Inga Sempé: ”The Scandinavian design industry has become more like the Italian”
The French designer on the slow industry, the lecture that changed everything, and the secrets behind the delicate Filigree technique.
By JOHAN MAGNUSSON
September 20, 2022
When Sempé grew up, her perception of the Nordics in general and Sweden in particular, was completely different.
— My mother always told me that Swedish people were terribly sad and boring. She was 100% Danish and brought up in France and when she did see Swedish people, it was during the 50s and they were very strict Lutheran and totally dressed in black, so she really didn’t like Swedish people. When I later told her how they were very friendly and smiling, she was very surprised. Sweden has helped me a lot in my work by accepting me and asking me to design things. It was the first Scandinavian country I worked in, then with Norwegian companies, Danish, and now Finnish.
How did it start?
— 15 years ago, I gave a lecture in Stockholm during an event called Future Design Days. It was the first lecture in my life — in front of 2,000 people. I then began to work with Swedish companies, because these were 2,000 people more and less linked to the industry…
It was better than LinkedIn.
We meet Sempé during Helsinki Design Week at Iittala and Arabia Design Centre, right outside of Helsinki. She’s presenting a new exhibition —In line with Inga Sempé — displaying the objects of her brand new collaboration with Iittala and other collaborations, with Italian, Scandinavian, and French companies.
— We see a new stool with three legs that I’ve made for Articles, available in three heights and two colours and launched last April in Milan. I like it a lot — it’s made in Italy, and very comfortable, even if there are only three legs. It has a very strong part, which is the piece that is drawing the three feet together. I like Björn Dahlström and Anna von Schewen (founders of Articles, Ed’s note) a lot, great designers!
You’ve just launched your first collaboration with Iittala, a collection called Filigraani. Tell us more!
— At first, I was very surprised, because they offered me to do some objects, not only in glass but also textile, to create a universe that includes many different materials and techniques. I did two kinds of glass objects — one which is very craft-oriented, mouth-blown, exceptional pieces that can be done by only a few persons on earth. Then there are the frames, made of metal and glass, which are more industrial. The textiles are bed linen and cushion covers made in cotton and cotton and linen.
And tell us about the filigree technique used in the collection. What makes the pieces striped?
— Glass looks almost always incredible. How is it possible to have found a way to do transparent objects so long ago? And they are still using the same technique with the same difficulties, which is really fascinating. Filigree is a technology that was created by Italian Murano during the 16th or 17th century. What you do is you add thin, coloured lines, like solid glass sticks, into the glass which will be melted into it. The parallel lines or spirals are very delicate and precise, almost magical, and it’s very hard to do, Sempé explains. She continues:
— Filigree is a classical technique that Iittala has been using but stopped using a few decades ago. I love it because it’s so delicate, transparent, and intense at the same time. I wanted to create objects for daily use even if the price of course is very high. There are some big bowls with a handle so that you can carry it and fill it with your jewellery or some nuts, and then there is a very large plate, which is hard to make mouth-blown, with two different levels to display different things.
A year ago, Sempé visited the brand’s factory, located in the small village of Iittala, one and a half hours north of Helsinki.
— Before, I was full of fear of having to go to meet those master blowers and ask them to do things that they would maybe hate or not like to try. So, I went there, and met two glassblowers — and they were very keen to participate. It was clear that also for them, it’s interesting to try new things, and we experimented with many different shapes, stripes, and filigree.
If we look at the industry, we’ve been through a pandemic where we’ve seen a huge rise in interior design when people are redecorating and renovating their homes. How is the design industry now? What’s the current state?
— Very slow! Slooow. Everything was very slow before and now it’s even slower, for different reasons. Factories had to fire people when they didn’t have any work and now, they are struggling to get people back to work. There is a gas problem, for instance in the ceramic industry, we have the electricity prices, and we see raw materials that are not available due to the war. So everything, prototypes and trials and such, take a lot of time to get done and be produced.
Given, the alarming climate situation, isn’t it a good thing that we may experience a slower industry?
— Of course! But I think that we should not make the confusion between small production and, for instance, the fashion industry, being very polluting. There is a big difference between the industries I work with, which are small industries, not giants.
From an outside perspective, how has the Nordic design industry changed since you started working with companies here?
— We’ve seen many new companies being created and there is a lot of energy in it (the Nordic design industry, Ed’s note). The Scandinavian design has become a little more like and looks a little bit more Italian, with more colours. It’s less shy and more ’active’, less Lutheran, perhaps more Catholic in a way. I think it’s good. There was a period, back in the 90s, when not so much was happening in Scandinavian design. It was too closed in itself and now it has opened up to other countries. Now, we see nice placed work, a big level of design culture, and a very good will to do things, says Sempé.