David Bernstein: Follow the Nordic track

Has the stress of life in the UK rubbed off on our design work? A visit to Stockholm, where design, like life, is clean and simple, convinces David Bernstein that it has

It’s never been so awkward talking to my Anglophile friends in continental Europe. It makes travel embarrassing, hearing their pained comments on falling standards, defending the indefensible lows of performance and service and the highs of restaurant and hotel prices that are features of life in Britain. Most British people end up shrugging off the occasional comparisons with a Third World country. Do we fail to notice the decline because we live among it, whereas our foreign friends can benchmark against a previous visit and, of course, their experiences in their own country?

I flew to Stockholm before Christmas amid the rail chaos but before the troubles at Stansted and Luton airports.

I caught the Arlanda Express from the terminal into Stockholm Central station. It was fast, clean, warm, efficient, punctual and user-friendly. I didn’t need to show my senior citizen railcard to get a concessionary fare, though I was hoping for a disbelieving look. In the elegant carriage was a TV screen showing headline news. A digital sign and simultaneous speaker communicated essential travel information in both Swedish and English.

In Stockholm English is more than a second language. It’s an alternative language and it’s all around you. It’s welcoming, helping you navigate the city and understand ads as well as signs. (In the concourse of Stockholm Central itself is an Indian restaurant. What would you call it? The Swedes have called it Station Asian.) But it’s discomfiting too. It reminds me of the growing disparity in the language skills of the average Briton and the average Swede. If I’m at home in Stockholm it’s because they’re at home in English.

Language and literature. Open just over a year, there is a bar in downtown Stockholm called the Razor’s Edge. The Somerset Maugham novel may be out of the charts here, but in Stockholm it’s alive and flourishing. The design is coherent. The bar radiates the atmosphere of the novel. Quotations (admittedly, unlike the bar’s name, translated into Swedish) discreetly and appropriately adorn the walls, literary graffiti in the entrance, dining room, loo and the like. Above the bottles at the back of the bar we read: “It was a matter of honour for her not to let him stay all night.” So it was clearly time to restrict my intake and ask for the bill. This comes in a paper scroll inscribed with, “I think I have to go now”.

I had to go and meet Razor’s Edge designer, Oskar Liedgren of Liedgren Design. His office is what you would expect: white, uncluttered and attractively staffed.

“The designer’s role is very often that of facilitator,” he explains. The client has an idea. The designer helps express it. Most of the work is already done. Contact is maintained, but little apart from occasional monitoring is necessary. It’s merely a case of keeping the client and the design on track. “The client can do much of it himself. So in a way our success is measured by our redundancy. We didn’t do a design manual. We just gave him a copy of the novel.” Altruism or a shrewd investment? Liedgren was trained in London and greatly values his time here. (This made me feel better.) He gained work experience at HGV and before that spent a year at the School of Communication Arts. He is planning to attend the John Gillard memorial meeting next month.

I was interested in another of Liedgren’s clients and the design solution he created. In my September column I discussed the downside of name change. Bordeaux Direct no longer truly represents the range of wines supplied. However, the new name, that of the owner, Laithwaite, conveys little and needs the descriptor, “From the vineyard to your door”. Liedgren’s client, who supplies wine to restaurants and bars, has no such worries. The name is Vin Direkt. Liedgren’s design is equally simple: the wine glass stencil stamped on freight communicating fragility and which way up. “We stole it,” he says with a smile.

Many years ago the incomparable Jeremy Bullmore, creative director of JWT, whimsically announced his invention of a new branding technique. “Associate your brand with a common icon – a pillar box, for example. And then, whenever people see the icon, they think of the brand.” He termed the technique, with due gravitas, “associational omnipresence”.

Liedgren’s glass is a perfect example of this. I’m sure Jeremy would drink to that.

Please e-mail comments for publication in the Opinion section to lyndark@centaur.co.uk

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