ‘you can sell this way’, and in the end, I thought I’ll just do this myself.
Can you tell me about the foundations of Hem, and how you began the business?
2016 is what I would consider the actual foundation of the operation as we have it at Hem today, as it was the year I brought the company to Stockholm. We began by building the collection and then focused on the US. We identified that in the US, there was a lot to do when it comes to design. It’s obviously one of the most culturally rich countries in the world. But I think the the design industry has had a similar trajectory [to Scandinavia]– you had a lot of interesting designers, people, and companies founded in the mid-century, but then it kind of all went somewhere else.
How did the US market differ to others?
I guess in the US, there is a strong art scene, and there’s arguably strong fashion, but design – it didn’t really feel the same. But we saw that there was a lot of interest for design, especially European design. So we went for that market. They were also more on board with the direct to consumer model. Europeans are way more attached to the idea of shopping in a physical space. These days, the US accounts for more than 70 percent of our of our business.
How did you position yourself to the US market, and where did you see yourself fitting in in that landscape from an aesthetic standpoint?
It’s inevitable that we get a bit of Scandi label. But that’s never been our intention. It’s important for us that we are global brand, and that we have a very international approach and we try to find designers from all over. We are playful and progressive, but because people don’t have the verbiage to describe that, and there’s only a few available labels that you can choose, we get put in that ‘Modernist’ or ‘Scandi’ bucket – but I really dislike being described as that.
What do you see yourselves as, then?
In Scandinavia, there’s a strong tradition of functional design, and it’s not to be forgotten, but it’s no longer about having another chair or something to sit on. It’s about culture, and lifestyle.
We’re international, and we’re progressive, and we’re really trying to kind of capture the zeitgeist of what’s happening now. The dream would be to be part of or even some type of instigator for movement that captures this day and age. Like the Memphis group did, or the other important styles that have been distinguished and remembered in history books.
How do you strategize the collaborations to live up to this?
We want to find practitioners that are really exciting, and people that have a track record that can show they have worked in a very curious and dedicated way to find something or express something. Many have an intrinsic motivation and curiosity and have been able to translate that into really interesting work. Sabine Marcelis, Formafantasma, and Kwangho Lee are good examples. They might not be designers in the traditional industrial design sense. And I think that’s exactly why we’re drawn to them and why they work.
What influence has the Scandinavian design movement and the region’s Modernist heritage had on you, if any?
I think this is a really big part of why designers struggle to find their footing. We know Modernism was such a strong movement, and that design as a as a discipline was only introduced 100 years ago – before it was craft or applied arts. But when when the industrialization opened up the kind of profession that design is today, which is designing something for mass production, then it became a very functional endeavour – it was really about making things more effective, cheaper, and better quality.
Modernism asked: ‘how do we make sure that we create better products at a at a higher quality for for a lower price to as many people as possible, so that everybody can be part of that kind of middle class?’ And that’s been done to the extent that it’s now completely washed out – it’s been so successful that now you really do get everything for the least. The modernist art of design is really over.
But do you think brands have adapted to that being over?
For the furniture industry, it’s really been a very difficult identity crisis, where if we’re no longer about function and producing more products for increasing quality and decreasing price, what are we doing? It’s easier for the super-luxury brands, because Modernism was a style for them – with it being minimal or functional on an aesthetic level, so they did it in a very high-end way with luxury materials. Whereas for most of the other industrial design-driven brands, that became really difficult and it’s still part of why I think most design brands are so so late to the party when it comes to branding. I think that’s that’s what we’re up against now, and and why Milan is being overtaken by luxury brands instead of furnishing brands because we still don’t really know how to brand a lifestyle product that is almost entirely devoid from function at this point.
Did you go to Milan this year?
No, I didn’t – it feels like it was the same brands working with the same people for 20 years and that’s partly why I didn’t go, I knew what I’d be seeing. It’s disturbing, as there is an opportunity there to change. But as I said, I think the design industry is in a prolonged identity crisis. There was a time in the 90s and the beginning of 2000s when there was an idea of promise – the Jasper Morrison’s and the Patricia Urquiola’s of the world cemented the idea that design can be successful, but that translated into success only being possible if we work with these same people.
It troubles me that young designers are seeing the success of their predecessors think it’s the only viable path to be successful – so they’re trying to replicate what they do. And by doing that they are completely uninspiring and irrelevant to people like me who they’re trying to capture. It’s just watered down versions of things that have been on trade shows for 20 or 30 years now.
What do you think can be done to change that?
I think we need to proclaim mid-century dead. I mean, it’s not relevant anymore. Also, that kind of idea of industrial design as a way of bringing beauty into people’s lives is dead too. Instead, allow people to be free to explore and be in touch with what they are excited about instead of trying to fit in somehow.
Of course, in design, there is an element of needing to be able to produce attractive things. But if you’re doing it because you think that’s what is expected from you, it’s never going to be something that we remember.
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