Brit David Harrigan founded online design collective Åben in Stockholm in 2019 to nurture the next generation of Nordic talent. Here’s how he’s challenging "blandinavia" and promoting an alternative narrative of the region’s design
DESIGN ANTHOLOGY UK: What’s your background and why did you start Åben?
David Harrigan: My background is media law, but my passion has been Danish design for as long as I can remember. When we were renovating our house in London, we searched for emerging Nordic-based designers to make all sorts of furniture for us but we couldn’t find them. It turned out that a platform that was dedicated to championing emerging designers in the Nordics didn’t exist, so I quit my job and set about building Åben from scratch.
DA: How do you define “the new Nordic”?
DH: Ask any recent graduates of the foremost design institutions – KADK in Copenhagen, Konstfack in Stockholm and Aalto University in Helsinki – and the word that keeps coming up is “honesty”. Dig a little deeper, and you soon realise that these young designers attach a lot of weight to sustainability, considered craftsmanship and innovation like never before. No conveyor belts, no mass production, no robots, no factories. Just honest craft.
Nordic design will never stop evolving, but we are definitely seeing a trend towards products made with locally sourced wood (especially Douglas fir and birch), marble and resin-based materials.
Every designer within the Åben collective believes in products that are built to last. The notion of an ‘heirloom’ seems to be lost in an era of fast fashion and fast furniture, but that seems to be changing
DA: How did you bring together your initial stable of designers?
DH: Hard work, meticulous research and a lot of coffee. Over the past 18 months we have met 124 designers for fika [the Swedish word for coffee and a catch-up]. Both myself and Åben’s advisory board are obsessed with finding the very best of the best. One of the most recent additions, Icelandic ceramicist Hanna Dís Whitehead, lives 500km from Reykjavik. We’re convinced that only we could have found her.
DA: Is there a thread that holds them all together, beyond their Nordic roots?
DH: Every designer within the Åben collective believes in products that are built to last. A customer once told me that her children are already fighting over who gets her dining table when she passes (she is 40-something and runs marathons). The notion of an ‘heirloom’ seems to be lost in an era of fast fashion and fast furniture, but that also seems to be changing.
It’s also really important that every designer is a decent human being: someone who you would happily sit next to at a dinner party. Introducing a diva into the collective would inevitably mean that less time is spent on the other designers. Someone once described it as a “no dickheads policy”, which is probably more accurate.
DA: Åben is launching its first exclusive collection, with Finnish designer Samuli Halavuo – what can you tell us about that?
DH: Samuli invited me for dinner during Habitare last year, and he served the starters in these striking stoneware bowls and dishes. A few calls later, and we had our first collection: small batch – limited to 50 collections – carefully crafted, each piece produced by hand, and 100% Finnish.
DA: Åben also operates a designer-in-residence programme. How does that work with an online platform?
DH: During the formative stages of Åben’s development, we put together an advisory board who were widely respected in their respective fields, but there was still a knowledge gap that existed with respect to the reality of being a young maker. We simply didn’t feel equipped to answer practical questions like “which wood would best suit this chair?” or “would Helsinki or Eindhoven be best suited to exhibit my products?” Enter the designer-in-residence concept.
Each designer-in-residence spends 12 months within the Åben collective, mentoring and functioning as a sounding board for each designer. Being able to share their own personal experiences is priceless.
Nick Ross joined us as our first Designer-in-Residence, and he was kind enough to launch his Arcadia chair on Åben. The baton has since been passed on to Erik Olovsson [whose Drill vases are pictured top], who is already sharing his own fresh insights and experiences.
I have been a huge fan of Erik’s work for several years, but we only met for the first time at the Vitra Campus during Art Basel last year. We both share the same design philosophy, and we are both in similar stages of our lives (we’re both fathers to two young children). What I love most about Erik is his fearlessness to work with materials and colours that are distinctly un-Scandinavian.
DA: You probably covet everything that you sell via Åben, but are there a few pieces you particularly love, or own yourself?
DH: Three of the products I have in my home are Antrei Hartikainen’s Bastone cabinet; Jonas Lutz’s Carved Vessel vase; and Nick Ross’s Arcadia chair. The Arcadia chair seems so simple at first glance, but its complexity lays in its construction. A future design classic, for sure.
DA: What plans do you have for the future of Åben?
DH: We are already tracking 12 months ahead of our five-year forecast. It’s exciting, and we’ve been fortunate to be approached by investors and other potential collaborators, but right now we are focusing on doing one thing well: to champion the very best emerging Nordic designers.
The challenge is, how do we compete with global production houses that spend more on a stand at Stockholm Design Week than our entire annual budget? The answer is that our success – and a lot of the fun – lays in developing new ways to do things. We’re not afraid to be courageous: we are always trying to interrupt the conversation in people’s minds.
We are David in an industry of Goliaths. The real story is that Åben is challenging the status quo by taking on 70-plus years of mid-century Nordic design, an ethos that has been woven into the rich tapestry of entire nations for generations.
DA: How do you find Stockholm’s design scene compared to London’s? What could the UK learn from the Nordic approach to design?
DH: London’s and Stockholm’s design scenes are tricky to gauge at the moment. We were really looking forward to exhibiting at the London Design Festival this year, but Covid and the spectre of social distancing conspired against us.
Åben’s art direction is deliberately fashion-led, and Stockholm’s fashion scene is proving irresistible at the moment: Acne Studios, Filippa K, Tekla, Jil Sander & Ganni have all influenced Åben’s aesthetic in some way.