Alberte Svendsen. Fotograf Luna Lopez
Alberte Svendsen. Officinet. Photo credit Luna Lopez

Straw on time

'It's so analog that you wouldn't even dream of it,'

The special characteristic of straw is its ability to capture light. That’s why 26-year-old furniture maker Alberte Svendsen is so captivated by the material.

The straws offer a different depth. The opportunity to work in some other colors. And it’s completely opposite to wood, Alberte Svendsen emphasizes when I meet her at her temporary workshop in Islands Brygge in Copenhagen: ‘Because no matter what you want to make in wood, it’s brown.’

Earlier this year, she opened her first solo exhibition at Officinet, “Objects of Infinity,” from which works have been sold to the Danish Arts Foundation, the Design Museum Denmark, galleries, and private collectors.

The common denominator for the objects she exhibited was a furniture decoration technique originating from 18th-century France. Namely, a form of intarsia with dyed straw, which is split, smoothed out, and glued onto a surface.

Alberte Svendsen. Intarsia.
Alberte Svendsen works with a form of intarsia with dyed straw, which is split, smoothed out, and glued onto a surface.
Photo: Mette Kierstein

Only a few practice the old and somewhat ornate technique today.

One of them is indeed Alberte Svendsen. With “Objects of Infinity,” she has brought the straws into an entirely new visual language, where she experiments with exploiting its properties to create perspective and spaciousness in the motifs. Formkraft has met her to learn more about why it was precisely the straws she fell for, what makes furniture decoration relevant to engage with today, and what education she has pursued to arrive at this particular expression.

Alberte Svendsen. snedker.
Alberte Svendsen
Photo: Mette Kierstein

Revealing the properties of straw

In the workshop, we’ve settled into a burgundy-colored sofa. The gray cat, Mr. Svendsen (named after his owner), winds himself around the legs of the coffee table we’re sitting at. The table, now spray-painted orange, is actually the very first piece that Alberte Svendsen made during her basic training in joinery school. Beneath the paint lies a seahorse that she once adorned the table with.

She asked one of the teachers if they could teach her intarsia, the motif-based furniture decoration, which many may know from Renaissance and Baroque furniture. His response was that she could simply take a hobby knife and try it at home.

‘In reality, that’s not at all how it’s done,’ says Alberte Svendsen, who didn’t stop at the seahorse. Instead, the joiner sought out other techniques throughout her education beyond those taught in school.

Alberte Svendsen trained at the Copenhagen Joinery. When she became a journeyman in the spring of 2022, she felt a longing. She wanted to move away from production, away from making “square things” that had to fit into the apprenticeship’s universe, and out into the world with her craft. Out to gain some different perspectives.

That brought her to Japan and later to France. Armed with her portfolio, she knocked on the door of the couple Hervé Morin and Marine Fouque, who together run the company Maonia. The couple took her under their wings, and Alberte Svendsen apprenticed with the company, known for its work with straw intarsia.

Through lots of repetitions and to the sound of French radio, she became familiar with the properties of straw and learned to exploit the material’s flexibility. With straw, one can work on curved and round shapes and create motifs with an incredibly high level of detail.

The last thing she made at Maonia was a small cylindrical container decorated with straw in four different colors. She had shredded the straw into tiny squares measuring 1 mm x 1 mm and arranged them in an intricate straw mosaic.

‘What you can do with straw, which you simply can’t with wood, is that you can cut it very, very, very small. If you did the same with wood, it would just turn into dust.’

Alberte Svendsen. Luna Lopez. Objects of infinity.
The chest, which was displayed at "Objects of Infinity," has now been sold to the Design Museum Denmark.
Photo: Luna Lopez

The chest, which was displayed at “Objects of Infinity,” has now been sold to the Design Museum Denmark. It is accompanied by a process artwork illustrating how straw has been turned into strips and then assembled multiple times to form the tight, graphic motif that the container is decorated with.

It’s a good example of Alberte Svendsen’s intention behind her exhibition at Officinet, where, among straw-covered boxes and panels, she also exhibited color and material samples. Namely, to invite people into the material she herself is so fascinated by.

She hoped that people would be able to see the properties of the straw and not just the final products.

Objects of infinities. Alberte Svendsen. Officinet. Foto Luna Lopez

Unsentimental preservation of crafts

‘It’s so analog that you wouldn’t even dream of it,’ says Alberte Svendsen, as we’ve risen from the sofa and stood by her workbench. She demonstrates how she works with the straws. ‘So, this is the history you stand on the shoulders of,’ she says. She grabs a straw, splits it, and smoothens it out with a bone folder.

In reality, she’s quite unsentimental. Alberte Svendsen hasn’t taken on the old French craft just to preserve it.

‘It’s sad if a craft disappears. But it’s also necessary to create something that you yourself would like to look at,’ says Alberte Svendsen, who, despite admiring the wild craftsmanship behind it, couldn’t imagine having a Baroque cabinet at home. One must give it a relevant voice, believes the joiner, who wants to continue working with furniture decoration.

At “Objects of Infinity,” for example, you could see “Moving Object,” which was shaped like an oloid. A three-dimensional form invented by the German sculptor Paul Schatz, which can move around itself. Alberte Svendsen had clad it with green straws. When it rolls around, it looks like the straws change color because the light constantly hits it in new ways. In her workshop, it now lies temporarily stored like a trapped clam in a moving box.

At the same time, it is crucial for her own process to engage with something that many others have done before her. That there already exist ways to perform the craft that one can deviate from or adopt. Take elements out of tradition or choose to amplify them.

It is in the rules that Alberte Svendsen experiences the greatest creative freedom.

However, the cumbersome aspect of the old French decorative craftsmanship is how much time and care it requires. That in that way, it is impractical:

‘There’s something about decoration that is redundant. But still, it’s wildly exciting,’ says Alberte Svendsen as our conversation draws to a close.

‘Yes, it has taken a long time, and that’s why you also get a bit moved. Because there are people who have invested disproportionately much energy in doing something that has no function. It takes furniture and objects to a whole different place.’