Monica Förster is an industrial designer with an incredibly diverse portfolio. She has designed everything from the seat of a Volvo excavating machine and glow-in-the-dark toilet seat to some of the most recognizable interior objects and furniture in Sweden today. Förster is also one of our most international designers, collaborating with international companies from the very start of her career which now spans over 20 years. She has won numerous awards, including being named Elle Decoration Sweden’s Designer of the Year twice. She attributes the strength of her design and creativity to her always having a curious mind and open to experimenting. Apart from designing objects and furniture, she has also designed interior spaces and works with creative direction for several companies. A highly respected designer with a very strong sense of integrity, Monica Förster takes pride in not fitting in, not following trends, and never compromising her own creative vision.
Photo of Monica Förster by Camilla Lindqvist.
You’ve had a very illustrious international career in design, how did it all begin?
I grew up in a very small village in Lappland, close to the arctic circle. My parents ran a hotel and restaurant there, so I did not have any idea about the design world. I was surrounded by nature, creativity and a very hands on approach to work by the small community there. At 15 I had to leave the village to go to High School in a nearby town. I chose the humanities line, where I had no choice but to study Latin which I thought to be totally useless at the time. Little did I know that it would come in use later when I worked in Europe, especially in Italy and France. I also did a one year exchange programme with a High School in the United States, playing volleyball with 4 hours of practice everyday. Once back I decided to apply to art school in Umeå to study painting and art history. Following that I moved to Stockholm and worked as a graphic designer for 3 years. During this time I did a course in typography, which I found to be very useful later on in my creative work. I was 26 when I applied to study at Beckmans College of Design and following that at Konstfack University of Arts and Craft.
What was your first foray into the international design world?
It began with my graduate project with Sarah Sheppard at Beckmans in 1995, with a glow-in-the dark toilet seat. It attracted a lot of attention as it was very different from the others. It was the Italian design company Magis that wanted to produce it. Unfortunately after 3 years the project had to be cancelled and it did not come to fruition. But that was a very good lesson for me and an introduction to the Italian design scene.
Why did you make that decision to start your own studio right after graduation?
I couldn’t find a job as I have always worked in an experimental way and have never really fit into the mould of what is expected of a Scandinavian designer. I designed a rechargeable lamp already in 1996, and a silicone lamp at the time when silicone was mostly used as breast implants. I received a scholarship from the Swedish Arts Grants Committee which helped me to live and work for about a year. I have never been influenced by what others are doing and don’t pay attention to trends, I think that is the key to my success. However, I am aware of trends and being aware of it can also result in doing something opposite to it.
Did growing up in a small town like Dorotea have any impact on the way you think and work?
It has definitely had an impact. It has contributed to many different ways of thinking, not only in how nature and light influences me but also how I look at business, and the importance of creating employment. It’s not as segregated as living in a big city like Stockholm, there is a stronger sense of community and we care what happens around us. To be able to create jobs and have a thriving community is important to me. That’s what attracted me to the Zanat project in Bosnia.
You are the creative director for Bosnian design company Zanat. How did that happen?
I was contacted by Orhan Niksic, who is currently the CEO of the company. He was looking to steer the company in another direction but without losing their identity with their wood carving technique that they were known for. After a very long persuasive letter from him and a Skype meeting, I felt we shared the same thoughts and visions. In both saving and preserving the craft and for the socio-economic impact it would make with the community. The company had very little experience for the challenges required in expanding into the high end design market. I am always interested and excited by the possibilities of what we can achieve with projects like these. It has become a very successful collaboration, and we have been a good team with a lot of mutual respect. They celebrate their 100 year anniversary this year with the opening of a museum, as their carving technique is now on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Could you describe your work process?
It is very idea and concept based, I need to understand why I am doing it. I am then able to communicate that to the studio team and we work with sketches, building paper models and using the computer and 3D printer. Going between handwork and technique. I work mostly on commission for companies but once a year I come up with a personal project. This year it was Scentense, in collaboration with Muro Scents, frankly//aakerlund and Zanat, and was launched during Stockholm Design Week.
What in your opinion can designers and companies do to make the design world much more sustainable?
There are so many levels concerning sustainability in design. Personally I feel like my work with Zanat is a good example. I have also worked with Swedese last year in initiating a new business area in organising workshops for designers to create products with leftover material. As in my project with Muro, we were trying to find new ways of integrating scent, apart from candles and fragrant sticks. We worked with leftover wood chips soaked in fragrance and placed on the holders which were produced by Zanat.
Any material that you prefer working with?
No I don’t have a preference really.
Is there a favourite object or project?
I can’t pick a favourite, I like every project I have done. I am very curious by nature and interested in learning new things, and I love designing. I do enjoy my collaboration with Zanat, and working on new strategies for companies is something I would like to do more of.
What is design to you?
Listening, understanding and renewing.
What changes have you seen in Swedish design over the last 20 years?
It is a world that has changed very rapidly. Many companies are not able to trust their own identity and stay with their vision. When everything starts to look the same, you more or less start to compete with the price of the object and the company stops being design driven. I prefer to work with companies that have their own identity and who follow a strong vision.
Your repertoire has been so wide and varied, what would a dream project be for you at this stage?
I would love to make drinking glasses! It was my son who commented that I have designed everything else. I am very interested in working with creative direction, to collaborate with owners of companies in driving new strategies and projects. I do enjoy working with others, it gives me joy.
What are your biggest challenges as a designer over the course of your career?
The biggest challenge, sadly, is working with people who do not integrate into the team but who is working against me in a power struggle for recognition. That happened some years ago and it was a very unpleasant experience where I felt I did not get any support. Mutual respect is vital when working as a team.
With all the furniture and objects that you have designed over the years, what does your own home look like?
I have my own design and also pieces from other designers whom I have exchanged with. My home is quite minimalistic but it is also very warm.
What advice would you give to young aspiring designers?
The design world is a fast changing one, so it is difficult to give any advice. Trust your own instinct and work very hard.
What are you working on now?
At the moment we are working on the interior of a new Italian restaurant in the NK Department store in Stockholm, which is due to open this autumn. We will furnish it with our furniture and objects. We are also preparing for Milan Design Week, and many projects in different stages which I am not able to reveal at this stage. Some will be launched in 2020.