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Contemporary Swedish Design

The Second Phase of Modern Design - Contemporary Swedish Design

swedish_design.jpg Swedish design runs like a reliable wool thread through the history of design. In the mire of design trends it has always stood firm. It is appreciated all over the world because of its functionality and its safety - less so because of its beauty, splendor, or glamour. With qualities such as honesty and reason it has not been possible to create a spectacular and fashionable presence in the arena of international design. Swedish design products are manufactured with great care from the best raw materials, which has earned them a reputation for high quality. Moreover the pure materials often untreated and in their natural colors, have lent Swedish design an aura of ecological awareness. (A reputation that is not entirely deserved. The Swedish environmental protection regulations are not as strict as, for example, the German ones.)

And then all of a sudden "Swedish" becomes the new catchword for international designers after "Provincial" or "Country" have become worn out, and this time "Swedish" does not refer to ball bearings, Volvo or sex messages. No- ever since international home décor magazines printed emotional descriptions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century interiors of Swedish castles, the "Gustavian" style, the style of Swedish King Gustav lll, has experienced a revival. People everywhere lounge on wooden chairs dyed with linseed oil in rustic Louis XVI-style with seats in pale-green striped cotton, and chic apartments in Manhattan or Paris must contain at least one kitchen bench painted gray wit checkered, round cushions on the armrests.

The international voice of the Swedish home, Ikea joined this trend with a whole series of copies approved by the Swedish Office for Antiquities. At Ikea one can buy a complete interior décor in the style of the eighteenth century - from flatware all the way to a four-poster bed with canopy - at affordable prices. And then the artist couple Carl and Karen Larsson made a comeback. Their turn-of-the-century house in Sundborn was dismantled and taken to London, where it was exhibited with great success in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Around the world the home décor press copies Carl Larsson's edgings and the embroidered tablecloths of Karin Larsson with great enthusiasm. This attention to all things Swedish is very pleasant, of course. However, it is mostly a focus on styling and thus constantly needs new props to keep it alive. As it turns out, this Swedish trend was only a warm-up exercise; with its collection PS Ikea launched a contemporary continuation of all this "Swedishness." At about the same time, Swecode, a group of young manufacturers and designer, presented exactly this kind of design on the international scene. Then, in 1998, Svensk Form and a consortium of log house manufacturers demonstrated what a modern log cabin could look like. The prototype Vistet, erected beside the Nordic Museum, consisted of eight-inch logs and was furnished by a number of young designers. The home of the future can be a solid log cabin, which is easy to assemble and move.

This example is indicative of the "second Swedish modernism" Andrea Branzi had noted already In 1989. It is the legacy of both Sweden's' poverty during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which reduced the gilded continental building style to an ochre-yellow, rural style, and of the prosperity of the twentieth century, whose catchwords were planning, social equality, and affordability. The new generation of Swedish designers obediently followed their tradition, offering function, cunning, and clarity in their designs. When backed by big companies, such as Ikea, designers can also afford a touch of disarming ingenuousness. The PS collection is like a bright dream of life in modernist Elysian fields. This dream will never again become reality. When the world presented itself at the Expo 2000 in Hanover, it was a completely different one than that celebrated in 1900 in Paris. Back then the affluence of industrial society was just beginning; today most people predict a future of poverty and isolation for themselves.

Thus it is no accident that young designers want to revive that earlier, beautiful vision. I see their designs as symptoms of those changes all of our culture has to undergo, and I believed that the Swedish way to deal with design has a good chance to succeed in the midst of these changes. Strictly functional, economical in its use of material and in production, and supported by a distribution geared toward the most effective use of resources, it is in a good position to become very important. Swedish reason and cunning, Swedish proportions and awareness will become exports during the restoration of the decaying consumer society. That functional gray wool thread, its warmth, reliability, durability will be more in demand than ever before. This is not to say that this Swedish wool thread could not also benefit from a little splendor and glamour.

Ulf Beckman
Editor-in-chief Form, Stockholm