An invitation to an upper secondary school that specialised in furniture carpentry led Sebastian Mateu to take his best craftwork insights from Malmstens to Chile. Here, he preached the love of handicrafts and the need to nurture traditional techniques that have nearly been lost.
Sebastian called his project “Voy y vuelvo” – a Chilean expression that means “Back soon”. In any other part of the world the phrase means exactly that – I’ll be back soon. But not in Chile where it can be a long time, a very long time, before the person is back. Photo credit: Rodrigo Cifuentes
“There’s a great deal of interest in furniture carpentry in Chile now, in particular in the Concepción region of southern Chile. But it’s far from what we do at Malmstens,” says Sebastian Mateu, who has graduated in furniture carpentry from Malmstens.
He has remained at Malmstens to work as technician and communications officer, while developing his own company “Ekorre möbler” at the same time.
Sebastian Mateu at Universidad Diego PortalesPhoto credit: Sebastian Mateu
Some time ago Sebastian Mateu received a totally unexpected invitation from SEPADE, a Chilean organisation whose activities include operating an upper secondary school in Concepción, specialising in furniture carpentry. SEPADE wanted him to come and give a week of lectures.
“I emigrated from Chile in 2002 and have lived in Sweden for 15 years, but it turns out that the school was following my work at Malmstens by Instagram. Malmstens is well-known in Chile, especially among people who work with furniture,” he explains.
After some hesitation he accepted the offer, and was then invited to give lectures also at three universities and two museums. The duration of the trip was extended to two weeks.
During the first week, he conducted a lecture tour of universities and museums, including the Violeta Parra museum in Santiago de Chile. He also gave a lecture in the upper secondary school he had himself attended.
“They are impressed that we have university programmes in furniture carpentry, furniture design and furniture upholstery at Malmstens Linköping University. There’s nothing like this in Chile, but the people I met would dearly love to have such education. The money is available, but the skill and knowledge required to revitalise furniture carpentry are missing,” he says.
In practice, many traditional Chilean handicrafts have nearly died out.
“No-one has been prepared to pay for quality. The town of Chimbarongo has a fine tradition of rattan production, and making furniture and lamps from this material. But the artisans are receiving less and less for their work, and this has affected quality,” he explains.
Voy y vuelvo
Voy y vuelvo Photo credit: Rodrigo Cifuentes
If you’re going to give lectures you should have something to show, and Sebastian Mateu took inspiration from the Chilean folk singer and artist Violeta Parra and her tragic fate in a project that used handicraft techniques from Malmstens that he wanted to demonstrate.
Klara Gunneström, second-year student on the furniture upholstery programme at Malmstens, designed and made a fabric bag for transport. Sebastian put a cleverly designed wooden box into the bag, with space for a small pot and six ceramic cups.
“Chile has a traditional drink similar to mulled wine (‘glögg’ in Sweden) – wine that has been heated with cinnamon and orange,” he tells us.
Voy y vuelvo the bottom Photo credit: Sebastian Mateu
Sebastian decorated the bottom of the box with veneers in several colours arranged in a pattern of small squares, which symbolised how much time is put into skilled handicrafts on details that are not seen by a casual observer. He also put some wooden board games, made by his own skilled hands, into the box.
He documented the bag and its contents both in Spanish text and in photographs, and printed around 30 such books as inspiration to the upper secondary pupils he had been invited to work with. The book also included a text written by Johan Knutsson, professor of furniture culture at Malmstens, emphasising the importance of preserving traditional handicrafts.
“They really appreciated Johan’s arguments,” says Sebastian Mateu.
It wasn’t just the pupils at the upper secondary school who became inspired. When Sebastian entered the school workshop he was both surprised and slightly frustrated. The Concepcion before Photo credit: Sebastian Mateu
workshop had many high-quality machines – it was maybe the best equipped school workshop in Chile – but they were dirty, rusty and underused.
“I asked why they hadn’t looked after them, but didn’t get a clear answer. So I asked the head teacher, who had invited me, if I could do something about it. Remember – they had invited me to visit because they wanted things to happen. The head teacher told me I could do as I pleased.”
Sebastian started with a router table that had stood in the workshop since February, but was full of dirt and rust.
“It took a couple of hours to clean it, but I was then able to show them the amazing possibilities of the machine. The atmosphere was a bit tense to start with, but after a couple of days the teachers saw what was starting to happen, and they warmed up,” he says.
He worked with one machine after another and held workshop sessions for the upper secondary pupils.
“The teachers, who are not craftsmen but engineers, eventually came to realise that they can take a softer tone with the pupils. When they are in their final year, they shouldn’t have to make newspaper baskets from plywood. The pupils must be given the opportunity to be creative and find out for themselves what is possible,” he says.
Sebastian Mateu at Malmstens Photo credit: Juanjo Carvajal
When he left, he gave them a report with actions they can take to improve the teaching.
“Now they send me photographs showing the results.”
Sebastian is now at home in Sweden, after a journey that left many impressions, and with an inbox full of thank-you messages from the places he visited.
“And,” he laughs, “I’ve had several job offers, with a good salary and good prospects. But my dream job is here at Malmstens, and I can fulfil my potential best here.”
For the moment.