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A bright interior setting, with design items set up on display by a window.
"Welcome to Sweden", photo from London Design Biennale 2016
In 2016 the first ever London Design Biennale took place with national pavilions from 35 countries. The Swedish Pavilion consisted of designers and producers trying a new model for cooperation based on shared responsibility. The goal was more democratic, sustainable, local and environmentally-aware designs.
Photo credit: Svensk Form

Swedish design – beautiful everyday things

Whether it is furniture by IKEA, fashion by H&M, buildings by Gunnar Asplund, or music by Spotify, these Swedes all have something in common.

“They are all built using the same user-friendliness and democratic starting point,” explains Ewa Kumlin, the Director of the Swedish Institute in Paris.

So where did it all start?

One hundred years ago, in 1917, Svenska Slöjdföreningen (Svensk Form today) initiated the ‘Home exhibition’ at Liljevalchs Konsthall in Stockholm. As a result the association’s secretary Gregor Paulsson published the manifest ‘Vackrare vardagsvara’, translated as ‘More beautiful everyday things’. 

“There was a force in society to create a beautiful design that was available and affordable to all. These democratic values lay the foundation for Swedish design as we know it today,” says Ewa Kumlin.

A decade later, in 1930, Slöjdföreningen opened the ‘The Stockholm exhibition, which had an impressive four million visitors who wanted to take part in the breakthrough of Swedish functionalism. This was at a time when social democracy was blossoming, including the start of “Folkhemsbygget” – a movement to create a better quality of life for Swedes. 

“Sweden was flourishing and lots of the classic designs we recognise today were made during this time,” Kumlin says and highlights the fact that even though these objects were made for the masses, they were not stripped of their beauty. Simple, clean lines became the signifying aesthetic. 

These include famous objects such as Bruno Mattson’s ‘Sadelgjord’ chair (1931) and Yngve Ekström’s ‘Lamino’ chair (1956) both made with the human in focus. They also include current and past classics such as ‘Bumlingen’ lamp by Atelje Lyktan (1968), ‘Black Horse’ lamp by design studio Front (2006) for Moooi, ‘Billy’ bookcase by Gillis Lundgren for IKEA (1978) and ‘Berså’ ceramics by Stig Lindberg for Gustavsbergs porslinsfabrik (1961). 

The decades that followed saw an export of Swedish design, especially to America. This is where the idea of ‘Scandinavian modernism’ was born. 

“It was appreciated because of its availability; it wasn’t just about luxury and the extreme. Everybody could enjoy using it,” Kumlin says.  

Functional design today

Today, museums such as the Nordic Museum, National Museum and the Architecture and Design centre ArkDes in Stockholm specialise in Swedish design history and regularly showcase functionalist design. This also includes The Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg and IKEA Museum in Ämhult, which tells the Swedish history of democratic design.

Currently, democratic values such as quality of life have also expanded to include questions around equality, identity, norms and sustainability – themes that are vividly discussed in Swedish museums today. 

This means Swedish designers constantly generate new versions of beautiful everyday things.

“As a result of our non-hierarchical view of society, the values are constantly being revived and tested,” Kumlin adds. 

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Porcelain from Gustavsbergs porslinsfabrik

'Berså' and other collections of porcelain products produced at Gustavsbergs Porslinsfabrik.

Photo: Stina Juhlin / Gustavsbergs Porslinsfabrik

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Close-up on porcelain coffee cups with different patterns on a table and a twig from a green plant.

Porcelain from Gustavsbergs porslinsfabrik

Photo: Stina Juhlin / Gustavsbergs Porslinsfabrik

An old-fashioned kitchen set up at the IKEA Museum in Småland.

Exhibition at the IKEA Museum, Småland

Photo: © Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2017

An art exhibitions with paintings on a brown and pink wall.

Sigurd Lewerentz exhibition, ArkDes, Stockholm

Photo: Louise Helmfrid / ArkDes