Keith Murphy on his new book, Swedish Design

Interview by Ilana Gershon 

You explain in your book that Ikea is “a simple microcosm of the social democratic order” (p. 202), which might surprise some Ikea shoppers who don’t think in terms of a politics of form.  Could you explain how you trace in your book the ways that design in Sweden is viewed as self-evidently a political project?

I think outside of Sweden and the Nordic countries, most people’s familiarity with Swedish design (if there’s any familiarity at all) starts and ends with IKEA, since it’s the largest furniture company in the world, and one of the most recognized global brands. But yes, this doesn’t mean that the long history of ideological links and influences between social democratic politics and design — especially furniture design and industrial design — are easily gleaned by, say, shoppers in Illinois, California, or Hong Kong. But in Sweden, it’s a different story.

The core premise of the book is pretty simple: in Sweden there are lively and vibrant connections between political values espoused as traditionally “social democratic” — equality, transparency, care, and others — and the design of everyday things, including furniture and other home goods (think IKEA), cars (think Volvo), interior architecture, and so on. According to the cultural logic sustaining these relations, everyday objects, just like the state, are designed to take care of people in their everyday lives, and this is not by accident. But what does that really mean? How are these connections between things and politics actually constituted, how are they maintained and cultivated, and who is invested in perpetuating them? Perhaps an even simpler way of phrasing it is, “Swedish design is political, but how exactly is it made to be political?” If shoppers in Illinois, California, or Hong Kong don’t readily recognize the cultural and political background of the furniture carefully staged in IKEA showrooms, but shoppers in Sweden do (at least to some non-trivial degree), that’s an indication (to me at least) that there’s something going on in Sweden that’s worth taking a closer look at.

Of course it’s difficult to analytically apprehend Swedish design — and “design” more generally — as just one simple category, or one more or less coherent thing. You can’t talk about Swedish design without focusing on particular forms — typical modernist forms like squares and straight lines — or particular discourses, social actors, institutions, practices, and more. All of it matters, irreducibly. While design historical analyses tend to center and elevate famous designers and their famous objects, it’s a perspective that often leaves out so many other relevant conditions that render design and designing more than simply stuff and its making. Which is to say, you can’t really just look at one factor, like iconic chairs, or superstar designers, in order to understand the cultural and political significance of design. Instead you’ve got to follow how these factors connect and alight upon one another, across a bunch of different domains. And ethnography is a really good way of doing that.

So in the book I trace some of the different ways in which design has been constructed and cultivated as a sociopolitical project in Sweden, moving between different domains, and focusing on different forms at different scales. I follow the progression of discourses of both “good design” and “a politics of care” in Sweden from their modern origin in the 19th century up through their more recent manifestations in the early 21st. I look at specific social actors, including not just well-known designers, but also politicians and activists from the past, and less well-known designers of the present, to explore the harmonization of ideologies between design and social democratic politics over time. And I examine different institutions and their practices, including the small-scale motions involved in studio design work, and the exhibitionary protocols of museums, fairs, and even IKEA, to show how objects acquire different but complementary meanings in their circulations through social space. All of this is directed toward understanding how design, acting as a method of world-making, gives form — including specific shapes, objects, discursive forms, forms of social organization, political forms, and more  — to the everyday world in Sweden.

How do you think that a strong training in linguistic anthropology shaped your analysis of Swedish design?

There are probably dozens of ways in which my background in linguistic anthropology helped push the kind of analysis I ended up producing in this book, but I’ll stick with three. First, I think linguistic anthropology, especially the version I was trained in at UCLA, really rewards attention to small details. One of the earliest lessons I learned in linguistic anthropology, when I was a first-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago, was that language, a phenomenon so familiar, intimate, and present in our lived experience, is practically bursting with unrecognized meaning, which you can start to see clearly once you turn your gaze toward the details. When I started my fieldwork — which, by the way, was originally more concerned with hand gestures and body language than with design – this attraction to small details was my basic stance for conducting research. So I guess it wasn’t surprising that I transposed that training onto an analysis of common forms in furniture and other designed things, stuff that, like language, suffuses everyday experience but whose complex webs of meaning are typically just barely recognized.

Second, I think theories developed and worried in linguistic anthropology are widely applicable beyond the domain of language (a point that Costas Nakassis usefully articulated in 2016). Of course there has been a longstanding trend in the social sciences and humanities to use language as a model for explaining non-linguistic phenomena (“linguistic magic bullets,” as Charles Briggs has described it). But from my point of view, one of the problems with this trend has been trying to apply an analysis based on linguistic properties onto non-linguistic things, rather than using the theory to understand the properties of the things themselves, for what they are (that is, not trying to make them “look like” language). This is why Pierce is so useful (as opposed to, say, Saussure), because his semiotic is derived from logic rather than from language, which means to analyze material objects from a Piercian perspective, you’re not forced to transduce a language-based model into some other semiotic framework, and thus assume some analytical lossiness in the process. But it’s not just Pierce and semiotics that helped me examine Swedish design. I ended up drawing on Austinian performativity, and, quite unexpectedly, the version of pragmatics offered by Deleuze and Guattari, because these perspectives resonated with how design work is accomplished in the studio. Assumptions derived from Goffman, Garfinkel, and the Goodwins about how meaning is activated and transformed through social interaction, and Duranti’s close attention to the various forms that politics takes across social modalities, all of this undergirds much of my overall analysis. Basically, it feels like (to me, anyway) linguistic anthropological theory is very useful for understanding pretty much anything.

Finally, and this relates to the previous two points, linguistic anthropology really prepares you to pay attention to form. Whether it’s thinking through sociolinguistic variables, allophones, collections of conversational instances or similar hand gestures, and more, we often find ourselves dealing with linguistic features that, from a phenomenological point of view, exist as formally distinct, yet from a social or analytic point of view, are treated as examples of the same thing, that is, as having matching forms. I sort of adopted this idea and ran with it, to see how far I could take it: that social forces work to match different forms in ways that allow them to be seen as examples of the “same thing.” Thus, in Swedish design, squares and equality, chairs and democracy, and blonde wood and care, all of which obviously take different forms, can nonetheless be made to formally “match” one another through complex semiotic processes.

I was wondering if you could explain a bit for readers of this blog one of the very imaginative arguments of your book, an explanation of how designers who are in a profession that is supposed to be constantly innovative manage to create an internationally recognizable Swedish style. 

Part of my argument is that designers themselves are only partially in control of the designs they create. This is obviously true when we look at constraints like the design brief, which can specify things like an object’s materials, size, costs, colors, etc. And clients can often intervene and ask for changes in a given design (this is usually not something that designers appreciate). But there are other conditions that, in combination, tend to lead to the preservation of a particular Swedish design style over time, even as designers themselves innovate in their own work.

I try to trace this across different domains, including in the studio, where designers sit quietly at computers sketching the lines of their objects and talking their ideas through with colleagues. One of the things I began to notice when I watched and re-watched video recording of these interactions is that there is a strong preference for “typical” Swedish design forms, like squares, rectangles, and straight line, that regularly plays out in the ways that designers talk and evaluate their work, accompanied by a dispreference for deviations from this norm. That is to say, emergent designs that “look” or “feel” Swedish tend to get publicly assessed as “good,” while those that “look” more experimental are assessed less judiciously. One effect if this is that “Swedish looking” objects tend to get more designerly attention, and tend to make it through a design process intact. This, even while designers shy away from overly affiliating with some normative concept of Swedish style.

There are other factors that preserve and cultivate Swedish design. Many institutions like museums, galleries, media, government and semi-government authorities, and stores like IKEA all have some investment in stitching together design style, material objects, and social democratic ideology. Designers may themselves see this investment as antithetical to their own individual creativity, however once they release their objects into the world, they lose significant control over how those objects are described, re-described, and displayed. And there’s a network of loosely orchestrated social actors and institutions in Sweden always prepared to render actual tokens of design as examples of a more abstract “Swedish design” type.

There’s more to it, of course, but I want to point out that at different scales and in different ways, language is crucial to the project of cultivating Swedish design. It’s not just about specific objects and their forms, but rather how language and form and political values co-constitute one another in and across cultural domains in Sweden.

If you could imagine the anthropology of design becoming a vibrant subfield, what are the still unexplored questions that scholars could start tackling?

I’m obviously biased, but I definitely think the anthropology of design should become a vibrant subfield. And in some ways it is already! I’m certainly not the first anthropologist to deal with design, although when I started doing this work in the mid-2000s, I did face a fair amount of skepticism. But nowadays there are lots of anthropologists, in North America and Europe in particular, who are turning an analytical eye toward design in one way or another.

There is a bit of a problem, though, in terms of how an anthropology of design might continue to take form. It’s similar to the problem that Alfred Gell discusses at the start of his chapter, “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” while ruminating on the anthropology of art: to what degree are anthropologists who study design “captured” by their own object of inquiry? Designers, many design researchers, and – frankly – capitalists of various stripes, love to tout the salutary power of design without fully acknowledging design’s many downsides (of course what this means depends on what particular kind of design you’re looking at). One worry I have is that anthropologists of design get seduced by the very seductive discourses of design that espouse the kind of “goodness” we’ve come to desire in ourselves as a discipline. I often feel myself falling into this trap. But on the other side, there’s also the possibility that anthropology’s sharp critical edge will dismiss design as, yes, a tool of capitalism, and thus an oppressive force that should be pushed back against and heavily critiqued. This is something that I also often feel. It seems to me, though, that a dynamic anthropology of design should tack back and forth between these two perspectives, to not settle on one particular hill, but rather to turn a skeptical but curious gaze toward the vast valley in between, figuring out what design is, as a form of human action, and what it’s doing for particular groups of people in their particular social worlds.

In my book I’m offering a close analysis of design in Sweden. I’m not claiming design works this way everywhere (clearly it doesn’t), but I do hope that I’m providing tools for people to use to examine how design works in other contexts. It’s sort of a truism at this point to say that design is political, but one of the things that anthropologists can offer is a critical analysis of how design operates as a political force in different parts of the world. We can also explore design as a mechanism of social control; or as aesthetic hegemony; or as a generator of ideology; or as a mediator between institutions and ordinary people. A design anthropological framework can be applied to more than just objects. It can be applied to cities, processes, spaces, infrastructures, and more, and it will always include people, things, ideologies, and practices, without necessarily excising any one (or more) of them. Basically, I think there are innumerable projects that a design anthropological framework could be useful for.

 Has your fieldwork for this project changed how you buy furniture or other objects for your home?

Yes and no. When I came back from the field, I decided I needed to buy much nicer furniture for myself, because living in a comfortable, beautiful home is — according to the Swedish model — a kind of care. But I quickly discovered that the furniture market in the US is basically split into only two segments: the low-end stuff, like IKEA, Target, and the MDF things at Crate & Barrel; and the high-end stuff that I really can’t afford. There isn’t really any mid-market furniture, stuff that looks nice and is of decent quality, but that isn’t super pricy. So I’ve basically had to stick with IKEA (sometimes moving up from MDF to actual wood or metal!) and some other random used furniture. But I do now pay a lot more attention to how I decorate my place, and how I use color in my apartment, and the materials of the things I buy (I’ve recently entered a cork phase, for some reason). Lighting is important, too. And I’ve recently decided to do what many of my Swedish friends have done: invest in nice furniture slowly, over time, but always prioritizing it as something worth spending money on, because feeling comfortable in your space is a worthwhile goal.




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