Design Happens Here

Los Angeles retailer Austere is a high-end design store-cum-incubator for Scandinavian aesthetic ideals.

Situated in downtown Los Angeles, Austere is part design shop, part incubator. Beginning this spring, the space will also host designers-in-residence.

Courtesy Melissa Di Meglio

Contrary to its name, Scandinavian design shop Austere in downtown L.A. sells an array of cozy, colorful wares: traditionally woven Norwegian blankets, plush midcentury armchairs, forest-scented Swedish candles.

“It’s not that the design itself is austere, it’s the condition in which they were designed,” explains Swedish-born founder Fredrik Carlstrom. “Scandinavian homes are actually not austere at all—they’re filled with light and beautiful objects because we spend a lot of time inside.”

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In contrast to traditional retail models, Austere’s mission is less to sell products than to show them. Carlstrom opened Austere in May 2014 in a 5,000-square-foot former department-store parking garage with the goal of creating a “magazine you can walk into,” noting the changes taking hold of the retail industry. Not only have a number of design magazines ventured into retail with e-commerce and brick-and-mortars, department stores have begun to shrink. “They’ve become giant showrooms where people go to look at things for free, then buy them online,” says Carlstrom. “We’re all competing with Amazon.”

To guard against this showrooming effect, Austere earns its revenue like a magazine, through branded partnerships rather than sales. “Brands pay us as a showroom, or they pay us as a partner to advertise or market with them,” Carlstrom explains, and ads often take the form of events, such as the immersive Snarkitecture-designed pop-up shop for Swedish clothing brand COS, for example, or an exhibition of limited-edition prints by the winners of the inaugural Absolut Art prize, both of which took place last fall. For less established brands, the Austere model serves as an incubator, as well as a platform to raise their visibility. “We work with brands to get their word out. If you don’t purchase from us, you may end up buying it somewhere else, but the money still ends up going back to the brand.”  

Austere’s curatorial leanings, Carlstrom says, champion the Scandinavian ideal of “forgoing those unnecessary bells and whistles in order to pay attention to detail and respect the materials”—whether its makers actually hail from Scandinavia or not. Site Specific L.A., an exhibition assembled by online tastemakers Sight Unseen that closed on February 14, featured a group of local designers whose idiosyncratic use of natural materials like marble, wood, and wool demonstrates how that ethos isn’t unique to Northern Europe. In the spring, Carlstrom plans to roll out the Austere Workshop, a designer residency program that will designate 1,500 square feet of the showroom as a workspace for a designer-in-residence. And already on the roster is design firm Blockshop Textiles, a Downtown L.A. studio that produces its fabrics by traditional methods in northern India.

“There is this tribe of designers around the world that design by these ideals, and those people are not bound by geographical boundaries,” says Carlstrom. Whether in Stockholm or Los Angeles, his mantra remains the same: “You should surround yourself with fewer, more beautiful things.”

The Site Specific L.A. exhibition explores Northern European design ethos through the work of young Los Angeles designers.

Courtesy Sight Unseen

Snarkitecture’s immersive pop-up shop for Swedish clothing brand COS opened for a spell last fall.

Courtesy Snarkitecture

The shop will debut a designer workshop program later this year in collaboration with Block Shop textiles. Above: Block Shop’s Magnet linen pillow

Courtesy Block Shop

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