Their founder Lina Lagerback believes passionately that if you give young people a stake in the space they occupy, then they will treat their surroundings better and will become driven to create improved environments for learning, playing and growing. The idea is that by giving young people agency, they will take care of the furniture in classrooms and common rooms, which all too often become broken and worn down. Lagerback grew tired of hearing that resources did not exist to replace broken items.
“There are resources everywhere, it just depends on where you look,” she noted.
Lagerback grew up in a very design-focused family, telling us: “My dad’s an industrial designer and my mum had a weaving studio during my early years. Shape, colour, patterns, textures, function and use have been important things.”
She continued: “The mantra in my family always has been to do it yourself, I’ve learned how to use tools, paint, hang wallpaper, tile, lay floors and build secret tree houses from leftovers.” Thus, she saw potential in creating and piloting a social enterprise that would provide young people with the chance to learn about these things.
We Unite Design works with municipalities and schools, aiming to revamp and give a new lease on life to a variety of spaces – ranging from libraries to classrooms to whole sections of schools. The idea behind the work that they do is encompassed in a statement on their website, “Rum som förändrar,” meaning, “rooms which change”.
This principle is something that goes through all of their work and Lagerback explained the idea behind this statement, noting that it goes beyond just visual change, though that is important. “Studies show that if we change the room together with the people that use the room, we not only make change visual to the eye, we also make change within the person who takes part”.
This is at the centre of what We Unite Design do, they don’t want to come in and dictate changes. Rather, they want to work with the young people for whom the rooms are so important. She says that they always think about: “What signals does it send to the person occupied in that room? What signals do we want to send? And how do we want a person to feel being in that room?”
They include young people in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons: “It’s about understanding and solving a problem or challenge and creating a possibility.” Suddenly a room with a broken table or a damaged chair becomes a chance for change and for young people to create something.
This means, as Lagerback put it, that the “meaning dimension and the activity dimension” combine. Suddenly the furniture means something to them as it is something they have worked on and something they have seen come into creation. This leads to “the sustainability aspect becoming stronger”. As a result, the life cycle of the room and the items in there increases.
Lagerback stated that giving children this opportunity not only reduces the chances of furniture getting broken, it also, “builds on the child’s self-esteem,” as suddenly the room belongs to them and has their hard work displayed there.
Rum som förändrar also encompasses the idea of changing the way young people see the materials that go into making things they take for granted, from tables and chairs to televisions and games consoles. Beyond just altering the interior of spaces, Lagerback talks to young people about recycling materials, about creating sustainable furniture and about the idea of fixing things rather than buying new items.
A great deal of the furniture and other things that go into the rooms We Unite Design work on are upcycled, meaning they take donated items and then the children work with the We Unite Design team to make them beautiful and even better than when they were new.
They are working towards meeting a number of the UN’s goals on sustainability as well as helping young people to understand why we need to treasure what we already have and why fixing things can be much more rewarding, and better for the environment, than just buying new items.
Each of their projects is beautifully described on their website, which goes into depth about the idea behind it, about how they kept it as environmentally friendly as possible and who it was done for.
When pressed, Largerback cannot pick a favourite project as she loves them all.
“They are all my favourites, but in different ways,” she said. “One project can be on the favourite list because (of) how it aesthetically turned out and another can be on the list because of the children or young people I worked with.”
She has seen so many great examples of young people who begin the project feeling reticent and unsure but as they grow into it see their ideas, and their confidence, blossom. As Lagerback explained: ”They are clever, they know what they want and we grow and learn together.”
We Unite Design has managed to combine creating beautiful spaces with boosting children’s and young people’s self-esteem and sense of control – a powerful and interesting combination.
The future looks bright, with Lagerback hoping that they will expand their work in Sweden before looking internationally.
She feels that “Sweden can’t be the only country to have these issues where fully functional ‘waste’ is being thrown away…and where the system needs to work more with child participation.”
She stressed: “It’s all about collaboration, we cannot do this alone.”
It will be fascinating to follow their work and, hopefully, they will bless more spaces with their unique touch and great eye for style.