of Sweden in
Germany From Sundborn and Bullerby to IKEA
Essay by Melanie Kurz
Designers and architects will doubtless think of names like the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto and his Danish colleague Arne Jacobsen or companies such as Arabia, Bang & Olufsen, Electrolux and lighting manufacturer Louis Poulsen. These names represent a movement that was known as Scandinavian Modern, emerging in Nordic countries from the 1930s and extensively known and recognised in German specialist circles from 1950 onwards. The post-war designs of these premium Northern European manufacturers and their ilk is still appreciated in Germany today as uncontrived, pared-back, sustainable, enormously practical and of high technical quality.
But far more people than the relatively limited number of players in the creative economy associate Scandinavian design with what is generally known as Swedish country house style. Even those who have never been to Sweden, Norway, Denmark or Finland may find, in their mind’s eye, a picture of houses painted in Falu red with neat white window-frames, standing amid birch forests on a coast or lakeshore, their bright interiors showing a vibrant, fresh use of colour that is attractive and inviting. This repertoire of mental images is garnished with wood in natural, white or pastel-painted finish, playful decor in bright colours, practical everyday products whose low cost does not require careful use, bouquets of wild flowers on diningtables and visual references to vernacular culture and rural craftsmanship.
Aside from a parade of home and garden magazines, the collective pan-European image of Nordic interior design has primarily been shaped by the Swedish furniture company Ikea. However, the German predilection for Scandinavian, and particularly Swedish lifestyle and living dates back far beyond that company’s international expansion.
As the Scandinavia expert Andrea Suhr notes in her dissertation, few have shaped the image of Swedish interior design more lastingly and intensively than Astrid Lindgren. It is the author’s illustrated books for children and young people that first communicate an image of carefree Swedish country life to a German audience from childhood onwards. This world is anchored more firmly in the collective memory by film versions of Pippi Longstocking, Bullerby, Mardie, Emil of Lönneberga and Seacrow Island. Constant repeat showings enable Lindgren’s vastly romanticised image of Sweden to unfold anew in each new generation. Almost everyone that has grown up in Germany can still call to mind the construct of carefree Swedish country life set within an aspirationally practical range of products and communicated by the media. Even as adults, we recall the unconventional, often amusing solutions to tiresome routine chores, such as Pippi Longstocking’s scrubbing-brush shoes. The mixture of styles in Villa Villekulla is as fresh in our memory as the rag rugs, the light spokeback chairs and the foldaway bench in the Svenssons’ farmhouse in Lönneberga. But Lindgren did not create her idyllic Swedish interior world out of nowhere; in the 1940s, she already had a secure foundation on which to build.
Precisely one hundred years ago, the era when Walter Gropius was founding the Bauhaus in Weimar and the First World War was a recent memory saw the death of a man who had played an unparalleled role in kindling the Germans’ love of Swedish interior style and life close to nature in the Nordic countryside. This man’s name was Carl Larsson. He grew up constantly on the brink of destitution in Stockholm’s slums; his later recollections of his childhood were a litany of poverty, hunger, child labour, cramped living conditions and a loveless father. Only when a teacher noticed his gift for drawing and recommended the art academy did Larsson’s life take a different turn. His career took him to Paris and an artists’ colony in rural France, where he met his later wife Karin, before he returned to Sweden.