Sweden based German Artist, Lies-Marie Hoffmann has the ability to turn fallen elm trees into magnificent and artistic works of functional design. Her design for the first Aesop boutique in Stockholm won the Design S Award for Furniture and Interior Design together with the architect firm In Praise of Shadows. This is a National Design Award with an international jury consisting of Li Edelkoort, Ross Lovegrove, Guilio Cappellini and Alice Rawsthorn. The jury’s statement for the prize “Bringing in the presence of nature makes the limited area of the shop grow. A conscious, tactile, fragrant framing of the shop’s wares. A loving use of trees that erases the boundary between material and raw material.”
Having studied in Germany and Italy, Hoffman came to Sweden to do her MA in Interior Architecture and Furniture Design at Konstfack, the Swedish College of Art, Craft and Design. This is where she ended up staying and her love affair with Elm trees began. Sweden’s Elm trees has suffered a terrible blow from the Dutch Elm disease, and the trees have had to be cut down. Seeing an opportunity to work with the felled trees, Lies-Marie’s artistry in handling these majestic trees and turning them into artistic pieces that we can interact with is sustainable design on such a high level. When Lies-Marie gets into her protective gear and wields her chainsaw, she takes on another character, she said it resembles in a way, a performance art when she starts to work on the wood. From restoring Renaissance Art to a chainsaw wielding wood sculptor, there are certainly many sides to this artist.
Before coming to Sweden to do your Masters in Interior Architecture and Furniture Design, what did you study in Germany and Italy?
I studied woodsculpting at Werkkunst Schule in Flensburg, Germany, where I learned the carving of lettering, volutes, relief and sculpture according to the natural example as well as the modelling in clay and casting in plaster, cement and bronze.
I was always interested in art and art history, although after finishing sculpture school I was given the Leonardo da Vinci scholarship for a restoration internship in Italy. I restored frescoes, oil-paintings, furniture and sculptures in Florence, Verona, Venice and Mantova.
I then came back to Germany to follow my own creative ideas and studied Design and Business Management for Craft at Gut-Rosenberg Academy in Aachen, Germany.
Why did you choose to study at Konstfack in Stockholm?
After my Design Studies in Aachen, I felt the need to continue exploring ideas and continue reflecting on the world around me. Studying a Masters degree was a good way to do that. My love for trees and wood brought me to Sweden. I first studied Wood Oriented Furniture Design at HDK Steneby on a Master basis. After a year I continued my studies at Konstfack in Stockholm and my professors were Jonas Bohlin, Karen Nyrén and Anna Odlinge. Extraordinary and very open minded professors. Konstfack is a place to explore ideas. A lot seems possible through the well equipped and wide workshops and the very skilled technicians who take care of these workshops and the students. They do a lot to keep you going in your projects. It seemed that as soon as they helped you start exploring, they got excited themselves. That is a very good pre-condition. I built myself an outdoor tent in front of Konstfack where I worked for 4 months, in 2 meters high snow, on my master project with chainsaws.
How did you start working with Elm trees?
By reflecting on the fact that every year countless elm trees die of Dutch Elm Disease. The trees gets felled, turned into wood chips and burned up in heating plants. The elm tree is in danger of extinction. I wanted to bring people’s attention to the sensual quality of the wood and in doing so also make them environmentally conscious, by showing what we can do, saving the massive elm tree trunks from being burnt and creating designs in the public realm instead.
What do you envision when you see the trunk of an elm tree, how does the inspiration arise?
To me trees are the most fascinating plants, the largest in the world, producing more than they consume despite their size. This is an eco-statement, isn’t it!
I can identify a lot with woodworking and woodsculpting. To me trees represent nature and wood represents culture. As part of both I create a “Natural Culture“. It is important for me to keep as much as possible of the original shape of the tree, which usually disappears in constructed wooden furniture. In the case of my furniture it is exactly the opposite: you see the wood more than the item of the furniture. The tree itself is tangible when I work.
Inspiration is in discovering the little things. When I look around I automatically look for things that I can comprehend and take in, consciously with my mind or emotionally. In other words it is about being sensitive to the environment in order to understand how it affects you. About being alert; I always see, think, feel when I move around. Simply thinking and talking is a very creative and sculptural process that provides a lot of inspiration.
It is a very physical method of expressing your creativity, do you find working with the tree trunks a tough physical process?
Actually I find an artistic process in many ways tough and hard work, both mental and physical. Behind every shape stands a tough and existing process, sometimes needing both brain and muscle work.
Could you explain your design process for the Aesop Boutique in Stockholm?
Each design process starts with the tree trunk. Once I have found the right trunk for a project it strongly influences the dimensions of the design. It is important to be flexible and able to react on shapes, cracks and treasures inside the tree trunk. Each of the three pieces of furniture at the Aesop store is made out of one elm tree trunk from Stockholm’s region.
The design was made in cooperation with Aesop and IPOS Architects. I had worked with them previously for the exhibition Light Houses at the Nordic Pavilion during the Architecture Biennale in Venice 2012, where together we designed the sculpture Elma.
What are the challenges of working with tree trunks?
The weight of the trunks, the unpredictable surprises inside them, the moisture inside the cells which makes the wood bend and crack once the moisture evaporates, the working tools are sharp, you have to be alert and concentrated when using them.
But most of all there is the fact that once you have cut or sawed a log there is no turning back. There is no second chance. On the other hand a mistake can lead to very good solutions and new artistic forms.
Is there a dream project that you would like to work on?
For several several years now I have sketched on an interactive sculpture placed in the landscape, which combines sculptural and architectural trails, made out of tree trunks. The idea is to convey an experience of nature beyond the ordinary, using artistic methods and pedagogical perspectives. Who knows, the project might make it from the sketchbook into the physical world some day.
How is it like working in Sweden as compared to Germany and Italy where you have worked before?
I enjoy meeting and working with people. Different backgrounds always enriches a prospective on things and my own horizon.
Compared to Germany and Italy, the difference with working in Sweden for me is the directness. The contact-chains are shorter, for example in Germany I would need to call 40 different people to finally reach the one in charge. In Sweden I need only call 4 people and they share the responsibility in making decisions. It seems to me that Sweden works hard on breaking with hierarchies, I have respect for that.
What are you working on now?
On several round benches circling trees for a cemetery in Stockholm.
A video showing the artist in her workshop in Värmdo. This was made in conjunction for an exhibition at Artipelag in 2013 curated by Staffan Bengtsson. The interview is in Swedish.