Something that is utterly in sweden regarding home decoration are a lot of cushions. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Behind Swedish curtains
by Martina Metzner
Dec 24, 2014

“A Swede almost ceases to be a Swede once he has succeeded in becoming a refined gentleman. (...) Therefore, Swede, save yourself while there is still time, go back to being simple and dignified, prefer to be cloddish than elegant, dress in furs, leather and wool, make your own furniture, the kind that matches your heavy body, and use bright colors for it, yes, those rustic colors, the kind that are necessary as a contrast to the deep green pine forests and to the sparkling white snow, and paint your furniture unselfconsciously and give it all the embellishment and little carvings that appeal to you.”

This quotation is taken from Swedish artist Carl Larsson (1853 – 1919), who concerned himself in his paintings with Swedish interiors and who, together with his wife Karin, attempted to reform “people’s tastes and home life”. Even though he was referring to Swedish rustic traditions he did at least advocate a modern interpretation of the latter – something he visualized in his picture book “Ett Hem” (“our house”). Anybody today pondering “Sweden” and “home living” immediately thinks of IKEA – a cliché of Swedish country pleasures and coziness. But how much of a feel for the homely and decorative do Swedes today possess? A trip to Stockholm provides some answers.

Straight up: The Swedes have it good. Their economy is robust, thanks to strong exports their balance of trade has been in the black for years, spearheaded by automakers, mechanical engineering, and raw materials such as wood and ore. Moreover, foreign trade with everyday commodities such as furniture, ceramics and textiles also helps support an economy that is in fine fettle. As a brief look around reveals, half of the clothes that we wear come from Sweden – quite apart from the furniture that we have at home.

Something that is utterly de rigueur in Nordic climes as regards décor are cushions! At Svenskt Tenn, the furnishing company steeped in tradition on the upmarket promenade Strandvägen on Stockholm’s waterfront and a symbol of high-end Swedish textiles, it is large, brightly-patterned cushions that are placed on the spacious sofas. The motifs on these cushions have about as much in common with Sweden as do reindeers with the savanna – and boast names such as “Hawaii”, “Brazil” and “Elephants”. They are motifs for which the founder Estrid Ericson was inspired while on trips abroad at the beginning of the last century, bringing them back with her to her native Sweden. From as early as 1924, Ericson and her companion, Viennese architect Josef Frank, championed an eclectic style in which she combined the souvenirs with traditional Swedish objects.

“Our farmers and their wives who keep themselves busy in the winter with carpentry and spinning have always made certain that everything they took in their hands was given an artistic or personal touch. There was a knitted scarf on the scoured, sturdy, hand-carpentered table and it smelled of cleanliness.”

Less cosmopolitan but all the more traditional are the textile treasures to be found at the Handarbetets Vänner (HV). HV is a vocational textiles college established in 1874 by women who wanted to become financially independent of men – and not, as might be expected, with the objective of becoming particularly competent housewives. Today the school produces highly complex fabrics such as national flags and wall hangings like the one at the UN building in New York City. At the recently opened gallery on the longer side of the old building I meet textile artists Katerina Brieditis and Katerina Evans of Re Rag Rug. They are proud of their thickly knotted blue and white rugs whose threads consist of remnants of T-shirts, thus representing a successful example of recycling materials. Brieditis and Evans have these rugs made in India, they themselves are alumni of the college.

And in the HV’s gallery we encounter them again – cushions. This time the product of Edna Martin, one of the former HV directors who produced the cushions covers in the 1950s and had a mail-order business selling DIY sets with embroidery yarn and embroidering instructions. The difference between this and nowadays is obvious – and becomes clear at the latest when I meet young Swede Karin Rapp. Martin’s cushions are small, embroidered, and their colors only subdued. By contrast, Rapp’s cushions are twice as large and come with their own patterns. They are no longer elaborately embroidered but printed by an online provider prior to dispatch.

Apart from the cushions, there are many more textiles such as curtains, blankets and rugs all destined to make Swedish homes cozy. Something else typical of “Ett Hem” is runners, something that we in Germany tend to associate with our grandmothers but in Sweden they are anything but frumpy. The young designers at Varg Designkollektiv sell them, albeit with great geometric patterns –knotted out of plastic. The idea is that home furnishings should save resources; an approach to creativity that is typical of young Swedish designers.

“Men who are the offspring of an old warrior nation consider it only right to lie on a featherbed and to have pillows and sheets edged with lace and to be very flirtatious in every way.”

From carpets to beds – Swedes like them soft and want to sleep in utter luxury. Four poster beds are often found in traditional Swedish households and thick mattresses are a national duty – box spring beds, with two mattresses on top of each other, are also a Swedish invention. Here in the North people prefer to sleep between linen sheets. Generally, linen is a popular cloth – for instance, Note Design, a designer cooperative, has come up with household cloths made of linen for Växbo Lin which are made of two parts sewn together but are open at one end so that they can be hung up from that point.

It is those naïve country patterns that are repeatedly to be found on china and textiles, particularly the kind that originate in the Dalarna region north of Stockholm. It is a region that the Swedes like to visit, both in summer and in winter, to spend their vacations there, to party or, at one of the several open-air museums, to check out the culture of their ancestors. This is also where Dalecarlian horses originate, one of the most popular decorative items in the Swedish home and must-have tourist souvenirs, typically in red and dripping with decorations. Nowadays, several adapted, modernized versions are also available – for example, in pure white.

“All those cheerful country patterns that are to be found everywhere are, in most cases, for me more important works of art than most oil paintings. (...) Such deep, serious sentiments, coupled with such a real, healthy wit. And what a national feel for style!”

Not everything that Sweden has to offer in the way of ceramics has a cheerful quality. For example, the ceramic tableware by Kristina Stark is straightforward and solid. Stark, who studied at Sweden’s famous design academy and at the Central Saint Martins College in London, and has worked for companies such as Design House Stockholm, has had her own label for a number of years now. A gut reaction would be to think her reduced formalism is Danish and that is why, when we meet, I ask her the – admittedly very general – question about how Swedish tastes differ from Danish ones. “The Danes are more arty and the Swedes more down-to-earth and uncomplicated,” she responds like a shot.

When I drop in on Monica Förster at her studio in Södermalm I once again come across the type of plate that had been on the table before me complete with outstanding New Nordic cuisine the evening before at the new restaurant in the Spritmuseums. It was more of a flattened bowl than a soup dish. Förster’s dishes are part of her new major collection for traditional Swedish china manufacturer Rörstrand which is now part of a Finnish group, Fiskars, and is to Sweden what Rosenthal is to Germany.

What is still missing from this tour of the Swedish home is light. More than anything else, Swedes love the soft glimmer of candles. And they like their candlelight to come with a delicate scent – the Swedes are world number ones when it comes to using scented candles. The Swedes’ favorite scent is linen, as we are informed by manufacturers Woodwick who stocks 100 different scents. And to make things even snugger there are scented candles that crackle as they burn – just as if you were sitting by the fireside.

Two young designers, Siri Bahlenberg and Sofia Bergfeldt, supply a completely different light source. They combine artificial light with natural ice by submerging the lamps in water and then placing them in the freezer. The lights last for ten hours and of course they start to melt as soon as they are switched on.

“Once you cross the threshold of this house you are with happy people. Otherwise, there is nothing strange here apart from the place itself.”

A glance behind Swedish curtains reveals that the Swedes are masters in furnishings – with their Dalecarlian horses, scented candles and multitudes of cushions. The Swedish feel for coziness, their roots in rural culture and their deep love of the simple life, are what goes to make Swedish industrial design what it is. And they don’t need to look at the past through rose-tinted spectacles or taking a dogmatic approach in the process. Accordingly, the Swedish “hem” has always been the result of a happy interaction between all kinds of different furnishing items – and thus the kind of place that other people long for.

MORE on Stylepark:

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How the elk found its way into the living room: In the past, people everywhere disrespectfully dismissed the furniture as "Swedish brand", because IKEA products are inexpensive, they are considered to be democratic design.
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In his Illustrations the Swedish artist Carl Larsson (1853 til 1919) dedicated “people’s tastes and home life”: “Lathörnan“, 1894. Photo ©
From 1924 on, Svenskt Tenn-founder Estrid Ericson championed an eclectic style.
Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Välkommen til Handarbetets Vänner (HV), a vocational textiles college established in 1874 by women who wanted to become financially independent. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Textile treasures at the Handarbetets Vänner (HV): Katerina Evans and Katerina Brieditis of Re Rag Rug present their rugs made of old T-shirts. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Cushions of former HV-director Edna Martin, who offers in the 1950s DIY sets with embroidery yarn and embroidering instructions. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Typical of “Ett Hem” is runners, like those in plastic from the young designers at Varg Designkollektiv. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Here in the North people prefer to sleep between linen sheets. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Linen once more: designer cooperative Note Design has come up with household cloths made of linen for Växbo Lin. Photo © Växbo Lin
Must-have tourist souvenirs: Dalecarlian horses originate in the Dalarna region, nowadays adapted in pure white. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Straightforward and solid, this is Sweden too: ceramic tableware by Kristina Stark.
Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Vie in the Swedish bedroom 100 years ago: "Ett hem åt solsidan" by Carl Larsson. Foto ©
Candlelight holder are present in every Swedish household, as here from Note design for Menu. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Norhern lights, new way: Siri Bahlenberg and Sofia Bergfeldt combine artificial light with natural ice. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Between flattened bowl and soup dish: Monica Förster’s new major collection for traditional Swedish china manufacturer Rörstrand. Photo © Rörstrand