15 June 2023

“People around me said it was impossible. And my portfolio has to be the ugliest they'd seen. But I was accepted into the Malmstens cabinetmaking programme, on Lidingö.”

Man works with wood
Anna Nilsen
Those are the words of Sebastián Mateu, alumnus from Malmstens, Linköping University. For him, the programme and his craftsmanship were door openers. Like when he was asked by the Chilean Embassy to make a gift for the President of Chile before a state visit to Sweden. Given free reins, he chose to construct a beautiful wooden box with several layers, which he made three copies of. The inner layer contains a tube holding dried, smoked and ground chili. The spice merquen, typical of the Mapuche people, the indigenous people of Chile.

Photo credit Anna Nilsen “I handed over the box to the President and sent a similar one as a gift to the King of Sweden. I think it’s wrong of the Chilean state to sell off the indigenous people's land. And the gift allowed me to say this without offending the President, because I had invested my time in making it.

He has kept the third box. It is shaped like an oblong cube and made of beech, ash and padouk with a fantastic joining of the wood fibres. The fit of the outer lid causes the air inside to puff when the box is closed.

“If it's not this fit, it hasn’t been made by me!” he says, laughing out loud.

The gift led to contacts with a furniture conservator in the presidential palace in Santiago, and visits to the palace.

“And I’ve been to Chile and held seminars on furniture carpentry, among other things, at the Diego Portales University in Santiago.

Sebastián Mateu came to Sweden from Chile, aged 16. He grew up working.

Photo credit Anna Nilsen “My mother worked in the kitchen at a golf club, and already at age 11 I started to work as a caddy. We lived in a poor area. There was drug dealing among young people on the streets. And on the golf course, children of the same age in nice clothes came to play.”

Work characterised his childhood. But he learned to play golf. Something that became important to him in several ways.

“As a caddy, you always have a club in your hand and someone to watch and try to imitate. I had an aptitude for golf and a winner´s mind,” he says.

His family decided to move to Sweden, and he enrolled on a furniture carpentry programme at Bolandsgymnasiet in Uppsala, and almost graduated.

“It wasn’t that easy. I had always worked during my childhood and then I came to Sweden where you didn't do that at all. I had actually envisioned a career in golf. Even back in Chile, I had won some competitions. But I didn't have the discipline. I just trusted my talent and practiced too little.”

The youth in him stepped forward and wanted to live life instead. He dropped out. But a meeting with his teacher sometime later was decisive.

“He praised my craftsmanship and said: ‘Come back to school on Monday’.”

Photo credit Anna Nilsen Sebastián Mateu graduated and was looking for training in furniture carpentry. In the end, there was only one programme he wanted to attend. It was Malmstens’:

“But everyone around me said that it was basically impossible to get in.”

How did you pluck up the courage to apply?

“That's probably my best advice: You have to apply, otherwise you'll never get in! I didn't know much about Malmstens and had nothing to fear.”

The first semester was tough. He soon considered giving up.

“Everyone was so incredibly talented. I'll never make it! But those were my own prejudices. My parents have no higher education. In some way, you have a cultural baggage.

For Sebastián Mateu, things turned around.

“There is a very good atmosphere at Malmstens. You help each other, and you talk about crafts all the time. We met artists who inspired us. I began to understand what I wanted myself. Why I was there, and why they chose me.”

Why?
“It wasn't because of what I had produced before. It was for my dreams, my plans. I have something to say. I decided that my furniture should tell a little story!

How does theoretical knowledge, studying arts and crafts at university level, work?

“You learn a lot about other artisans, modern as well as historical, and how to recognise different styles. But also how to understand the properties of the wood, to know, for example, how a table top will behave.”

Photo credit Anna Nilsen
Sebastián Mateu enjoys working on projects and always has several going on simultaneously. He wants to convey craftsmanship and applied arts to others. That is why he runs two podcasts and holds online workshops on veneer work and cabinetmaking in Spanish and Swedish. At the same time, he is active on Instagram. During the week, he works at Hantverksslussen, run by Uppsala City Mission, where he supervises people who manufacture wooden products.

“I'm good at that. Pedagogy and social work. Explaining and structuring a series production and making it easy to produce. Those who for instance are training for a return to work after a long sick leave mustn’t get stressed. If I share my knowledge in a good way, they will have the same chances to develop.”

Do you think woodcraft can make us better people?
“Yes, to one hundred percent I think so. You must understand the process in everything. You make a piece of furniture that can live as long as the tree has lived. But you can’t assume that there will always be trees growing, or food on the table.”

Photo credit Anna Nilsen He has opened a small workshop in his hometown in central Märsta, north of Stockholm, where he can work, give courses and bring in guest craftsmen. He shows his inlay saw with its fine blade cutting through paper-thin wood. It is currently central to his own work. In a brand new project, he wants to make graffiti inlay motifs.

Sebastián Mateu bursts with different stories about his craft. He received a silver medal for his journeyman's piece in connection with the journeyman's certificate awarding in Stockholm City Hall. After that, he was also awarded Fabrikör JL Eklund's Great Craft Scholarship of SEK 150,000.

“Malmstens has changed my life. Golf taught me not to sit around and wait to be discovered. Now the same thing applies. If anyone is to care about my artwork, I have to go out and tell them about it,” he says.

Facts

Sebastián Mateu

Does: Craftsman, cabinetmaker, alumnus of the cabinetmaking programme at Malmstens, LiU. Runs a business and the podcast Hantverkardagboken, and also lectures on cabinetmaking.
Age: 37 years.
Family: Wife and two sons.
Lives: In Märsta.
Spare time: Likes spending time with his family, playing golf, woodcarving, baking sourdough bread and pizza.
See more: www.ekorremobler.com


Photo credit Anna Nilsen

Malmstens Linköping University

Founded by Carl Malmsten in 1930.
Since 2000 part of the Department of Management and Engineering at LiU, and since autumn 2009 located on Campus Lidingö. Provides training in furniture design, cabinetmaking and furniture upholstery.
Read more: Malmstens

LiU Magazine

Cover LiU magazine, no 2, 2023.

LiU Magazine

This interview published in the English paper edition of LiU Magazine from Linköping University.

Read LiU Magasin digitally here!

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