Mårten Medbo is one of the leading figures of the next generation of craftspeople, having crossed the boundary in the 2000s and generated a renaissance in craft-driven art. His nature-inspired, organic physical style – organic expressionism, as he calls it, with a clear surrealist influence – is a powerful signature that has inspired other designers and artists both in Sweden and internationally.
Mårten Medbo was born in Järfälla and grew up in Solna. He chose ceramics as an elective in school, but then gave in to peer pressure and switched to ball sports, which he later regretted.
After a conflict with one of his teachers in high school, Medbo dropped out and began studying in the pottery track at Saint Görans High School. He applied to the University of Arts, Crafts and Design, but was not accepted. At that point, a friend advised him to take a general art program first, called Grundis, which he did – and as a result, he found his style. After that, he was accepted to the sculpture, glass, and ceramics departments at the University of Arts, Crafts and Design. “I had an incredible teacher at Grundis: the sculptor Jörgen Hammar. A brand new world opened up to me. I wanted to choose sculpture, but I didn’t quite have the courage, so I went with glass and ceramics instead.”
In the 90s, Mårten Medbo moved to Gotland with his partner, Hanna Stahle, where they started a family and he began his career. It was a busy time: his ambition was to become established as a ceramicist who made utility objects. “But I wasn’t very good at making utility objects. I complicated things, pushed the style too far, and got lost in time-consuming details.” He describes much of the 90s as a “fog.” Toward the end of the decade, that fog began to dissipate. Mårten had his first major success with acclaimed exhibitions at Galleri Inger Molin, which was a breakthrough venue for artistic crafts in the early 2000s.
“That gave me self-confidence, but not long after things began going well, I was struck with artistic doubt. Things were happening in the field. Conceptual handicrafts were setting the tone, like Uglycute and Zandra Ahl. A lot of it was intellectual. Being so focused on the material and craft, I felt lost.”
Doubt and its accompanying thoughts led Mårten Medbo to join a doctoral program at the School of Design and Crafts at the University of Gothenburg in 2010. He wrote his dissertation, entitled “Clay-based Experience and Communication,” and has held a PhD in crafts since 2016. “The program gave me stamina. It helped me dare to return to what I hadn’t been able to talk about, crafts. I learned to express myself through my art in a way that fit with the times.”
Mårten Medbo’s thrown ceramics had received attention, a little under the radar, from antique dealers focused on twentieth-century design. His work began to be shown at international trade fairs. In 2014, Medbo had a second breakthrough when he was invited to show in New York together with “craft artists” such as Ai Weiwei, Sterling Ruby and Takuro Kuwata. The art world had taken notice of thrown ceramics. Suddenly, doors to prestigious art galleries opened up to Mårten Medbo.
“It isn’t such a big deal now, which is really nice. When I began, there was a constant discussion of the line between art and crafts. For my students at the University of Arts, Crafts and Design now, it’s a non-issue.”
While Mårten Medbo may primarily be known in Sweden and internationally for his ceramics, glass has been his other artistic material, next to clay, since the beginning. He learned to blow glass while studying at the University of Arts, Crafts and Design and has continuously returned to the studios. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he went to the Czech Republic in 1990, where he worked with master artisans and learned from the Bohemian glass tradition.
“Glass and its properties point in possible directions that become hypotheses. Then the hypotheses are tested in the studio. For me, glass is an intellectual challenge in a different way than clay. It awakens my desire to explore. Glass is also social; it’s teamwork, and as a designer you have to be sensitive. I really enjoy adding color from a melting pot. Thick layers of color are interesting and provide a lot of opportunities. I’m also very interested in the tradition of cut glass.”
For Kosta Boda, Mårten Medbo has produced a few art glass collections to date, such as Spine, in which he worked with a deep red, bordering on black underlay, with a white overlay – the skin of a gather which, after it is blown in an optic mold, is cut to reveal the red color. “It bleeds out when you cut open the cover. The process and result can both be perceived as violent. In ceramics, it’s easier to pursue something heavy, muffled, dark. Glass sparkles more. I think more in color with glass, and red and white are at the top of my color hierarchy. That’s the body as well; it may be about that.”
Mårten Medbo lives and works in Stockholm. His work has been included in acclaimed group shows and solo exhibitions at leading galleries and art institutions in Sweden and internationally. His ceramics and glass art are represented at institutions such as Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg, and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin.
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