Inventing, improving, enjoying

Text: Elina Nykänen, Photography: Fanny Hansson
Matti Klenell standing by a bookshelf

A former garage in Stockholm’s Södermalm district functions as the studio of Matti Klenell, known for his distinctive glass art and designs for companies like Iittala, Moooi and Källemo. It’s a space that allows for creative experiments and acts as a base for the designer in between his many travels. We sat down with Klenell to talk about creativity, inspiration and his most ambitious project to date—the new restaurant at Sweden’s renovated national gallery. The message reads almost like a little poem:

Heleneborgsgatan 38 is the address
A gate on the yard between 34 and 40
The one closest to Söder Mälarstrand
One floor down, green door
Knock on it

It’s not often that the literary quality of an email makes you smile. But in the case of Matti Klenell, it’s not really so surprising. Growing up in the little town of Edsbjörke in West Sweden, he dreamed of becoming a journalist. “I loved to write, speak and tell stories,” he says. It’s easy to believe: Klenell is laid-back and talkative, sharing anecdotes and describing his thoughts effortlessly. But fate had something else in store for him. Today, he’s working with glass, wood and aluminium as his tools, instead of words, but he’s telling stories nevertheless. When Klenell sketches, say, a glass, he doesn’t draw the object alone. He draws an entire table where a dinner party is about to start, or perhaps a person holding that glass, sitting in a restaurant. That way the objects get a context and an atmosphere that often find their way into the finished design in some way.

Red and blue glass pieces on a stool

When Iittala Journal visits Klenell’s studio, a large former garage he shares with a handful of like-minded designers in Stockholm’s hip Södermalm district, the weather is still hot and humid, as it has been all summer. Klenell opens the door dressed in loose-fitting chinos and shirt, with Puccini playing in the background. It would all seem pretentious from anyone else—but it seems only natural for a man who grew up in a cultured home in West Sweden with two artist parents and who was named after a character in Bertolt Brecht’s play Mr Puntila and his man Matti. As Klenell shows us around the space, he apologises for the mess. To an outsider though, if it’s a mess at all, it’s a fascinating one. Prototypes of chairs, tables, trays and lamps crowd the room, filling the visitor with a childish urge to touch, examine and know more. It’s a space for work, but also for play.

Tell me about this studio—what do you do here?

I’ve been here since 2004. We have a work-shop to build prototypes and we do lots of model building and testing. Sometimes we laugh and say that this place is completely dysfunctional, nothing has been finished and nothing can be used. The past years have been especially crazy, because I’ve worked so much with Nationalmuseum (Sweden’s national gallery). It’s a huge project, involving a lot of work in other places. That’s another characteristic of this profession. You travel a lot. So the studio is my base, like a second home.

How did you become a designer?

Originally, I wanted to be a journalist. Both my parents worked as glass artists, and that was the last thing I wanted to do. But I was good at drawing and, given my parents’ professions, being an artist was something I felt very close to. It didn’t seem strange. Eventually, I applied to architecture school and didn’t get in—but I was very inspired by the school’s big concrete building on Östermalm. Everyone said it was the ugliest building in Stockholm, but I found it beautiful. That’s when I realised that this was something I could work with. Later, I came into contact with designers and was accepted into the University of Arts, Crafts and Design, which felt just right. It was something in-between architecture and design.

red design brick in a container

What have been the important milestones in your career?

A very important incident was when Tom Hedqvist (the former principal of Beckmans College of Design) called me and asked if I wanted to be the head teacher there. I was 27 then, and he wanted a young person on the job. It was great to have to take responsibility, and it gave me an identity. Also, I was able to work there part-time, leaving the rest of the time for work in my own studio. That’s when I really started developing my own stuff.

Iittala has also been very important to me professionally. After an exhibition of my glass art at Galleri IngerMolin in 2011, Iittala contacted me and asked if I wanted to design birds for them. It was crazy actually—I had taken an interest in the more decorative sides of glassmaking, studying paperweights, Venetian souvenirs and figurines, which had led me to Iittala’s birds. I wanted to do some research and went to photograph them at the department store NK in Stockholm. The week after, I got this email from Iittala. So it felt like destiny. Before I started working with Iittala, I had been working with art glass and product design on a smaller scale but couldn’t really get any further on my own. At Iittala I was able to combine those interests.

How do you connect with your creativity?

I’m never blocked creatively. I just enjoy designing so much, especially the process of generating ideas. I usually start by sitting down with the person or company who has commissioned the work, finding out who they are, what they need help with and what I can contribute. My form language may change a little depending on who I’m working with, but I think my character and personality always come through.

I get a lot of inspiration from books—both design books and novels. Looking at pictures is important. Reading novels allows me to relax, instead of being on high alert all the time. Companies’ archives are another source of inspiration. It’s interesting to mirror them or refer to them. Travel inspires me too. Especially Taiwan. I did a project called A New Layer there and visited the country eight times. It’s enormously inspiring, a clash between Japan and China, and an interesting cultural counterpoint to Sweden.

I’m also very fond of Helsinki. I think I could live there. It’s very much a capital—stately, proud, and with a brutal history. As a Swede, there’s always a fascination with the Swedish language that pops up here and there in Helsinki, due to the historical connection between the two countries. Personally, I’ve always had a relationship to Finland due to my Finnish name, even though I only visited for the first time as an adult. When my girlfriend and I had a son, eighteen months ago, we named him Jussi—another classic Finnish name.

a bookshelf with books and glass design pieces

What’s your work process like?

I sketch a lot by hand. I love it. I like to sketch the objects in a context: if I’m working on a cup, I draw a whole room, or a person holding it. Doing that I try to capture scale and colour. Next, I work on the computer. For a while now I’ve also been using a 3D printer a lot—it’s an unparalleled tool for finding a form and saving time in the development process. Then it’s time to make prototypes, which often look too clumsy at first, and need work. So there’s a lot of back and forth, trying to find the right colour, forms and suppliers.

There are times when things don’t turn out as you expected, which can be scary. I have a responsibility as a designer, and sometimes hitting the brakes or even making the decision to abandon a project is just part of it. You have to speak out when something is not working. My feeling is that designers have more power but also more responsibility in Finland than in Sweden. It’s a different working environment.

What role do colours play in your design?

I see myself as a pretty black and white person. Someone who sketches rather than paints. But I’m interested in and sensitive to materiality, which is very much about hues and colours. When it comes to glassmaking, colour was actually what caught my interest. It’s such a joyful game to experiment with colours in glass. It makes me think I’ve landed in the right place being able to work in the Iittala workshops. No other company offers the same possibilities for experimentation. I only wish I could do it more often.

Form and colour that makes you smile

Matti Klenell's designs

What has the design process in like in the case of Nationalmuseum—an iconic building in Stockholm?

I got a phone call from the museum in connection with A New Layer. They told me about the renovation and their wish to do something different with the restaurant, given the important role of restaurants and canteens in today’s museums. They wanted to bring in a group of designers to create the end result together. I had just been working with TAF, Carina Seth Andersson and Stina Löfgren on A New Layer, so I told them that I’d be able to contribute as part of this group and its varied competencies: TAF in product design and architecture, Carina with her glass design and Stina and her illustrations. We had similar ideas about the space, about it containing a sort of pedagogic aspect and showing the process of design without it becoming too obvious.

We decided to travel around Sweden, to discover the story of industrial design in the country today and present it at the museum. So all the objects in the restaurant are new designs—over eighty products from more than thirty designers. Our ambition has been to let people see how things are made, showcase new types of product and bring in young and established producers alike.

A lot of the items were made in the Nordic countries, but it wasn’t possible for everything because a lot of factories have been shut down. In reality these days products are often a mixture of some kind. The wicker chairs I designed for the restaurant are a case in point: they are made super locally in Stockholm’s Old Town, but the material itself comes from Indonesia.

Having completed such a vast design project, what do you think makes good design?

Personally, when I design something I have a rule for judging if it’s good or not. It’s whether I’ve either made an innovation or an improvement, compared with existing products. There are so many products around already, and it’s unnecessary to make something unless it’s somehow better, easier to use, more durable, more stackable—something that makes the product necessary or interesting. Sometimes you’re working at a specific site, such as the Nationalmuseum. In those cases, you may not be improving that site; it’s more about relating to it and making it more interesting.

You are based in Stockholm. Why have you chosen to stay here, instead of Gothenburg or Copenhagen, cities you’ve also lived in?

I came to Stockholm to study and built my social network here. It’s a good base. Sometimes I feel that it’s too far away from everything, but it has an attraction of some kind. It has to do with its beauty, its airiness, the open views to the water. It’s a difficult city to leave.