Allotments, Design, and Re-Thinking Usage: An Interview with Anna Appelberg

Appelberg-Shower[Note: the content of this blog has changed somewhat since this interview, however, it is being kept in the blog archive for the benefit of those who have bookmarked this page.]

It’s not every day that I take notice of outdoor showers. I therefore surprised myself by doing exactly this while browsing bloggers’ DIY projects in WordPress Reader. The one in question is a mixture of things that were never intended to meet. Yet it’s not a Surrealist juxtaposition that claims to overcome rationality or precipitate revolution by delving into the unconscious. It has more modest ambitions – to facilitate cooling off and cleaning up – and it has this thrown-together quality that’s somehow and at the same time elegant. Its design is simple. It’s primed by hoisting a watering can. It’s operated by unhooking a chain. I was so impressed when I first saw it that I laughed at its audacity. Then, a few days later, the same shower appeared in another post, only this time it had been painted black, and its intended use had changed from being an outdoor shower to being an indoor one, a reassignment made possible because of the unit’s mobility. This time I was so impressed that I asked the blog’s author, Anna Appelberg, for an interview.

Her inventions seem both economical and uneconomical. Most people’s approach to equipping their allotment would involve listing the things that are needed and then shopping around for them. Anna’s approach involves re-thinking an object’s use. The results are thrifty, yet there’s a personal overhead of time and effort in giving new tasks to objects, and even learning new skills in the process. A shower mat, a recent addition to the ongoing indoor/outdoor shower, is weaved from a garden hose. A saw is pressed into action to harvest cabbages. A children’s toolset is reconfigured as a decorative garland.

This appetite for re-ordering reality extended to her answers to my questions. Instead of following a question/answer format, her answers came back as a series of statements that approached and departed from my questions in waves. Later answers gave some quarter to the more basic informational requirements of an interview. But her looser style gives me reason to pause. Why did I expect a sequential response? To what extent should I adapt the way I interview to suit my interviewees?

Confined to a balcony In the days before the allotment. Photo: David Pettersson.

Confined to a balcony in the days before the allotment. Photo: David Pettersson.

In keeping with her spirit of remodelling then, the following extracts from her interview are edited together from across her answers into a narrative with quotations: the result is neither the question/answer format I started with, nor the generous excursions that she made into and out of the issues raised by my questions …

A graduate in both journalism and Russian, Anna is a public information officer who rents a 75m2 apartment in Lund. In 2012, she bought an allotment, her first garden, with a cottage just a 5 minutes away from the city centre.

I have so much theoretical knowledge about plants that it was high time to test it. We love our urban lifestyle: being able to walk everywhere, or buy ice cream in the middle of the night. Buying a nice house downtown would cost a fortune, and buying it in the suburb would be dull and require driving (which I don’t like) and expensive boiler maintenance. The cottage is perfect. 15 m2 won’t ruin you. But it’s an old house with old charm. I bought it for gardening purposes but realized it harbored other interests as well, such as interior design and flea-market nostalgia.

Curious interests. Many gardeners might puzzle at the suggestion that they graft interior design and flea-market nostalgia onto their allotment. What might the influences be?

In my family it has always been quality over quantity. We could all gather around a new armchair to admire it, but at the same time we don’t actually buy very much. My mother is an economist. She likes her money in the bank. I recall that sometimes she and I would go to IKEA in the weekends, not to shop, but to ‘take a walk and practice our taste’ (her words).

Peculiarly, this influence of not-spending has less to do with being a not-have than it is to do with belonging, both in terms of social class and familial togetherness.

[…] I think about where I am today more in terms of ‘taste’ and ‘class’. Not as in that my taste is classy, but that all the PH 5 lamps and the Dux sofas are the unavoidable attributes or props in an upper middle-class lifestyle.

[…] In other words, there is a discourse where my family expresses kinship in discussing design and trying to beat each other in calling plants by their latin names. Naturally the name-dropping and references that occur are part of a larger Swedish cultural context of what is considered ‘good taste’ and is currently trendy etc, but in addition there is definitely a layer of ‘me’.

How she explains her sense of selfhood is revealing about someone can decide on what to do or not do. She listed what seemed to be personal rules, such as values:

    • I’m economical. I don’t like wastefulness – I don’t understand it. (Who wants surplus, ugly junk lying around?)
    • But: If I feel I want something, then I don’t care about the cost.

… and techniques for their application of these values:

    • [I] find double usages for things. Example: my winter sled is beautiful, I bought it in Russia, so it’s a souvenir; additionally, I put my shoes on it, which means I don’t have to buy an ugly shoe stand.
    • [I] reuse something broken that I used to like into something new that I still like. When I buy a piece of clothing I know I will like I will sometimes buy two so that I won’t have to part with it straight away when it’s worn out. When a shirt is worn out I make the back into scrap fabric and keep it for a future project.

… and then statements of taste:

    • Art Nouveau/Jugend: I don’t embrace everything, but when the artist gets it right, there’s something about elongated lines and sharp angles meeting natural shapes that just blows my mind.
    • Nostalgia. […] I feel guilty for mixing and matching my nostalgic purchases wildly. This is probably because my mother works at a museum that values chronology.

Appelberg-PlanAnna’s lists of rules / principles raised something that I hadn’t considered much before despite recognising something of it in myself. Millions of people use their time creatively without studying or working in an art or design setting. Somehow they have to make decisions in their creative process. What her answers show is that it can be important to develop personal guidelines for creativity. These can provide structure, perhaps as a substitute for the kind of structure that you would get in an institutional setting.

Out of all these influences and principles, the ‘who’ and the ‘how’, the question as to ‘why?’ seems the most obvious question when discussing an allotment that sees the adaptations mentioned above. For Anna, the idea of blogging in a commercial sense seems a possibility, but a somewhat secondary one.

Looking at people who have ‘made it’ and are living on their blog in Sweden, all of the super-famous ones are young women interested in fashion. I have a feeling the substance they provide can be narcissistic but still full of everyday trivialities. I keep my personal life out of it. My job has taught me not waste words on boring stuff. My job has also taught me not to mistake boring stuff for interesting stuff. Most days I know the difference. My blog is straight-to-the point. I’m unimportant and ‘a fly on the wall’ — just like I think good journalism should be.

To be more competitive, my blog would need better pictures and perhaps an even greater devotion. According to WordPress, I should also be more outgoing, and comment on other people’s blogs. At the same time, I don’t care for too much promotion or posting for posting’s sake – even if it would be super-cool to just quit my job, live my life, document it, and live off ad revenues. I’m taking a slow route.

Appelberg-CottageOver-marketing, she suggests, can dilute a blog’s content. So how does she feel about commerce herself? On the one hand, she does admit that ‘there is definitely the potential of seeing my plants as merchandise. […] I rarely relax at the plot: there are too many projects to finish.’ Yet balancing this, she does feel a ‘flow’ while working at things: ‘[I] forget any other concerns. […] I find it all a nice contrast to contemporary culture. [My emphasis] This is an enjoyment that includes an enjoyment of others’ enjoyment in both her allotment and her use of it:

[… my husband]  was very ‘anti’ [in the beginning], but then once we started to discuss actual projects, he got inspired and jumped to help. Now he occasionally has his own projects. My first rabbit fence would not have happened without him. He also discovered he likes to barbeque at the plot, just to get out of the apartment, especially in the summer time.

Allotment owners are really sweet. Neighbors will come by and tell me how nicely we’ve fixed the place up. Children will comment on my scarecrow. My friends come and go just as they do in our apartment.

What really mattered was when one of my neighbours, who owns one of the cutest houses with very nice stuff in it (sculptures and all), said something along the lines of: ‘Me and my wife really like all the stuff you’ve done over there. We’ve had this place for thirty years, and, trust me, you’re the most interesting thing that has happened in this area in that time.’

————-

My thanks go to Anna for taking the time to answer my questions.

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5 Responses to Allotments, Design, and Re-Thinking Usage: An Interview with Anna Appelberg

  1. Interesting note about guilt over mixing and matching purchases based on “nostalgia.” Do you think she was implying the idea that purchases (in design, antiques, art, even music, etc.) based on some mode of nostalgia – e.g., childhood/familial recollections, or “nostalgia” for times in which one did not lived – really should be relegated to certain periods for the sake of taste or coherency? It makes me wonder how extensive a span of time such purchases of hers may cover, and what nostalgia really means to her in these cases. Also the note on chronology confuses me – how much can nostalgia recognize and adhere to some kind of commercial-oriented chronology, especially when it’s guiding design in a personal/domestic space that is, in fact, not a museum?

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    • Jeff says:

      Hi Zoltán

      Thanks for your questions. She didn’t specify the nostalgic periods or the personal connections involved.

      You also raise a good point about the difference between commercial and domestic. I can’t help but wonder what kinds of views are behind her mother’s reaction? Is she vexed at seeing forms of unprofessional curating, for example? Or does she have a problem with the choices themselves? I agree: the different space in which choices and uses of nostalgia take place would seem to contribute strongly to how those choices and uses occur.

      The best thing would be to ask Anna, which I will, so maybe I can come back on that or maybe she could comment here herself.

      Jeff

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  2. Pingback: Squash Is What Happens While You’re Busy Making Other Plans | Les mots

  3. Funny things feelings – aren’t they?
    This one definitely originates from a very special museum context; if I was to make my cottage into a museum I would be likely to pick a year and “stop time” at, say 1921. For me to be credible curator, everything that was not around in 1921 would have to be removed from the cottage. It is not a museum, so I’m free to furnish it however I want. Still, there is an awareness that a lot of old houses are being spoiled by insensitive renovations; that I ought to do everything the “proper” way with tar, pigments, lin-seed oil and all the right parafernalia . These ideas are also perpetuated in many interior-design magazines. Sometimes I wonder how people can afford renovations at all considering all the hand-forged eighteenth century window hooks that are “required”. I have an innocent relationship with the objects that I buy, perhaps I feel I should have a better grasp of how they relate to each other chronologically and succeed each other in history.

    Anna

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    • Hi Anna, I must say that I appreciate your descriptions of personally/nostalgically motivated design choices over adherence to supposed curatorial/”proper” “requirements.” To me this perspective, along with the worth of maintaining an “innocent relationship with the objects that I buy,” sheds light on the skews of time/chronology involved in the material/commercial frameworks of nostalgia, however random they may be.

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