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Typical architecture from the functionalism era – the “Per Albin-houses” in Stockholm
Typical architecture from the functionalism era – the “Per Albin-houses” in Stockholm.
Photo credit: Dan Hansson/SvD/TT

At home with the Swedes

The concept of folkhemmet, home for the people, is central to Swedish society and design. Born nearly a century ago, its ideas of equality, functionality, solidarity and everyday beauty are still in the heart of Swedish design and architecture.

By Elna Nykänen Andersson

When I first moved to Stockholm I lived in a building on John Ericssonsgatan 6 known as the Collective House. It was designed in 1935 by Sven Markelius, one of the country’s most important modernist architects, and had many features regular residential buildings lack. In the mornings, if the fridge was empty, all we had to do was to give a call to the bakery downstairs, and soon, two freshly baked chocolate croissants would arrive in the dumbwaiter, a small elevator delivering food straight to the residents’ kitchens. We would eat breakfast by the living room window, which was tilted in such a way that everyone living on that side of the building had plenty of light and a view to the glimmering surface of Lake Mälaren, instead of the building opposite. In the Spring, we would plant geraniums in the built-in boxes on the balcony. Come summer, we would sunbathe in the inner courtyard garden, open to everyone and manicured to perfection by the city’s gardeners. Life here was filled with simple everyday luxuries, practical solutions and smart innovations.

The collective house is a perfect example of Swedish functionalism, a style born around the same time and connected to the same ideas as the political concept of "Folkhemmet", a central idea in the Swedish society. The term, which translates to ”the people’s home”, was launched by the social democratic politician Per Albin Hansson in 1928, at a time when Sweden was struggling with poverty and class divides. Hansson saw a country that needed to be united and devised a vision for his Sweden, a society without class barriers, a place where everyone, regardless of their background, would have the chance of an education and a career. The home had an important role to play: everyone would be entitled to a decent, functioning, beautiful home where they could wash themselves with warm water, cook in their own kitchens and socialize. Sweden was to become a country marked by equality. Many new flats were built and many political reforms carried out in the name of this goal, from free education to universal health care. The idea also had a profound impact on Swedish design and architecture, which were seen as important building blocks for the new society. The Collective House, for instance, had a clear agenda. When it was first built, it had a restaurant, a laundry room and a kindergarten with staff, all intended to liberate women from the burdens of cooking, washing and child care at home and enter a new life as working mothers. 

Today, the house no longer employs any staff, but kindergartens have become the norm, mothers keep working and many of the house’s functions have become standard. Take, for instance, the shared laundry room. It was introduced as a feature in Swedish houses in the 1920s and 1930s and has since become a necessity most people rely on. Each resident books a slot in a calendar to wash and dry their laundry, using the jointly owned machines. (Those laundry hours, by the way, need to be followed to a T. There may be few things that are sacred to Swedes these days, but the laundry room rules are definitely on the shortlist.)

The windows are another case in point. While the predecessor of functionalism, national romanticism, favored small, symmetric windows, this new style took the existing surroundings and everyday life as its starting point. Sweden is a country with little sunlight in the winter, which is why the functionalists designed flats with large windows, letting the light flow in from the south. People were put at the center of the design process. The number of architects says something about how much the importance of quality building and design increased over the following decades: in 1936, there were only 500 qualified architects in Sweden. Today, Architects Sweden represents 13,000 architects, interior architects, landscape designers and spatial planners. 

As a political idea, folkhemmet had its heyday between the 1930s and 1960s. But its central heritage has had a lasting impact on Swedish design. Even today, it underlines the contemporary, seemingly simple style Sweden has become famous for. Furniture giant Ikea is perhaps the most classic example. Founded in 1943, its core idea was that anyone should be able to afford stylish furniture, and indeed, most Swedes today have at least one Ikea item in their home. They live side by side with other Swedish products, from beautiful Gustavsberg crockery to linen bedding by Himla and classic, wooden stick-back chairs from Malmstenbutiken – also provided as a high chair for children, because kids, too, deserve good design. Swedish design is seldom just about the surface. It’s a strive for equality and improved quality of life – not just for a selected few, but for the many.