Nordic countries can be “an example to the world” when it comes to sustainability in design

In the first of a series of interviews with leading figures from the Nordic design scene, Anna Winston speaks to Kieran Long, director of ArkDes, Sweden’s national institution for architecture and design.

Kieran Long was named as the new director of ArkDes in 2017 and, since taking the reigns, has overseen the curation of a series of groundbreaking and influential exhibitions. His role places him at the centre of the ongoing dialogue about the role of design in Sweden today. Here, he talks to design writer and editor Anna Winston about what Nordic design means in a changing world of globalism and environmentalism.  

Kieran Long, director of ArkDes. Photo: Andrea Björsell

Anna Winston: What does the phrase Nordic Design mean today?

Kieran Long: There is some truth to the myth about Nordic design and that comes from a quite deep historical culture of design as a problem-solving field that has humanity and society at its heart. You see that not just in the echoes of the past, of the modernist blond-wood styles of the mid 20th century, but also in the schools. The training here compared to most other countries is still rigorously technical. 

But the context has radically changed. The Nordic countries’ populations are changing, the whole of society is changing and education is also changing. People tend to travel a lot and they come back with new and different influences. The ever-greater rationalisation of the perfect mid-20th century chair is still a topic, but there are many other topics too. Nordic countries tend to be extremely attentive to questions of climate and sustainability, equality and identity, and those are things you can see emerging in Nordic design now.  

ArkDes’ new studio gallery Boxen. Photo: Johan Dehlin

AW: Is there a recognisable Nordic style? 

KL: I wouldn’t say there is a style, but there is a sensibility and a culture that is shared somewhat. When you’re sitting here in Stockholm you feel very strongly the influence of colleagues in similar institutions in Oslo, in Helsinki and in Copenhagen. And of course phenomenon like the Nordic Council of Ministers and the big projects we do about sustainability in design and architecture, bring together this community of Nordic countries, who do share some ideas about lifestyle, some parts of their social model and a 20th-century history of architecture and design playing a central role in building a better life for all that is quite unique to this region.

Environmental sustainability in the Nordic countries is real and it goes all the way down – it’s not a badge, it’s not a marketing ploy. Maybe that’s a way in which the Nordic countries can remain a bit of an example to the world. There’s a commitment to the greater good. I don’t think we can talk about a Nordic style anymore, and of course we also have global production here. But I think you can see that design still has a conscience and I think that’s something powerful and very important right now.  

AW: Do you think it’s important that Nordic countries have representation at an international event like Milan?

KL: Sweden is still a big producer of furniture and has a lot of design talent and it does make sense for the country to bring those things together and to promote that work to the rest of the world. Designers in the Nordic region are working internationally, but everybody is proud to represent their country and I think there’s enough of an industry here in Sweden to merit that kind of presentation. 

Milan is interesting for Nordic designers, because we come from northern Europe to southern Europe and there are fundamental differences. Swedish design and Swedish brands and production have something to offer. There’s something very distinctive when you see a business like Offect, with quite a clear attention to the contemporary and to the history of Nordic design. I find that exciting. To see something with its own identity, that’s quite rare in Milan. The Nordic countries bring that. 

AW: In terms of Swedish design specifically, what are the key things that are happening right now?

KL: We’re doing a lot of work here on circular consumption and how you create ethical and sustainable patterns. Even in the context of a big fair about very luxurious goods, that’s something that the Nordic countries will bring.

The other huge thing that’s happening is that society is changing. The country is diversifying, there are many more people from overseas here. That leads to political tension but it also leads to a new context for design. In schools right now, young designers are really engaged in questions of identity, questions of gender and race and how that plays out conceptually and practically in terms of craft and making through design. 

ArkDes models: Photo: Kristofer Johnsson

AW: How are you responding to this changing context at ArkDes?

KL: Our big focus here at ArkDes is to try and be a museum about the relationship of design to citizenship. We recently made an exhibition that was all about how we can see the conflicts in our society emerging very clearly through design and through architecture and through public space. Designers might not be able to solve climate change, they might not be able to solve the problem of migration, but for me the skill of an architect or a designer is to act at the scale of the collective, a group of people, a collective space, a city district or a building, and make a place where we can make relationships, we can get to know each other and live side by side. Designers are really good at that.

ArkDes Library. Photo: ArkDes