Don S. Shoemaker furniture designs, Mexico Mid-century modern and other furniture designers
Building up an icon (mass produced) – Part #15

Building up an icon (mass produced) – Part #15

In my previous post about this series I introduced the terms “Scandinavian Design” (which includes Denmark, Norway, Sweden Finland) and “Danish Modern”. Today, the subject will be “Swedish Modern”. This term first became current in the 1930’s when modern Swedish design was becoming increasingly well known in Europe and the United States. However, it was at its height in the 1950’s and was characterized by many of the qualities of Modernism blended with natural materials such as wood and a Scandinavian respect for craftsmanship. Like its counterpart in Denmark (Danish Modern) attributes of the “Swedish Modern” style included the use of light-colored woods, organic shapes, and color schemes with a predominance of white offset by accents of color in textiles, rugs and ceramics. The 1939 New York World#8217;s Fair initiated the so-called Swedish and Danish Modern style but it was not until the decade after World War II that this style achieved maximum international popularity in the home furnishings area. Nevertheless, it had a pronounced influence on mass-production furniture designed in America and it established a furniture aesthetic which was embraced enthusiastically by the more fashion-conscious consumer. In the US, “Swedish Modern” never achieved the popularity of the Bauhaus-inspired Streamline Moderne with its penchant for chrome and aerodynamics (metal ultimately won the battle over wood), but it became a widespread style, symbolizing positive ideas about humanism, tradition, moderation and democracy.

Many Swedish furniture designers were highly influential in formulating the Swedish Modern style. I have put together the most renowned contributors, and I will begin with Carl Malmsten, who is regarded to be the father of Scandinavian furniture design. When he refused to participate in the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition he was bitterly criticized as a reactionary anti-Modernist; he advocated the survival of folk traditions in craftsmanship and their application to modern design. He regarded modernism as short-lived because it failed to see that humans and human needs had not changed because of industrialism. Malmsten#8217;s influence on Swedish furniture design is particularly significant through the schools he founded, including Carl Malmsten Furniture Studies in Stockholm and Capellagården on the island of Öland, both of which are still in operation. It was Malmsten#8217;s wish to restore elements of the old master #8211; apprentice institution that united professionalism with an education in craftsmanship. As a furniture maker he expressed the old, inherited forms as well as the new, bold ideas with his language of design.

Back in the 1950’s, Carl Malmsten presented to Oskar Herbert Sjögren a series of designs which were produced for many years through O.H. Sjögren. Today the family firm is still active in the production of furniture and is run by its 4th generation, today O.H. Sjögren Tranås.

The collaboration between Estrid Ericson, founder of Svenkst Tenn and Austrian-born architect and designer Josef Frank (inventor of the Swedish Modern style) began in 1934. The Swedes were slow to adopt modernism, and it was not only in the later 1920’s that modern furniture began to appear in the country. The early Swedish modernists were drawn to German and Dutch functionalism—the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition featured many examples of a hard-edged modernism. When Frank began to work for Svenskt Tenn as its chief designer in the 1930’s, he introduced the idea of a humane, mitigated modernism. It was this vision of the new design that eventually began the dominant direction in Sweden, and later became widely known as “Swedish Modern”. Frank mostly used hardwood and liked to mix different sorts of wood for the same furniture. The Swedish Modern design of the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s, which became famous around the world, bore the strong imprint of Frank’s conception of a softened modernism.

Josef Frank was known throughout Europe in the 1920’s as one of the continent#8217;s leading modernists. Yet despite his important contributions to the development of modernism, Frank has been largely excluded from histories of the movement. Frank became the leader of the younger generation of architects in Austria after World War I; but, he fell from grace when he emerged as a forceful critic of the extremes of modern architecture and design during the early 1930’s. Dismissing the demands for a unified modern style, Frank insisted that it was pluralism, not uniformity, that most characterized life in the new machine age. He was able to put his ideas into practice when, in 1933, he was forced to leave Vienna for Sweden. Frank designed many different types of furniture pieces, from sofas and tables, to lamps and accessories. He designed some remarkable cabinets as well, but his true specialty was the design of textiles.

Erik Gunnar Asplund is mostly known as a representative of Swedish neo-classical architecture of the 1920’s and during the last decade of his life as a major proponent of the modernist style, which got its breakthrough in Sweden at the 1930 Stockholm exhibition. His work has influenced architects and designers such as Alvar Aalto, Erik Bryggman, Arne Jacobsen, Jørn Utzon and others. Asplund#8217;s major work is probably the Stockholm Public Library, constructed between 1924 and 1928, which stands as the prototypical example of the Nordic Classicism and so-called “Swedish Grace” movement. His work is clearly a part of the modern movement in Sweden, but his use of carvings, decorative details and color suggest the influence of neo- classic and romantic Scandinavian revival. Italian furniture manufacturer Cassina still produces some of his iconic furniture designs today.

The company Karl Mathsson was created in 1933 by Karl Mathsson. A 4th generation cabinet maker, Karl Mathsson taught his son Bruno Mathsson about wood and furniture business. Bruno Mathsson took over management of the family furniture-making company in 1957; his furniture #8221;became a symbol for Swedish Modern#8221;. Mathsson never went mass market and he wouldn#8217;t collaborate with anyone until the 1960’s, when Dux Industries of Sweden took on production of some of his chair designs. Later he allowed Tendo of Japan to manufacture some of his designs on a smaller scale for the Japanese market. In 1978 Dux Industries purchased the Mathsson firm and began manufacturing and distributing Mathsson´s bentwood furniture. Today Bruno Mathsson´s furniture designs are manufactured by Bruno Mathsson International and Dux Industries.

Bruno Mathsson was probably Sweden#8217;s most successful modern furniture designer in the 20th century. Inspired by Le Corbusier, Mathsson experimented with the physiology of the seating curves adjusted according to the body, which in turn resulted in prototypes for the work, easy, and lounge chairs. His furniture is undoubtedly influenced by the bentwood designs of Alvar Aalto, but Mathsson’s commitment to bentwood and the range and virtuosity of the material he achieved exceeds all of his contemporaries, including Marcel Breuer, among others. Mathsson designed some of his most attractive and collectable furniture pieces during the 1930´s such as the #8220;Pernilla#8221; Chair and the “Eva” Chair. Most of his designs were named after women.

Mathsson´s international breakthrough as a furniture designer however came at the 1937 World Fair in Paris. His popularity dwindled somewhat during the 1950’s when, despite requests by many distributors of modern furniture (like KNOLL) to manufacture and distribute his designs, he refused to succumb to the demands of the marketplace by altering the specifications of his bentwood designs to enable large orders. In the 1960´s he created the famous #8220;Superellipse#8221; Table together with Danish mathematician Piet Hein. This series was produced both by Swedish manufacturer Karl Mathsson and by Fritz Hansen in Denmark.

Swedish architect Carl-Axel Acking was one of the leading names on the Swedish interior decoration scene during the 1940-50#8217;s. In the 1940#8217;s he experimented with molded plywood and designed chairs for mass produce purpose. Acking#8217;s designs were manufactured by producers such as Nordiska Kompaniet (NK)*, Bodafors, KF and Nordiska Möbelfabriken.

*Nordiska Kompaniet was a licensed manufacturer of Herman Miller#8217;s furniture, many of Charles Ray Eames#8217; chairs where produced by them. Designers who worked for or cooperated with NK included: E. Gunnar Asplund, Carl-Axel Acking, Stig Lindberg and Astrid Sampe. Unfortunatelly, the factories closed in 1973.

Swedese was founded in 1945 (initially ESE Furniture) by the 2 brothers Yngve and Jerker Ekström and Sven Bertil Sjöqvist, with Yngve leading the company. Yngve Ekström together with names including Alvar Aalto, Bruno Mathsson, Arne Jacobsen and Poul Kjaerholm was at the core of a generation of designers who made the concept #8220;Scandinavian Modern#8221; famous all over the world. Yngve Ekström´s breakthrough came with his Easy Chair #8220;Lamino#8221; in 1956, combining austerity with lightness, beauty with function. In the 1960#8217;s he creates a variety of furniture made of Swedish pine. Around these years the 2 brothers also started a lighting factory, Lystella AB. Ekström also designed furniture for companies such as Stolab and Broby.

Designers that have collaborated or are currently working for Swedese: Arik Levy, Broberg Ridderstråle, Bror Boije, C-H Spak, Christine Schwarzer, Claesson Koivisto Rune, Edward Barber, Jay Osgerby, Eva and Peter Moritz, GamFratesi, Isaac Chen, Katrin Olina, koncept., Lars Pettersson, Lime Studio, Marina Bautier, Michaël Bihain, Michael Young, Monica Förster, Naoto Fukasawa, Roger Persson, Setsu and Shinobu Ito, Skala, Sofia Dahlén, Staffan Holm, Thomas Bernstrand, Yngve Ekström.

Swedish furniture designer Arne Norell founded Möbel AB Arne Norell in 1954. Arne Norell was a multifaceted designer who tried many different material combinations. His most well-known and appreciated piece is the Easy Chair #8220;Ari#8221;, designed in 1966. Many of his designs are still manufactured by his company now under the name Norell Möbler AB. Marie Norell-Möller carries on the family tradition and style with her work.

One four-letter word particularly comes to mind when thinking of Swedish design #8211; IKEA. The world’s largest furniture manufacturer, founded in 1943 by 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad, is known for its modern and minimalist design. The IKEA brand is associated with simple, low cost and stylish products. Rather than being sold pre-assembled, much of IKEA#8217;s furniture is designed to be self-assembled. IKEA contends that it has been a pioneering force in sustainable approaches to mass consumer culture. Kamprad refers to the concept as #8220;democratic design,#8221; meaning that the company applies an integrated approach to manufacturing and design. Although IKEA household products and furniture are designed in Sweden, they are largely manufactured in developing countries to keep costs down. As of October 2011, IKEA has 332 stores in 38 countries and the IKEA website contains about 12,000 products. The company is keen to show leadership in adopting more environmentally friendly manufacturing processes, however, IKEA is the world#8217;s third-largest consumer of wood, behind The Home Depot and Lowe#8217;s. IKEA´s 2010 annual catalog (first issued in 1951) was published in 20 languages and 61 editions, covering around 197 million copies.


IKEA#8217;s main contribution to Swedish design was its ability to bring functional designs to a mass market. Swedishness also plays a role: IKEA products tended always to be of light wood with organic shapes and fresh colors. As the company has grown bigger and more global, the style has become less distinctive. On the other hand, their designs are only rarely completely original #8212; they are often inspired by others #8211; yet IKEA produces its own versions at a fraction of the cost. The “Billy” Bookcases for example, have sold 28 million times worldwide since they first appeared in 1979. When they were removed from the IKEA product range in 1991, there were major customer protests. They returned to the stores in 1993. Most IKEA items end up in garbage piles, vintage pieces are not easy to find.

#8230;to be continued in part # 16

© Karin Goyer and Don S. Shoemaker Furniture, 2010-2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this website’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karin Goyer and Don S. Shoemaker Furniture with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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