Emma Olbers

Speaker Stockholm Design & Architecture Talks

Emma Olbers

As well as being one of Sweden’s most cherished designers, she is also one of the industry’s clearest voices in the debate surrounding sustainability and environmental work.

During Stockholm Design Week, she received the Elle Decoration Award for Designer of the Year, one of many awards in recent years, and out here at Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair she took part in two panel debates on future sustainability work on stage at the Stockholm Design & Architecture Talks.

How do you feel about these awards?

“They’re a huge honor and such a thrill. Because I work a lot on sustainability and, according to Johan Rockström (commentator, author and professor of environmental science), 2020 is the Year of Truth, it feels particularly good to see Elle recognizing a designer with a focus on sustainability.”

Over the past year, Emma has been involved in interior design and choosing colors and materials for the new Ersta Hospital in Stockholm – a huge project in collaboration with architectural firm Tengbom. She has also designed new products for launch next year.

“I’m not presenting any new pieces at the fair this year. I’m mostly here just to talk. The theme of the debate at the Design & Architecture Talks is how we can achieve a 50% cut in emissions by the year 2030, and during the public day on Saturday, I’ll be giving a talk on how to decorate sustainably.” (After the event, we can report that interest in the talks reached record levels, with every seat taken and masses of questions afterwards).

Does it feel that you are increasingly becoming the face of the industry on these issues?

“Yes, it really does. It’s great, particularly because I think this is so important. It doesn’t really matter who ends up in the spotlight, as long as the subject gets the attention it deserves.”

There is no question that companies and institutions are being forced to take this seriously, but how do you think private individuals are reacting?

“I think, as consumers, we all need to start thinking about what things contain and we probably have to begin paying more for furniture than we do today. We’re going back to our grandparents’ time, when you maybe bought an item of clothing or furniture that cost 10 times as much today, but you didn’t buy as many and you kept them much longer.”

Emma’s interest in the problem of sustainability began at an early age. She is the fifth generation of a farming family and grew up close to nature in a home where she lived with old furniture and clothes, and saw close-up what kind of wear they were exposed to. As we said, she is now firmly established as one of the industry’s driving forces in this area, so does she feel that progress is too slow or is something finally beginning to happen?

In an interview with Elle Decoration, you sounded a little impatient when you said there had been plenty of talk and now it was time for a little action.

“Absolutely. I’ve spent several years working with various Swedish manufacturers and I feel that we took a real leap forward when the latest ISO change was introduced and the Nordic Swan Ecolabel was updated. The conversation has increased significantly over the past one and a half years. In the run-up to Christmas a couple of years ago, I remember saying that too few articles were being written in the big newspapers, and I was told that the subject didn’t generate any clicks. However, the situation was very different last Christmas, and a lot has changed, but now we really have to get working, particularly as we’ve promised to cut our emissions by 50% by 2030! If we’re going to achieve that target, we need to seriously accelerate the pace of change.

“The most important thing is to set up circular material flows. The material is the core issue,” states Emma, “because the material accounts for around half the emissions from an item of furniture. Low-carbon materials that can be maintained and recycled are best.

“The job of a designer is to be a problem solver. We have the creativity to work with any rules that are put in place, and it may well be that furniture will look different in the future.”

Can the fair and the industry do even more to raise awareness of these issues?

“We must. I recently read a report about clothing in Europe. We currently buy 23 garments per person per year, but we need to reduce that to three! So clearly the quality has to be raised and we will have to mend and look after things more than we do at the moment. The high street is going to change dramatically, and this should be reflected at the fair, perhaps with a section for recycling and repairs. Some places in Sweden already have shopping malls full of dealers in second-hand and recycled products and places where you can get your old things mended. These companies need to raise their profile and build up networks. So maybe Hall A should feature craftspeople or something. I’m just brainstorming, but it is important to reflect the situation in society.”

Finally, the obligatory question: what do you think personally about Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair?

“I love this week. It’s a fantastic meeting place that works hard to stay at the cutting edge.”