Interview with Emma Eriksson

Emma Eriksson is currently living and working in New York City as Head of Creative at Forsman & Bodenfors with brands like Crocs, Inkbox, and Diageo. With more than 20 years of creative experience in Sweden and the US, Emma has developed award-winning work for Häagen-Dazs, Absolut Vodka, H&M, MTV and Åhléns Department Store. Prior to joining Forsman & Bodenfors, Eriksson co-founded the creative agency Le Bureau in Stockholm, where she spent 12 years.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I'm a Swedish ad woman who leads creative at Forsman & Bodenfors in New York. My craft is Art Direction, and I do my best work in collaboration with others. I love pushing ideas that change things for the better and make them visually stunning. Before I joined Forsman & Bodenfors, I co-founded the creative agency Le Bureau in Stockholm, where I spent 12 years.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up by the sea in the far north of Sweden outside Skellefteå. Nature is beautiful, people are kind, and it's super safe. That gave me much-appreciated freedom and autonomy growing up. But it's not a place people happen to pass by, so it's easy to feel disconnected from the rest of the world.

Why and when did you move to New York?

I had worked at Forsman & Bodenfors in Stockholm for five years when they asked me if I wanted to join the New York office. I discussed it with my husband, and we both instantly agreed we wanted to try something new. He's an artist and can work from anywhere, which helps. The pandemic delayed the transition, and we finally arrived at the beginning of 2022.

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in design?

Being interested in music and everything around it. The internet came to Sweden early, but it could have been better in the 90s, and my parents were probably the last ones getting cable TV. I craved pop culture so severely, and I remember being glued to MTV at my grandad's house. He wanted to follow The Champions League but still always let me. Videos, album covers, photographs, and styling shaped different worlds. Since I was good at drawing and photography and very into clothes, I wanted to help artists create those worlds. Somewhere later along the way, I discovered advertising and found that it was kind of similar. 

Book for Wetterling Gallery – It’s Mine. Made with the team at Le Bureau. Photos by Patrik Sehlstedt.

How would you describe your creative process? 

It's different every time but almost always collaborative. I work in a team with other creatives and strategists, and we figure it out together. Can we solve a problem for people? Why would they care? What would get their attention? The human insight can be big or small, but I need that direction. The idea comes first, and everything else follows. Sometimes it takes two days and other times two months, but when we work together, we always get there, and I learned to trust the chaos.

For the visual part, I start with pen and paper. To go straight to the computer becomes stiff and flat. I make mood boards and typically clash two unrelated things to create something new, like 70s disco esthetic and National Parks. I also love bringing in directors, photographers, stylists, and illustrators as early as possible. How you work with them is the difference between good and great art direction.

How does living and working in New York compare to Stockholm?

Stockholm is like worn-in sneakers if you compare. Familiar and comfortable. I know people and have good connections. Never underestimate how much that helps. Changing scenes is humbling, and here it's more rewarding when I have a win. It's motivating to be out of my depth, and I enjoy it in a weird way. I'm an outsider and use that perspective as much as possible. 

Creatives globally have more in common than what separates them, brainstorming and ups and downs are the same. But the culture and context that fuel the ideas are different. If I compare, it's also more hierarchical and corporate in the US. Forsman & Bodenfors is a rare bird here, and it attracts talent and clients who thrive in a more collaborative setting. We are a nimble global collective and work together across offices all the time, so we have an advantage in understanding different markets.

My American colleagues are also impressively good at formal and casual presentations. They are so skilled at making anything sound attractive. It does not always translate to a swede like myself since I'm afraid it might sound like exaggerating and overselling—this is a clear cultural difference. I would love to have more of that talent.

Campaign for Häagen-Dazs - Love the Mix. Made with the team at Forsman & Bodenfors. Photos by Senay Berhe.

How much do the City and surroundings affect your creative output?

The size of the City and the New York mindset helps me to not care so much about what other people might think. It's freeing in many ways. The constant flow of cultural events is so much fun, I see more unexpected things more often, and of course, that influences the work too.

Do you think working in different cities has shaped your style and approach?

I always championed a more colorful and playful style than the typical minimalistic Scandinavian aesthetic. Ironically, when here, I'm very much a product of Scandinavian simplicity. I want to remove unnecessary elements to clarify the message and design.

What do you struggle with the most in terms of working and living in a city like New York? 

I miss my first language and the ability to articulate ideas intuitively and effortlessly. I know English well, but I wish I was faster and more to the point as in Swedish. It's hard to be your whole self in another language and sometimes the nuances get lost.

Music Video for INKBOX - Big Ink Energy. Made with the team at Forsman & Bodenfors and MAYDA.

The responsibility of the council in every City is to provide a solid foundation of design, art and cultural facilities, is that still evident in New York? And how does it compare to Stockholm?

Design, art, and culture in general have a long tradition and are high up in the hierarchy in New York, and people with money and power seem to care. But I would defer to a real New Yorker to answer that question.

In Stockholm, the City recently cut down significantly on cultural expressions in a way I find sad. Our politicians these days don't care much about culture and consider it nice to have, not need to have. They don't see the value of Art and how the lack of it will eventually make everyone feel poor.

Do you think it is also the responsibility of the artist/creative to improve the quality of people's lives in their City?

In my opinion, Artists should be able to be uncompromised and just do what they want. That's when it becomes good and real.

I'm a creative working in the commercial field, which is very different. It's more fulfilling when our assigned work is meaningful for people. All corporations should ask themselves what they believe in beyond what they sell. They want love, but how can you love someone if you don't know what they stand for? When you show who you are and act on it, you give something more back. It can be entertainment, honesty, or an invention, and there you have the beginning of a relationship.

Campaign for Crocs - Where cool came from. Made with the team at Forsman & Bodenfors. Photo by Leeor Wilde.

Can you tell us about any current or future projects that you are particularly excited about?

I don't like to jinx it and talk about things until they are out. I'm very superstitious.

If you could add or change something about New York, what would that be?

Build affordable housing and invest in public education.

What would be your dream project?

To work with something I care about for real. If I don't manage from the start, I do when we find an interesting thing to say that can help the end consumer. To unite behind a mission and dare to be provocative to create fame and change. I believe in keeping it simple, emotional, and well-crafted. On a personal level, I love to create tangible things. A space, a product, or a publication with the things that make my heart beat faster. I've done that in the past, and I will find time again.

If you could choose any artist/creative to collaborate with, who would that be and why? 

I have a long list of Artists I admire, so it's hard to pick only one. I work on something now where I have the photographer Tyrone Lebon's work as my north star, so that would be a dream come true if it happened. I relate to the presence in his images, how he captures people and uses color and light to create that dreamy but still raw and authentic style.

What do you do to switch off?

I walk and listen to music with headphones on. 

Emma Eriksson - mixtape

When I work at the office, it's so much talking and brainstorming, so I usually listen to music whenever I'm on my own. I love making tailor-made playlists for different occasions. This is the one I listen to walking home from work right now. I call it Henry Street.

What does home mean to you?

Home is where my family and my clothes are. I also need some good lighting to set the mood.

Describe the perfect day for you in New York.

I wake up early (which does not happen often) and play tennis with my husband. Since this is a perfect day, I win. Then I bribe my 12-year-old daughter to go out with me. She's into vintage and music and I almost get to live my life again through her. Back home, we have dinner with the rest of the family and some friends. After, I go biking by the piers in Brooklyn Bridge Park with my son. He's a 14-year-old restless nighthawk, and that's how I get time with him. I'm the needy one now, and I'll do anything to be with them before they break free. 

Sometimes people relate a specific smell to the City they live in or the place they grew up, does New York evoke a personal smell to you?

New York smells like fun times to me. I came here a lot and worked here for a while in my 20s. My friend Sara lived in Williamsburg, and I also worked with Wetterling Gallery, which represents New York artists, so there was always something exciting going on. I remember the smell as a mix of 1 dollar pizza, cigarettes, and laundry detergent. Now New York smells like marijuana. It's the new perfume of the City.

If you could choose any city to live in, where would that be, and why?

If I could try another city before I get too old, living in a small town in the south of Europe would be dreamy. I fantasize about hand-painted tiles, pink window shutters, and decorating an old house. I adore that sun-bleached pastel lifestyle and want to stand in the Mediterranean Sea in a matching bathing suit and turban.

new york by Emma Eriksson

A selection of places in New York recommended by Creative Director Emma Eriksson. See Emma's citylikeyou profile page here

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