Swedish Design

Dolls in national costumes, exact copies of originals in the collection of the Nordic Museum and Skansen, from Swedish Arts and Crafts (1939)

Other than Ikea, I really wasn’t familiar with the unique qualities of Swedish design when I steered a course that way researching domestic design. The biggest discovery of the last few years, (read: “news to me”) is that other countries not only sponsored design, but actively promoted it to improve their countries and national identities.

Not so for the U.S., sadly, where apparently our contribution is cheapening everything by cost-cutting commercial capitalism. While this happened everywhere, it was worse in the US because our government did absolutely nothing to stop it, excepting perhaps the WPA in the 1930s. But the WPA was more of a jobs program, rather than a program of “moral improvement” as the efforts elsewhere promoted themselves.

In England, they had many efforts to improve design in the twentieth century, which I encountered in my readings of David Pye and Herbert Read. In Japan, the mingei movement has elements of this, though its focus was on traditional craft rather than industrial design.

In Sweden, the effort is all the more purist and moralistic due to the socialist government structure adopted there since the 1930s. And the most interesting feature of Sweden is that it embraced both tradition and machine/industrial design. To continue from a source I located last weekSwedish Arts and Crafts: Swedish Modern —A Movement Towards Sanity In Design, I feel compelled to take a few more notes.

Clearly, they were aware of the same degradation that England was concerned with in terms of industrial products and design:

The Swedish home did not escape the debasement in taste which everywhere accompanied the advent of industrialism. The arts vegetated and handicrafts slumped with the disbanding of the guilds. The urban population rapidly grew with the great influx from the rural areas. In the dismal, crowded homes of the early industrial workers there was no opportunity for carrying on the old home craft traditions, which for centuries kept alive the feeling for form and material on the farm. Instead of being producers in a self-sufficient economy, the newly created industrial labor rapidly became the largest consumer class for ready-made factory goods. The new consumer industries were able to produce cheaply, it is true, but the output was of a low standard, due to the lack of manufacturing traditions, the debasement of material, its poor finish and form. But it was not only the recently established working class that fell victim to the first raw phase of industrialism, the taste of all groups of society quickly degenerated. (8)

Note that the crisis is not necessarily the products, but the fact that people will buy them. It’s a matter of taste. The English felt the same way, and in fact the book follows directly from this to cite William Morris. The movement to resurrect traditional craft is seen as an important element in rescuing the public taste from degradation, through the home-craft institutions. It’s a social movement, front and center—but not just of a prelapsarian nationalism, but of the desire to build a new machine society. Now, over a hundred years later, it might be considered to be a worthy “manufacturing tradition.”

Some of the reading I’ve been doing suggest that Swedish design can be productively explored along two axes: Carl Malmsten on one end, and Bruno Mathsson at the other. Carl Malmsten represents the “traditional” axis.

Carl Malmsten, Living Room interior (1939)

This interior is devastatingly familiar to me. It’s a lot like the way that my eldest brother’s first wife, Dana decorated their apartment in LA. Dana was Danish, oddly enough. Now, looking at it, all I can see is Shaker style—the clean lines, the austerity. The table really wouldn’t be out of place at Hancock Shaker village. But another interior from Malmsten, also from the New York World’s Fair in 1939, is a bit different:


This looks a lot more like modern Ikea, in terms of the wall units, but the settle in front is almost prairie style or arts and crafts. On the edge, indistinct and nearly out of the frame in the front right corner, is a more unusual cupboard type cabinet that is inlaid, which is displayed in a detail from the same catalog, Swedish Arts and Crafts:

Malmsten-3 It’s difficult to tell from the poor halftone, but, these are pastoral scenes with an almost Rocco flair. I suspect this is an homage to Gustavian design.

Malmsten, obviously influenced James Krenov’s aesthetics much more than his more famous counterpart, Bruno Mathsson.



Mathsson, though he was a carpenter’s son, embraced more industrial designs.

I was struck by his chairs with built in swing aside easels, as I’ve been trying to figure out how to manage my lap top in the evenings. There are modern variants of this, of course.

Mathsson was most famous for his chairs, and there’s much to be said on that front at a later time.

For now, what I’m really most interested in are the examples of Swedish kitchens displayed in 1939.

In this design from G.A. Berg, the kitchen has been folded into the living room. Yes, that’s a sink back there divided from the sofa by cabinetry. Perhaps the most unusual feature though, is the dining table that slides between the two halves of the room. Yes, you can slide it into the kitchen for more prep area, and then back into the “living” area for serving. The dining table is on wheels. The mechanics of it are a bit clearer by enlarging the image above, though the general plan is apparent in another view, taken from the kitchen side:

Swedish-Kitchen-2What is clear is that they wanted to innovate, not simply in appearance, but in manners of work:

Abroad, the Swedish efforts to create applied art attuned to modern man and his needs have been termed a style, Swedish Modern.  However, by style is most often implied a distinct mode of presentation, something stationary and final. The present Swedish development in the field of industrial arts, on the other hand, is chiefly distinguished by its dynamic character. It is not a style, but rather a movement which we would like to define with the following statements:

Swedish Modern means high quality merchandise for every-day use, available for all by the utilization of modern technical resources.

Swedish Modern means natural form and honest treatment of material.

Swedish Modern means esthetically sound goods, resulting from close cooperation of artist and manufacturer. (13)

Swedish Modern

Opening pages of Swedish Arts and Crafts- click to enlarge for full effect.

I was looking for furniture designed by Carl Malmsten, or any sort of book about him, when I stumbled on Swedish Arts and Crafts: Swedish Modern —A Movement Towards Sanity In Design, a public relations effort published by the Royal Swedish Commision on the occasion of the New York World’s Fair, 1939.

The Swedish manor culture, which subsequently was to have a tremendous influence on the rebirth of Swedish applied art, reached its height in the eighteenth century. French influences in furniture and interior design marked its entire development, but in the hands of excellent Swedish artists and  craftsmen they were gracefully blended into a native Swedish style—simple and unpretentious, with clean lines, and a sound conception of ornamentation. This 18th century received, fittingly enough, during the last part of the century the name Gustavian, because it is a faithful reflection of the spirit which pervaded the age of the great charmer king, Gustavus III—a refined, sophisticated, if rather formal way of living. (8)

This choice of language is strangely parallel to the autobiography of Carl Larsson, first published in 1931. Gustavus III was a “charmer,” while Larsson claims that he himself was not; both also place ornament, and the control of it, at the center of their concerns. One twist here is vital though—the Royal Swedish Commission immediately cites its ties to manor culture.

Larsson appears not long after this “charming” passage:

While during the major part of the nineteenth century Swedish artists and artisans busied themselves with copying the styles of bygone days, at the beginning of the present century a new style was born. It was a romantic, Nordic nationalistic style which found its expression in a great number of monumental buildings, all needing artistic embellishment. The romantic influence was felt also in the home, and Carl Larsson, the famous painter, exercised a tremendous influence on the Swedish taste through his home, a romanticized “peasant” interior of great charm and hominess. (9)

In fact, the development of Swedish Modern design is traced through three different types of home: the manor home, the burgher home, and the farm home. I was taken by many of the farm home interiors displayed in the 1939 World’s Fair propaganda, and did a little googling to find an interesting blog post from BuildLLC, which reproduces a contemporary pamphlet on Swedish Farmhouse design with this commentary:

While the guide is regulating and pragmatic, this method of design probably didn’t feel restrictive to homeowners when these farmhouses were originally constructed — in fact it probably still doesn’t feel restrictive in Scandinavia. There are a variety of options to fulfill a homeowner’s desire to make personal choices, and ample opportunity for each farmhouse to be unique. The important element is that this design freedom all occurs within set boundaries defined by sensibility; by what works and what doesn’t, by what is available and what’s not, by the practicality of time and budget. There are six varieties of roofing, seven types of siding, and nine distinct door designs. These three variables alone allow for 378 unique farmhouse designs and while one completed design could vary from another, each individual design decision is manageable. The nine door options are locally made from community resources, not a thousand from every corner of the earth. The same philosophy of decision-making applies to all aspects of this guide: Design decisions are informed by the collected knowledge of the people who built a house before you did.

While on the surface this seems quite laudable, what’s missing from this is celebration is any admission of the narrow nature of the Swedish conception of Arts and Crafts. As the Royal Commision explains directly in the 1939 book:

Under the aegis of The Swedish Society of Arts and Crafts, (Svenska Slöjdföreningen) a state-aided organization founded back in 1845, one industry after another began to employ artists as designers and production leaders. The result of this close cooperation between the Society, artists, and did not long delay its appearance. Along the entire line the output of Swedish home furnishings industries improved in form as well as in technical quality. However, the Society did not confine its efforts to raising the quality of the industrial products, it also launched a lively campaign to improve the taste of the general public and the standard of the homes of small income groups. By a never-ceasing propaganda, by exhibitions, lectures, courses, publications it hammered the gospel of home culture into the consciousness of the Swedish people, to make them realize the necessity for home furnishings in better accord with their actual needs and in harmony with modern life. By thus directing its program to the entire people rather than to limited groups of society, it was inevitable that the arts and crafts movement was to take on a social character. (8-9)

The social character was not simply the embrace of modern industry, but also traditional homecraft. It makes sense that the Arts and Crafts movement, in its most nationalistic zeal, would thrive in a country with a comparatively small amount of ethnic diversity. Traditional ethnic crafts (homecraft) has been lovingly preserved; it’s admirable, although it seems much easier for a country without large immigrant populations to achieve. In 1899, Lilli Zickerman (1858-1949) formed the Swedish Home Craft Association (Föreningen för svensk hemslöjd).

Lilli Zickerman, lower left.
Lilli Zickerman, lower left.

What Zickerman proposed was a grand program to relieve the idleness and poverty that she saw as a result of industrialism. In her view, it was a matter of national concern and a moral duty that she and her associates help poor people to help themselves to work and to enhance the moral and aesthetic quality of their lives. To accomplish this, she and her associates had to educate people of all social classes to turn away from cheap mass produced goods (gottkopskram) and teach them to appreciate the quality and beauty of home-made crafts. In particular, people were to learn from those who still mastered the traditional arts. The idea, then, was not only to preserve and copy traditional artifacts but also to improve them. All peasant furniture and textiles were neither well made nor tasteful enough to please demanding buyers, and stern control was needed to maintain high quality and proper styling. Ultimately, Zickerman and her associates hoped that their program would have even grander effects: they expected that people’s love of their homes and their home region and its place within the Swedish nation would be awakened and strengthened. That love would have a moral and educational value and would prevent both the exodus to the United States and the growth of a rootless, “unswedish proletariate” of the kind that was joining socialist parties. It is no wonder that it was primarily conservative politicians who supported the homecraft movement, not their political adversaries on the left.

(Barbro Klein, “The moral content of tradition: Homecraft, ethnology, and Swedish life in the twentieth century” Western Folklore (Spring 2000)

Only since the 1970s has there been much backlash. Klein remarks that the social character of homecraft studies has been by described by those who enter it as “pompom research” or “pixie research.”  Looking at the propaganda from 1939, it seems that little had changed. The “We Know” that creates the parallel structure of the introduction downright reeks of condescension. The ambivalence since the 70s is manifest in the language used to describe what used to be an optimistic, utopian project:

Few contemporary Swedish ethnologists study in earnest such phenomena as homecraft. The exceptions are a handful of highly accomplished, now retired, women, such as Ingrid Bergman, Sofia Danielson, and Gertrud Grenander-Nyberg who have all been employed at the cultural historical museums. Within the homecraft movement they are sometimes lovingly called “the homecraft mafia.” But their books and papers, which include important Ph.D. and M.A. theses, have not been at the center of the ethnological discussions. Indeed, neither pre-industrial craft nor the homecraft revival have been dominant topics within the discipline during the past thirty years, just as little as peasant art, legendary, or traditional medicine have been. The many ambivalent feelings toward homecraft, from irony to love, come forth in such widely used puns and word plays as hemsk slöjd (“horrible craft”) and slemhöjden (“the slimy hill”).

The pattern here repeats with alarming frequency, in different countries although at completely different time. The task of preserving craft is a difficult one, particularly when its organizing principles (like preservation of national identity) are either adopted uncritically, or hypocritically. There has to be a better organizing principle than nationalism.

I think that the concept of home as a situated but reasonably generalizable locus for the study of craft is worth pursuing.


Carl Larsson's upcycled kitchen cabinet
Carl Larsson’s upcycled kitchen cabinet

Carl Larsson could make a work of art out of even the simplest piece of furniture. The very plain cupboard, which was painted in China red, and the door panels were black-lacquered and decorated with growing flowers, in a clearly Japanese-inspired, asymmetrical composition. This piece of furniture expresses much of the young Carl Larsson’s freedom and inspiration.

Carl and Karin Larsson filled their house with old furniture, bought or given at different times. Nearly every room has a piece of furniture radiating a Baroque exuberance and a feeling for constructional clarity characteristic of peasant master craftsmen. Many of the heavier pieces of furniture probably belonged to mine shareholders, well-off land-owning farmers with a share in the local mine and arable land. Several corner cupboards and mouldings on the doors came from farmer’s homes in Dalarna. Such furniture was inexpensive at that time, and Larsson sometimes bought furniture in such bad condition that it had to be restored by his handyman. On the other hand, most of the old furniture bought for his home was well-made, of solid materials and good craftsmanship, stable and intended for practical purposes. These items are a reflection of Larsson’s nationalism, an expression of his pride in Sweden’s period as a great power in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. (Elizabeth Stavenow-Hidemark,  “The Larsson Approach to Old Furniture,” Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style 187)

It’s very weird to me how the books I read tend to overlap. Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Design Book is filled with a celebration of the sort of workaday vernacular furniture gestured at (with some more ornate examples as well) in the book on Larsson I’m trying to save some snips from. I’ve never liked the word “upcycling” (apparently this term was coined circa 1994) but the practice has been commonplace for a very long time.

In fact, it’s a centerpiece of Mackay Hugh Baillie Scot’s strategy as well. In House and Garden (1906) He repeats exactly the same strategy:

The best way to secure a satisfactory result in furnishing is to have the furniture made specially for its position—a few things soundly and simply constructed which shall seem a part of the whole scheme. In many parts of the country old furniture of a simple type—gate tables, rush-bottomed chairs, bureaus, &c.—may be obtained at a very reasonable cost; and such things, with a few special made furnishings which cannot be obtained in this way, will always be at home in a house such as I have described. This old furniture has a sort of human character about it; and the varied planes of its surfaces, with its strong construction and evidences of careful leisurely work, make it inviting and homely. The modern ” Art” furniture bears testimony, on the contrary, that it is the work of a drilled automaton. Its pretence to finish is a mere superficial deceptive smartness. No human being ever loved or lingered over its completion, and its Art is the bait held out to the purchaser as a substitute for real excellence of design or manufacture. (40)

Schwarz’s “movement” towards home made furniture is not really all that new, and neither is his ranting against Ikea. It seems to me to be Arts and Crafts, through and through. What I wasn’t really expecting was to find that  a bit further on, Baillie Scot comes out in full support of what Schwarz labels as “boarded furniture.” For those who haven’t been following the woodworking magazines, translates to furniture built with nails:

In the making of furniture there are two principal methods of construction in the joining of its woodwork. The simplest is that now used in making packing-cases, the wood being joined by means of nails. The more complicated is that in which the wood is joined by letting one piece into another by the use of what are called mortices and tenons.

It is a foregone conclusion nowadays that the simplest way of doing a thing is necessarily the worst way, and the nail in modern woodwork has been considered a thing to be hidden. While in all other details of construction a virtue has been made of frankness, and while the pegs of the tenon are displayed to view, the nail is sedulously concealed by all kinds of artifices. In the making of the simple kinds of furniture in which the wood is joined by nails of the kind known as clout-headed, made by a blacksmith, these might be shown without shame, and form a feature in the design, and nothing could be reasonably urged against this simple and direct “packing-case” construction for a chest or cabinet. (41)

So there you have it. Not only does he suggest boarded furniture, he also suggests traditional blacksmith-made nails over machine made wire nails. The old cliché about the more things change comes immediately to mind. But, it’s just as certain to say that craftsmanship never goes out of fashion.

Carpenter Hans Arnbom, 1915
Carl Larsson, Carpenter Hans Arnbom, 1915. The paneling is inscribed ‘my friend and builder H. Arnbom’

Postscript: In the final essay in Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style, “The Larsson Design Legacy: A Personal View” by Lena Larsson, she tells this anecdote:

When I went into the business in 1940s [interior design], I was often asked where one could buy ‘Carl Larsson furniture.’ ; the answer was that you had to make it yourself. In 1944 Carl Malmsten published a whole set of drawings for general use. (225).

The designer/craftsman Carl Malmsten, who first encountered Carl Larsson’s books in 1907, was apparently very taken by the interior scenes created by the Larssons. James Krenov, a saint to many contemporary builders, was a pupil of Malmsten. The connections are really fascinating to me.