„Sometimes I look on my hands, I can do all with my hands. “ Invitation for the retrospective on Åke Axelsson on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2013. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Åke’s passion for chairs
by Martina Metzner

The first meeting is marvelously low-key. Like an impartial observer who has attended so many such events, Åke Axelsson stands leisurely in Stockholm’s Kulturhuset and sips from his champagne flute. It’s the opening of a new, temporary design satellite of the Swedish national museum and there’s a show called “Selectivities” presenting the works of past Swedish craftsmen. They were chosen by contemporary designers, among them Åke Axelsson, who has brought his daughter Katarina along with him. Axelsson is hardly known outside his native Sweden and yet the 83-year old has shaped the face of the Swedish furniture industry more than most other designers. Not only because down through the years he has designed more than 200 chairs, but also because since 2004 he has been joint owner of the long-standing Gärsnäs company – he was for many years one of the firm’s key designers, and still is. Since he only speaks Swedish, his daughter acts as interpreter – she’s an artist and actually lives in France. On the spur of the moment, the two invite me to come to Axelsson’s house-cum-studio in Vaxholm, about half an hour’s drive from Stockholm.

The scent of beechwood

The next day we leave busy Stockholm behind us and drive out across the flat countryside. Snow lies heavy on the ground and in regular intervals lakes and pinewoods drift by, exuding a clam that you only find up in the far north. As soon as you enter Axelsson’s wooden house, typically Swedish it is painted dark red, a special scent tickles the nose, a fragrance that seems to permeate every corner of the place. It’s the smell of beech, that wood with which Åke Axelsson’s started his career and with which he still works away every day.

Living in a chair museum

The master of the house, who has remained handsome and charming in his dotage, calmly shows us round the bright rooms of his house that once upon a time he built himself. Wherever you look there are chairs. They’re all different, and of course he made all of them. At the latest on entering his studio you realize that this here is a lived-in chair museum: Along the walls in perfect rows stand all manner of chairs, or are hung from the ceiling, right up to the point of the roof. If one were to dream up a studio for a chair-maker, then this is certainly what it would look like. Åke Axelsson’s studio resembles a gallery. Here, the designer and entrepreneur welcomes his friends and family, his business partners and colleagues.

A boy from Småland

Axelsson takes an antiquated-looking chair with flared little legs somehow reminiscent of Bambi trying to walk for the first time, and places it on the table. In a low voice and with inquisitive, sharp eyes he explains how it all started, him and chairs, that is. Åke Axelsson was born in 1932 in a small town in the Småland region in south Sweden, the son of farmers. He had seven siblings and grew up in poverty. Only if you worked hard and physically would you achieve anything, he says. His primary school teacher noticed his crafts skills and thus he was sent to the state Crafts School in Visby, where he trained as a cabinet-maker, a “Möbelsnickare”. Axelsson moved on, via Munich to Stockholm, where he studied at the “Konstfack”, gaining a greater knowledge of furniture-making and interior design. Immediately after completing his studies he had the good fortune to be able to work with Swedish architect Peter Celsing on the design for the Stockholm opera’s restaurant, the “Operkällaren”.

The farmer’s son from Urshult at the side of the great Peter Celsing, who came from an upper-calls family, now that was anything other than common narrates Axelsson. “Ibland kunde jag titta på mina händer. Med dom kann jag göra vad jag vill. Ingen annan har mina händer,” he repeated to himself back then, which means something like: “Sometimes I look down at my hands, with which I can make whatever I like. No one else has my hands.”

Chairs for Gärsnäs

He worked on another two projects with Celsing, the interior of the parliament and of the film institute, both of which were completed in 1971. He then went freelance and attracted great attention with his entry for a competition launched by furniture makers Gärsnäs and called “Probok” (“For Beech”). It was the start of the collaboration that has endured ever since. In the early 1990s, his daughter Anna and Axelsson’s brother-in-law Dag Klockby ran a store called “Galeri Stolen” in Stockholm, and in 2004 they bought out Gärsnäs, founded back in 1893, with its payroll of some 60 employees and saved it from extinction. To this day, 80 percent of the Gärsnäs portfolio consists of items designed by the pleasant Swede. His first chair, the “S 217”, is still being made, as is his “Akustik Chair”, one of the company’s big successes. It seems almost superfluous to mention that almost all his chairs are made of beech: “Beech”, or so Axelsson says explaining his preference for the wood (it was confined to a backseat in the 1970s with the mass-production of furniture made of spruce), “grows very, very slowly, and is therefore very stable and can be easily worked.”

Furnishing public spaces

In the course of his career, Axelsson increasingly specialized in outfitting public spaces, above all libraries and conference halls. They included prestigious contracts, such as that for the parliament and then for the maritime museum libraries, furnishing the Journalists Center or restaurants such as “Gyldene Freden”, all of them in Stockholm. The furniture in the Swedish Institute in Rome is likewise Axelsson. Gärsnäs has long since been the prime furniture supplier to the government, which is why in 1995 Axelsson also furnished a room in the royal palace with chairs that boast wide, curved backrests akin to historical precursors – in honor of the 25th anniversary of King Carl Gustav XVI’s reign.

It’s hard to pigeonhole Åke Axelsson’s designs. The shapes vary strongly and allude to various epochs and styles, from Classical Antiquity through Classicism to Functionalism. Chairs with a rod backrest are reminiscent of Carl Malmsten, others can be associated with Gerrit Rietveld and the sack-like armchair with Verner Panton. Axelsson himself says that he feels the absolute king of chairs is Michael Thonet, whose classic he revised and brought out in 1986 as a stacking version called “Linea”. As a young man he studied ancient chairs in crafts museums and refined the way they were made. This is the reason why his house in Vaxholm looks so like a museum.

Nomad is available through the Internet

Although many Swedes have sat on his chairs, few know him or of him. He’s always remained in the background. Until one year ago he did what he has always wanted to do ever since training as a cabinetmaker, namely sell his own furniture. It’s possible thanks to the Internet, quips Axelsson with a happy smile and refers to his Webshop, which Katarina handles for him. His “Nomad Collection” consists of chairs and tables for mobile use: light, folding, spanned with blue canvas, hand-crafted quality – made of course of beechwood. Which is by no means intended as a change from his work to date, as just in time for the “Stockholm Furniture Fair” Åke Axelsson is back on the Gärsnäs booth – in the midst of young colleagues such as David Ericsson or Fredrik Färg he’s busy presenting “Zen Conference”, his new upholstered chair. “You have to love what you do,” he says. And Fredrik Färg adds: “Åke is cool”.

Åke Axelsson in his atelier with his "Light and Easy" chair. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Reading corner made by himself: "Zenit II" and "Gungstol" with fabric by Svenskt Tenn.
Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Likewise selfmade: Axelsson's house and atelier in Vaxholm.
Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
First work made of wood. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
The "Picnic Stool" from the "Nomad collection" is based one leg - feet are needed for the whole stability. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
The 83 years old designer works every day. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
"Linea" is the stackable homage to Thonet's „No 14". Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
"Anselm II" chair at the Marinemuseum in Karlskrona. Photo © Åke Axelsson
Don't be cool: "Wood" by Åke Axelsson. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Just a little amount of his 200 created chairs are in his atelier. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
The chairs for the 25th jubilee of King Carl Gustav XVI have historical elements.
Photo © Gärsnäs