Scandinavian and Chinese design may seem diametrically opposed to one another, but the six members of studio Chen Karlsson love the challenge of blending the two.
Based in Sweden, the small but quickly expanding brand currently includes home textiles inspired by Chinese paintings, a porcelain vase that doubles as a two-tiered serving plate and a pendant lamp that also functions as an illuminated display case.
Chen Karlsson was founded after Swedes Johan and Tina Karlsson met Taiwanese Chen Hung-ming (陳宏銘) and Wei Chen-yen (魏晨燕) at Stockholm’s Konstfack (also known as the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design). Despite their different cultural backgrounds, the two couples were struck by their similarities: both had recently married, were expecting their first children and nurturing big dreams on tight budgets.
“Even though we grew up on different sides of the planet it just didn’t seem to matter,” the group wrote the Taipei Times in an email while on vacation together in Sweden.
The four friends launched their design studio in 2008. They named it Chen Karlsson because the two surnames “are so typical for Taiwan and Sweden,” the team said. “In essence, that is what we want Chen Karlsson to be about — bridging east and west lifestyles, craft and traditions.”
Fast-forward four years, and the Chen Karlsson team has expanded to include two employees, the couples’ children and Rosa, a Lagotto Romagnolo (an Italian breed of dog). The studio’s six designers often brainstorm together during fika, the Swedish custom of talking over a long, relaxed coffee break.
Chen Karlsson’s goal is to use design to “simply enrich everyday life.” The team prefers to work with ordinary objects like lamps, remote controls and textiles — “even toilets have been on our drawing boards,” they said.
One of Chen Karlsson’s signatures is blending two very different aesthetics: Scandinavian design, with its clean lines and crisp colors, and Chinese art, which is often viewed as ornate, complex and filled with motifs that may seem mysterious to Westerners.
“It’s easy to spot the different design traditions of China and Sweden, but as we first came together in 2007 at Konstfack, we were stunned by our similarities,” the group said.
“When it comes to the aesthetics it is contrary to what many like to think. It is the Chinese and Taiwanese part of the team that takes in a lot of inspiration from the Nordic functionalism and rational flat-pack design of IKEA, whereas the Swedish part of the team directs their interest to Chinese drawings, Sung porcelain and tea rituals,” they added.
The company’s textiles are an example of how it melds the two cultures, while adding their own playful twist.
One fabric, “Dinner Tales,” is a tablecloth covered in a lively landscape of illustrations from historic and modern Scandinavian and Asian culture. The detailed figures are meant to serve as an icebreaker at dinner parties.
Another pattern was inspired by the 100 boys (百子) theme in Chinese painting and decorative arts, which symbolizes the desire for healthy male descendants. The team first saw a painting with the motif during a visit to Beijing.
“We learned to appreciate these skillfully embroidered or printed patterns — but we could not find any girls, where were they? We missed them and thought it was about time to give all the Chinese girls a pattern of their own,” said Chen Karlsson.