Interview: Andreas Bozarth Fornell

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The Swedish architect behind Acne's incredible retail spaces talks beginnings, family and new adventures.

We visited Tokyo in the winter of 2013 and just by chance stumbled across the Acne store in Aoyama. I was cold, tired, hungry and slightly pissed off, having walked around all day trying to find a Christmas present with no luck. But even the outside of the store was calling to me, whispering in a soft Japanese accent, "Come in Nick-san." I couldn't resist. I pulled my equally grumpy girlfriend by the arm and led her inside. As she roamed the store looking at boots and jumpers I admired the details of the interior. Perforated metal screens, concrete walls, wood, granite, pastel colour palette, all juxtaposed to create an incredibly beautiful modern space. I felt like I’d accidentally walked into a Scandinavian art dealer’s home who’d just tidied up in preparation for a Wallpaper* feature that was being shot the next day. I completely forgot that I was in a store designed to sell products and instead, I had an experience. We didn't end up buying anything in the end but I left with a vision of that place burned deep into my memory. 

 It wasn't until recently that I stumbled across Swedish architect Andreas Bozarth Fornell’s website and had an aha moment. I’d found the man directly responsible for the "experience" that became a reference point for a specific time in my life, and after a few months of struggling with the time zone difference we greeted each other over a laggy Skype connection. 

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"Architecture should be an instrument that brings things forward."

How is Stockholm Andreas?

It’s terrible actually, It’s cold and raining. Tomorrow is one of the biggest holidays in Sweden, Midsummer. People celebrate by sitting outside and eating new potatoes and herring, so everyone’s devastated it’s not going to happen now.

That’s annoying, it’s cold and raining here too.

I was actually hanging out with a guy from Melbourne two weeks ago when I was in Hong Kong. I’ve never been, but I’d really like to go.

Yeah it’s a nice city. So, can you tell us about your beginnings.

Well when I about fifteen I started a cabinet making program and learned to build furniture. I really liked furniture but I wanted to be more involved in design so I thought about doing architecture. Through one of my teachers I heard about a school in Stockholm called the Carl Malmsten Furniture Studies school. It was founded by a Swedish architect and is actually one of the best in the world for cabinet making. They only accept eight students every year from about one hundred applicants. I was eighteen at the time and applied with no ambition to go, but was accepted. It was a good opportunity to really develop my skills making furniture so I accepted and moved to Stockholm from Värmland. Värmland is a county in the middle of Sweden surrounded by forest. I grew up in a really small town with eight thousand people so when I moved to Stockholm, with about two million people, it was huge for me.

That must have been a culture shock.

It was! It was like going to New York these days, but it was a fantastic two years. Everything that I understand about quality is from that time. During those two years I knew I wanted to do something else but before school ended I was offered a job as a cabinet maker. I was like, "Maybe that’s a good thing to start with." And accepted the job directly after school. I stayed for a year and a half and then met a young architect named Per Söderberg who’d been studying at the Domus Academy in Milan. I made a couple of pieces of furniture that he’d designed for an agency and we started talking about design and architecture regularly. He was like, "Well if you want to learn how to draw on the computer and use CAD you can just come by my studio one night." I started going there more or less every day for six months. After I finished work I’d go and sit there during the evenings and after six months he was like, "You're here every day, maybe it’s better if you start working." I started as his assistant and stayed with him for about three years. In ’99 or ’00 the economy was really bad, so I applied for a job at a big architecture firm. During the first year I was included in a group designing the new head office for Acne studios. Then I met Jonny Johansson, the creative director of Acne. He was looking for an architect to work in-house so I accepted the offer and we started talking about trying to create retail concept. I also did fashion shows, their showroom and so on. We did about thirty five stores during my five years at Acne, and a lot of pop-ups too. It was a bit of everything, which was a really good way to learn about the fashion world. Then in 2009 we had our baby daughter. I was at home with her during the summer and started thinking about the next step. I felt more and more that I wanted to do something other than retail. I wanted to explore my knowledge of architecture more deeply, so I resigned and started my own business in autumn of 2010. I had ambitions to do housing projects and stuff like that but my third client was actually Moschino, they asked me to do a store in Paris. Of course I couldn't say no to Moschino, so I accepted it. In the summer of 2010 Jonny called me and we had lunch. He said, "We want to work with you again, but on a freelance basis."

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Were you frustrated being pigeonholed as a designer that only did retail stores?

Yeah I was actually. I wanted to do other things, and I was kind of fed up with the whole fashion industry. It’s a nice industry in some sense, but it’s kind of terrible as well. I have doubts about it sometimes.

I think a lot of designers share those feelings…

Yeah. If you're comparing architecture as an art form with fashion, there are a lot of similarities but there’s also a lot of differences. Architecture is a slower process and it costs much more money to produce things. The fashion industry on the other hand is spinning so fast. These days people are doing six collections every year, which is just insane.

It’s an interesting intersection though, fashion and architecture. When you're designing a store how do you go about creating a symbiotic relationship between the two disciplines.

I really like working with companies who have a strong creative director or a strong idea, it makes it a bit easier. Often though most fashion designers are really in the fashion "wheel" so their references and ideas are changing every single week. I feel it’s about creating something that is timeless. Maybe it’s a bit cheesy… but something that can stand the test of time and utilises nice materials that aren’t just trends.

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I think thats the goal of architecture isn't it? Or even furniture design? Create something timeless. And that’s a challenge, especially in an industry like fashion which is changing so rapidly.

Exactly. Of course at the same time, you want to reflect the era you're living in. I think that architecture should be an instrument that brings things forward, but of course is always aware of heritage and history. I think in fashion, they want to use cool materials or things that you know in five years no one will like. It will not withstand time. I use a lot of my skills from cabinet making to create a piece of furniture that will hold for a hundred years and I try to apply that approach with architecture as well.

That’s great.

I feel that in the future the highest form of luxury will be going and ordering your table, or your purse even, from a skilled craftsman who makes it just for you. Instead of buying a Louis Vuitton bag you can custom order a bag from an old bag maker.

I’ve said it before but it definitely seems like people are starting to want to know where their products come from and what the production methods behind them are.

Yeah, I think that applies to everything. I mean, Sweden has always been a curious country. I think we’re looking at the US a lot, but all the trends are tested here in Sweden because people are very open minded and want to try them. The whole bio-dynamic food thing has been huge here for many years and now it’s shifting from food, to products and even fashion.

We’re still stuck on the food part here, we’re always a few years behind. In talking about the next wave of retail and consumer goods though, with the rise in e-commerce and a shifting away from traditional retail models, what do you see for the future of physical stores? Do you think they’ll act more as showrooms than an actual point of sale?

Yeah I think so. If we take the fashion industry, stores are where you can show your brands DNA. I think they’ll become even more important but they’ll also be more adapted to the local environment. You’ll have individual stores based on a concept, but with adaptions and changes depending on where you are in the world. That’s something Rem Koolhaas from OMA did in the late nineties when he started working on the Prada project. I think Comme des Garçons is a really good example as well.

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I find the Comme des Garçons stores incredible. They really turn a consumer activity into something that’s much more of an experience, and I feel you achieve that with your work as well. I went to one of the Acne stores in Tokyo and you know… the commerce of it all fades away as soon as you walk in the door.

Thank you. We try to create a really strong image that stays in the minds of the customer and the client. Something they refer to directly when they hear about the brand or a specific store. When we made the Acne store in Paris we placed a big marble sculpture by Daniel Silva in the entrance behind a yellow glass door. That image has been everywhere. I’m not that old but I haven’t used the internet and social media from the beginning so as soon as I started searching the web I was like, "Oh my god, we’re famous here." We are not published in magazines so much, but with all the design blogs and fashion blogs we’re big. Going back to physical stores though, I think there will be a focus on developing tools that facilitate made-to-order products in the store, maybe on a screen or something. You try it on, you test it, you feel it, and then you can have it the next day in your mailbox.

I have a feeling that might be the future. There’s a few companies like Sneakerboy that are already doing it. What’s been your proudest moment?

This year we were published in Domus, the Italian architecture magazine. I remember back when I first started working, Domus was my number one magazine. It was my dream to be published in it. That was about twenty years ago, so I was really proud when I received the magazine and could see my name in print.

That’s such a great feeling. Let’s talk about the future, I hear that Bozarth Fornell is no more.

Yeah, we are actually closed.

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So you’re starting a new adventure?

Yeah, I’m actually back at Koncept Stockholm, where I worked before I joined Acne. This last autumn I had a bit of a fright. The studio had grown into a team of fifteen people over three years which is fantastic. It was everything I dreamt of but I also realised there’s only twenty four hours in a day and I would like spend some time with my family. I was working almost seven days a week and we were doing these fantastic projects but I was always thinking about what’s next. I wasn't doing any design or architecture which is what I love and want to do.

You were just managing?

Yeah exactly. I kept in contact with Nils Nilsson who’s the CEO of Koncept. We had lunch every now and then and talked about the business. I actually called him and was like, "I don’t know what to do now. I’m signing contracts, dealing with all these clients and I don't have any time." Nils said to me, "Well, you can hire more senior staff and try to balance some of the responsibility, or you can merge with a bigger office… and maybe you should merge with us."

You’ve got a lot more freedom now I guess. Are you enjoying being able to focus on what you love doing?

It’s actually fantastic, there’s about eighty people here so the resources are great and you can really focus on the product. There are a lot of young, skilled people here too and I really enjoy seeing them come out of architecture or design schools and go from zero to one hundred.

How do you achieve balance between work and your personal life?

Yeah that’s been a hard one, but it’s getting better and better. I have two older kids that are eleven and twelve from an earlier relationship and my wife and I have a daughter who’s turning six and starting school this autumn.

How exciting.

Yeah, it’s fantastic. When I formed my studio I had a goal to work five days a week and not do too much overtime. I’d spend time with the family but I wasn't totally there in the moment, I was thinking about this project or that project.

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It’s hard to switch off sometimes.

Yeah, it’s really hard. Some people are good at it but I find it hard. I was living through my company, so this feeling is really new. I’ve only been here three weeks but I already feel that I can be more present at home and spend more time with the family which is really, really nice actually.

That’s great! So, I wanted to ask about your home. Does it reflect the same aesthetic that you inject into your commercial work?

It does a bit of course, but it’s a family home and my wife and I do the decorating together. She’s really good at it actually so she does most of it. A lot of architects have exactly the same style at home, very minimalistic and so on, but we have a lot of books. I think it’s kind of relieving coming home to something that’s a little more cosy, even if it’s not my professional style. It’s nice to have a difference. Last summer we moved away from the city so we’re living half an hour outside of Stockholm. If you go half an hour out you’re in the country side. We’re living close to the water on a horse ranch actually, it’s very nice. There’s a lot of space and we have our big dog Buddy so we go running and walking with him in the woods. Even when I’ve been working hard and the traffic has been a hassle, as soon as I get home I just go, "Phew…"

What are you passionate about changing in the world?

There are a lot of things I’d like to change but we went to Africa two years ago and I think that was an important trip. It was my first time in Africa and it made me think about the way everyone in the western world owns so many things. Land, gadgets, cars, clothes and everything else. It was really nice when we hung out with this Maasai warrior for a week. They're really happy people, even without all this stuff. It’s something that I’d like to change personally but I also think other people would be much happier if they didn't have to think about all the things they "need" to have all the time.

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That’s true. Apart from your work are there any other creative projects you’re involving yourself with?

Well right now I wish I had a small woodshed again so I could make some furniture. It’s something that started coming back to me last year. I really enjoy making things. 

In your opinion, what is beauty?

It’s something different for every human being of course but personally I think beauty is something that when I experience it or see it, it gives me a calm feeling in my stomach. It doesn't necessarily need to make you happy but I think when you get that special feeling in your body, that’s beauty. It can be anything from a sunrise to a nice piece of furniture or a detail of how a wall meets the ceiling.

This story was originally published as part of our ongoing interview series exploring the work and lives of inspiring creatives. 

Photography: Erik Wåhlström
Words: Nick Smith

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