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Product designer Jonatan Nilsson shows how to get inspired by 'stuff that is ugly'

The Stockholm-based creator tells STIR how designers can make products that challenge the status quo, and why there is nothing more important than being crazy.

by Pallavi MehraPublished on : Feb 06, 2021

Swedish designer Jonatan Nilsson has created a unique glassblowing contraption to make amorphous vases. After failing to find a flexible-enough mould for glassblowing, Nilsson constructed his own machine to create the vases in his Shifting Shape collection. The designer used a saw to cut shapes into wooden blocks, before stacking them up in various formations in two piles and attaching them to the glassblowing contraption on either side. Different pieces of wood can be secured to the machine to offer varied outcomes, as the wooden blocks give the vases their final form.

Presently, Jonatan Nilsson is represented by the gallery Culture Object in New York City and is working on an upcoming solo exhibition of imaginative styrofoam sculptures in collaboration with Stockholm-based home decor brand, Arranging Things.

Here, designer Jonatan Nilsson discusses his inspirations, his design processes and the ultimate goal of his works.

Jonatan Nilsson has created a unique glassblowing contraption to make amorphous vases | Shifting Shape | Jonatan Nilsson | STIRworld
Jonatan Nilsson has created a unique glassblowing contraption to make amorphous vases Image: Tor Westerlund

Pallavi Mehra (PM): Please tell us a little about your journey as an artist and product designer.

Jonatan Nilsson (JN): I used to draw a lot as a kid, coming up with these fantasy worlds and filling the walls in my room with characters inhabiting them. Other kids at my kindergarten wanted me to do drawings of dragons for them (which apparently was a specialty of mine). A couple of months ago, I got a tattoo of a dragon in blue ink all over my chest. I just made this connection now, and hadn’t thought about my childhood’s dragon drawings in a long time. When I was around 19 years old, I attended a preparatory art school, and that was my introduction to the art and design world. I started primarily with detailed drawings in black and white, but got interested in sculpture and three-dimensional work there. Later on, I studied product and interior design.

PM: For your Shifting Shape collection of glass vases, you built your own machine to create the vases. Why did you think there was a need for one and how did you put it together?

JN: I sure did! It started out with me researching how to traditionally blow glass using conventional moulds. I liked the precise look that glass gets when you make it in a wooden or graphite mould, but at the same time, I thought it was a bit boring that you always get the same shape. Plus it’s quite expensive and time consuming to make a conventional mould. So, I wanted to create a flexible mould, which is when the idea of this machine was born. I designed the machine on my computer, had it laser cut in sheet metal and then put it together with nuts and bolts in my studio.

Jonatan Nilsson’s Shifting Shape collection of glass vases | Shifting Shape | Jonatan Nilsson | STIRworld
Jonatan Nilsson’s Shifting Shape collection of glass vases Image: Tor Westerlund

PM: What did you hope to achieve with this machine and the Shifting Shape collection?

JN: When I designed the machine I had no idea how well it would work since I didn’t have that much experience when it came to working with glass. It was during my Artist in Residence programme at the Glass Factory in Boda, Sweden, where I first got the chance to try out the machine. After a bit of trial and error, everything went quite smoothly!

I simply start by putting two pieces of quickly sawn wood in the machine. The glass is then blown in the hollow space between the two pieces of wood. It’s quite hard to tell how the finished piece will look beforehand. That unpredictability, combined with the aesthetics of blown glass, was something I wanted to achieve.

Jonatan Nilsson created a glass blowing contraption to create one-of-a-kind vases | Shifting Shape| Jonatan Nilsson | STIRworld
Jonatan Nilsson created a glass blowing contraption to create one-of-a-kind vases Image: Tor Westerlund

PM: Currently, you are making styrofoam sculptures, which you coat in resin and then spray paint. Tell us more about this technique. How is it different from what others are doing?

JN: I think you pretty much summed it up there actually, haha! Of course there was some initial research and continuous trial and error, as there is with everything when you’re new to it. But indeed the technique is quite commonly used amongst other artists and designers. I don’t think that is something to get discouraged by though. I believe that the possibilities to make something unique and interesting are endless, even when working with a limited set of tools. Give a brush and some tubes of paint to a thousand different people, and you will probably end up with a thousand different paintings, each one unique and interesting in its own little way.

A styrofoam and resin vase by Jonatan Nilsson | Strofoam Sculptures| Jonatan Nilsson | STIRworld
A styrofoam and resin vase by Jonatan Nilsson Image: Gustav Almestå

PM: What inspires you to create the products that you do?

JN: I would say that I get inspired by stuff that I think is ugly or poorly made. No wait, maybe I just get angry from that! And from that anger I create something (almost always colorful) that I think is nice. I’m also inspired by the past, they made such beautiful things back in the days. Architecture is another thing that I’m really into. I really like the buildings in Stockholm from the 1910s that showcase the National Romantic architectural style. I also like the idea of an alternative medieval universe and have started to make a lot of swords and stuff. That is something I would like to explore further, not sure where it will lead though.

PM: Please tell us about how you conceive or plan your designs and then how do you go about making the work?

JN: I think I’m pretty straightforward when it comes to this. At school, I kind of had a hard time with the whole concept of a ‘design process.’ I think that there was this notion that you had to go through a thousand different ideas, or sketch something for a very long time and discard a thousand sketches before you came up with the final design. Most of the time, I would come up with an idea straight away and then just go with it. Sometimes, I would have to kind of fake a sketch or design process that looked more like something the teachers would request or expect to see.

A strofoam and resin table lamp by Jonatan Nilsson | Strofoam Sculptures| Jonatan Nilsson | STIRworld
A Strofoam and resin table lamp by Jonatan Nilsson Image: Jonatan Nilsson

PM: Your works are expressive objects that in some way question the prevailing standards of how things are supposed to look or function. What is the ultimate goal of these works?

JN: I would say that my ultimate goal is to create objects that I think are really good. As I said earlier, I get inspired from poorly made stuff. Another answer would be that I don’t know the answer to that question! However, I feel very free in my studio right now working with the styrofoam and resin technique. It enables me to create objects that I can see in my imagination, if that makes sense.

PM: All your works are extremely experimental. What advice do you have for artists and designers that want to achieve a similar design aesthetic without going overboard?

JN: I think that nothing is created out of a vacuum and that it is really hard to be truly unique, and I’m not sure that that is something to strive for either. I get the feeling that people who really go their own way and are truly unique and experimental, run the risk of being considered as outcasts from society. I have a lot of love for people like that, but I guess it’s not the best or most pleasant life to lead. There is a fine line between crazy and genius, so watch out for that, would be my advice!

Log Bench by Jonatan Nilsson | Log Bench| Jonatan Nilsson | STIRworld
Log Bench by Jonatan Nilsson Image: Jonatan Nilsson

PM: What must a designer remember in order to create works that challenge the status quo?

JN: Okay then, I might just go against my most recent advice and give you a new one. In order to create work that challenges the status quo, you have to either be crazy or go crazy! Fake it until you make it is another option. Best of luck to all of you!

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