Ode to Simplicity

Words by Markus Støle
Photography by Sigrid Bjorbekkmo
Product Photography by Lasse Fløde

How do you find the so-called path to who you want to be and what you want to do? Some people claim to have known it their entire life, while others might never find it. For industrial designer Falke Svatun Lirhus, it would take a handful of obscure objects, a few years on the opposite side of the globe, and a discontent towards rules to lead him on the direction towards the designer he wants to be.

Falke is locked inside his own apartment. At least until his girlfriend comes home. His jacket, along with his keys, is somewhere else—more specifically, with a friend—after last night’s 17th of May (Norway’s national day) shenanigans. He smiles softly, blinking two narrow, heavy eyelids, and clears his throat.  "I’m sorry, but I’m kind of hungover. He laughs, turning down his ‘Early trap, morning bicycle rap’ playlist on Spotify and offers coffee. –I don’t have any filter coffee left, only espresso. Is it ok?" "Of course."

Outside his living room, which is also currently his studio, the treetops from Sofienberg Parken swing softly with new-sprung leaves of green, giving the small apartment, located right in the middle of Oslo, an unusual green hue, with a dash of sunlight, just for the occasion. One can even hear the birds sing.

My surroundings affect me greatly. I need space; I need it to be minimalistic, which is a contradiction, considering the fact that I love stuff. And I tend to make a lot of mess.

On a small, homemade bookshelf along one of the walls lie models from previous projects, a big stack of sketch books, children’s drawings, and a series of obscure objects. He picks up something that looks like an old metal pipe—rusty and crooked.

"I find it fascinating how objects have a life of their own, how they are all a product of a unique process. Whether it’s a piece of driftwood with some rusty nails, or a piece of asphalt. Sometimes I bring them home just because I find them beautiful, other times as a reminder of a process or a material I want to use for later projects."

Even though Falke’s web page says he is from Åsgårdsdstrand, his history of constantly moving makes it kind of hard to agree on his origin. After spending the first four years of his life in Bergen, he moved to Geilo, a small mountain town in the middle of Norway. It would take two years before the family moved further south, to Åsgårdstrand. There, the Svatun Lirhus’ settled for a few years before moving to Wanaka, New Zealand for a year.

"My dad is an old biathlete. He worked in New Zealand as a ski instructor. My mom is a journalist, so she wrote a lot about New Zealand for Norwegian magazines. I remember hating going there, and hating leaving. New Zealand turned out to be great; I snowboarded a lot."

Despite the fact that none of his parents were visually oriented when it came to creativity, Falke would spend his childhood drawing—skulls, Michael Jordan, characters from Space Jam. He also made his own scrapbook with cut-outs from interior and architecture magazines—an interest that led him to study Arts and Crafts in high school.

"My parents have always allowed me do what I wanted, which of course is liberating, but I don’t think my interest in aesthetics came from my family—definitely not from my parents. I had an uncle, however, who always made things with his hands. He even made a catamaran inside the living room in my grandparents’ summer house."

After graduating from high school, Falke worked as a carpenter apprentice for a year, but his bad shoulder would eventually lead him to call it quits, leaving a slightly puzzled Falke with a series of small-time jobs before he decided to apply for further education. He applied to several places—Oslo, Copenhagen, Australia and New Zealand— and thinking it would be similar to New Zealand, which he really liked, he ended up at the University of Technology in Sydney, from which he graduated with a Bachelor in Industrial Design in 2011. His time in Sydney should prove to be a turning point in Falke’s approach to design, almost like a quiet rebellion towards the craft he was studying.

"For my bachelor’s project, I made a snowboard binding, which at the time seemed like the kind of product I wanted to work with in the future. And before that, I actually wanted to design cars. But I grew tired of it. Not because those kind of products can’t be beautiful or fun to work with, but there are too many rules. And in the end, you’re only designing for somebody else: somebody else’s rules, somebody else’s taste. These values were also reflected in the school. Technicalities and function above all, as if the aesthetics didn’t matter. I despise that."

One might argue that Falke’s approach falls between art and product design: a combination of his need to express himself, create something beautiful, and his love for everyday materials and objects.

"My work is very much driven on an appreciation of all mediums within creating, and I think this has led to a wide perception of what design can be. I try to be original in what I do and try to create something new every time. If it’s not, it’s not worth doing. But it can be as simple as reinventing proportions, or re-applying a material in a new context. If I can create/accomplish something simplistic in form and function and it still feels unique and new, that is for me the ultimate outcome." 

In good Svatun style, Falke moved to yet another country after graduation. In Copenhagen, Falke got a job at NORM Arcitects, designing both theirs and his own ideas. At NORM, he would work with more like-minded people, and eventually get his own designs into production.

"Working at NORM was amazing. Not only did it show me how easy it can be to get your stuff out there, but also that you can survive on just making beautiful things. It was a revelation, and a great contrast to the university where they almost wanted you to be an inventor rather than a designer. During my time there, I designed Synnes Chair, and the candlelight holder Shadow Play."

The year 2014 marks another relocation for Falke. It also marks the beginning of what would become his biggest accomplishement yet. In Oslo, in a new apartment in which he lives with his girlfriend, Falke established his own studio, Falke Svatun Studio. To make ends meet, he had to balance his own work with being an occasional kindergarten-teacher, and doing freelance graphic design. It was then that Falke met the product designer Bjørn van den Berg.

In Bjørn’s living room, the duo worked long, intense, beer-fueled nights, creating the lamp collection Aerial—a minimalistic, Scandinavian-looking floor lamp, held in place by a conical weight, beautifully crafted, with elegant, simplistic, yet effective functions. The lamp collection was exhibited as a contribution to the Structure exhibition in Milan during Milan’s International Design Week. The feedback exceeded all expectations.

"Milan was incredibly good. We got a lot of good press and good feedback from general attendants. We even made it on the New York Times’ list of top 15 new designers from Milan Design Week. That was pretty crazy. It helped those of my friends, who don’t understand the craft, believe that I’m not just dancing around and drawing random stuff all day. The plan is to do a follow-up on the project now."

He smiles, finishes his coffee, thinking about his future, so full of plans—the first one being getting his jacket and keys back.

"Right now, my biggest goal is to be able to work full-time on my own projects. I don’t need much money, just enough to keep me going. It’s a tough industry. Had I known how hard it was before I started, I might have reconsidered. But at the same time, I love what I do, and I don’t think I can ever stop. My sketchbooks have way too many designs that I want to build."