June 4, 2021
Meet Snowcrash, the Firebrands Who Predicted Today’s Office in the ’90s—and then Disappeared
The Swedish-Finnish design group pioneered acoustic panels, smart lighting, and privacy booths decades before those became mainstream.
It’s a classic tale, a cliché by now: young upstarts, at once enterprising and iconoclastic, looking to move fast and break things; to make the world a better place (and maybe eventually build a billion-dollar business along the way)… or, more often than not, go bust in the process.
So goes the story of the short-lived Dotcom-era up-and-comers Snowcrash. The twist? The Finnish/Swedish firebrands were producing neither lines of code nor slabs of silicon, but office furniture for knowledge workers on the front lines of the Internet age. Launched as a satellite exhibition of the 1997 Milan furniture fair—where they were often mentioned in the same breath as fellow buzzy newcomers Droog—the collective rapidly grew into a well-financed brand by the turn of the millennium before quietly fizzling out just a few years later. As the media was fond of saying, Snowcrash was put “on ice” in 2003.
A new exhibition at Stockholm’s Nationalmuseet and accompanying monograph by Swedish curator Gustaf Kjellin, both simply entitled Snowcrash, set the record straight. Working with designer Ilkka Suppanen, who was a key member of the group, Kjellin has secured 39 of the 45 products in the Snowcrash catalog. In keeping with the straightforward nature of the objects-as-such, they’re montaged on plinths and organized thematically: The original Milan exhibition; material experimentation; how the office was changing; and the broader digitalization of society.
Kjellin traces the origins of Snowcrash to the early-90s economic depression in Finland: the aftermath of a decade of debt-fueled growth that collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union, which was a major trade partner at the time. With job prospects looking bleak, freshly graduated architects Teppo Asikainen and Ilkka Terho opted to start their own studio with a few friends. Valvomo Ltd., which is still active today, was founded in a former Nokia cable factory in 1993; joined by Suppanen and Timo Salli, the collective would come to be known as Snowcrash with the inaugural exhibition four years later. (The name refers to both the static-y visuals of a computer crash and Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk novel with the same title.)
Unapologetically functional and mostly grayscale, the products’ minimal aesthetic is the only hint of their Nordic provenance—which was precisely the point. Rejecting the region’s wood-centric heritage, Snowcrash set out to confront the realities of the digital office, experimenting with unconventional materials and production methods to distill late-90s techno-optimism into furniture and lighting: in short, cyberspace ergonomics.
That said, the technological underpinnings of the products isn’t always visible; rather, it is often expressed as lightness or mobility, epitomized by Monica Förster’s “Cloud,” a cumulus-shaped inflatable chamber, offering portable privacy in or out of the office. Some of the products are as relevant as ever—Snowcrash pioneered acoustic panels in various forms as the Soundwave collection—while others were ahead of their time: An LED version of the “Globlow” lamp (Vesa Hinkola, Markus Nevalainen, Rane Vaskivuori, 2000) could be remote-controlled via SMS, predating mass-market smartbulbs by over a decade.
The single most iconic Snowcrash product is the “Netsurfer” chair/workstation. In contrast to standing desks, Asikainen and Terho’s contraption offers a competing notion of how humans might most comfortably compute: reclined nearly to the point of horizontality. Its backrest—surfboard-shaped yet snowboard-thin—curls like a tongue cantilevered over lunar-lander legs, counterbalanced by an overbuilt computer chassis that supports an adjustable monitor, armrests, and a keyboard tray.
Owing more to all-night gaming sessions than to Alvar Aalto, the “Netsurfer” is a direct byproduct of Finland and Sweden’s early adoption of the web, thanks to telecom titans Nokia and Ericsson. Terho envisioned it as “a Harley Davidson, with the computer between your legs, [for speeding down] the Information superhighway.” As the story goes, the product was conceived in 1995 as a rendering, then commissioned by the Pacific Design Center as a prototype for shows in Los Angeles and Helsinki that year. Its showing at Milan’s Salone del Mobile the following year would plant the seed for the groundbreaking Snowcrash exhibition at Galleria Facsimile in 1997.
The rest is history: The deep-pocketed Swedish holding company Proventus acquired Snowcrash the following year, to complement Artek and Kinnasand in its portfolio of design brands. Maintaining an emphasis on experimentation, it continued to develop new products and expanded its roster to include international designers such as Arik Levy, but commercial success remained elusive. In the end, the skunkworks approach proved to be financially unsustainable and the visionary studio succumbed to a mundane case of mismanagement… and a legend was born.
In hindsight, the highpoint of the Snowcrash saga came in 2001, when MoMA curator Paola Antonelli prominently featured the “Netsurfer” in the exhibition Workspheres. The products never caught on stateside but fared better in Japan; Kjellin, for his part, first encountered their work that same year, in a Tokyo nightclub furnished with “Airbag” chairs. Although Snowcrash was slightly before his time, he witnessed its posthumous mythologization firsthand: “No matter where I have been in the world, I have always been getting questions from other journalists of a certain age about what happened to Snowcrash.” He eventually befriended Suppanen, who often found himself fielding the same question, and in 2018 they set out to produce an authoritative account.
The exhibition at Nationalmuseet was postponed for seven months due to COVID, though of course the worldwide shift to telework has amplified its resonance to an uncanny degree. Case in point: A recent New York Times article on Google’s post-pandemic workplace plans features a semi-iridescent inflatable wall for on-demand privacy, which could have come straight out of the Snowcrash catalog.
It is doubly ironic then, that Snowcrash was, as Kjellin notes, “one of the very first companies to be on the internet, but later they could not be found on the internet [at all], which is almost impossible to understand.” Just as Google not-coincidentally dates back to the same era, only in retrospect does Snowcrash strike us as ahead of its time — pithily captured by Suppanen’s prescient quip, in the Times’ coverage of the 1997 Salone, predicting a desire for “downtime off the Internet.”
Snowcrash will be on view at the Nationalmuseet, Stockholm, through February 13, 2022
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