A hypnotic patchwork of glossy lakes, thick coniferous forests, and tranquil meadows punctuated with petite red cottages forms the pastoral landscape of Sweden’s southern province of Småland. It’s a region whose natural attributes and rustic sensibilities present a sharp contrast to the more hurried rhythms of cities such as Stockholm and Aarhus. So it may come as a surprise that Småland—some three and a half hours by train from the capital—is recognized as the lifeblood of Swedish design.
From the Kingdoms of Crystal and Furniture to IKEA’s hometown of Älmhult, Småland has a rich tradition of craftsmanship fueled by makers of furniture, leather, glass, and more. It is where Sweden’s design story begins. Even today it remains a manufacturing epicenter that designers rely on to produce their work and find inspiration.
Stockholm-based designer Anna Kraitz visits the area often to meet with collaborators. “It’s maybe strange that all these different products are made deep in the woods, but everything feels alive in Småland,” she says. “It’s not just because of the countryside, but the people, all the designers who produce there. It’s like a family.”
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Astrid Lindgren, author of the Pippi Longstocking series, is arguably Småland’s most well-known native, but one could make the case that she has been surpassed by Ingvar Kamprad, the farm-raised founder of IKEA who passed away earlier this year and whose name has become synonymous with egalitarian design. In 1958, the pioneering entrepreneur launched his first shop in Älmhult, in southern Småland, and turned it into a multimillion-dollar DIY furniture brand known the world over for its affordability, playful catalogs, and showrooms espousing Scandinavian minimalism. Since 2016, the Älmhult store has also been home to the IKEA Museum, designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects and Uulas Arkitekter, where fans can view more than 20,000 pieces from the archives while noshing on the brand’s trademark Swedish meatballs.
IKEA might be its most well-known export, but Småland’s furniture-making heritage runs deep. One of its trailblazers was architect and designer Bruno Mathsson. The son of a fifth-generation cabinet-maker, Mathsson was propelled by functionalism from a young age, making organic chairs and daybeds starting in the 1930s. The Bruno Mathsson Center, a glass-walled reliquary in Värnamo, northwest of Älmhult near one of the country’s largest wetlands, displays some of these pieces, which he designed after a long spell in the States, where he was entranced by the work of Philip Johnson. Södra Kull is another of his marvels, a low-slung summer residence in nearby Tånnö that he shared with his wife, Karin. From a massive floor-to-ceiling book collection to floral curtains in the kitchen, everything in the home is so well-preserved, it feels as if Mathsson himself could reach for the Bach album from his stash of vinyl and settle into one of the armchairs.
Along with Mathsson and Kamprad, a number of local stalwarts uphold Småland’s design legacy. Gemla Møbler, just north of Älmhult in Diö, is Sweden’s oldest furniture factory, dating back to 1861. Bentwood furnishings are the backbone of the brand, which fashions an array of durable ash and beech chairs by hand into seductively curved forms. One recent hit is the relaunch of Gracell by Yngve Ekström, an early acolyte of the Scandinavian Modern movement. First produced by Gemla in 1956, it now pairs original stitching with natural vegetable-tanned leather seating. in 1945, joining forces with his brothers, Jerker Ekström and Bertil Sjöqvist, Yngve founded Swedese in Vaggeryd, which continues to turn out sleek easy chairs and a range of sofas with rounded retro forms.
Källemo, founded in 1965 in Värnamo by Sven Lundh and now run by his daughter Karin, manufactures daring sculptural pieces, such as Jonas Bohlin’s thronelike Concrete Chair, which pushed the boundaries of postmodern austerity, and Mats Theselius’s glass-and-brass peekaboo National Geographic Cabinet. It is Källemo that Kraitz gravitates toward in particular, due to the company’s knack for blurring the lines between art and design. “Källemo worked with not just designers but artists early on, and this was a bit forbidden in Sweden then,” she says. “I studied art and had not yet dedicated myself to design, so I felt in a way that maybe they understood me and I understood them and we grew together.” Kraitz has partnered with Källemo for years, designing products that range from a button-studded armchair to a wooden tea trolley to a wool blanket emblazoned with a pattern of knots.
Småland’s other chief export is hand-blown glass, a craft that traces its roots back to the middle of the 18th century. The municipalities of Nybro, Emmaboda, Lessebo, and Uppvidinge are jointly dubbed the Kingdom of Crystal, and Kosta Boda—a consolidation of Kosta and Boda glassworks—is undoubtedly the most prolific.
For an immersive look into the region’s glassmaking history, you would do well to start at the Glass Factory, the one-time home of the Boda compound and equal parts museum and glassblowing studio. Recently, the team has been busy fashioning pieces to adorn a powder-coated-steel chandelier by Nybro-based lighting manufacturer Örsjö Belysning, the centerpiece of the restaurant in the Nationalmuseum, which just reopened in Stockholm after a five-year renovation by Wingårdhs and Wikerstål Arkitekter. Local designer Matti Klenell, who worked on both the design of the restaurant and the chandelier, preaches the importance of the region’s venerable fabrication shops such as the Glass Factory. “Its heritage is Boda Glasbruk. It used to be a company that many famous artists and designers worked for, and the importance of the village in shaping Sweden’s reputation for excellent glass design can’t be underestimated,” he says. “In our post-industrial age it is so great to see something like the Glass Factory grow from the ashes of the old.” Case in point: Monica Backström, one of the designers from Boda’s golden age, was part of the team that worked on the chandelier. “Full circles like that are beautiful,” Klenell says.
Another must-see cultural institution is the Renzo Piano–designed Vandalorum, a shrine to contemporary art and designed that opened in Värnamo in 2011 and closely resembles the region’s red barns. The museum was introduced to an international audience when its curator was portrayed in Ruben Östlund’s 2017 film The Square. The gift shop, which carries locally made dishware, toys, and jewelry, is worth the stop alone, as is the light-filled restaurant Syltan. Showing now: Wasteland—From Waste to Architecture (June 16–Jan. 13, 2019), which investigates the benefits of transformative detritus.
Also drawing attention is a husband-and-wife duo living and working in Kåremo, a remote section of Småland. Makoto and Karin Horisaki’s handcrafted hats are sought out by such celebrities as Lady Gaga and Don Johnson through their bespoke millinery, Horisaki. Makoto, a native of Japan, and Karin, who grew up near their workshop, love the freedom and solitude of Småland compared to the distractions and egos in a big city like Stockholm. “Småland is full of beautiful creators that work without pretensions, just talent,” Karin says. Inside their peeling farmhouse atelier, a sewing machine, iron, and spools of thread look just as artful as the rows of hats, some made with Canadian beaver-fur felt, others with rabbit-fur felt from the Czech Republic. Often they are delicately burned, the flame yielding a smooth leathery texture, then left to the elements. “We take help from nature in our patination as well,” says Karin, letting the sun and rain give the hats a well-worn sheen. “We are modern people doing an old craft.”
Not all of those beautiful creators make things; some build environments. For almost a decade Bodil Antonsson envisioned Uppgrenna Naturhus, her sanctuary in Gränna—birthplace of the peppermint stick, a cherished Swedish confection—before it finally opened in 2015. An old barn was demolished to make way for the striking two-part structure, with a towering greenhouse crown. “The big glass roof binds together water, fields, and sky—most important, it enables the essential sunlight to flow through and give both plants and people life,” Antonsson says. Overlooking Lake Vättern, Uppgrenna Naturhus is a true refuge. Some folks come for a mental timeout, savoring their afternoon fika (Swedish coffee break) amid the Mediterranean garden filled with tomatoes, figs, and olive trees; others take to the loft, where yoga classes take place among a melange of pillows, rugs, and hammocks. Come winter, sun loungers in the solarium provide a rejuvenating dose of light therapy. “Uppgrenna Naturhus is where nature and humans benefit from each other,” she says, “to cooperate instead of work against.” So it is in the rest of Småland as well.