Stockholm By Design
Photos by Renata Kosina

How does one define Swedish design?

Somewhere in Stockholm there is an answer.

This storybook city on Scandanavia's Lake Mälaren, at once centuries-old yet leading-edge modern, is a timeless place. At 60 degrees north latitude, it is bathed in strange light. Nine months of the year, the sun barely rises. The other three it never sets. With the onset of winter, when there is light at all, it cuts with acute angles, sharp and piercing. A photographer's dream. It's dusk by 1 p.m., dark well before happy hour. It does odd things to the mind. Said one Swede, "No one gets used to it."

Stockholm is postcard-perfect. It is a city of low-rise neo-classical and modern architecture. By mandate, nothing is taller than the Royal Palace. Church steeples and clock towers peel on the quarter hour. Lively colors, narrow streets, green spaces and parks everywhere. They say Stockholm, a city of 1.5 million people, is one third city, one third water, one third green space. An idyllic way to slice the pie. Close your eyes when bells toll, and it could easily be 1250, around the time the city was founded, or a Sunday morning in 2002.

Water is everywhere. The city covers 14 islands of the Swedish archipelago, linked by 57 bridges. It's a compact place. You can walk to everything, nearly. It's quaint in Gamla Stan - Old Town - where cobblestone streets wend around each other, lined with shops, pubs, eateries and walk-ups. It's bohemian chic in Sodermalm, just across the bridge from Gamla Stan, with art galleries and craft shops. Ostermalm is modern and drips with names like Gucci, but it also favors homegrown designers like fashion maven Filippa K and Anna Holtblad. Stockholm, says art teacher Orit Feldman-Dahlgren, "is a place you can really breathe."

But there is this design thing. In shop windows, in homes, in hotels, on television and newstands, one becomes aware of this palpable thing in which the Swedes seem to pride themselves. It is, in the parlance of the corporate world, a core value. It is intrinsic, inborn, inbred, or so one comes to believe. It is simple, graceful, functional. From blown glass to vibrant textiles to curvaceous furniture, it is everywhere.

Even the mundane takes on a decided design twist. Eyeglass frames, vacuum cleaners, corkscrews. Swedish modernism, art deco, neo-this and retro-that, it pervades everyday life in everyday things in ways that you only come to understand by asking a lot questions, staring at lot of things, and finally coming to the realization that it is far deeper than Saab, than IKEA, than the marketing genius of Absolut vodka.

It would be too easy to simply rattle off the adage "form follows function" in trying to describe the depth, breadth, inspiration and execution of Swedish design. For nearly a century, Sweden has been plying its design sensibility, with major milestones in world acceptability nearly every decade since the 1910s. The Swedes, a somewhat isolated bunch in their coming up, have always had to make do with what they had. They just did it with some style.

The turning point came at an event called the Home Exhibition of 1917. The Swedish Society for Industrial Design decided it was time that the population at large should know about aesthetic quality. It meant designing everyday objects with a sense of beauty in mind.

In the '20s, elegance and exclusiveness where the characteristics. Light, elegant design became internationally known as Swedish design. Swedish Modernism emerged in the '30s, with comprehensive social programs for functional housing for modern urban life. Austere and bare, it gave rise to tubular steel furniture, among other things. Softer functionalism marked the trend of the '40s, with printed fabrics, the sweeping form of ceramics, furniture in light-colored wood, and objects that were practical and well thought-out.

By the '50s "Swedish design" had gained universal acceptance as a thing, a trend, a course of study, a philosophy. It was expressive and aerodynamic, steeped in a strong sense of the future and the development of technology. The '60s and '70s saw design reflect political commitment, with decorative artists producing works with political messages. Later into the '70s the raging politicism in design abated, and traditional crafts experienced a renaissance.

The '80s post-modernism and the diversity of the '90s have brought Sweden, and the cultural center of Stockholm, into an exciting time of a reexamination of the old ways, and a bold push into the new. Swedish design is enjoying something of a resurgence today, with exquisite works in glass, textiles, furniture, architecture, industrial and graphic design, even culinary exploits. While the rest of the world may be sitting up and taking notice again, in Sweden design just never goes away.

Johan Huldt can't contain a laugh when he says, "If it weren't for Swedish design, no one would come to Sweden." Huldt is the managing director of Svensk Form, the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design. He's kidding, of course, but there's a grain of truth. Svensk Form, founded in 1845, oversees much of what's happening in the modern world of Swedish design. It has some 8,000 members, and publishes the highly respected Form magazine, devoted solely to design and the issues that surround it. So ingrained is design in Swedish life, he says, that it's mandated by the Swedish government. There are new laws emerging that require that things be beautiful.

"Every Swede has a seminal interest in objects around him," Johan says. "It matters. Good design is that it works, but that it should be useful and beautiful." He talks of how it pervades everything, from design for the less-abled to toys to public works. "Design is form, and form is materialized thought."

Echoes Ulf Brecker, editor of FORM magazine, "We don't tolerate things that don't work."

Paraphrasing a former Volvo CEO, Huldt adds, "Swedish design reflects a caring society." And care they do, from hanging on to the old ways, and pushing tilt toward the new.

Skansen is Stockholm's open air museum, located on the island of Djurgården, a royal park near the center of Stockholm. Wandering the grounds is wandering through 300 years of Swedish history. Actual old farmsteads. An 18th-century church. A print shop and bookbinder. A furniture maker. A glass blower. Here you can witness a living history of design, because they still practice the old ways.

Strangely, the old ways are the new ways. Swedish design, in that sense, is timeless. The Skansen Glassworks, or Glasbruk, was built at Skansen in 1936, from the 1796 drawings of the Johannisholms glassworks in Dalarna, which closed in 1855. The works produced at the glassworks are unique and handmade from crystal using a technique over 2000 years old.

Benjamin Slotteroy and Jessica Carlstrom work the floor as a team during a demonstration. Molten glass, glommed onto the end of a metal pipe, is pulled from a 1200-degree Fahrenheit oven. In a carefully choreographed dance, Carlstrom blows a quick puff of air down the pipe, bulging the glass. She rolls the pipe and shapes the glass blob, which begins to take shape as a goblet. Slotteroy helps roll and trim.

Both studied the art of glass blowing at a Swedish university. Their technique is used in scores of other glass works, like in the glass district called Glasriket, or Kingdom of Crystal in Småland, as well as small artisan studios scattered around Stockholm, producing stunning pieces of crystal art in classical, freeform, and everything in between.

From the antiquated to the kitschy, a visit to a small Ostermalm shop called Gamla Lampor is to take a few steps back in time, to a golden age of Swedish design. It manages, in a few square cramped feet, to capture a glorious time of design. Gamla Lampor is Swedish for "old lamp," and that's what Hans Malmborg and his wife Inga Johanson offer. Throw in some classic Swedish furniture, the famous Ericofon Cobra phone of the '50s, and even dusty and parched copies of old '60s Swedish erotica.

Malmborg, who's had the store since 1976, wanted to be an interior designer. "But I was no good so I became a building engineer, but I didn't like it so much," he says. He scours Swedish cities like Malmö and Denmark for his inventory of '50s, '60s and '70s designs.

"People like this modern design," he says. "It's the shape, the teak and the plastic, classic design." He points to a classic art deco lamp design, in various sizes, that look like the planet Saturn, his biggest seller. He picks up the then-futuristic Cobra phone, and runs his hands along the teak armrests of a classic chair. His wife deals in design and art books, as well as children's titles.

Perhaps nowhere but in Stockholm can you find a non-profit shop of stunning design that not only promotes the works of its founder, Estrid Ericson, and collaborator/designer Josef Frank, but goes to great effort to promote the works of new and young Swedish designers.

Svenskt Tenn, or Swedish Pewter, near the Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern, or Royal Dramatic Theater, where Ingmar Bergman still practices his trade, is the city's oldest shop, and it hums with design. Glass, pewter, vibrant textiles and furniture are a mix of classical and new, but nearly all derived from the works of its founding duo. Ericson founded the shop in 1924, selling tin designs and jewelry, all with a graceful, modern look.

Frank, an Austrian functionalist architect, urban planner and designer, emigrated to Stockholm in 1933 with his wife. He teamed up with Erickson and the two established a design paradigm that persists. "The modern home is a mixture of expensive and less expensive items," Ericson once said, "which do not necessarily have to go together. What matters is simply comfort, and that you should feel at home."

That describes the shop. On a tour, Svenskt Tenn director Louise Hultgren, calls out the open designs of Frank's furniture, his multi-hued and vibrant textile designs and Ericson's pewter works. "Both were liberal and open-minded," Hultgren says. She mentions that items purchases here hold their value. It's not uncommon to find Frank work at auction, fetching the same price as when it was purchased new.

The shop is now owned by the Kjell and Marta Beijer Foundation, which exists to promote scientific research and culture. It not only sells the works of Ericson, Frank and other designers of their mold, but also supports the education of Swedish designers with grants, university funding and other awards. An extensive archive of Frank's drawings and images are also cataloged here.

In Stockholm, Swedish design is everywhere. In the modern furniture designs at Nordiska Galleriet. In the chic clothing designs of Swedish designer Filippa K and Anna Holtblad. In the light-bending glass works at David Designs or Pukeberg Glass, or any of the scores of other glass works.

And it doesn't stop there. You'll see it in Sodermalm galleries like Blås & Knåda and Galleriet Metallum. Even in the kitchen gadgets at Rum & Kök, and the lobby of the classic Berns Hotel, where Svesnkt Tenn has arranged a lobby area in typical Swedish design. And it pervades modern industrial designs from Swedish firms like Propellor, No Picnic and Ergonomidesign.

Maybe it's the strange light and what it does to the mind. Maybe it's stubborn Swedish pride, born of years of isolationism and neutrality. Could be the Swedes' profound love of nature or indigenous materials. Whatever it is, it's left its mark on the world. And if you think you haven't been touched by Swedish design, consider this: Both the graphic image of the modern-day Santa Claus and the curvy, ubiquitous Coca-Cola bottle came to us from the hands of Swedes.


Though it may seem to be an elaborate and historical tribute to bad ship-building, the Vasa Museet, or Vasa Museum, offers visitors a detailed trip back in time, to 17th century Stockholm, when warships ruled the water.

The Vasa was built at the Stockholm shipyard by Henrik Hybertsson - an experienced Dutch shipbuilder. It was to be the pride of the King,Gustavus Adolphus' fleet. An elaborately designed gunship that held 450 men and 64 guns on two gun decks, the ship was set to make its maiden voyage on Sunday, August 10, 1628. The beaches around Stockholm were filled with spectators, among them foreign diplomats.

On that fateful day, the Vasa set sail and fired a salute. But after only a few minutes of sailing the ship began to heel over. She righted herself slightly - and heeled over again. Water gushed in through the open gun ports. To the onlookers' horror and disbelief, the glorious warship suddenly sank. Of the 150 people on board, some 30-50 died in the disaster. Miscalculations, thanks in part to the two upper gun decks and inadequate ballast in the hull, caused the ship to falter. And down it went, where it lay for 333 years.

Thanks to the persistence of a Swedish shipwreck specialist, Anders Franzén, who discovered the remains in 100 feet of water and then persuaded the Swedish government to undergo a salvage operation in 1961, the ship is now on display in full glory. Much of the hull remained intact, and a treasure trove of artifacts were recovered.

The multi-level exhibit affords a 360-degree look at the ship, from beam to mast and stem to stern. It offers multi-media displays, artifacts, movies and models. It's impossible to take your eyes off the ship. Raised and refurbished with painstaking care, it has become Sweden's most visited attraction.

For a detailed account of the sinking, raising and displaying of the Vasa, visit the Vasa Museet website.

Don Campbell is a frequent contributor to World Traveler magazine.