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Swede surrender

imageYou know Sweden as the land that gave us Abba, Bjorn Borg, Volvo, and Absolut vodka.

You might know that they’re gradually infiltrating most of the world’s homes and wardrobes with Ikea furnishings and H&M fashions.

What you may not know is that the Swedes also invented the Tetra Pak, the rear-facing child safety seat, and the Nobel Prize (yes, Alfred Nobel was Swedish).

All I knew was that Sweden was a country I’d long yearned to visit. Not only was it home to two of my all-time favorite stores (see above), I pictured it as the land of great modern design – populated by stylishly dressed people and cool, high-tech houses.

As soon as I landed at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, I found I was right on the money. Whereas in the Philippines modern design is limited to a certain elite, in Sweden it’s a way of life for all citizens. You see people driving Saabs, drinking at ice bars, toting Ericsson phones and leaving the vacuuming to a robotic dustbuster called Trilobite (from Electrolux).

Much like Japan, Sweden is a 21st-century country that lives out the space-age ideal, except the Swedes are also close to nature, blessed as they are with the third largest country in Europe and only 9 million people.

My lodgings at the Clarion Hotel were a foretaste of what was to come. Clarion’s slogan is "It’s not a hotel," which of course begs the question, What is it? Well, if there’s a chain of Design Hotels for the discerning like The Hempel in London, Clarion is a new breed of Art Hotel. They’ve bought their own modern art collection and exhibit it in the foyer of each floor. Instead of flower beds in their garden, Clarion has beds of crushed green glass that it lights up at night. And they’ve produced a CD for guests with music from dawn to dusk. State-of-the-art rooms with a soundtrack – how many other hotels can claim that?

Thanks to the Swedish Embassy in the Philippines, I was in Stockholm to cover the annual Furniture Fair. Though acknowledged as smaller than the trade fairs in Milan and Cologne, the Stockholm fair is the number-one showcase for Swedish and Nordic design.

It will take you a day or more to traverse all three halls of furniture, lighting and textiles. Every possible look you could want for your home or office is here – from rustic to shabby chic to modern to ultra-modern. If your previous exposure to Swedish design was limited to Ikea, you were only getting a fraction of the picture.

Swedish design has come a long way since 1897, when painter Carl Larsson showed watercolors of the interiors of his home at the World Exhibition in Stockholm. His wife, Karin, had designed most of the furniture and fabrics. Her rustic décor and light colors became famous around the world, and to this day are associated with "quintessential Swedishness."

In the 1920s, the foreign press coined the term "Swedish Grace" to describe Sweden’s unique arts-and-crafts products. Glass artisans like Simon Gate and Edward Hald created a modern style that would later make their company Orrefors famous.

The turning point came in the summer of 1930, at the Stockholm Exhibition. Architects like Gunnar Asplund, Uno Ahrén, Sven Markelius and Sigurd Lewerentz were given license to create something new, and they did, introducing large windows, clean surfaces, open spatial solutions and spartan décor. This new aesthetic would later influence furniture designers like Bruno Mathsson, who was inspired to experiment with chairs made of curved wood, cane and tubular steel.

Thanks to these pioneers, Swedish design came to mean blond elegance – "blond" referring to the use of light, natural materials inspired by the countryside and the softer quality of Swedish light – clean lines, coolness, lightness and sparse decoration. Thus was "Swedish Modern" born.

Politicians realized that design was a first-class tool for marketing Sweden as a vital, international, modern society. Their government agencies like the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Trade and Industry made 2005 the Year of Design and help sponsor essential events like the Stockholm Furniture Fair.

Lucky Sweden – their politicians are enlightened Social Democrats who take care of their citizens "from the cradle to the grave"– free schooling, free medical care and very secure pensions. With this return of investment, not many Swedes complain that they’re taxed almost 50 percent.

Like its government, Swedish design is democratic, intended to benefit everybody from the working class up. The people behind Ikea explain it this way: "If you grow up in Sweden you will know – either from your father or from society in general – that those who are a little worse off ought to have the same opportunities as those who are a little better off."

The company is currently the biggest disseminator of Swedish design, with 172 mega-stores in 37 countries. (Ikea has yet to open a Philippine store. Swedish Ambassador to the Philippines Annika Markovic noted that they intended to open a production facility in the country a few years ago, but had difficulty finding reliable contractors. Thus, they moved to Vietnam instead – a big loss.)

Thomas Sandell, a national treasure in Swedish architecture who designs for a number of companies like Asplund and Ikea, says, "I think it’s nice that people can buy my stuff," though he changes his usual approach when designing for the global superbrand. "It has to be a flat package so, yeah, the skills are a little bit different."

If you buy a Sandell chair or bench, you are assured that in addition to being beautiful, it’s also functional. Swedes place great importance on ergonomics, designing things people use so that the object and the person using it interact safely and efficiently.

Lastly, Swedish design is affordable. It’s the formula for the global success of Ikea and H&M. Inspired by foreign fashions and trends, they translate them and use simple methods of production and "impoverished" materials to create the trademark simple, spare and undecorated Swedish style.

Today, a talented generation of architects and furniture designers has sparked a boom in Swedish design – new stars who came on the scene in the ’80s and early ’90s like Thomas Sandell, Mats Theselius, and the trio Claesson, Koivisto, Rune.

At the Stockholm Furniture Fair, the most recent offerings by these luminaries stood out among 800 exhibitors from 25 countries.

For instance, architect Eero Koivisto designs furniture for Offecct, an office-furniture company that got loud ovations at the latest Milan fair. This year Offecct is introducing its first home collection.

Koivisto’s Cell table and Float sofa push the boundaries of modern design. Cell is a transparent orange coffee table made of the rigid plastic normally used for making skis. A core of cells was created using a brand-new lamination method, which produced an extremely strong and hardwearing structure that has excellent storage potential.

Float is a gravity-defying sofa system that appears to be floating due to an unusual detail. The sofa rests on a mirror plinth that reflects the floor surface, thereby creating the illusion. Koivisto came up with the idea when he saw Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder in Star Wars, and found out how the filmmakers had used mirrors to give the illusion that the craft was floating.

Koivisto says his designs are "hopefully more mature" this year. When I asked him why he chose orange and aqua as main colors for his home furnishings, he replied, "They’re nice colors I would like to live with."

Young designer Fredrik Mattson of Blå Station won this year’s Forsnas Prize for Stol 69, a wooden chair with molded seat rim and chrome-plated steel legs. Deceptively simple in appearance, the chair was actually painstakingly designed to be attractive yet affordable, comfortable, light, stackable and linkable.

Sweden’s design and business sector is abuzz over Design House Stockholm, which was commissioned by Starbucks to design a new range of crockery for its 8,000 outlets worldwide. Designers Signe Persson-Melin and Marie-Louise Hellgren will create coffee cups, sugar bowls, milk jugs and coffee jars to be manufactured in Thailand and China. The first delivery is slated for August 2005, so if you find yourself admiring your Starbucks mug while sipping a cappuccino, you’re literally getting a taste of Swedish creativity.

These companies plus a new wave of young designers have made the Swedish furniture scene the largest and most active consumer category today – rising stars like Monica Forster, who designed Cloud, an inflatable mobile room that you can set up in any space; Thomas Bernstrand, who was awarded Sweden’s Furniture of the Year prize for his Ikea kitchen table with built-in vise (for tasks like squeezing out the last egg from a tube of caviar); and avant-garde, all-female group Front, whose "natural" designs include white wallpaper gnawed through by rats (so when you put it on your wall you can see the paint underneath through the holes).

Last year the main trend was furniture in neutral tones – a reaction to the riot of color in years past. But just to show how everything is cyclical, this year we’re back to color – not just any fluffy pastels but rich, saturated color in unexpected shades like turquoise, mustard, crimson and chartreuse.

"The trends right now are happiness and functionalism," says renowned architect and furniture designer Thomas Sandell, the current tour de force behind Asplund. "I think we have a close relationship to nature, and we’re almost into practicalities."

Sandell says he doesn’t try to fight against the blond impression, "because I’m raised that way. I don’t try to hide that."

Koivisto agrees with the conventional wisdom about Swedish design, and goes with the flow. "I’d rather fight all the stupidity occurring in bad design," he declares.

French designer Erwan Bouroullec, whose partnership with older brother Ronan was the guest of honor at the fair, says, "It’s true that France has developed a more decorative approach, while the Swedes (are) applying a more straight modernism, but now the particularities don’t really exist anymore."

The Bouroullec brothers designed a lounge located at the entrance to the fair, dividing it into a library-type space for work, and a living-room area for relaxation using their acclaimed Facett couches and algae-like, amorphous plastic walls.

"We used some furniture of ours that fit the question," relates Erwan. "As a second step we used wall patterns like ‘twigs’ and ‘algues’ to divide the space."

The Bouroullecs designed everything, down to the floor material.

"What interested us was a space in which we proposed a lot of different solutions, from the seatings, to work, to the walls and the floor," continues Erwan. "As a consequence we ‘linked’ the colors in order to bring unity and diversity at the same time."

Another star exhibit was "Soft Walls," by textile designer and decorator Synnove Mork. Mork wanted to show that fabrics can also be used in an architectural way, so she created a series of rooms in which the walls were made entirely of textiles. These materials had been subjected to the latest techniques like laser-cutting, lifting, pulling, blowing, sewing and folding.

Other companies that made waves at the fair were Swedese and Lammhults, long-established furniture companies that exhibited the best and newest products in their 60-year histories; Skandiform, with its furniture for business and pleasure; Kosta Boda, the glassworks that is the colorful, modern counterpart to Orrefors; and Senab, an interior-design company that assists architects and designers with creative and production issues. I liked Senab’s famous cupboard series Part, by Anders Ekegren. First launched over 10 years ago, Part is adjustable and flexible enough to be a room divider, bookcase or cabinet for home or office – whatever storage solution you require.

Many Swedish designers are inspired by their travels, and have become master observers of the life going on around them. "A good discovery is more due to hazard than going to a fair," notes Bouroullec.

But when all is said and done, what really distinguishes good design? The best designers know it instinctively, in the gut. "You can see it, feel it," says Koivisto, who thinks Sweden’s most important contribution to the world of design has been "creating good, beautiful, wise, functional objects for everyday use."

"When it doesn’t hurt your eyes," says Bouroullec.

"I don’t have any philosophy; I just do what I think is right," says Sandell. "I have a role model, and that’s Alvar Aalto," he continues. "He cares about everything, even the door handles. That’s the way I would like to work also as an architect."

His dream project? "A cultural house in the Philippines," Sandell says, laughing.

We should definitely take him up on it.

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