Tobias Birgersson

Tobias Birgersson was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. He graduated from Stenebyskolan at Dals Långed Konstfack (University College of Arts, Crafts and Design) where he has been trained in both blacksmithing and silversmithing techniques, obtaining a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2001. Since 1999, along with five other silversmiths (Jenni Caldwell, Erik Tidäng, Pernilla Sylwan, Klara Eriksson and Pertonella Eriksson) Tobias started LOD, a gallery and a unique artist commune specializing in minimalist Scandinavian-styled jewelry and metal objects in Stockholm. In recent years he has worked with sculptural hot stamping and designing functional objects in precious metals. He exhibited at numerous venues, including the Röhss Museum in 2009 and Gothenburg's Fresh Fish fashion fair where he received an honorable mention for his collaboration with Tanja Malo. Since 2008 Tobias also works as a teacher at Konstfack Precious Lab.

LOD Stockholm Sweden Tobias BirgerssonLOD metal-design, shop and gallery. Also LOD members workshop

 

You have started LOD in 1999? What was the reason behind this?

We realized that wе've been looking at our colleagues who have been trying to do things on their own, and in those days (in 1999) that wasn't so popular in Sweden. For example, in the 1970's it was very in to do things together. Everybody wanted to be social-democrat or communist in Sweden... it was a big movement. Then at the end of the 1990's Sweden was becoming more and more egotistical and we realized that many of our colleagues that tried it on their own - failed. After a couple of years they realized it was too hard to do it solo especially taking into consideration kids and other responsibilities that life brings. We also realized that if we wanted a springboard for exhibitions. If you wanted attention, it was much better as a group, we had much more power that way.

When we started LOD, no one has been doing this for more than 15 years or more... so we said to ourselves: "What the heck, let's give it a shot!" Nobody's dream was to have a shop or a gallery but the fact that we could unite made it possible to have power in diversity.

In your presentation you mentioned there were originally 6 of you, but very early on you said that a couple of people left. What was the reason for this? What are the advantages and the difficulties of working in a commune?

We have a system of decision making so that everyone has to be in agreement. There has to be a consensus, we don't go by majority. That complicates things but it also makes it possible or impossible for the group to destroy someone. That was also the reason why a couple of people left. If you're moving towards the same direction, everything that you're doing is fine. On other hand, my wife Klara and I have kids, and we were the first to have them from the entire collective. This changed our priorities, making the family jump out to the forefront. That changed the dynamics of the whole group. I don't think we had a vicious conflict - it was sort of like a very civil divorce.

LOD Stockholm Sweden Tobias BirgerssonInside the workshop

 

1999 was a while back. People idealize certain situations... in retrospect, do you regret anything? If you could, would you change anything?

I don't think that I could change anything. I would probably change the things that I've said or such... but life changes and you start off on even ground and then you grow along with your interests. This is a natural process of evolution, which is okay. I don't know if we'll be the same group in yet another 10 or 15 years, but I do feel that the commune will exist nonetheless.

LOD also functions as a workshop that hosts artists from around the world. What is the actual advantage of this? Do you ever collaborate on mutual projects with people from abroad?

Belgrade Connection was actually the first collaboration that we had with a foreign country. However, it's fairly new for us to invite artists from abroad, and we realize it is really, really good. You get a lot of energy from it, a lot of attention from the local media, or the - so to speak - cultural elite in Stockholm that really follows the scene. Just now when we came to Belgrade, we heard that we were the runners-up for a huge design award in Sweden, the biggest one in the northern hemisphere for art.

We never would have been runners-up unless we did so much. All of the work (collaboration, working on projects) is pro-bono, and we do it as a cultural exchange in order to bring something to Sweden that it wouldn't otherwise get.

LOD Stockholm Sweden Tobias BirgerssonKulturni Front with LOD in Stockholm

 

In which way does this enrich artists in Sweden and what exactly is it that makes that difference?

I suppose that if you don't know what people in other countries do, eventually you become too self-assured. If you bring someone in that is fairly new and fresh, from say - Korea or Britain or somewhere, you realize that a lot of people do similar things, but it's just that we haven't heard or seen them in big glossy magazines. They're like us, they're everywhere which really enriches...

You have to understand that our (part of culture) is very small and narrow. We have contemporary art jewelry and that's one sector. Then you have metal design which is something even smaller, and then you have the applied arts which is the field in which we work mostly with metals and in combination with other materials. There are not a lot of people working with that in Europe, therefore you cannot afford to stay in your own country. You really have to get out and network with those that are like-minded.

Would you say that there is an element of culture shock at some point?

Sometimes... yeah. We had it when we went to Japan. We were perhaps a bit too young at the time as a group, we didn't realize certain things. Perhaps it's not culture shock, but rather - an element of surprise. The Japanese tend to do things differently, they have a much more formal approach to things. In Sweden we try to treat everyone as equal, we don't have "sir" in our language. In Japan, it's completely the opposite - their whole (social) structure is like a pyramid, which was very different. We definitely learned what we liked and what we didn't like from this experience.

Our contact over there was this great artist, but she wasn't considered a great artist in Japan. She was older, and had lost and arm, meaning she could no longer be a head typist at her company. She therefore trained as a hobbyist in some kind of obscure enameling technique. She was very skilled at it, and decided to visit us. We thought that she was going to stay for 2 weeks or so, but ended up staying for 3 months. We didn't understand each other's language, but it turned out brilliant. She taught us things, and in turn we taught her things. It was great - it never would have happened if we actually understood each other.

LOD Stockholm Sweden Tobias BirgerssonWishing well, installation. For the exhibition Sensual

 

You've chosen metal as your medium. As master jewelers, blacksmiths and silversmiths you predominantly use precious metals as material. In your opinion, what is the advantage of using these materials and where do you actually get the inspiration to create?

Our group came about from the joy of the craft which has changed a bit over over the years, but we still enjoy making things for real and we like making things well. We are not out there to make crazy concepts and such, even though sometimes we lean towards that direction. Mostly, we do what we do to make great things and we dabble in furniture design, art and sculpting, but mostly - we're in our field which is making great metal design or metal art.

During your presentation here in KC GRAD, you've mentioned that you've played around with fashion and experimented with some different industries. In your opinion, would you rather focus on one thing and be very good at that or do you think polyvalence is important?

I know that if I wanted to get extremely famous and/or rich (which doesn't always come hand in hand), I know that I would succeed much more if I chose one area and just stuck to it. Most of the time, it's a matter of being consistent and just doing things over and over until people notice. If I see being an artist as a life task, then I must say that it's much more interesting and much more of a joy to do things differently. The fashion thing that I've done - I've invited a girl who had just come back from Japan after having lived there for 12 or 14 years. She's been doing jewelry over there together in combination with fabric for many years and she was interested to see how things were done on the Swedish scene. Together we discovered some new things and realized that together we became something that we weren't alone. That was outside of LOD, but we then brought it in - back and forth. I usually do that, I work with different people and I do it as a project and then continue it.

LOD Stockholm Sweden Tobias BirgerssonTobias Birgersson and Tanja Malo, Jewellery for the catwalk

 

So essentially this type of craft is a way to escape from your daily routine, sort of like a hobby to amuse yourself?

Yeah, you get a lot of attention and inspiration that way. Much more so than a hobby - you get energy from it. Coming to Belgrade for example was a really stupid thing from a financial point of view, but simply wonderful for gaining experience and new energy. I actually couldn't imagine going to any other country at the moment that would give me so much input.

It's interesting that you mention finances. Sweden is very well known for its high living standard. You also mention that sometimes it's very difficult or challenging to sell your products. How do you manage to enjoy what you're doing while still making a living from it?

Obviously, during our first years we didn't enjoy everything that we did. We also had to have jobs on the side just to scrape by and survive. We depended on bartering systems a lot. Over the years we realized that we couldn't do the things that we didn't enjoy, otherwise we wouldn't last as a commune or as an art group. It just wasn't possible for you to do things that you hated for 10 years... it destroys your soul.

What we try do is to divide our workdays into different fields - one part is commissions, or earning money. During that, we try and make those commissions as fun as possible.

LOD Stockholm Sweden Tobias BirgerssonTobias at work.
Glasses by Tobias Birgersson. Jewellery by Pernilla Sylwan.

 

Concerning commissions, has it happened that you ever rejected a client? Are there things that you ultimately say "no" to? What's your take on compromise?

In the beginning, while still at school, just before we start LOD I did things for a semi-criminal gang, sort of like Hell's Angels and guys who just came out prison, who had big lumps of money. At the moment I had none (laughter), so of course I agreed. In the end I realized that by doing that, I run the risk of being someone who does things on the shady side of the law. This excludes you from so many other things - you won't get invited to big exhibitions. You would probably be earning money, but you would be on the wrong end of the cultural scene.

So basically, you would be the bad boy of art?

Exactly, and I've heard stories (and I don't know if they're true) that some of these groups have taken a goldsmith under their wing to do work just for them and no one else. However, I myself am not a bad boy. I've realized that this is the wrong path and I've learned to reject people that want me to do shady things - when they come wanting me to remove stamps, or melt down things that are obviously stolen. We all have to be very clear that this is our design, our art and that they won't get this great deal or earn a shitload of money through us...

You've mentioned that you took another approach altogether. You've decided to sell one of your designs for a very high price that would compensate for selling multiple items over a longer period of time. How smart was this approach?

For me it was an experiment, because usually I tend to price my things based on how long it took to make them, what kind of materials were used, and as a craftsperson - how many man-hours I put into them. Now I try to do it as an artists would do it, more or less, and charge what I've wanted for them, in order to compensate for them parting from me.

LOD Stockholm Sweden Tobias BirgerssonMammalian Protuberances, wooden bowl and precious metal for the exhibition "Sensual"

 

So you're your own manager? I suppose it's a very steep learning curve?

Of course. You have to pay dearly in the beginning of your career for your mistakes. Now we have a very big network of friends and colleagues who we go to for advice and we talk about things such as pricing or advertising. We tend to talk about ideas and what we should do to try and get attention and such.

In Serbia we get a notion that a lot of information amongst the creative community is kept hidden. What is the situation like in Sweden? It seems to be a bit more liberal?

I wouldn't say it is more liberal. I would say that we are also very much guarding our ground in Sweden, but we've created a network consisting of LOD (the 6 artists) and LOD extended, and that is everybody, including GRAD. You can go to whoever you need in order to get the information you want. You see to it that you have friends in every field, in that way you have some sort of parachute if things don't go so well.

Can you rely on others?

Definitely, yeah. We have a great backup team to LOD. For instance, I did some commission work for the TV series True Blood for HBO. They wanted me to make a vampire skull in silver. I did it as I wanted it done, but it wasn't one of my favorite kinds of work - but it was fun nevertheless. I unfortunately didn't manage to finish it before I came to Belgrade. I then contacted people from my extended LOD, which were two art school students from who agreed to help. A couple of days later, I got an SMS telling me everything that was finished and delivered. In that sense, if you have some sort of backup, and you're not alone.

LOD Stockholm Sweden Klara ErikssonBowl No 1, Everyday Luxury. Please wash with Scotch Brite. Silver bowl by Klara Eriksson

 

So it's okay to share?

Definitely.

You've mentioned something very interesting - you said that you find an immense amount of energy here in Belgrade. What was the reason that you came to visit and how do you see it?

The reason why I came this time was Ljudmila, Dejan and GRAD. The reason why I came eight years ago was also Ljudmila and Dejan. They were my contacts. The first time around, I had just graduated from art school and Ljudmila's sister Aleksandra went to our graduation show and told her that she really liked my work. At the time, I did my graduation piece on the relations between Sweden and Japan and the tea ceremony. I've done titanium and silver tea bowls and other vessels, combined with high-tech materials such as carbon fiber and low-tech materials such as hand carved wood alike.

Aleksandra really liked it and told Ljudmila about it. Shortly after that, I got a very short e-mail that I thought was a something like one of those Nigerian scams that go around the Internet. It said something like: "My sister likes your work, come to Belgrade." At first I thought it was a joke... it had to be a joke. I didn't answer for like a week, but then I said to myself: "I have nothing to lose except my stuff, but that's not the end of the world," and I agreed to come. I got an almost immediate response saying "do you have any friends?" (laughter). That was the beginning, and it was wonderful from that point on. She managed to find funding for our airfare and spending money, and it was just wonderful. We came here in the autumn, experiencing all the great food you have. We went around everywhere, and it was very exotic for us.

LOD Stockholm Sweden Tobias BirgerssonEnvelope that started the Belgrade Connection

 

How is this different from Sweden, having in mind that you said that things are slowly dying out in that part of Europe in terms of that creative spark? You mentioned we were hungry...

You've had so many years of rough times, and we've been pampered for over 200 years. We weren't really even in World War II, and we don't even know what real hardship is, which means that we are a bit fossilized. In Sweden no one even knows how it is to go hungry and we don't know how it is - okay, if you fuck up in some kind of work, you just do something else. It's not the end of the world. You can even go without work for a long while and you still won't starve. Perhaps the hunger comes from wanting something very much, because Yugoslavia had its peaks in culture. You've been a great country and then everything went to shambles, but then you've rebuilt it so many times.

I don't know that much about your history, but the little that I do know it seems that you've been a crossroads and you've been fucked over by everyone - back and forth - and you had to rise and rebel again and again. I've heard somewhere that every 50 years you've had some kind of conflict. That creates hunger, I'd say. Of course, every kind of war in mind is terrible, but the rebirth is like a phoenix rising from its ashes.

In Sweden we have great architecture and art and all of that, but we don't have that kind of "on the edge" hunger, unless you go abroad or try to compete somewhere else.

LOD Stockholm Sweden Tobias BirgerssonTobias at work

 

As someone from the side who's visiting but sees things quite clearly, what would be your word of advice to artists and designers in the local community in Serbia?

I think many of them do it already, but I would say - try and go abroad, like we do in Sweden. Go to London, go to Sweden, go to Italy, America... wherever, and just see what other people do. Surf the Internet as much as you can and see the different influences. The opening of the Internet has been like a gold-mine for us as well, you can see other people's trials, errors and experiments all over the world, and I think that's just amazing. You have to get as much input as you can. I saw that when I went to visit the Academy of Applied Arts yesterday. Eight years ago, we were the first group from abroad to visit since the war. Now it's different since they regularly have guest lecturers and workshops, and you can really see the culture over there is brewing - especially the costume department. They were really "on the money" there, trying to apply to huge contemporary art competitions abroad.

When some of the girls from Belgrade came to visit us in Stockholm, it was the first time they've ever left Serbia. One is now working in London, the other one is in New York, and they're already spreading out. I must say that it's not like that with everyone, but it can be the case. My advice is to try and see what happens around you, that way you can create your own fortune because you definitely have something to give.

 

Interview by: Vasilije Perović

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