Swedish Ace

Winter gloom getting you down? If it is and you happen to be in London over the next few weeks I recommend you hot foot it over to Bermondsey where some instant sunshine can be found.

The Fashion and Textile Museum (who knew?) currently have a rather wonderful exhibition about the architect and designer Josef Frank and his work for the Swedish company Svensk Tenn. Linens pulsate with tropical blooms in eye-popping colours; a curtain fabric is printed with an abstracted map of 1940s Manhattan in red white and blue; and floral patterns with names like Dixieland, Himalaya and Hawaii are as fresh as the breath of Spring. It’s Prozac by the yard and a revelation if you thought that 1940s fabrics were all about cut moquette and black out curtains or that design in Sweden starts and ends with the Billy bookcase. But that’s the thing about Swedish design – it packs a punch.

You’ll be hearing a lot more about Sweden this year and it’s all done to one word: Lagom.  Remember hygge? It was the Big Thing from Denmark that you would have to have spent the last six months living as a hermit in a cave not to have heard about. Well, it seems our appetite for all things Nordic remains as healthy as ever. Lagom is a Swedish word which (very roughly) translates as ‘just enough’. It stands for moderation and not going over the top and has its origins in the country’s Lutheran religion. Lagom is central to the Swedish sense national identity and influences all aspects of the country’s life, language and culture. Anyway, it now appears that lagom has the power to enhance our lives in a similar way that hygge had just a few short months ago. I won’t go into details here, lest I have to add ‘Lifestyle Guru’ to my already heaving CV. Oh, but maybe I’m being too harsh. As so often in life, I think it’s a case of “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like”. Personally, I prefer the more tangible aspects of Swedish culture and, for those intent on getting some lagom in their life, I’d say look no further than Swedish design.

Lagom is at the heart of a favourite Swedish saying: ‘enough is as good as a feast’. At its best, Swedish design isn’t about having enough of one thing but the right amount of morethan one thing; a melding of different styles and influences which unite to create something uniquely Swedish. For this reason, the history of Swedish design is a history of happy marriages – the formal with the informal, Neo-Classicism and Rustic, Functionalism and Classical; Modernism and traditional crafts.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26: General view of exhibits in the show space during the "Josef Frank Patterns-Furniture-Painting" exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum on January 26, 2017 in London, England.. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Fashion and Textile Museum)

Swedish design is about getting the ingredients and the proportions just right. What do I mean? Well let’s go back to where we started. At first sight, you couldn’t get further away from lagom than a room full of Josef Frank’s fabrics, but that’s not how they’re intended to be seen. Used economically, however, on a series of cushions, a blind or to upholster a chair, they bring it that room to life: lagom in action. Used in this way, the mantra of moderation, actually adds to rather than restricts creativity and it’s in the very DNA of Swedish design.

The roots of a distinct design identity in Sweden can be traced to the 18th century, when, after an extended stay at the court of Louis XVI at Versailles,   the future King Gustav III initiated a style of decoration that took its lead from the Neo-Classicism that was sweeping Europe at the time. Gustav III was a patron of the arts, founder of the Swedish Academy and commissioner of the Royal Opera House. Since his death (from a gunshot wound sustained at a masked ball - quite a party, by the sounds of it) the king has become synonymous with this style of furniture. The Gustavian style emphasised elegance, simplicity, lightness and comfort and offered a more liveable and more modest interpretation of Neo-Classicism than that found in England or France. It is a pared back version of French neoclassicism. Large mirrors, which maximised the light during long winters, were gilded, while chandeliers tended to have five or seven arms with candleholders. The style spread from the royal palaces of Drottningholm and Gripsholm to the town houses of the well-to-do and out to their country cottages, where it became more rustic and homespun but was still recognisably Gustavian in its origins: countryside homes were decorated with painted furniture; either white-washed or painted grey or soft cream.  The light painted finishes provided a reflective quality that was desired during the long dark winters. Life in the region was primarily responsible for shaping Scandinavian design. Long, harsh winters with very few hours of daylight kept people indoors for many months. Besides, most people lived in small houses. So it was imperative to make homes feel cosy yet airy, with every object in it reflecting as much ambient light as possible.

By the early 1920s the phrase on everyone’s lips was Swedish Grace. Swedish Grace was born out of Functionalism, the uncompromising aesthetic that sought to eradicate decoration and produce furniture and homes for the Machine Age. But pure Functionalism was always a bit too extreme for lagom loving Swedes and by the following decade designers like Josef Frank developed a style that was a more easily digestible version of Functionalism– still uncompromisingly modern but with the edges rounded, a style that would make a home feel cosy and comfortable, characterised by elegance and simplicity and even a little (whisper it) decoration. But it was in the middle decades of the twentieth century that Swedish design entered its golden age.

When we think of Scandinavian design in the twentieth century, I suppose it’s the Danes with their sculptural furniture in rosewood and teak and the Finns with their Functionalism that tend to grab the limelight. But, for my money, it’s the Swedes, with their ceramics, glass, textiles and love of pattern who provide a particularly sweet filling in the Scandi design sandwich. Let’s take a closer look at some of the people who put Swedish design on the map.

Bruno Mathsson (1907-88)

Bruno Mathsson was a furniture designer and architect. Like Josef Frank Mathsson believed in giving the machine age
a human face and designed furniture with the user in mind. The Evachair (1934) is one of the outstanding designs of Swedish modernism. It features a seat section constructed of moulded solid wood and woven hemp webbing that follows the body’s contours, providing comfort without the need for upholstery. Mathsson once said ‘comfortable sitting is an art – it ought not to be. Instead the making of chairs has to be done with such an art that the sitting will not be any “art”’. Mathsson practised what he preached and the Eva chair is a perfect synthesis of ergonomics and sculptural craftsmanship.

Stig Lindberg (1916-82)

One of the outstanding figures of mid-century Scandinavian modernism, Stig Lindberg was also one of Sweden’s most prolific and best-known designers. He designed across a range of media, including glassware and textiles, but it is probably his ceramics that are his best known work and which sum up mid-century modern Swedish style. Lindberg’s work has two distinct strands. One is sculptural, with elastic shapes and organic decoration, the other colourful and decorative. His Karnevalseries of ceramics, with decoration based on folk art and looking for all the world like illustrations from childrens’ books, was one of Lindberg’s most successful designs and a highpoint in 20thcentury ceramics.

Erik Hoglund (1932-98)

Sweden’s glass industry began to develop in the early 1920s and, over a short period, Swedish glass became a by-word
for restrained elegance and refinement, with firms like Orrefors and Kosta gaining international acclaim. But, for my money, a far more interesting episode in the history of Swedish glass is provided by Erik Hoglund, a man who brought a punk sensibility to the world of glass. Hoglund was chief designer at Boda Glass from 1953 until 1986. His early work at the firm really pushed the boundaries and included a series of heavily textured bowls and vases that was achieved by throwing potato peeling into the furnace. Hoglund’s designs, with their lumpy forms and earthy colours, were in startling contrast to his contemporaries but, despite this, were a commercial success and today Erik Hoglund is remembered as one of the key figures in mid-century Swedish design.