We had an inspiring conversation with Swedish designer Marie-Louise Hellgren about her circular design methodology through mindfulness and simplicity.
Sustainability is a life philosophy for you. How did you start with these ideas and living more conscious?
I was in the United States when I was in my 20s. At the glass course, I got to know a Navajo native American man. He started talking about the nature and the balance. I really felt at home when I met these indigenous people. I think it has been there since my childhood because my parents were so much into the nature. I didn't grow up very conscious, my family didn't eat very consciously. Then I became a vegetarian 22 years ago through a friend who inspired me to yoga and meditation. I moved to Brussels in the early 90s. Back then I was really an activist, I was young and angrier. Now I don't believe in activism with anger. I am wiser now, believe in being a role model and inspiring people. But when you are young you believe you can change the world.
It is also a very good self-criticism actually. How you and your approach evolved by time is very interesting. How did you decide to reflect this life philosophy into your work? What’s your background?
I studied master of fine arts in HDK in Goteborg. I was quite young when I started art school. It is a very good one, at that time it was more of a Bauhaus school. It was quite functional and practical and at the beginning it was more about the shape and the function. Over time it more and more turned into a ritual. If I am going to make more objects for the world, why not focus on the humans who are using it? So when I design, I have to focus on the person who is going to receive it. The object is a carrier. It is something that connects humans so it's not really about the object itself, it’s a messenger. I've always been more interested in people than in objects.
Redesigned stool with airbag material, Photo credit: Tobias Lindén
You collaborate with brands such as Flippa K. It is really great because keeping this philosophy in small circles doesn’t bring us something. We should be able to put it into the mainstream. How did you start the collaborations with the companies?
The fashion industry is a little bit more ahead than the interior design because the fashion industry is being criticized so much and it's the second dirtiest after the oil industry. So they are really forced to rethink and to solve the environmental problems. There is such a big commercial waste of clothes. People are still talking a lot, greenwash. I find it quite hard. They make this nice sofa but the inside is plastic foam. I never use that kind of foam in my furniture. I use natural sustainable materials like rubber, horse hair, jute, hemp and cactus fibre. Not just on the surface of the things but from the beginning of the process.
How does the collaboration with brands work? Do they come to you with a problem or do they see something interesting in your work and ask if you can adapt it into their DNA?
I think it's a lot of problem-solving in this occupation, it can be both. They come with a question and I start in one end and they share their expectations. I just give them our solution and hopefully it is better than they expected. I really want to surprise them. When given an opportunity you really need to enhance the result, because then you can really make a difference.
When I designed this coffee cup I really worked hard and they thought I worked much and too long on it. Now it has sold 13 million, their biggest success ever. It (the cup) is in the design area of the Nationalmuseum, in the part from the 90’s- year 2000 just next to the Absolut vodka bottle and 27 years later in the contemporary area there's the Upcycled stool made out of wood waste that I designed in 2016.
What is common for these two products with 27 years difference? Is it the sustainability approach?
No, it is the more the energy of the objects. Because when I did this cup they said “Design a cup that is cheap to produce and looks expensive” and I asked myself "What is it all about? You use it, you rest little bit. I am thinking, not about the container of the coffee or the tea, but more of how can I bring something to the user. Focusing on how is to create harmony in the cup and the touch towards the lips, the hands and the touching. How is the shape to hold and the experience of the different senses… I practice meditation every day and I believe when you have a clear intention in your design, a focused energy; it can be experienced by the user. I use this focused intention from the beginning. So people can experience a peaceful moment.
Lilla Snåland in cooperation with Stolab, Photo credit: Charlotte Gawell
If you look at the design history, it’s all about seeking harmony in the society to build social and economic balance. What if we seek harmony in our inner selves?
Yes, and I think it is very important and possible to create harmony, both social and economic. It starts with oneself and is reflected in society. I have designed a small stool that has a spiral pattern. It is an energized pattern, inspired by sacred geometry and patterns that are found in nature. I don't know how it works but my intention is that when somebody sits on it they will get energized.
What kind of other points and topics you want to bring into design discussion?
I think Swedish people are very practical, down to earth, innocent and democratic. We have this view that it should be very equal and also connected with nature. It is very important to be balanced and living in reality. I like to create things that also create business and more job opportunities. It's not like being an artist. In my work, I get paid collecting the waste and then upcycling it into objects. In art, it is more about self expression. In design you have to convince people to your world. The combination is important being in the heart and also being grounded on the Earth.
We can see that you are a really powerful woman but your expression is so welcoming and happy.
It is important to enjoy oneself, not always seeing every meeting as a goal but more of asking “What can I learn from this”. In the end, it makes a really big difference. Either you are only focused on productivity or being a better version of yourself. It is hard. Of course, everybody has that instinct of survival and act irrationally but having that aim of learning and being curious and not knowing all the answers keeps you on the edge.
Do you collaborate with younger designers, friends, colleagues?
I have had some design assistants lately and collaborate often with friends and my daughter. The creative work happens a lot on my own, reflecting, having visions I enjoy to collaborate with different companies around the world. I think nowadays a lot of young people build in groups. When I went to school it was more individualistic. It is all changing and when I find the right people I’d love to collaborate more, and especially internationally and with people in other professions like physicists, filmmakers, authors, craftspeople, from different fields.
What are your upcoming projects?
We are starting our own web shop with furniture and objects, HearteartH Production. Objects of wellbeing, practical things and with great meaning, that hopefully will enhance the everyday lives of people. We will focus on smaller things, that fit into an envelop. I have designed an Upcycled hook from wood waste. The Circular design objects, from HearteartH Production, will be exhibited, together with a selected group of Swedish interior and fashion designers. Designers that all work in the forefront of sustainable and innovative design. The exhibition is in a transformed Michelin Cargarage in the Lambrate area, during the Milan Design Week, Fuori Salone (S)WE design, 9-14 of April.