Since 1971, the Swedish Institute has tried to promote Scandinavian culture to a Parisian and French audience. Through events and exhibitions, the institution offers an inventive and unique perspective on the Swedish society usually associated with a minimalist lifestyle and refined design.
In early October, the sun was shining in front of the Swedish Institute entrance. The relaxed atmosphere of this typical Marais street was disturbed by the constant noise of work activity in the building. After a few minutes, Gunilla Norén, the Head of Communication and Project Manager Design at the Institute, appeared smiling at the door a phone in one hand and documents in the other. She kindly asked me to follow her in a quiet and newly designed room to talk about the newly reopened Institute.
The Swedish Institute illustrates the value of the relationship between France and Sweden for it is the only center of his kind outside of Sweden. The mission of this state body is to promote Swedish interests and foster foreign exchange on different fields of public life including culture, education and research. Promoting a foreign art, lifestyle and culture in such a culturally-rich city as Paris is a real challenge. But the Institute manages to attract over 100, 000 visitors a year. Gunilla underlines the encouraging visitor numbers: “We are quite happy with the result. 97% of people highly recommend the place. These are really good numbers. Of course, we should also improve that and change the three percent’s mind“
Revisiting clichés on Sweden
Promoting the Swedish Culture in a dynamic way means giving classics a modern twist. For the reopening, what looked like an experimental object was hatched in the courtyard: the solar egg created by Bigert & Bergström. The art work actually hid an icon of Swedish culture: a sauna opened to the public. While playing on the curiosity of the audience with unexpected objects, the Institute takes an original and modern angle on art and culture, far from the classical contemporary vision. Gunilla Norén believes in a creative and intercultural development: “We always tried to present artworks mixing French and Swedish influences. Sometimes it is a French artist showing his vision of Sweden, sometimes it is Swedish art shown in a French festival… It is really flexible and dynamic.”
The fame of the Swedish Institute is also served by the current trend around the Swedish way of life embodied by the concept of lagom. This word stands for “less is more” carrying the connotation of appropriateness. Coming from a country ranked 6th best in the world according to the league table of Good Country Index, the new concept is very successful with many Europeans. The idea is that minimalism should be favoured over consumerism. Lagom can be applied to food, decoration and personal balance. “People seek for new answers. It is a way to find how to decorate your home and live in it. But the core idea is to find what’s really healthy for you” says Gunilla while discussing the success of the Swedish lifestyle.
In this perspective, the Institute will provide exhibitions and discoveries for the coming months: “ We will have three design talks. The first one will be about norm criticism, how to break the norm and not just reproduce. The second one will focus on how new textile can be very inventive. The third one will deal with the construction of a city, and the idea of improving everyone’s environment on a daily basis.” A very pluralist programme discussing the question of form.
Making Culture and Art a Congenial Experience
The reopening of the Swedish Institute is also about improving proximity with everyone. The refurbishing work the Institute is undergoing aims of course at having the building meet the requirements of the Agenda d’accessibilité programmée (Ad’ap) set by the French government and make it accessible to all visitors whether they are handicapped or not. But while improving the Institute’s facilities, Stockholm studio TAF Arkitekt Kontor also worked at enhancing the best of the new Swedish design during the six months the historic monument was closed. The Café Suédois being now entirely linked to the museum’s space and Gunilla is most proud of this connection: “it is really adding a value, it doesn’t take something away from the cultural institute it just adds to it. It is a way of bringing life into the institution.” The liveliness of the establishment lies in its openness, authenticity, innovativeness and care, all main objectives of the Institute since its beginning in 1971.
Making new audiences feel comfortable with the Swedish Institute also means working on communicating. During the six months of renovation, the Institute was frequently using social networks so the public and visitors could have information about what was going on. And so, this raised the question of which tool was the best solution to attract and suit potential visitors. “We want to reach a lot of different kind of people. On the one hand, we have a lot of visitors born and raised before the digital era who still like the paper format but got used to the website. On the other hand, we have the younger generation used to new means of communication.” For almost fifty years, the cultural institution has always opened its perspective to current uses of technology and its evolution.
By following the development of new trends, the Swedish Institute is part of the dissemination of art on a cross-cultural scale. The reopening and the place’s adaptation according to new challenges is noteworthy. By inviting visitors to debate, walk around exhibitions and discover the Swedish culture, the Swedish Institute is considered as one of the most influential intercultural institutions in Paris.
Interviewed on October 11th, 2017