Enchanting . . . by design

From the Nobel Prize to sporty Saabs and colorful IKEA furnishings, Sweden celebrates the value of artful enterprise and the beauty of everyday living.

Cover Story

December 07, 2003|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Rival is a smart new boutique hotel in Stockholm that's partly owned by Benny Andersson, formerly of ABBA, Sweden's famous pop quartet. When I stayed there a few weeks ago, above my bed was a huge blowup of a black and white photograph depicting a dreamy-eyed young man playing his violin while seated beside a waterfall on a sunny day.

An arresting image, suggestive of the giddiness that occurs in this northern country -- Stockholm is on roughly the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska -- when warm weather finally arrives.

As the local saying goes, "You can't appreciate a Swedish spring until you've lived through a Swedish winter."

Yet, the fiddler on the river, as I came to regard him, also hinted at the cheery way Swedes have of celebrating the beauty in everyday life.

To be sure, cheeriness is not the first thing many Americans associate with Sweden. Better known are the Nobel Prizes, which will be awarded Dec. 10 (as they have on this same date -- the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death -- since 1901) to winners in five fields: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.

And some moviegoers continue to revere the exquisite aloofness of Greta Garbo's screen presence, or the gravity of Ingmar Bergman films.

Yet, with all due respect to these mighty moments in Swedish culture, the national ethos is better represented these days by the bright, irresistible designs from IKEA, or Mama Mia!, the giddy pastiche of ABBA songs that's a long-running hit on Broadway.

"In this country, 80 percent of people are Lutheran, yet it's often said that Sweden has a church with no believers, and believers with no church," observed Agneta Lagercrantz, a journalist with Svenska Dagbladet, a Stockholm newspaper. "If the truth be told, our main religion is worship of nature and being outdoors."

Her point is well taken. The vast majority of Sweden's territory is forests and lakes, so country life influences the city, not the other way around. Out for a walk the first afternoon I arrived in Stockholm, I overheard people bragging about the mushrooms and lingonberries they'd picked over the weekend. I saw women walking through the park with cross-country ski poles in their hands, as if they couldn't wait for the first snow.

Each winter, there is a Viking race in which skaters traverse the frozen waters from Uppsala (a university town 60 miles north) into downtown Stockholm. Swedes also hunt moose every fall. Natural predators for these enormous creatures are nearly extinct, so they pose a serious threat to automobile traffic.

Swedes are so protective of their distinctively seasonal festivals, holidays and customs that though their nation is a member of the European Union, the country has eschewed the euro. Instead, the Swedish kroner consecrates national heroes such as Carl Linnaeus, who in the 18th century classified the plant, animal and mineral worlds in his Systema Naturae -- a numbingly vast accomplishment perhaps only a Swede would have attempted.

Walking through Stockholm -- with its extraordinary variety of home decor stores, it's obvious that Swedes are devoted to seasonal design as well. I passed a fascinating hour at Larsson Korgmakare, a family-owned business that for generations has manufactured warm-weather rattan and bamboo furniture. And I spent a small fortune at Job's fabric, makers of silk-screened linen such as their best-selling pattern, Sommar, or summer, which is a riot of peonies and jonquils.

Walking at dusk, I was surprised to see candles burning everywhere -- not just in restaurants, but at gyms and by the grocery store cash register. Unlike the haughtier styles of Italy and France, or the sometimes alienating artistry of Asia, there is nothing off-putting about the Swedish obsession with beauty. It's altogether practical. Because you have to drive a car, sit in a chair or drink juice, Swedes believe these humdrum happenstances might as well involve works of art.

"I have designed many water carafes in my life," said Ingegerd Raman, a designer for Orrefors Crystal, whom I sat with one morning in her austere studio overlooking a pond. I watched her sketch on pieces of translucent rice paper, one layered on the next like phyllo dough, until a shape she was refining gradually emerged. "Because if I make something beautiful, people will drink more water."

And they will buy more carafes. Swedes regard design not only aesthetically, but economically, too. Their country may be large, but it has a small population (9 million people, about the same number as New York City.) To build wealth, the country has developed such globally popular brands as Volvo, Saab, Ericsson telecommunications and the youthful fashions of H&M stores. It's no wonder that the art "industry" is referred to with utmost respect here.

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