For me, reduction is a means of communication, a way to achieve visual clarity. I try to take away details in order to enhance an expression or specific character and make a product aesthetically stronger. Reduction is to boil down the sauce to uplift the flavour.
Jonas Wagell is a Swedish architect and designer who is at the forefront of contemporary Nordic design. He runs his own studio, JWDA, which he founded in 2008 and is today located in a converted car repair shop in central Stockholm, but collaborations span from Scandinavia to China, Italy, and North America. Today, Jonas’ work is primarily focused on product and furniture design, but occasionally the studio also consults with art and design direction. With a simple, modern, yet expressive design language, Jonas has created a number of beautiful products for the home that consistently feature soft and minimal shapes with a welcoming presence. We caught up with Jonas to talk about his most iconic designs, life in Stockholm, and his transition from architecture to product design.
You live and work in Stockholm, a city that many consider as the creative capital of the world. How has Stockholm influenced your creativity?
Stockholm is a creative place in many cultural disciplines like music, food, and design, but also within fields like medicine, research, technology, and more. I simply think creativity feeds creativity. Fundamentally however, there is a socio-political system in place that I believe allows people to dare to go for it, that supports entrepreneurs and new-thinkers. There is a similar creative dynamic in other cities—like New York City—but in Stockholm there is less stress and pressure to “make it.” I like to think there is a sense of social security in the Swedish, or Scandinavian, society that is favourable for creative work.
What is your favourite place in Stockholm?
I love Stockholm dearly, but my favourite place in not in town, but outside. Stockholm itself is built on several islands but further out at sea thousands of scattered islands form a beautiful archipelago. The further out you go the rougher and more poetic the nature gets with polished rocks and weathered pine trees. A network of ferries takes you out from the city year around and in an hour or two you arrive in a different world, far from the hectic urban life. Many Stockholmers have a weekend house out here and that is definitely a dream for me as well. Out in the islands nature rules and it’s impossible to not shake off the stress and tribulations of city life.
Although you’re trained in architecture and have designed a series of minimal prefabricated houses, your focus has shifted to product design. Can you explain the motivation behind this transition?
Well, I studied interior architecture and furniture design so the transition is not so far-fetched. Architecture and physical space are something I always think about, analyse, and discuss, perhaps even more than products and furniture. It’s something which will always be present, relevant, and close at heart. But yes, a few years ago I took the conscious decision to focus on products and furniture. Not because I didn’t enjoy architecture work, but simply to have more time to focus, learn, and gather knowledge and experience—but also to develop relationships and ultimately to build a career within this field. Product design is such a niche market and I found it almost naive to try to do this as a part-time gig.
Do you see yourself being involved in any architectural projects in the future?
Architecture will always be present in mind and in the context of my work, but in the close future I have no plans to take on assignments for architecture work. However, I hope I will be able to design and build a weekend house in the archipelago for myself and my family at some point. That is a real life goal.
What is it about a reductionist approach to design that you find so appealing?
My way into design was through a passion for graphic design and typography. I studied graphics and print and worked with communication almost ten years before returning to design school. Surely this has influenced my approach and conception of design and aesthetics. For me, reduction is a means of communication, a way to achieve visual clarity. I try to take away details in order to enhance an expression or specific character and make a product aesthetically stronger. Reduction is to boil down the sauce to uplift the flavour.
We‘re really interested to know more about your creative practice. Can you explain the process from conception to production, for instance, of the JWDA Concrete Lamp for Menu, and how the design has evolved over the years?
My work process is always starting with sketching by hand. I carry around a sketchbook at all times and draw repetitively in search of specific forms and expressions. It’s really a way of thinking on paper, which I later try to recreate in CAD or with physical models.
The story behind the JWDA Concrete Lamp started when I was approached by Menu in 2013 at a stage when the company was about to set a new direction. They had spotted my Peek Lamp which they wanted to produce, but also asked for more lamp ideas. I reverted back with the first sketches and visuals of the JWDA Lamp with a marble base. Menu liked the idea a lot, but suggested to make the base in concrete, a material they were using for other products, to reach a more accessible price point. The Concrete Lamp was released the year after in 2014 and quickly become one of Menu’s best-selling items.
Since the concept was appreciated, we have continued to discuss, sketch, and explore possible developments of the range. Five years on we have introduced a new version or material every year to keep the JWDA collection relevant and interesting. The latest addition is the JWDA Floor Lamp which is now available.
From all your designs to date, what was the most thought-provoking or interesting reaction to your work?
I don’t think my work is all that thought-provoking, that has never been my intention. I graduated from Konstfack in Stockholm in 2007, so I was studying during a time with strong influence of Dutch concept design. As a result, I suppose, some of my earlier stuff was focused on questioning norms, often in a playful manner. The Bulky tea set with its chubby features came about at this time and was later produced by Muuto in 2012. The Bold Wall Clock is another example. Inspired by bold typography it was an attempt to create a minimal clock with maximal character. It was picked up by Normann Copenhagen five-six years later. My aim has never been to provoke, but to create useful and aesthetic objects. Some ten years in the making I also think my work has developed and matured to something more timeless, clear, and humble.
Outside of furniture and homewares, what product designers do you find most exciting today?
Lately I have found myself being increasingly fascinated by sculptural work. The top of my mind is of course my old school mate Anton Alvarez who explores repetitive fabrication of objects in extruded clay—sometimes impressive in size. The process in Anton’s work is equally as important as the outcome. Fellow product designer Nick Ross works with stone and marble in a transition between furniture and sculpture that is timeless and minimal. Check out the Doric Boules! My latest discovery is the handmade objects of graphic designer turned ceramist Sofia Tufvasson. I think her Morel vases for instance are exceptional. Lastly, I also have to mention glass designer and craftsman Simon Klenell. So much greatness!
As your work shapes the feeling of home for many other people: What is home to you yourself?
For me, as for most Scandinavians, home is close at heart. It’s because of these long, dark winters, I suppose. We Scandinavians spend a big part of the year cooped up indoors in cosy apartments with dimmed down lights. With so much time spent in your home it’s only natural that people invest their time and money making it personal and special. For me, the personal sphere of both home and studio is very important.
You have collaborated with many established brands around the world such as Normann Copenhagen, Mitab, and From the Bay. What is the main draw to collaborating for you? Have experienced any issues along the way?
By Scandinavian tradition and perspective, a designer always works with the industry, otherwise you are considered a craftsman or an artist. The designer/maker tradition is not so prominent here. Therefore, collaborations have always been an integral part of the profession. Today, I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can be selective with whom to collaborate and I look for long-term, joyful collaborations. However, working internationally has its natural challenges, sometimes in terms of language and communication, but also because you may not be able to be present for all stages of product development and prototyping. Ultimately however, good collaborations will accelerate both process and outcome. When it works, it’s really a joy.
Wander Light is a beautiful Japanese-styled lamp, its form factor is a clear nod to the the traditional rice paper lamps. What’s the story behind its design?
The Wander Lamp was designed for From the Bay as a link between heritage and contemporary design. The company is based in Taiwan and the lamp is an interpretation of a traditional Asian typology, but made with modern and durable materials, and with form that is reduced and simplified. As such, it was intended as a statement and direction for the new brand.
To keep you inspired, what do you read, watch, or listen to?
For me, inspiration doesn’t come from reading, watching films, or even music. It’s not easy to trace from where inspiration or creativity derives, but I’m sure it’s related to mood and mindset, but also concentration and environment. I enjoy working and my studio is a creative environment for me. I even look forward to going here in the mornings. Perhaps that’s part of the answer. On a more direct level I find myself inspired and creatively charged after travelling, seeing new places and cultures or trying out new restaurants and foods.
Do the philosophies of minimalism apply to your life outside of your design work? If so, how?
I think my aesthetic expression in many ways is a reflection of my personality. I’m a rather organised person and feel good when things are in order, but I wouldn’t describe myself as a pure minimalist. I still like things to have a certain warmth or comfortable character. I have once called my design approach “generous minimalism” and I think that still has relevance today.
Do you ever switch off from design? How do you make time to relax?
I don’t think I ever switch off my design consciousness, but I don’t always think about design work. When I switch off the lights and leave my studio in the evening, I also switch off work mode completely until I’m back again the next morning. That’s one of the great advantages of having an office to go to. I don’t think I could get work off my mind as easily, if I would be working from home.
In terms of relaxation, running is the ultimate way for me to recharge and clear my mind. I try to get my running shoes on a couple of times per week and I always feel much more energised afterwards. It’s such an easy reward.