The year was 1844 when the artist Nils Månsson Mandelgren stared a Söndags-Rit-Skola för Handtverkare (Sunday drawing school for craft workers), and started something that would shape the modern Swedish art and design world. That school would eventually of course evolve into Konstfack, and in the 175 years since an enormous range of people and ideas have passed through its doors, including some artists and designers who would go on to draw the new shapes of Swedish society. Now Konstfack is looking back on its history, with the book 175 år av kamp, glädje och misslyckanden (175 Years of Struggle, Happiness and Failure), which collects over 100 personal stories from the school’s alumni and employees as well as narrating the story of those 175 years. We met Vice-Chancellor Maria Lantz to talk about it.
To start things off, where did the original idea for this book come from?
When I started here seven years ago, I realised that if I stayed for more than six years, which is the period I was initially hired for, that the 175th anniversary would happen in that time. I had seen the book for the 150th anniversary and I was quite impressed by it, a great advertisement of all the great things that have been achieved at Konstfack over the years, and I was struck by the impact this pretty small institution has had on society. That was something I had been dwelling on, and I think more than nice design things, I was really inspired by the fact that things that come out of Konstfack feature in everybody’s lives. That we encounter Konstfack as we leave the subway, pull out drawers in the kitchen, when we read children’s books, and so on. That felt very poetic, and it kind of contradicted the idea that this school is exclusive and only relevant to a few people, because what people do here does end up all over society.
That’s actually one of my questions – because when I was reading the press release, one of the quotes was that “Konstfack is everywhere in our everyday lives”. So is one of the main points of the book to show that Konstfack isn’t the cliché of an art and design school, that it also has practical reach into our everyday lives?
Yes, and that’s one of the messages, and in order to achieve that, you really have to think a lot and you have to practise a lot. The students really have to engage to come up with a product and idea that is efficient enough to reach out into society. If the first 150th anniversary book was about the products, this one is about the process. Something that is very typical for Konstfack, and has been the idea from the very start, is the relevance to society. So it’s not an internal thing, made for yourself and maybe a few other people. Konstfack was founded on the idea that the goods that industrialism produced would be sustainable and have a value over time.
A practical output approach to art and design?
Yes, of course. And this wasn’t just happening in Sweden, you had the Arts and Crafts movement, and eventually the Bauhaus movement. So it was part of a discussion going on all over Europe in different ways. And Konstfack is part of that. I think it’s interesting that the first branches were furniture design and the pedagogical aspect, that they gave courses to craft people so they could adapt their skills to adapt to the new industry. That’s something I also found interesting, that the school was founded on the idea of how to develop learning.
So how did you go about collecting the material for the book?
The idea of the open call in our alumni networks and on our website came about a year ago when we talked about who should give voice to the school. And of course we spread the word among our current students and staff. Our aim was to get a mix of voices, generations, ways of expression and above all – different stories on failure, success and everyday life at one of Sweden’s most important artistic universities.
Both in the stories you targeted, and when you were putting the information together, was it important to find a balance between straight-out history, and more personal stories?
I think this mix is what makes the book so much fun to read. It’s not just one format, instead it’s a lot of different ways of telling stories. The biggest challenges were both how to link the stories together and how to be relevant to readers who didn’t know about Konstfack and its history. The solution was to create a guiding voice that leads you through our history and all its voices. Susanne Helgeson, the principal editor, is our narrator.
Konstfack obviously produces a lot of different artists and designers and different trades, and it also has had a lot of students, going back 175 years, so you’ve had an incredible diversity of people involved in this institution. Was there anything that struck you, as you were going through the material, that was common to them all?
I think I didn’t realise, until we made the book was that the teachers’ education in arts and crafts, which educates teachers across the whole school system, how important they have been in developing the subject. Today it’s not just about teaching children how to draw, it also involves criticism and analysis of media. So the way the subject currently exists, that development happened here. You can say they were pretty much left-wing activists, those people in the teacher training in the late 60s, and I think they did a pretty good job. There’s a lot of discussion about whether children should learn practical things or the ability to analyse, but I think we need both. It also connects to other activist groups here that have been important, not only for Konstfack, but also for society at large, and that is something that connects the different groups.
So it’s the attitude? Being questioning and critical of how things are done, and also open to new ideas?
Yes, I think so. And another example is if you look at the Fine Arts department here in the 90s. The students said they didn’t want to have labels as sculptors or photographers or painters or whatever, but they wanted to reach out into the other fields. So they simply decided to bring them together in one department as Fine Arts. I think this kind of institutional criticism and looking critically at your own involvement is very typical of Konstfack, and it happens over and over again.
Did you have any personal favourite stories from what was found when researching the book?
Yes! One of my personal favourites is about having lunch at the Fine Arts department. I recognised myself from my days as an arts student. There was so much that went on in the lunch room, the discussions you had, the things going on between people. And the woman who wrote the text loves her department and classmates, but still manages to be critical and self-critical, even about what kind of salt people use, how you should drink your coffee and so on.
Would you say it’s very Konstfack to write about eating lunch and still critically analyse lunch?
Yes! And to still be passionate about it. It’s not critical in a destructive way, but in a friendly way, and that’s why I like that text. I like another one written by Anne Swärd, who trained as a teacher here but is now a renowned author. That’s also an interesting thing with Konstfack, that people often train in one discipline here and then become something else. Her text is more of a poetic description of working late at night. That’s something typical of us, as our students have access 24-7.
As a final question – how is it to be in charge of managing the legacy of such an old institution?
Someone asked me when I started as Vice-Chancellor here if I would be someone who would preserve or develop here. I had been thinking about that a lot, and I think this book gave me the answer. There is no way you could do one without the other. You have to develop and allow development, because that is what this school is about. But as Vice-Chancellor, you shouldn’t do it yourself, you should allow the teachers and the students to do it. And that brings you into the question of how you allow for development. It took some time, but now I think we have a structure for it. The other challenge of course, is that we need funding from the government all the time, and these days you have to show figures, and the title of the book – 175 Years of Struggle, Happiness and Failure – says something about that. It’s very hard to measure what we do immediately, because sometimes it takes years and years before it ends up in someone’s daily life. And you have to allow failure in order to achieve that, so we might have figures in the yearly report that look bad, but in the long run it’s an investment.
So there’s a struggle against the short-term economisation of education, input-output thinking?
Exactly, and New Public Management is difficult to apply to an institution like this. That’s a challenge.
And you were saying, you see your role as allowing the space for others to develop Konstfack?
Exactly, and it needs to be developed constantly. You can’t say ‘stop, this is perfect’ because otherwise the school will cease to exist.
175 år av kamp, glädje och misslyckanden is available to purchase now from Konstfack’s reception as well as various bookshops.