So I say... thank you for the fabrics

The Seventies may be known as the decade that style forgot, but the Swedish design team 10-Gruppen changed all that, says Lesley Jackson
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After the explosive exuberance of the 1960s, the recession-battered 1970s can seem like a design wilderness, symbolised by the prevailing fashion for brown. But there were still a few pockets of creativity during the dark days of the Seventies, and one of these was in Sweden, which experienced a miraculous flowering in the field of printed textile design.

To most people in Britain, the words "Seventies" and "Sweden" can mean only one thing ­ Abba. Fabrics do not immediately spring to mind. But in Sweden, the vibrant textiles produced by a group called Ten Swedish Designers (10-Gruppen) since the 1970s have proved much more enduring than the songs of Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid. And unlike Abba, the original 10-Gruppen is still going strong and its members, although now reduced to three, are still active and in their prime.

The name 10-Gruppen may sound unfamiliar, but as soon as you see their fabrics, the patterns will ring a bell. Terence Conran was among the group's early admirers and stockists at Habitat, and last year Ikea crowned its long relationship with the collective by launching a zingy new range of 10-Gruppen rugs, bed linen, plastic-coated fabrics and towels. Whereas in Britain patterned textiles and wallpapers ­ once our greatest design strength ­ have in recent years been marginalised, in Sweden the national love affair with printed fabrics and accessories still lives on. That's why these days, if you're in search of stimulating curtains, Ikea is probably your best bet.

Like all vigorous design movements, the radical 10-Gruppen was forged out of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Established at the initiative of the charismatic designer Inez Svensson, 10-Gruppen brought together the crème de la crème of young Swedish design talent fresh out of art school. Fed up with their patterns being turned down or tampered with by conservative manufacturers, 10-Gruppen's manifesto was to seize power from the timid industrialists and repressive retailers who dominated the market, and to establish their own alternative design-led chain of supply. What the group did was to invert the normal relationship between designer and manufacturer, turning the latter into contractor rather than client.

Under the new regime, the designers created exactly the type of patterns they wanted, in precisely the colours they knew to be right. They then arranged for a factory such as Borås Wäfveri to print their fabrics to order, but took responsibility for marketing and selling the work themselves. Direct action was their modus operandi, and they made a direct assault on the Swedish public through posters, exhibitions and their own 10-Gruppen shop. "It was awfully good to belong to a group," recalls Lotta Hagerman, one of the original members, who left to pursue a career as a painter in 1976. "We were very different from the beginning, but our fabric patterns gradually became closely linked." Gunila Axèn, another prominent former member, who is now Professor of Textiles at Konstfack, says that they acted as sounding-boards for each other. "It's a great asset to have people to discuss things with, particularly people who understand what you mean."

Although created by 10 very different individuals over a period of three decades, 10-Gruppen patterns ­ like those of the Wiener Werkstätte during the early 20th century ­ have a coherence that makes them immediately identifiable as part of a family group. Partly this arises out of their confident use of colour ­ typically, bold primaries or intense secondaries on a white or black background ­ and partly from their crisp, rhythmic, no-nonsense style of design. No fussy florals, no fuzzy edges, no wishy-washy pastels. Instead, 10-Gruppen adopted a strong graphic approach to textile design. Inez Svensson and graphic designer Tom Hedqvist favour simple abstracts, such as grids and stripes, infused with raw colour to make them sing. Other designers, such as Birgitta Hahn and Ingela Håkansson, sometimes exploit images of plants and objects, but deliberately flattened and pared down to their most basic, minimally detailed, without shading of any kind.

"I'm totally fascinated by movement," says Birgitta Hahn, who often creates patterns on the diagonal, flaunting all the conventional rules. She characterises her work as "neo-simple", and has no doubt about the direct correlation between strong colour and upbeat mood. "Sometimes we've been regarded as some kind of clowns. But we're in complete earnest about our work."

While Ingela Håkansson's patterns are quirky and eclectic, drawing inspiration from plastic toys and sweets, the real joker in the pack is maverick photographer and film-maker Carl Johan de Geer, whose speciality is demented animals and monsters. "Good taste seemed like a strait-jacket that had to be demolished," says de Geer of his early work. "I did this by mixing different styles and sabotaging any tendencies towards good taste."

Appreciated today by a new generation, some young enough to be their grandchildren, 10-Gruppen is now run by a trio consisting of Tom Hedqvist, Ingela Håkansson and Birgitta Hahn.

In addition to fabrics, they produce a wide range of enticing patterned accessories, from pencil cases and tea cosies to bibs and prams. Although recently appointed principal of the prestigious Beckman's School in Stockholm, Tom Hedqvist's commitment to the group remains as strong as ever. He still delights in creating window displays and, in his spare moments, serving behind the counter in the 10-Gruppen shop. "Ten Swedish Designers has become my family," he says.

¿ Ten Swedish Designers ­ Thirty Years On is on show at the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, until 12 August 2001. 'Ten Swedish Designers ­ Printed Patterns' by Kerstin Wickman is published by Raster Förlag. 10-Gruppen shop is at 25 Götgatan, 116 46 Stockholm.