Tord Kjellstrom – A Tribute
It was with great sadness that we heard the news in January 2023 that our colleague and friend Tord Kjellstrom had passed away. Due to a family wedding I was unable to attend the memorial celebration of his life in June, but wrote this tribute for him instead.
“I am incredibly sorry that I am not able to be with you in person today for this unique opportunity to celebrate the life and talents of our dear friend Tord. Believe me that if it were not for the wedding of my step-daughter Emily today I would have been with you. As it is I am with you in spirit, hoping that you will accept this little piece from me as my tribute to the 17 years of professional collaboration and friendship that Tord and I have enjoyed.
Let me start with a little history
Tord and I first met back in 2005 when I was trying to turn my idea of an ethical furniture business into a reality, and the search was on for a designer who could come up with a range of original designs for what I was describing as a ‘feelgood chair’.
After various false starts, someone at Traidcraft suggested I meet up with Tord. We met in one of Tord’s favourite little restaurants in Hexham and clicked over what I remember as a rather exciting dinner. Thankfully he accepted my design challenge and we agreed to work on the project together. The Fair Trade Furniture Company was born and we had signed up our Swedish designer! The rest as they say is history… This is us near the beginning of our collaboration…
There are a few specific memories I’d like to share with you which I hope will give a picture of what it was like to work with Tord.
Early on in our collaboration, Tord came to visit me with the scale models of the first chairs he had designed. He had built these models himself using a range of materials. It was a very thrilling meeting and discussion.
Here is his original drawing for the Semarang chair (to begin with this was known as Chair No 1), with his scale model in the middle and the actual product on the right.
I was always incredibly impressed by Tord’s ability to envision a piece of furniture in his head and on paper, and then turn it into a working reality through a series of carefully executed steps:
- firstly by creating the scale models, and photographing these from a number of angles
- then issuing detailed construction drawings which were always drawn by hand – he was unconvinced by computer-aided design!
- and concluding with a thorough description of the minute technical details required of the carpentry team, the rattan and seagrass weavers, and eventually the cushion producers.
It was a steep learning-curve for me, poring over his drawings, decoding some of the technical jargon, and unpacking the written instructions which were often conveyed in Tord’s unique brand of ‘Swinglish’; but wonderful to see first-hand how the design process works in practice. I have to say it was a great privilege to be working with such an experienced and gifted designer.
Tord set incredibly high standards for himself and for all of us. He was a perfectionist and drove himself exceptionally hard. When developing new products or line extensions he would seem to work all the hours that God gave – I’m sure Liza can describe this better than me; I imagine he was not easy to live with in these highly creative phases. Here is a photo of him after slaving away on a hot sticky day in Kendal on one of his trips to Pondok Kayu Tropis (one of our two producer partners – based on the North side of Java). He had just shown them how to build this glue mould. His caption for the photo was “and not a single cold Carlsberg in sight!”
The flipside of this obsession with getting things right is that he was impatient, or more often indignant, with anyone who gave him the slightest impression they were lazy or cutting corners or cheating us. He used to say – for example – “I cannot understand how they can let that piece of weaving through; do they have no pride in what they are producing?!!”
Before I met Tord I had a rather generic impression of the Swedish character as calm and placid. So I was astonished to find I was working with someone with a temperament more fiery than any Mediterranean I had met! This made for some interesting challenges in our dealings with Indonesia, often setting me as piggy-in-the-middle. I know Tord thought I was too soft on many occasions, and he may have been right, but I was just trying to keep the peace and keep our ship on course. I made more allowances for the background and circumstances of the people we work with on Java, leaning to the Fair Trade perspective of working with the disadvantaged. Tord was more for banging a fist on the table and withholding the money! An interesting tension there…
A design genius
His creativity was quite remarkable. I could cite many examples but let me just share one with you:
After studying customer reactions at one of the shows – shortly after Tord and Liza had moved to Sweden – I said to Tord that I thought there was an opportunity to make a low footstool that would tuck away under the Semarang chair. I had in mind something simple like a woven box with 4 little feet.
Tord took up the challenge and came back to me on his next visit to the UK with a fully working prototype of an adjustable stool which had 3 elevations from one end, and then a further option to raise the front end as well.
It was and is an incredible piece of design; people appreciate its functionality and cleverness every single time I demonstrate it! But equally astonishing to me was the fact that he had created the prototype himself using spare pieces of mindi wood and seagrass which he had procured from the odd faulty chair we had sent him in previous years. His experience as a cabinet-maker was clearly not wasted!
He loved feedback, especially of the positive variety.
I have lived for over 15 years now with the extraordinarily positive reactions that Tord’s designs trigger in our customers and have become almost blasé about their comments:
- “Wow that’s different… look at those quirky legs”
- “Hey… come and sit in this chair; you won’t believe how comfy it is”
- “Oh my word – that is so incredibly comfortable”
- “That is so much better than my sofa at home”
- “Ooohh it feels like a gorgeous hug”
- “What a beautiful design, how clever”
- Etc etc
From time to time Tord would visit us at a show (this photo comes from the Malvern Spring show in 2019) and it was very amusing to watch his reactions. He loved meeting our customers, chatting to them and getting their feedback. He absolutely lapped up the praise, trying to be modest but finding it quite difficult! He would feign embarrassment; he had a little gesture he used raising a hand to his forehead as if to say “No please… no more… modesty forbids!” but you could see he was basking in the glory of his design success.
The praise was of course all very much deserved but I used to tease him and try to bring him down off his pedestal… saying we had better ration the praise before it went to his head!
A big personality too
Tord’s visits were always memorable.
He came to see us when we were showing at the Burghley Horse Trials in Stamford. We were staying in our colleague John Brown’s caravan. Well actually John was inside his cosy caravan, while Tord, Bob, Tony and I all roughed it in the awning-cum-tent sleeping on blow-up beds. We had a very merry evening together with beer, wine, grub and good spirits flowing freely. I will always remember the look and sound of Tord the next morning when he awoke stiff and shall we say ‘a little the worse for wear’… especially since his blow-up bed had quietly collapsed during the night so he was actually lying on the ground!!
He loved to be involved with our little UK team and I think it fair to say he really enjoyed himself a few years ago when we managed to get him and Liza to our work’s Christmas party in my house in Salisbury. He stole the show with his warmth, and charm and above all the Swedish drinking song he taught us. A very merry time was had by all.
Finally one of my happiest of all memories of Tord is of a wonderful long weekend that I enjoyed visiting the new Kjellstrom home in Tomelilla after my wife Rachel had died. I was in great need of solace and distraction; Tord and Liza kindly invited me to stay, allowing me to bring my niece Alice along too – she had recently broken up with a rather unpleasant boy-friend and also needed a little TLC.
We had the most fabulous weekend with perfect September weather being the icing on the cake. We swam in the Baltic twice, went for a bike ride, enjoyed Tord’s Henning Mankell tour, and were treated to the most wonderful food and drink bonanza. Here is a rather impish photo of Tord cooking up a feast with Alice as his sous-chef…
It was marvellous to see him on home-ground, on the best of form, full of ideas and anecdotes, and such a generous host.
All-in-all I would say Tord was a modern-day Renaissance man: well-read, intelligent, highly creative and gifted across a number of fields.
We did of course have disagreements and the occasional row, but we overcame our differences and I believe made a very good business partnership. This was based on a solid and deep respect for each other. It is clear that without Tord we had no product and therefore no business; and that wonderful product collection has allowed us to create a unique brand identity and a strong business. At the same time, without the Fair Trade Furniture Company Tord would not have had the vehicle for what I believe was the greatest creative expression of his life. So it was a classic case of mutual respect and mutual dependence.
I wonder now – with the benefit of hindsight – if I made my appreciation sufficiently explicit. Possibly not…
So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you Tord, from the bottom of my heart and with all your family and friends as my witness, for everything you have given to me and the Fair Trade Furniture Company over the years we have known each other. It was indeed a lucky day when we met in Hexham, and it has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with you.”
You might also like to read the comments of our Indonesian partner Deddy…
“Every good word you said about Tord is true. It is some time since Tord and I had verbal communication, but I still remember very well the humour he showed while in Indonesia. Also his enthusiasm to visit here and there, at the wood supplier’s place, at the place of the first partners who made the chair frames, and staying at Mr. Kisno’s place until the evening. I also still remember his thoroughness, firmness and perfectionism for work. It showed great professionalism.
Well, there’s a big hole in our hearts right now… especially in yours and Prue’s who interact with Tord a lot more.
May Tord rest in peace. I hope Liza, and the children and grandchildren will stay strong and get through this well. Hopefully we can carry on the professional spirit, enthusiasm, thoroughness, perfectionism and at the same time the warmth and humour that Tord has passed on to us.”
Here you can listen to the thoughts of the man himself…