"Sometimes I look at my hands, I can do whatever I want with them." Invitation to a retrospective on Åke Axelsson in 2013.

Åke’s passion for chairs

Many have sat on his chairs in libraries, museums and government buildings. Yet Åke Axelsson, joint owner of Gärsnäs, is only known to the cognoscente outside his native Sweden. Stylepark visited his studio.
by Martina Metzner | 3/2/2015

The first meeting is very unpretentious. Like a onlooker who has taken part in such events often enough, Åke Axelsson stands calmly in Stockholm's Kulturhuset and sips on his champagne glass. At the opening of the new, temporary design branch of the Swedish National Museum, works by deceased Swedish craftsmen will be shown under the title "Selectivities". They were selected by contemporary designers, including Åke Axelsson, who came with his daughter Katarina. Axelsson is hardly known outside Sweden, but the 83-year-old has shaped the Swedish furniture industry like no other designer. Not only because he has designed more than 200 chairs over the years, but also because since 2003 he has been a co-owner of the traditional Gärsnäs company, for which he has long been - and still is - the most important designer. Since he only speaks Swedish, his daughter, who actually lives in France as an artist, translates. Spontaneously, the two invite to Axelsson's house and studio in Vaxholm, about half an hour's drive from Stockholm.

The scent of beech wood

The next day we leave busy Stockholm behind us. With the car we go out to the flat country. The landscape is thickly covered with snow and the lakes and coniferous forests rhythmically passing by the eye radiate the peace that one only finds in the far north. As soon as one enters the Swedish wooden house of Axelsson, painted in the typical ox blood red, a special smell rises into one's nose that seems to be at home here in all corners. It smells of beech - the wood with which Åke Axelsson began his career and with which he still works every day today.

Living in a chair museum

The landlord, who has preserved his attractiveness and charm until old age, guides us calmly through the bright rooms of his house, which he once built himself. Everywhere there are chairs, chairs, chairs. They are all different, and of course they all come from him. When you enter the studio at the latest, you will know that it is a chair museum in which people live: On the walls, neatly lined up, there are all kinds of chairs, or they hang down from the ceiling up to the top of the roof. If one were to dream of the studio of a chair builder, it would look like this. Åke Axelsson's studio looks like a gallery. Here the designer and entrepreneur welcomes friends and family, business partners and colleagues.

A boy from Småland

Axelsson picks up an antique-looking chair with spread-away feet that remind us a little of Bambi's first attempts at walking and places it on the table. With a muffled voice and curious, alert eyes, he explains how everything began, with him and the chairs. Åke Axelsson was born in 1932 to farmers in a small village in the Småland region of southern Sweden. He had seven siblings and grew up in poor circumstances. Only if you did something physically could you achieve something, he says. His primary school teacher discovered his craftsmanship and so he went to the state crafts school in Visby, where he was trained to become a "Möbelsnickare", a carpenter. Axelsson moved on via Munich to Stockholm, where he studied at the Stockholm "Konstfack" to deepen his knowledge of furniture and interior design. Immediately after his training, he was lucky enough to be able to work with the Swedish architect Peter Celsing on the design of the Stockholm opera restaurant "Operkällaren".
The farmer's son from Urshult at the side of the great Peter Celsing, who came from an upper middle-class family, was, Axelsson says, anything but usual. "Ibland kunde jag titta på mina händer. Med dom kann jag göra vad jag vill. Ingen annan har mina händer," he told himself again and again at the time, which means: "Sometimes I look at my hands, I can do whatever I want with them. Nobody else has my hands".

Chairs for Gärsnäs

He also worked with Celsing on two other projects, the interior of the Parliament and the Film Institute, both completed in 1971. He then went into business for himself and attracted attention within the framework of a competition initiated by furniture manufacturer Gärsnäs under the title "Probok" ("Pro Buche"). A collaboration began that would last a lifetime. After his daughter Anna and Axelsson's brother-in-law Dag Klockby ran the business "Galeri Stolen" in Stockholm at the beginning of the 1990s, they took over the furniture manufacturer founded in 1893 in 2004 with its approximately 60 employees and saved it from extinction. Even today, 80 percent of Gärsnäs' portfolio consists of objects by the likeable Swedish artist. His first chair, the "S-217", is still in the range, and his "Acoustic Chair" is one of the company's successful models. It goes without saying that almost all his chairs are made of beech: "Beech", Axelsson explains his preference for this type of wood, which was replaced in the 1970s by mass produced furniture made of fast-growing spruce, "grows particularly slowly, making it particularly stable and easy to work with".

Equipping Public Rooms

In the course of his career Axelsson specialized more and more in equipping public spaces, especially libraries and conference rooms. Among them are prestigious objects such as the library of the Parliament or that of the Naval Museum, the equipment of the House of Journalists or restaurants such as the "Gyldene Freden", all of them in Stockholm. The furniture of the Swedish Institute in Rome was also made by Axelsson. Gärsnäs has long been the state's first furniture supplier, which is why Axelsson equipped a room in the Royal Palace in 1995 with chairs whose broad, curved backrests are reminiscent of historical models, also in honour of King Carl Gustav XVI's 25th anniversary of his service.

Åke Axelsson's designs are difficult to classify. The forms vary greatly and borrow from different epochs and styles, from antiquity to classicism and functionalism. Chairs with a backrest made of wooden spokes are reminiscent of Carl Malmsten, others of Gerrit Rietveld and his bag chair of Verner Panton. According to Axelsson, the king of chairs was Michael Thonet, whose classic he revised and presented as a stackable version "Linnea" in 1986. Even as a young man, he had analysed antique chairs in the arts and crafts museums and refined their craftsmanship. This is one of the reasons why Vaxholm looks like a museum to him.

Nomad is available over the Internet

Although many Swedes have sat on his chairs, few know him. He always worked in the background. Until a year ago he did what he had wanted since his carpenter teacher: to sell his own furniture. Axelsson says with a cheerful smile and refers to his web shop, which is run by his daughter Katarina. His "Nomad Collection" consists of chairs and tables for mobile use, light, foldable, covered with blue canvas, handcrafted in quality - and of course made of beech wood. This is by no means to be understood as a farewell to his previous work, because Åke Axelsson is back at the Gärsnäs stand just in time for the "Stockholm Furniture Fair" and is presenting his new "Zen Conference" upholstered chair amidst young colleagues such as David Ericsson and Fredrik Färg. "You have to love what you do," he says. And Fredrik Färg adds: "Åke is cool".

Åke Axelsson in his atelier in the middle of his chairs.
Reading corner brand self-made: "Zenit II" and "Gungstol" with cover by Svenskt Tenn.
Also homemade: Axelsson's house and studio in Vaxholm.
The first work made of wood.
The "Picnic" stool of the "Nomad Collection" only stands on one last - stability is provided by the feet!
The 83-year-old still works every day.
Helps against colds: "Wood" by Åke Axelsson, knitted in.