Swedish Design Firm Front: From Scribble to Table

Knut Koivisto

Sometimes, old-school teachers are just what students need to be inspired to push forward. That was the case with the women who founded the radical Swedish design firm Front. They met at Stockholm's Konstfack college, a school that emphasized "hard-core industrial design"—functionalist and minimalist and all about "what shapes were acceptable or not," says Frontster Charlotte von der Lancken from Stockholm. Of course, that left Front's founders eager to explore everything except "practical questions of function," recalls her colleague Anna Lindgren. (Sofia Lagerkvist is the third member of the trio.) The goal was to find new ways to communicate through objects, says von der Lancken: "We experiment a lot with the design process. We always question what we do and why we do it ... [T]here have to be other values than making cheap chairs."

Their most famous experiment was launched in 2005, the year after graduating. Front's members rejected the laborious process of traditional modern design—moving from a back-of-the-napkin sketch to working drawings to engineering diagrams to a prototype to tooling for production—and passed direct from scribble to final product. They used motion-capture technology from the movies to record their movements as they "drew" life-size, 3-D sketches of furniture in the air in front of them. (Imagine Groucho running his hands over an absent vixen's body.) Then that "air drawing" was fed to a 3-D printer that output it as a real resin object—a chair, a table, a lamp—all looking like they were made from dried skeins of Elmer's glue. "They are all perfectly practical," insists von der Lancken, even though the results look less like normal household goods than like Platonic concepts for furniture—if Plato had been drunk when he conceived them. (This Sketch series won Front the Designer of the Future Award at the 2007 Basel design fair, and a chair from the series once sold at auction for more than $40,000. But Front has also produced more "normal" products, including a lamp for IKEA.)

The trio's latest project is a lampshade that has the shortest life span of any product around: it's a soap bubble that gets inflated around an LED bulb, then pops, then is replaced by another. The idea was to draw attention to an LED's decades-long life by pairing it with a "shade" that vanishes almost at once. "We loved that contrast," says Lindgren, "to have something constantly changing for 25 years."