An Artist With The Temperament Of An Engineer.
Words Chris Nelson Art Adam Fitzgerald Images Courtesy of Saab, Husqvarna, Hasselblad
After the Third Reich fell, artists and designers in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden began to develop a distinct Scandinavian design language. They studied the modernist principles of Germany’s anti-fascist Bauhaus school — which feted the union of fine art and craft until the National Socialist Party forced the school to close in 1933 — and embraced minimalist, functionalist, practical, and democratic designs, with an emphasis on using materials that captured the natural beauty of Nordic life. The Scandinavian design movement was led by many free-thinking leaders — Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, Bruno Mathsson, Tapio Wirkkala, Verner Panton — but one of its most influential, colorful, and protean characters was Sixten Sason.
Born Karl Sixten Andersson in 1912 in Skövde, Sweden, he had a strong sense of humor, enjoyed reading American comic books, and indulged his overwhelmingly bright imagination. As a young man he supported himself by doing technical illustrations for magazines, and he studied as a sculptor’s apprentice at his father’s stone-cutting shop. In his early 30s he moved to Paris to immerse himself in art and sculpture, and as his sense of design grew stronger and bolder, he decided to change his name to something less ubiquitous than Karl Sixten Andersson and settled on Sixten Sason, inspired by the Spanish word for seasoning: sazón.
When the Nazis rose to power and the world plunged into war, Sason returned home and enlisted with the Swedish Air Force to train as a pilot, but when his plane crashed, a wing strut punctured his lung, and he spent months in the hospital with an infection. One of his lungs was removed, which ended his stint with the Swedish Air Force, so in 1939, Sason took a job as the head of a drafting group at Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, or Saab. At the time, the manufacturer designed and built military aircraft for the Swedish Air Force; Sason created instructive “X-ray” drawings for aircraft manuals and instructional materials for fighter planes, but soon, Saab required Sason’s talents elsewhere.
With the war drawing to a close, Saab needed a way to supplant its military production and diversify its product offerings, so it decided to enter the automotive market with small, affordable commodity cars. In 1945, Sason joined the 20-person team assigned to “Project 92” and became lead stylist under engineer and project manager Gunnar Ljungström. They brought to life the Ursaab concept, which had an ellipsoid monocoque body with a dramatically tucked-in tail and an impressively low drag coefficient (0.32). Sason’s radical design established aerodynamic efficiency as a keystone of Saab designs, and the Ursaab became the prototype for the automaker’s first production car, the Saab 92, which went on sale in 1950. After working side-by-side with Sason, Ljungström called the designer “a genius; an engineer with the talents of an artist, or an artist with the temperament of an engineer ... the ideal partner to work with.”
While Sason received job offers from Detroit’s "Big Three" automakers, he always declined because he struggled with the English language. In addition to his work with Saab, Sason opened his own design firm, Sixten Sason AB, and he flourished as an interdisciplinary industrial designer working for some of Sweden’s biggest companies. Victor Hasselblad approached Sason about creating the world’s first single-lens reflex medium-format camera with interchangeable lenses and magazines. During the war, Swedish intelligence agents had brought Hasselblad an impressively powerful aerial camera recovered from a downed German plane, and Hasselblad wanted Sason to design a civilian version, which debuted in October 1948 as the iconic Hasselblad 1600F. For Electrolux, Sason designed handsomely futuristic vacuum cleaners, floor polishers, and kitchen mixers, and for Husqvarna, Sason designed the company’s first chainsaw, its first “zig-zag” sewing machine, a line of charmingly simple clothing irons, and the most remarkably attractive waffle iron to ever exist. He also penned the Husqvarna Silverpilen, or “Silver Arrow,” a small, lightweight, 175cc two-stroke motorcycle introduced in 1955.
Sixten Sason remained an influential figure in the Scandinavian design movement until his lone lung failed him and he died in 1967 at the age of 55. In the years following Sason’s death, Scandinavian design became a global sensation that remains impossibly popular to this day, with a timeless aesthetic that will undoubtedly continue to captivate for decades to come. As one of the movement’s pioneers, Sason helped define the principles of Scandinavian design. Today, he lives on through the products he created, with designs that married art with craft through unassumingly attractive and simple — but undeniably inspiring — means.