A Small Town Big on Design

In a financial crisis, a small, Swedish town resorts to the business of design.

Can the promotion of national design heritage save a city’s sagging economy? The Swedish town of Hällefors hopes so. This small town, devastated by the loss of its steel industry, has moved towards infusing design into town by establishing Formens Hus, The House of Design, to present itself as an international design center.

Formens Hus is comprised of a newly completed museum with an extensive research library and public sculpture parks. The 36,000 square-foot museum is the first building of its kind to be built completely within Factor 10 guidelines (an idea stipulating that 90% of the building materials and products used within the facility are eco-friendly).

Sponsored by the municipality, the Swedish Society for Crafts and Design, and the Swedish Industrial Design Foundation, Formens Hus is dedicated to promoting design education and research. The center will offer workshops and conferences on the positive effects of design on business, design education for children, and an intensive one-year preparatory course for college-age students applying to design graduate programs.

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Formens Hus’s first exhibition, “Design 1900—” presents furniture, jewelry, textiles, and everyday objects with an emphasis on Swedish designers. Almost all of the objects on display can be touched and handled. Many of the items sit on huge, rough, two-billion year-old slate slabs, mined only a few miles away. The overall design of this exhibit is heightened by the spherical lamps used in the display halls. Manufactured by Kosta Boda exclusively for Formens Hus, they were created by Swedish designer Torbjörn Lenskog,

A highlight of the exhibition is the original interior—with original furnishings—of a room from Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium, in Paimio, Finland (1933). Another exhibit features two Swedish apartments from the 1950’s. One unit offers a glimpse into the dwelling of a middle-class worker’s apartment, complete with 50’s attire in the closet; the other apartment was designed for a more upwardly mobile family. In both models, the familiar modern furniture, lamps, and kitchen items remind the viewer how much design is rooted in Swedish origins.

Formens Hus is linked to the local culinary institute, The House of Meals—located in the former Swedish Pavilion of the World’s Fair in Seville and designed by Swedish architect Magnus Silfverhielm. Because both institutions are supported by the municipality of Hällefors, the town’s officials sought a symbol which would connect the area’s culinary and design arts. Their pursuit led them to Eva Zeisel’s whimsical and modern Town and Country salt and pepper shakers.

But Formens Hus is also extending its reach beyond the small town’s borders. It is currently establishing exchange programs and design collaborations with several European and American museums and school—including Parsons The New School for Design and the National Design Museum. Will this effort boost the economy of Hällefors? If the November 2005 inauguration, which attracted architects and designers from around the world—including the 99-year old Zeisel, is any indication, this town originally in the red may soon start seeing green.

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