Mathias Bengtsson has always described himself as a designer, but his works are closer to fine art than to traditional industrial design. Working with diverse industrial materials and processes, Bengtsson pushes forward the sculptural, technical, and philosophical possibilities of three-dimensional design. Accordingly, the majority of his works are unique or created as editions, requiring both high-tech production facilities and labour-intensive processes. Museums on both sides of the Atlantic have been quick to acquire Bengtsson’s works, and his pieces have entered the permanent collections of institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and Manchester Art Gallery. Almost uniquely for a designer around 40, his work has been shown extensively both in fine art and design contexts, at venues such as the Design Museum, London and the Rohsska Museum, Gotheberg, and in public galleries such as The Lowry and Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art.
Bengtsson’s work sprang to prominence even before his graduation from the Royal College of Art, when he exhibited his ‘Slice’ chairs at Galleria Post Design in Milan, in 1998. Such auspicious beginnings have sometimes distracted from the variety of his subsequent oeuvre, which have seen him move into uncharted territory in each year since. The designer has reamined best known for his works which adapt the archetypal forms of seating and domestic furniture into new territories: the easy chair; the chaise longue; the bench; the dining table. Each of these object-types offers a different point of departure, which Bengtsson uses to expand the language of furniture design. In his hands, the cubic volumes of a lounge chair provide opportunity to bring to mind human forms, those of the automotive industry, and those of the landscape or sea. We are invited to engage with his objects through different frames of reference and on different levels beyond their functional use. The designer has said, “I don’t count myself as a product designer. Furniture is just a platform or medium to present my ideas and a framework to ‘build’ from. What is crucial is that furniture has a set of known rules and conventions, and a set of minimum requirements.” All of Bengtsson’s work is able to be used as furniture, and indeed intentionally recalls the “organic shapes of the Danish design tradition” in his words. However, this tradition, and indeed the need to sit or lie down are simply an armature for his ideas. These include arguments about the possibilities of design; about the technologies – digital and analogue – which determine our present day means of production; and about the imagined relation between the body, the spaces it occupies, and its environment.
Bengtsson’s determining logic is then, not that form follows function, nor of function following form, but of form surpassing our imaginative boundaries. His aim is to give life to what we could not previously have been thought possible. Bengtsson begins with what he calls “the promise of technology” – the desire to push the limits of what is imaginable, and the will to create objects unlike any that have existed before. In the words of one critic, Bengtsson’s works are a “quest to redefine the boundaries of design“. This has involved treating materials in ways which make them defy and surpass their capabilities or characteristics. Bengtsson’s palette of materials has expanded radically in recent years to encompass a bewildering diversity of industrially manufactured materials – from aluminium to cardboard, and from tinted acrylic to carbon fibre. But there is a common denominator: each of Bengtsson’s works exceeds what we thought design could be, and what the material in question could achieve.
For Bengtsson, it is crucial that the unfamiliarity of his works is countered by a familiar frame of reference. They are, or resemble domestic objects which are made strange rather than artworks made functional. Rather than creating autonomous sculptures, Bengtsson prefers the challenge of creating a “tension” between achieving functionality and distilling ideas about the big issues of design. Indeed the question of functionality in furniture determines why Bengtsson continues to define himself as a designer: it is simply that his objects serve different functions to what he calls “padded furniture”. As he notes, “the functions of providing optimal comfort and convenience have long been solved – the study of ergonomics was completed in the 1960s,” he argues. “My furniture is about challenging your senses: that is its function.”
Bengtsson’s solutions to the challenge as outlined often result in him creating seemingly organic forms which ‘nature’ could not have possibly generated. He sees his work as a branch of research and experimentation: that some of his findings may find future wider applicability is an open possibility; but in the main, Bengtsson’s activities should be seen as pure rather than applied research. “My area of investigation is to explore what could be the ideas of the future” he has remarked, but a popular misreading of Bengtsson’s works is that they are intentionally futuristic in appearance. Such an assessment is faulty on two counts. Firstly, the designer’s works begin with, and derive from a love of materials and their possibilities, rather than from an attempt to evoke an image of the future. It is crucial to the designer that “my designs are materials and process-based, not ‘image-based’ – I am a fanatic about materials, technologies, and the processes dependent on them. I prefer the shapes of my works to derive from materials and processes, rather than solely from a pre-existing concept or image unrelated to them.” As outlined, his process is not that of function following form: each object comes out of an investigation into the gap between what materials are capable of and what it is unimaginable that they should achieve.
Secondly, Bengtsson’s works are almost all based upon achieving what he calls a “tension” between the artisanal and the precision-engineered. “I have never seen anything made solely on a computer which has that ‘extra something’ which you have never seen before,” he notes. Those unfamiliar with Bengtsson’s works often begin by observing that he utilizes high-performance materials and high-tech processes to achieve organic forms. The genesis of each object is far more complicated than any first impression could convey. The designer’s first ‘slice’ chair provides a perfect example of the complexity of Bengtsson’s process, and how each part of the process contributes to the finished product. He has said that “I always start work with a pen and paper, or brush: drawing provides the shortest distance between an idea in your imagination and a form. The problems are then how you ‘translate’ an analogue idea into digital data, and how you can produce a digital design by hand.” Having conceived how the very first sketches for the ‘slice’ chair, the designer then created a wax model which was literally ‘sliced’ with a knife. Each slice was scanned, then redrawn and amended digitally. Only at a very late stage was computer-controlling cutting deployed; and after this, the chair was constructed by hand.
By definition, then, “every slice chair is different, is an individual” rather than being a clinically perfect, computer-generated object. Rather, Bengtsson’s works are artefacts which yoke the work of “machines and the human hand” so that they feel “somewhere between both.” Technologies, for the designer, are seldom a completely self-contained means of production. They are more often a way of complicating our relationship to objects, and our relationship to the modern world. Many of the machine processes the designer has employed originated in highly capitalized and high-tech industries, such as motor racing and aviation.
The associations of these industries and their artefacts are unavoidable, but Bengtsson’s use of materials are often functional in the most obvious senses. His carbon fibre works, for example, being made of “high-performance materials”, are the lightest chairs ever made. They are not only hollow but created from slender woven strips of filament able to support a human being with the minimum materials necessary. A proposal for a carbon fibre bridge linking two islands has seen Bengtsson operate on an urban scale, marrying his ideas to those of civic engineering to suggest entirely new solutions to age-old problems. Bengtsson’s bridge, yet to be realized, could be the first introduction of entirely new materials into the vocabulary of bridge-building for nearly a century. If such a process sounds singularity programmatic on the other hand, it is worth remembering that Bengtsson has also drawn ideas from the most unlikely of places. The process of laser-cutting enabled his ‘slice’ works to be fabricated, but his imagination was sparked to create them by visceral ideas. He has noted that a generation ago, some executed criminals (elsewhere in the world) were frozen in nitrogen before being sliced into sections. Encountering the human body as cross-sections made it “unrecognizable” to him, both estranged and fascinating. This alerted him the designer to how other objects could be both made comprehensible and unfamiliar at the same time. The designer’s work has exploited a disjuncture between our imagined archetypes of the forms of furniture and the range of new metaphors he has brought to the field, and the sculptural adventures he has taken his materials upon. Even at first impressions, his ‘slice’ chairs offer up to our imagination the craggy forms of a coastal landscape more than those of a domestic object, as though they had been eroded by the elements over decades. In more recent works still under development, computer-carved forms resemble the quicksilver zip of mercury underwater – a microscopic element of the landscape rather than a section of it. By comparison, the basic cylindrical form of a chaise longue offers up a voluptuous form whose proportions echo those of both a panoramic landscape and a recumbent female body. Both the acrylic and carbon fibre chaise longues conjure Henry Moore-like hills and hollows, evoking both the macrocosmic scale of the land and the familiar contours of the human form.
His unorthodox methods, and insistence on combining craft skills with mechanical means help the designer’s works accrue several levels of meaning. And he continues to push forward boundaries of what might be possible in three-dimensional design in ways we could scarcely expect.