Gunnel Sahlin belongs in the top echelon of glass artists in Sweden. Having studied textiles at Konstfack, Gunnel’s first job was designing textiles at Katja of Sweden in New York, after which by an unexpected turn of events led her to design glass for Kosta Boda for the next 22 years. The first thing that strikes you with Gunnel Sahlin’s Glass designs are the elegant shapes and the strong use of colour. Drawing her inspiration from nature, where the colours of flowers form the palette for her creative designs, Gunnel lives today in a converted School House in the forest rich area of Sörmland.
You started your career as a textile designer, how did this lead to designing glass for Kosta Boda?
I was working for Katja of Sweden in New York when I was approached by Kosta Boda. They had plans to expand from glass and crystal to a range of home accessories. After I started working for them that plan fell through and I ended up designing glass objects. I was very attracted to how glass captured colour and wanted to move Kosta in another direction away from all that traditional crystal to a new aesthetic. I was not intimidated by the lack of knowledge with working with glass. This led to a new direction for Kosta, a totally unorthodox and different aesthetic than what the company was known for. I wanted to communicate with a younger consumer, and in a way I was responsible for revitalising the company.
One main thread that runs through all your Art Glass is the strong use of colour. How did you come to be so inspired by colour?
I grew up in the sixties, and was heavily influenced by the whole Pop Art movement and by the Finnish company Marimekko. With a background in textiles, I was working with colour all the time. I was fascinated by how beautiful and vivid colours appeared on glass. From a young age I felt the need to constantly change my surroundings, I would paint and repaint my bedroom all the time!
What was the transition like, going from designing textiles to working with glass? What were the main challenges you faced?
The base of all creating is the same, I didn’t have to know the technique as the glass blowers were extremely experienced. I had to learn everything related to the craft of textiles when I studied at Konstfack, that was normally how the courses were back then,but had no knowledge of the technique or process of glass blowing first hand. I had strong ideas and the urge to create. In a way it was good that I did not know the technique as it allowed both the skilled blowers and I to really push our boundaries, and go beyond what they thought was not possible.
Your Art Glass designs have a magical, mystical quality to them, with dots and lines, and swirls and twirls, the patterns are so fluid, where do you get your inspiration from? How do you put that inspiration into a design and have that done in glass?
It starts with a thought, and as I go along the process is nourished. I love being out in nature with all its forms, colours and shapes. A lot of my colour inspiration comes from flowers. I begin with a colour, and then start to explore a theme. I draw, sketch and paint a lot. During the process. I am always prepared, I have a story and if that should not work out I come up with something else. This ability to improvise comes with preparedness and experience. I feel that the pieces are art in itself, they are part of the interior. A vase commands the space even without flowers in it, it has its own presence and can make a statement on its own.
You spent 22 years designing for one of Sweden’s most prestigious glass companies, Kosta Boda. From 1999-2004 you were a Professor of Ceramics and Glass at The National College of Art, Craft and Design, Stockholm. What was it like to inspire and teach Sweden’s future artists?
It was incredibly challenging and demanding, and I would say the most difficult thing I have ever done. I became too involved with the students’ creative process and realised they have to create their own language, and we needed to start a dialogue to get this creativity unleashed. There was less pressure on both sides when I did not have to judge the work, and they could learn to verbalize their creation. It was a very interesting experience.
Konsthantverkarna, the organisation for Contemporary Swedish Craft that run a boutique and Gallery in Stockholm, have recently added you to their list of Artists which reads like a Designer Hall of Fame. You did your first solo exhibition in 10 years there last year, it would seem that this was the start to you making a comeback?
After Kosta I did freelance work, for Ikea among others designing glass, rugs and textiles. Konsthantverkarna had casually discussed an exhibition at one point, when I actually received the letter regarding a solo exhibition and with the dates set, it was just the push needed at this point in my life. At first I felt the pressure to reinvent myself and do something different, but very quickly realised this wasn’t me. I had to go back to where I left off with Kosta. I work with neutral shapes that have an elegance and flow, the shape was my canvas for my use of colours. I made 20 pieces for the exhibition and sold every piece. It was exactly what I needed to get back to designing glass again.
Are you presently working on any projects?
I have an exhibition in Umeå for which I will design some new pieces and there is a retrospective exhibition right now EN RESA I TID OCH FORM with two other designers, Gunilla Allard and Gunilla Lagerhem Ullberg at Input Interiors.