Probably the last thing on any steelworker’s mind when they’re being laid off is art or design. In the small town of Hällefors (population 7600) in central Sweden, which lost a major part of its steel mill to the Chinese in 1989, it was moose and pike perch that the steelworkers were thinking of when they got their walking papers. “They thought it [the lay-off] was temporary,” said Lars Wieselgren, deputy directory of Hällefors’ House of Design. “They thought they’d have a year or two off to go hunting and fishing.”

When the Chinese came and took down the plant in 1993, Hällefors realized that they had better start thinking of something else. The redundancy list had grown to a total of 3000 people, almost one third of the town’s population then, which itself was precipitously dropping. “The municipal government realized that it was for real, and that we could lay down and die or try to do something,” says Wieselgren. The government spent a year analyzing the situation and realized the future was spelled out for them… in four Cs – Competence, Culture, Creativity, Communication. “Culture is a vector, something that carries knowledge over barriers. If you, as an individual, work through a creative process, you will feel that you have powers you were not aware of,” says Wieselgren. Since then, Hällefors has slowly transformed itself into a culture node, with design as one of its rallying points. In 1999 the municipality set up a preparatory design school, which has been run by the House of Design since 2005. Together, with the nearby culinary art school set up by chef-entrepreneur Carl-Jan Grankvist and technical courses at the remaining steel mill, these educational programs bring in between 600 and 700 students a year from around Sweden, a few of whom have stayed and settled in Hällefors.

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In 2005, Hällefors opened the House of Design, which operates as a museum, educational institution and artist/design exchange program. “Dine, Design, Delight”, in 2004/5, was a collaborative workshop with Parsons The New School of Design and three Swedish universities with design, textile and culinary programs, with students producing sustainable fast food packaging ideas. For the following year’s “Little Houses on Black River” senior design students from 10 different countries designed and built three Swedish Friggebod, small flatpack prefab houses made out of sustainable materials. The project was exhibited at New York’s International Furniture Fair in May of last year and was awarded best student project. The House of Design is now planning another international project for 2008/9 on the subject of emergency shelters. These projects and Hällefors’ research facilities are turning the town into a laboratory for design experimentation, one with an increasingly international profile on the conference circuit. Hällefors’ broad cultural initiative has created over 200 jobs and stemmed the emigration flow – the population has now stabilized. Hällefors is on an upward trajectory, with the kind of hope and dynamism that few company towns have when the mills have shut down and the business gone elsewhere.

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Posted May 10, 2007