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.

Socialism and scatter cushions

He was the creator of era-defining textiles, a writer whose ground breaking ideas forever changed how we think about our homes and, according to a recent study, a peddler of poisonous wallpaper.  “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo asks “Will the real William Morris please stand up?”

When William Morris (1834-1896) died at the age of sixty-two, his physician declared that the cause was "simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men." We know him best for his easy-on-the-eye textiles with their scrolling leaves and biscuit cutter birds. The designer of patterns such as Willow Bough and Strawberry Thief, his is the face that launched a thousand National Trust tea towels. We probably think that that’s all there is to know about Morris: move along, nothing more to see here, but we’d be wrong. This multi-faceted man was at one time or another (and sometimes simultaneously) a designer and manufacturer of furniture, wallpaper and fabrics, stained glass, and tapestries; an accomplished weaver; successful businessman; a pioneering preservationist; an active Socialist and social reformer; a successful poet and novelist; and in his last years, the founder of the Kelmscott Press. We see him in photographs with tousled hair and wild, unkempt beard; part Byron, part Marx. His passionate belief that everyone should surround themselves with beauty revolutionised the way we think about our homes and his influence went well beyond these shores. If these days he’s known as a pattern designer in his own lifetime he was actually better known for his writing. Morris was a revolutionary force in Victorian Britain – the original Angry Young Man whose rages against the shortcomings and injustices of the world changed the fashions and ideologies of the era but is life was filled with paradoxes. He was obsessed with the medieval,  but he also had a socialist vision of the future. He’s considered by many to be the spiritual Godfather of modern Socialism and a champion of worker rights yet he died a multi-millionaire and was a part owner of the world’s largest arsenic mine.  Will the real William Morris please stand up?

Morris was born in Walthamstow, east London in 1834. The financial success of his broker father led to the family moving in 1840 to Woodford hall, a large house in rural Essex, as well as providing young William with an inheritance large enough to mean he would never have to concern himself with the tedious business of earning an income. Morris enjoyed an idyllic childhood growing up in the countryside, exploring local parkland and churches and immersing himself in the novels of Walter Scott, helping him develop an affinity with the natural world and historical romance. William was a privileged boy, but had a mind of his own. He a was forced to leave Marlborough College in 1851 following a “rebellion” but still made it to Exeter College, Oxford in 1853. He first planned to become a clergyman but, following a trip to northern France and inspired by the gothic architecture he saw, opted for architecture. Morris was a rebel by nature and one, very much, with a cause: ugliness. We all know his famous dictum Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. For Morris this was nothing short of a battle cry against poor taste. What started him on his crusade was what he saw as the sheer tackiness of the Great Exhibition in 1851. This colossal event, staged in the specially built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, had been intended to display the best of British manufacturing, a dazzling showcase for the Workshop of the World. For Morris it was neo-Renaissance, neo-everything nightmare of poor design and shabby art. Tales of the teenage Morris’s visit to the Crystal Palace are legion and range from the strange to the ridiculous – my favourite being that Morris was so appalled by the poor taste on show that he staggered from the building and was sick in the bushes.

For Morris shoddiness was a punishable offence; ‘Shoddy is King’ he railed, ‘From the statesman to the shoemaker, everything is shoddy’. From that point on he dedicated his life to creating useful and beautiful objects for the modern home.

While working in Oxford Morris had a chance meeting with a local stableman's daughter, Jane Burden. Consciously flouting the rules of class, Morris married Jane in 1859. Morris and Jane moved into Red House, their home in rural Kent, the following year. Morris wanted his home to be a ‘small palace of art’ Unhappy with what was on offer commercially, spent the next two years furnishing and decorating the interior with help from members of their artistic circle. And what friends: Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabrielle Rosetti, Ford Maddox Brown. As George Martin was to the Beatles, so Morris was to the Pre-Raphaelites; the unofficial eighth member. It was at Red House that Morris began to find his forte - he was, in truth, an abysmal architect and a lousy painter, but he had an affinity with interiors. At heart, he was a pattern-maker, taking his inspiration from the English countryside to create the patterns that made him famous.  Having decided to branch into textiles, he apprenticed himself to a dyer's workshop in order to "learn the practice of dying at every pore" even going as far as grinding his own pigments. Over the course of two decades Morris produced over 600 chintzes, woven textiles and hand-blocked wallpapers. They were distinctive for their soft, flat colours, their stylised natural forms, their symmetry and their sense of order. His patterns were revolutionary at the time, and quite at odds with prevailing mainstream fashion.

Having gained a taste for interiors, and the experience of 'joy in collective labour', Morris and his friends decided in 1861 to set up their own mega-design partnership: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, later re-named Morris and Company, but nicknamed ‘The Firm’ by William.  It was virtually a Pre-Raphaelite co-operative with £1 share contributions from Burne-Jones, Rosetti and Brown. From its London headquarters the Firm issued a selection of carefully crafted household items, painted furniture, metalwork, pottery, carpets and cushions. All were guaranteed to have been created by an expert hand using artisanal – the word still meant something – methods.

Morris was a radical thinker of his day;  a prolific poet, author, publisher, campaigner and socialist reformer; “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization”, he said.  By the 1860s skilled workmanship was being replaced by machines. He was a dedicated socialist, and wrote passionately about the growing gap between rich and poor, which had been intensely accelerated by industrialisation. Morris saw salvation in a return to a medieval craft-based society, one where happy, contended workers would produce objects with integrity. If this is sounding at all familiar we need only look to the nearest artisan hipster baker or be-whiskered craft brewer. Although Morris preached passionately for the return of the medieval craft ethic, his objection was – contrary to what you’re likely to read elsewhere - not so much to machine production as to poor workmanship. He loathed mass-production but understood its place in society. In fact his first registered design was a trellis of African marigolds for machine-made linoleum. William Morris lino, who would have guessed?

The most ironic aspect of Morris’s aims was that, although he aimed to make good design available to all (‘I do not want art for the few, any more than freedom for the few…’), ultimately his own furnishings — made painstakingly by hand using the best natural materials — were typically too expensive for anyone but the wealthy industrialists Morris hated.

Morris was a founding father of the Socialist movement and a champion of workers’ rights. He   campaigned against many things, banning arsenic in wallpaper was not one of them. Arsenic was a major component in wallpaper manufacture and by the 1870s, when Morris was at the height of his fame, its ill effects were becoming well-known. Morris  inherited his fortune from an arsenic mine in which he still held stock for a number of years. By the 1870s, the Morris family’s Devon mine was reportedly producing over half the world’s supply of arsenic. And while he did ultimately divest his interests in the company, questions on Morris’s apparent hypocrisy—and why he never actually visited these notoriously bad workplaces—casts something of a shadow over his right-on credentials.

Happily, this is the Lorfords blog, so we can leave the politics at the door. In design terms William Morris was a true visionary whose influence was felt well-beyond his own lifetime. With his hands-on philosophy he pioneered the idea of the artist-craftsman and his designs helped to lay the foundations for the modern movement. Today, we find ourselves returning to many of Morris’s preoccupations with craft skills and the environment, with local sourcing and vernacular traditions. But perhaps his greatest legacy was his avowed belief that, rich or poor, male or female, aesthetic beauty should be a central feature of everybody’s life and home.