Nordic design – striped rag-rugs, colourful textiles, smooth furniture lines – is a household name. It has been part of my life too. Perhaps it was the homestyle I grew up with from furniture to decoration in my childhood home.
On my travels I have experienced two memorable encounters with Swedish design, and on each occasion, in an empty house. A house empty of people, but full of the spirits of those who had visions of how to live in homely comfort with bright surroundings during a long dark winter season. The practicalities in furniture and space created a style that continues to endure.
Some 40 years ago I was driving north towards Lake Siljan in Dalarna County in the centre of Sweden. It was late, the night had closed in and the forest road looked even more forbidding as my headlights lit the way. We were driving to visit my mother’s Swedish friend, Ingeborg. She offered her summer house some distance from her retirement unit for our stay. ‘Follow me!’ she called, insisting to lead the way on her bicycle, peddling as hard as she could, her knitted hat ties in full flight behind her. I still have a vision of following a real live troll, trying hard not to run her down with the car. The Swedes do like to ride their bikes, but this was ridiculous. She took a short cut along a dirt road, not the main road at all! Would I ever know where I was in daylight?
It had been some 25 years since my mother had last seen Ingeborg. They got to know each other before I was born. And then we left Sweden. Now I was meeting Ingeborg for the first time.
We arrived at a two-story falun- red wooden house trimmed with white set in large grounds. Ingeborg rattled off instructions, but I was too tired to pay much attention, eager to get to bed after a long day’s drive in a new car and on the right-hand side of the road too. Ingeborg prepared a herbal tea in the pine-yellow and blue kitchen. We sat on a pine bench at a long pine table to chat a while.
We slept late next morning, maybe because of the herbal brew, and were woken by the persisted clanging of a bell. We found Ingeborg at the door, most surprised we weren’t awake yet. A large brass bell hung with a pull-rope outside the front door. There was more to find out about the house, firewood to bring from a shed for the firebox in the living area that also heated the water in the radiator pipes. It was a relief to find that water flowed through a kitchen tap and WC but there was no shower. The china basin and bowl in the washing cabinet upstairs were reminders of how things had once been and in this case, still were. And so, after some more herbal tea, Ingeborg cycled away.
When all became quiet again I was able to explore the house. No one lived in this house now but obviously it had been a family home, then a summer house and now it was filled with memorabilia, a lifetime’s memorabilia – porcelain, weavings, glass objects – Ingeborg’s collection in her doll’s house. A troll’s house. A gallery of precious pieces – delicate glassware in exquisite shapes and colours, early Kosta Boda and Orrefors glassware; softly toned woven fabrics at the windows; striped rag- rugs in colour fantasies scattered on the scrubbed pine floor, woven cushion covers capturing attention on soft light toned leather chairs, and then my eyes landed on a collection of twisted and mushroom-like tree burls, reminders that Nature inspires Nordic design. There was more for the eyes to feast on – china imitating see-through lace, fine embroidery, woven table runners, wall hangings. Look, touch, but do not break!
Upstairs were two bedrooms and a studio/sitting area with a picture window over a lake encircled by birch and fir. In the evening the lake reflected the low sun doubling the effect of the soft pale blue and pink twilight. At my bedhead was a painting in a style I had not seen before. Of the 18th century this was an example of Swedish folk art described as ‘Valley Painting of the region of Dalarna’. In this example, the decorative style of naive figure drawing blended with a folk-art scroll resulting in a religious expression of common and manor house people welcoming Jesus on a donkey on Palm Sunday. The pictures seemed to respond to the text at the bottom, words and pictures in unison, helping to show the meaning, as an illumination does in a Book of Hours. It was a curious transposition of the Nordic environment of people, wooden cottages and forests to the Holy Land with palm trees. The composition and the different shades of ochre, blue and red on a white background were striking, becoming stamped on my memory.
Further exploration revealed secret cupboards in walls for storing everyday things. Nordic design means no clutter. Painted in dark green with floral and scroll designs the built-in cupboard doors and chest of drawers blended in with the colours of the painted walls. A collection of Dalarna horses – stout legged carved wooden horses in different sizes – lined a window sill. These familiar horses, painted with floral designs mainly in red with a harness in green, yellow and blue, can now be bought at IKEA stores all over the world. People first carved these horses as gifts for children in 1623.
We slept among lace-edged real linen sheets, feather pillows and down quilts with a hand-woven throw cover. Then, I was struck by another discovery. Trolls of all shapes, sizes and expressions peeped from secret corners. All one needed to do to commune with one was to look up and behind an object and there … was a troll with a cheeky expression. Made of felt and scraps of reindeer fur and wearing a red cap they too, now appear in IKEA stores.
This was not an empty house. Its objects were alive and surely came out to play at night and returned to their places by morning. It was not at all spooky as an empty house usually seems, but one filled with fairy tales and fantasy.
These memories were recently stirred on a visit to the home of artist, Carl Larsson, and his wife, Karin, at Sundborn in the same area of Sweden. The art and design of this little house have had a large international impact. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, staged an exhibition of their design and art in 1997 and an article about the event in ‘The Economist’ began with, Where Ikea got its style.
In the post-war years Corbusier and the Bauhaus movements influenced urban design for the masses when rapid provision of accommodation after the 20th century wars was required. But Nordic design was born earlier. Karin was a talented artist who turned her skills, perhaps in the spirit of the times, to domesticity, and developed stunning designs for the house they jointly designed for their family. In the 1890s Carl Larsson began to paint watercolours of scenes around the house and soon after published the book, ‘The Home’, with accompanying text. The book became a bestseller in 1899 across USA and Europe, selling 200,000 copies in Germany. They painted some of the old 18th century furniture they inherited from Karin’s parents, white, an accepted style then and still, but in contrast, added bright daring folk-inspired patterns and colours to tiled corner stoves, built-in cupboards and to textiles. There are blue and white check covers on the kitchen chairs, brightly coloured patterned runners on the polished floors, chairs painted blue with honey-yellow padded seats, a large studio with murals giving it a feel as if there is a stage and one is in a theatre. Air, light, and a love of nature inspired a conscious break from designs of the past giving expression to something bold and modern, completely in its own place and time. A piece of Karin’s unfinished weaving was to be seen, still on the loom, a sophisticated abstract pattern that might be called art-nouveau, modern. The Larssons sought innovation that led them to the edge of modernity. Karin’s aunt, used to living among over decorated drawing room furniture, was shocked and is said to have declared she would rather sleep in a prison cell than at this house.
Carl Larsson had talents for drawing recognised by his schoolmaster, and was later able to study in Paris. Just as Monet created his home and garden in Giverney, Larsson designed a home that was radically colourful, uncluttered and practical. It was a surprise to see Japanese prints on the library wall but it became evident that Carl became friends with the plein-air movement and like Monet, acquired Japanese prints as they arrived in Europe with Japanese goods. One print by Utagawa Kunisada is of a woman with a scene of Hakone. The simple everyday life scenes that Japanese artists had depicted in their wood-block prints aroused in Larsson the concept of painting his family in domestic activities – children playing with toys, laying the Christmas fare on the table, breakfast with the family under a birch tree, boating on the lake and tending flower pots on a window sill. The recognisable scenes, including one of a girl dressed in red, wearing reindeer-skin boots and pulling along a bag of apples through the snow while holding three candles, grabbed my interest years ago when I discovered Larsson’s art on cards in a store in Stockholm.
The house itself was compact, again inspired by the ideas of space in Japanese living. Carl painted in a studio in the middle of the house and slept above it in a large white painted four-poster bed dripping with hangings embroidered in colourful geometric designs by Karin. Best of all, was the panel window that opened into the studio, so he could see his work from his bed as soon as he woke.
The house has extensions around the back and is set in private gardens that are enjoyed by the present-day descendants of the Larsson family with the original house forming the museum at the front. Nearby is a small hydro power station that Larsson was instrumental in bringing about so that electricity was available to the small village.
Descendants of the Larssons were having afternoon tea and cake in the garden while I was there, so that the museum part of the house could still hear echoes of children and happy summer gatherings.
This month, September 2018, an exhibition of art, painting, furniture and textiles by the Larssons will be on view in Tokyo. (Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art 1-26-1, Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo )
Falun- red paint is coloured by iron oxide pigments that were contained in ores obtained from Sweden’s copper mines, the most famous being at Falun also in Dalarna.
Lake Siljan was formed in the crater made by a gigantic meteor, 32km in diameter, 377 million years ago.