Introducing ÅBEN, a celebration of emerging Nordic makers

Writer Kate Lough meets member David Harrigan, whose Stockholm-based design collective ÅBEN poses the question: ‘Do we want mass produced product made by robots, or to give our money to young designers to pay their rent?’

By Kate Lough   Above image: Black Oak Cabinet by Antrei Hartikainen   Sunday 5 July, 2020    Long read

STOCKHOLM – ‘I was a weird kid,’ admits David Harrigan. ‘When I was little, I’d go to my friends’ houses and they would have posters of cricket and rugby players on their walls. I had posters of chairs on mine. I was obsessed with chairs.’ 

Harrigan, who grew up in a coal-mining town three hours from Sydney, would sometimes accompany his mother as a child to the ballet at the Opera House. There, he’d marvel not at the dancing, but the ‘curves, texture and quality’ of the interiors brought together by Danish architect Jørn Utzon. It sparked a lifelong love for design that would eventually inspire the Londoner, in summer 2019, to quit his career in media and set up ÅBEN: a design collective based in Stockholm for emerging Nordic talent.

ÅBEN came about from a shared frustration: from young makers who struggled to find their path to market after leaving the world’s leading design schools in the Nordics, and conscious consumers, like Harrigan, who value traceability and provenance as well as aesthetics. ‘I’d ask myself fundamental questions such as: does the world need another Wishbone chair? Does the Eames Foundation have enough money already? Do we want products that have been mass produced in factories by robots? Or do we want to give our money to a young designer who will use that money to pay for their rent or grocery bill?’
A man in a blue shirt standing in front of a two tone wall.
ÅBEN founder David Harrigan (Billie Scheepers)
Nearly one year on, the ÅBEN family is now made up of 10 designers, from Helsinki to Reykjavík, and from cabinet makers to ceramicists, all of whom were selected for their shared ethos. Sustainability, in particular, was something that Harrigan insisted on as a core value of the collective. ‘I’d seen what fast fashion was doing to the planet, and this kind of mindset was leaking into furniture. Longevity was not a factor,’ says Harrigan, who is married to fashion and beauty photographer Billie Scheepers. ‘I always remind our designers that we’re not making products for our customers. We’re making products for our customers’ children. I want them to be so robust and so timeless, that their kids will be fighting over who gets that chair or that side table.’ 

By August, ÅBEN will be fully B-Corp certified, which means it is actively committed to doing less harm and more good to the environment, joining the likes of Patagonia and Allbirds. Its designers source all their materials locally, use only FSC-certified wood, and the brand plants a tree for every product sold.
Above: Alexandra Nilasdotters and her work (Andreia Afonso)

This emphasis on slow design is supported by ÅBEN’s focus on craftsmanship, with the majority of its designers making by hand. ‘It’s the antithesis of fast furniture,’ says Harrigan. ‘Every piece is made to order. And when something takes eight to 10 weeks, like one of Antrei Hartikainen’s cabinets, you understand how much thought and meaning there is behind that. It’s honest craft. I love that when another of our designers, Alexandra Nilasdotter, turns up to her workshop, she sits down at her pottery wheel like people did hundreds of years before her.’ Another designer Harrigan has his eye on digs up soil from the Faroe Islands, the home of her boyfriend, to make ceramic bowls and plates. 

A strong sense of community is also woven into the fabric of the collective’s DNA. Many of its designers live or work in designer communes around the Nordics: Nilasdotter makes her ceramics out of Gustavsberg, an old porcelain factory on the Stockholm archipelago that’s now filled with young makers’ workshops. And Hartikainen rarely leaves Fiskars, an old industrial hub on the water, which is an hour from Helsinki. Since the 1900s, it has been colonised by artists and even has its own biennale. ‘It’s like El Dorado for furniture design,’ explains Harrigan. ‘Everyone who lives there is either a designer or supports the design community.’
A black cylindrical cabinet in a stone room.
A man standing next to wooden logs.
Top: Antrei Hartikainen and his work. Above: Samuli Helavuo and his work (portrait by Billie Scheepers)

Additionally, ÅBEN has created its own ecosystem of support by appointing an annual designer-in-residence. In August, to mark its first birthday, it will announce Swedish designer, Erik Olovsson, as its new designer-in-residence. ‘Each one brings a wealth of knowledge that the other designers can draw on. Someone to answer questions they might have, such as whether to exhibit at Eindhoven or Helsinki, who to prototype a vase or whether to use Douglas or Oak fir for a product,’ says Harrigan. ‘ÅBEN feels like a big family where everyone gets along.’ This sense of family extends to the consumer, with ÅBEN seeking to reshape the relationship between maker and buyer into one that is real, human and intimate. ‘It’s why the designers are the first thing you see on our website and why we tell their stories. We want to create a space for transparency and conversation.’

In September, the ÅBEN family will launch its first exclusive collection, SOLU, in collaboration with Finnish designer, Samuli Helavuo, who has been part of the collective since it launched. Inspired by organic forms, such as raindrops, and landscapes, such as lakes, the collection of hand-shaped dishes was designed and produced in Lapinlahti, 450km from Helsinki. It is this desire to showcase the idiosyncratic design communities of the Nordics to a global audience that defines the collective’s purpose. ‘ÅBEN means open in Danish, and that’s a critical element of what we stand for. Nordic design is often put on a pedestal, but we want to make it more accessible for anyone who believes in meaningful design; whether you’re from the design elite, or a chubby kid from a coal town, like me.’
Interested in becoming a member?