A National Design?


10 May 2019

On a gloomy October day in 2015, a small group of designers stands at the rim of a chasmal excavation in Dalarna, Sweden. The pit spans some 400m and is about 100m deep. In places, it has clearly delineated tiers and galleries, where little shrubs sprout. An asphalted road winds its way down to the bottom. All is yellow ochre: the leaves, the pit, the dust.

The Great Pit at the old Falun copper mine, the industrial byproducts of which are still used to make the Falu red pigment.

This is Stora Stöten (the Great Pit), the gigantic hole created when the Falun copper mine in Dalarna collapsed in 1687.1 At the time, Sweden was at the height of its colonial powers: the ore extracted at Falun accounted for approximately two thirds of the world’s copper production and its 1,000 or so labourers made it Sweden’s largest workplace long before the era of Saab and Ikea. The open-pit mine ceased operations in 1992, and was granted Unesco World Heritage status in 2001 by dint of its being, according to the organisation, “one of the most outstanding industrial monuments in the world”. Today, the site houses a mining museum.

Stora Stöten is an emblem of Swedish industry, and one of the sites visited by the designers Matti Klenell, Carina Seth Andersson, Stina Löfgren, Gabriella Gustafson and Mattias Ståhlbom (the latter two making up TAF Studio) on seven trips made as part of the development of a joint project for Sweden’s Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. Fast forward three years to October 2018, and this project has been unveiled in Stockholm under the name NM&: A New Collection. It comprises about 90 objects designed and created especially for the museum’s new restaurant as part of a renovation of the entire building. After a five-year closure, the Nationalmuseum has been re-opened with much fanfare by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, after its first complete makeover since its inauguration in 1866. In addition to NM&, the museum has a new climate-control system, lift tower and exhibition-design concept. Its collections have been entirely rehung, and its spaces populated by especially designed objects, such as a series of visitors’ benches by Swedish studio Folkform, and a new reading room interior by Emma Olbers. The sheer numbers of designers involved make the $132m renovation project unique.

All this is far off for the five designers in Falun in 2015. It is only a few months since Matti Klenell, who acts as the creative head of the group, had his first exploratory meeting with Nationalmuseum’s two NM& project leaders, design historian Helena Kåberg and facilities expert Fredrik Eriksson. Kåberg and Eriksson wanted to commission as large and diverse a group as possible. “The more Fredrik and I talked about it, the more we felt that the museum is an arena for the entire design community,” says Kåberg. “We have large collections telling stories about different aspects of design, so we felt that it would be more in line with the vision of the museum to let as many designers as possible participate.” As it happened, Klenell, Seth Andersson, Löfgren and TAF had recently concluded a collaborative exhibition project called A New Layer (held at the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm), in which they had explored Taiwanese lacquering techniques through a “Swedish lens”. “When we met Matti Klenell it felt like a natural fit,” says Kåberg. “The entire renovation project is this gigantic piece of teamwork, where specialists work together to create something new, and he was very much interested in that type of approach.”

A test wall at the colour factory.

The premise of A New Layer had been to learn from Taiwan’s unique lacquering tradition, and produce a collection of objects in response to field research conducted in the country. Given the participants’ different backgrounds – Klenell is an interior designer and glass artist, Seth Andersson works with ceramics and glass, TAF are furniture designers and architects, and Löfgren is a graphic artist who also works with objects – the designs ranged from large-scale furniture to minimalistic tableware and colourful lacquered combs. “When we did A New Layer, we travelled to Taiwan something like 22 times,” says Klenell with a laugh. The group now decided to take the same approach to their own manufacturing tradition. If they were going to create restaurant space in Sweden’s national museum of art and design, they reasoned, should it not communicate something about the conditions of designing in Sweden in the 21st century?

The restaurant space is an eclectic-looking affair that nevertheless manages to coalesce into a coherent whole, largely because of its colour scheme of ochres, red iron oxide and deep greens. The rooms, which have views of Stockholm’s Royal Palace across the water, used to house the Nationalmuseum’s paper-conservation studios. Now, they are populated with finely turned furniture, some of which has been produced ultra-locally – such as Klenell’s bamboo wicker armchairs, made at Larsson’s Basketry in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan or “Old Town”. The interior is punctuated by a rich variety of glassware. This culminates in a chandelier in the main dining room, the baubles of which were blown at the Örsjö Glass Factory in southern Sweden by the whole group of designers, as well as others.

“We never wanted it to be a Scandinavian-looking interior,” explains Klenell. “But we wanted it to have a very strong sense of materiality and particular material processes going on.” These processes were to be drawn from research conducted during a year of preparatory travels, where the designers would investigate the current state of manufacturing in the Nordic region. This approach resonated with the museum’s aims, explains Kåberg. “We have an educational goal at the museum,” she says. “It’s not just about pretty things: we have to tell a story. The story here is to investigate a big topic. What can you actually manufacture in Sweden? Is there such a thing as national design identity? What does that mean in a global world?” For the designers, the disused copper mine in Falun was an appropriate place to begin thinking about such questions.

TAF’s Atelier chair in natural beech wood.

“More than anything, Swedish interiors, architecture and design have been distinguished by a democratic intention.” So reads a report issued by the Swedish government in the year 2000. It continues: “Furniture and interior designers often use materials in an economical manner, and tend to have a predilection for blond and airy interiors.”

These lines, which appear in a section titled ‘A Democratic Tradition’, encapsulate an image of Swedish design – and of Scandinavian design – that has been propagated nationally and internationally for the best part of a century. According to this image, Swedish design is driven by particularly virtuous imperatives: its products are affordable and therefore automatically “democratic”. Consider Ikea: “We have decided once and for all to side with the many,” declared its founder, Ingvar Kamprad, in his 1976 Testament of a Furniture Dealer, “by offering a wide range of well-designed[…] products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.” This type of democratic design is also thought to have a particular look: blond, organic, minimalist, airy, hygienic. It is a notion of design identity that has become so widespread that even government policy appears to ratify it. But where did it come from? And is it accurate?

In 1917, the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design (known, since 1976, as Svensk Form) organised a competition devoted to home furnishings at Stockholm’s Liljevalchs Konsthall. “The Society seeks to stimulate the production of furniture which could be suitable for mass production,” the organisers wrote in the catalogue, “but which is nevertheless characterised by good taste.” The Home Exhibition, as it became known, targeted the Swedish working classes as the consumers of such products: the Liljeblå service, for example, was designed by Wilhelm Kåge for one of Sweden’s oldest porcelain manufacturers, Gustafsberg, and was presented as the “Workers’ Service”. But this was a period when Sweden was going through wartime recession and a severe housing crisis: few workers would in fact be able to afford the Workers’ Service. And while the exhibition was unexpectedly popular, drawing some 40,000 visitors over its two-month run, it was primarily the Swedish middle classes who embraced the new mass-produced products.

The main dining area features a table by Matti Klenell and Atelier chairs by TAF, all rendered in a burgundy shade inspired by Falu red. Against the window is Pine, a bentwood table light by Klenell for Swedese.

The idea of democratic mass-production stuck, however.2 In 1932, the Swedish Social Democratic Party began what would become one of the longest rules in the history of liberal democracy: with the exception of a brief interruption in 1936, the Social Democrats stayed in power until 1976. Design and architecture were to play a conspicuous role in Social Democratic ideology, as the country transitioned into a modern welfare state. Take the notion of the “folkhem” or “people’s home”, a term coined in 1928 by then-party leader Per Albin Hansson: “One day,” he said in a parliamentary debate, “Swedish class society must be replaced by the people’s home of Sweden. The home knows only solidarity and compassion. In the good home, no one is privileged or disadvantaged.” The people’s home was to become a powerful metaphor for progressive social reform.

In 1930, the Crafts Society and the City of Stockholm organised the Stockholm Exposition, its largest event to date. The exhibition design of the city-wide event, which showcased architecture, crafts and furniture design, was conceived by Swedish modernist architect Gunnar Asplund, although Le Corbusier had briefly been considered. Almost 4 million people visited, from within Sweden and abroad, and the gleaming spaces presented – new show villas and flats were designed by architects Sigurd Lewerentz, Sven Markelius and Uno Åhrén, among others – seemed to embody the progressive social aspirations of the people’s home. An affinity was forged between the Social Democrats’ vision of Sweden’s future welfare state and the new functionalist style. Continental “funkis”, as functionalism was affectionately termed in Swedish, had landed.3

This marriage of progressive social reform and functionalist design was presented to international audiences at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937 and at New York World’s Fair in 1939. In New York, the Crafts Society was the organiser again, this time with Markelius as exhibition architect of the Swedish pavilion. A large portrait of Per Albin Hansson, the progenitor of the people’s home, welcomed visitors as they entered the pavilion, as well as a photomontage with the text: “WE KNOW the home to be one of the most important factors in modern society[…] WE KNOW that beauty and comfort should be provided to all. WE KNOW that beauty and high quality can only be achieved through the intimate cooperation of artist and manufacturer.” The pavilion was hugely successful and exemplified what became known, internationally, as “Swedish Modern”. This brand would be further cemented in the postwar period, when the exhibition Design in Scandinavia travelled across the US and Canada between 1954 and 1957, and ultimately canonised both within Scandinavia and outside of it.

Stacks of furniture pieces in the Swedese factory in Vaggeryd. Below, a scene at Larsson’s Basketry in Stockholm’s Old Town.

“At The Home Exhibition at Liljevalchs in 1917, you could only enter if you had produced and designed the object in Sweden,” says Kåberg. “This was to do with national economic interest: you weren’t supposed to import things. But you can’t really do that anymore. We’re part of the European community, so we need to follow certain procurement laws. And also, with globalisation, a lot of industries have moved out to lower their costs.”

The academic and social activist Naomi Klein described the effects of corporate globalisation early on. “Many brand-name multinationals, as we have seen, are in the process of transcending the need to identify with their earthbound products,” she wrote in her 1999 book No Logo. Increasingly, Klein noted, it is on the production of abstract values that brands are spending their funds, rather than on physical objects: “This slow but decisive shift in corporate priorities has left yesterday’s non-virtual producers – factory workers and craftspeople – in a precarious position. The lavish spending in the 1990s on marketing, mergers and brand extensions has been matched by a never-before-seen resistance to investing in production facilities and labour.” In 1999, Klein was referring to multinational “super brands” such as Nike, but today, some 20 years on, the production model she describes has become the norm rather than the extreme.

As any design-interested reader will know, the Scandinavian design brand is still going strong in contemporary marketing. Even claims of having superseded it – Danish furniture maker Muuto calls itself the “New Nordic”, for instance – rely on the consumer’s brand recognition of something like the “Old Nordic”. As Kåberg observes, however, the material conditions of producing design in Scandinavia have changed dramatically in the last 30 or so years. Increasingly, as companies have outsourced their manufacturing, or been bought up by larger conglomerates, it is rare for the entirety of their production to take place in the region. In the meantime, branding efforts have been dialled up to 11, taking advantage of the progressive associations of Scandinavian design; associations that have morphed from welfare and housing reform to more general feelings of well-being and high-quality, clutter-free lifestyles (think “hygge” and “lagom”). “Made in” labels offer interesting insights here: in principle, anyone marketing furniture and design objects as “Swedish” or “Scandinavian” when they are in fact produced elsewhere, could be reported for a misleading trade description. The solution for a number of brands has been to tag their products with “Designed in Scandinavia” labels instead.

hapeau chairs by TAF for Offecct placed around Afteroom’s café tables for Källemo. In the windowsill is the Mela light by Matti Klenell for Ateljé Lyktan.

It was within this context that NM& set out to work. For the flatware in the new restaurant, Klenell and his group approached Swedish multidisciplinary practice Note Design Studio (Kåberg and Eriksson encouraged the designers to invite more collaborators; in the end, almost 30 practices were involved). Note wished to produce its cutlery with Gense, a Swedish manufacturer established in 1856 and headquartered in the town of Eskilstuna. The rich history of metalsmithing in Eskilstuna dates back to pre-Viking times and has given the place the nickname of “knivstaden” or “Knife City”. However, recent years have seen many of its traditional producers, such as Eka, move production to cheaper locations in Portugal and China. Initially, Gense was excited about the NM& collaboration. “Gense is a really famous Swedish manufacturer,” says Kåberg, “but lately they have had trouble with competition from abroad. So they have some of their production in other countries now.” In fact, Gense announced in 2017 that it was planning to close down its Eskilstuna production site. “But for this project,” explains Kåberg, “they wanted to rejuvenate the Eskilstuna plant and to produce the flatware there.” During the development of the NM& cutlery, however, Gense was bought by a Norwegian company. “Unfortunately, this new company didn’t feel the same way. So we ended up manufacturing the table flatware in China.”

Even when things did not go exactly as planned, then, they revealed something about the challenges facing manufacturers in Scandinavia. Another surprise came on the trip to Falun. One of the industries relying heavily on the copper mine is Falu Rödfärg, the makers of the rusty red colour, Falu red, found on many wooden homes and farmhouses throughout Sweden. The pigment is made from iron ochre, which is extracted from byproducts of the copper mine and heated, turning from mustard yellow to red in the process. “At Falu Rödfärg, they told us the pigment can only last 70 more years if it [continues to be] produced at the current speed,” says Mattias Ståhlbom from TAF Architects. “They still use the leftovers from the mine that closed a while ago, but it’s not an endless resource.” This pigment, which is integral to the way rural domestic architecture and farmhouses look in Sweden, is going to become less of a staple in the next 70 years, by necessity. In the light of this, the designers set out to present the colour in a new context, hoping to prompt visitors to appreciate it afresh. “It’s a colour we’re so used to seeing, but it’s always used outside on wooden facades,” says Ståhlbom. “We tried to create an indoor and furniture-coating colour with that shade instead.” The result can be found in the main dining hall of the Nationalmuseum restaurant, where a large table by Klenell for Gärsnäs is flanked by a host of Atelier chairs, designed by TAF for Artek – the entire ensemble is coated with a finish in the shade of Falu red.

The Atelier chairs appear elsewhere in natural lacquered beech, and here the inspiration for their design is more evident. The solid-wood stacking chair has two low, floor-level beams connecting its front and back legs, a clear reference to Sven Markelius’s 1931 wooden stacking chair. Markelius’s chair was originally designed for Helsingborg Concert Hall, but has since been so widely used that most Swedes know and recognise it. “We love the aesthetics and function of that chair,” says Ståhlbom. “It’s a very democratic chair that has been used in so many situations in Sweden.” It captures some of the spirit of the 1930 Stockholm Exposition, even though it was not created specifically for it: a functional piece of furniture, all in one material, without any formal fripperies. Markelius, in turn, had taken inspiration from a 1929 birch stacking chair designed by his friend Alvar Aalto and Otto Korhonen. Aalto, who would establish Artek together with Aino Aalto, Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl in 1935, gave Markelius permission to use his and Korhonen’s chair for inspiration. As is so often the case, design objects viewed as quintessential of a particular national style, are the result of cross-influence and transnational collaboration. “Now,” says Ståhlbom, “we’ve almost come full circle with the Atelier chair being produced by Artek.”

The bespoke Femettan dining table by Kristoffer Sundin and Stina Löfgren is surrounded by Botero chairs by Peter Andersson and Matti Klenell for Källemo.

Artek was bought by a Swedish conglomerate in 1992, and sold to Swiss company Vitra in 2013. While the majority of its products are still made in Turku, Finland, this form of local production is not always the case in Sweden. “Every time you travel around Sweden’s old industrial regions, there’s a sense of melancholy,” says Klenell. The group made two trips to Småland, where Klenell lived as a child, in a village that used to serve the Orrefors glassworks until they closed in 2012. “The village is so beautiful and I hate that the factory closed,” he continues. “But then you look at Skruf, another old glassworks in the region, and they’re opening up new furnaces and hiring people.” Much of the glassware designed for the Nationalmuseum’s restaurant ended up being blown in Skruf. Carina Seth Andersson, who designed a large share of it, agrees there are reasons to be hopeful. “There is some growth in the glass industry,” she says. “But the biggest companies can’t make it anymore. It’s the smaller ones that can grow.” Perhaps, Ståhlbom suggests, these developments are not so bad. “Maybe companies aren’t meant to be so rich and so big,” he says. “There’s something nice about having a lot of smaller cottage industries. Maybe it’s to be preferred over one big industry that a whole region is relying on.”

The designers are keen to stress that NM& should not be viewed as an exhaustive survey of manufacturing in 21st-century Sweden. “It’s not a full inventory,” says Ståhlbom, “because of course that’s impossible.” Neither do they want visitors to come away from the restaurant thinking they’ve experienced a quintessentially “Swedish” style. “Sweden is a long and diverse country and the design expressions vary a lot depending on where you’re looking,” says Stina Löfgren, whose woodblock prints and painted patterns depart from the minimalist aesthetic that she acknowledges “has been canonised” in Sweden and beyond. What makes the NM& collection fitting in the context of the Nationalmuseum is its research-based approach. Can one speak of Swedish design if an object isn’t made in Sweden? How have manufacturers changed to accommodate globalisation? Was “Swedish Modern” not always something of a construct? “We began this project with a year of travelling around Sweden and we took a lot of pictures,” says Klenell. “When we looked back at them as a whole, we realised that Swedish design is not so much blond furniture as it is dirty warehouses.”

1 Amazingly, there were no casualties. The collapse took place on Midsummer’s Day, one of the two days the workers had off that year.
2 It was reinforced in 1919, when the Crafts Society issued the hugely influential promotional pamphlet ‘More Beautiful Things for Everyday Use’.
3 Of course, funkis had its fair share of criticism too. In its report on the 1930 Stockholm Exposition, the local newspaper Östersunds-Posten suggested that Uno Åhrén’s terraced houses, with their flat roofs and rectilinear design, looked more like a “row of chicken coops and rabbit cages” than homes fit for human habitation.