When you walk into a good Swedish-designed room, whether it is an antique-filled country home or a contemporary industrial loft space, there is a calm and feel-good quality that literally permeates the atmosphere. What’s not to love? Especially in today’s stressful environment, there’s something to be said about an interior style that was made to be not just utilitarian and practical but also deeply soothing and relaxing in nature.
General Scandinavian decor trends have permeated American living spaces the past decade for their functional use of clean lines and modern design elements (especially by North American standards) but the basis of Swedish-specific decor takes that feeling of simple but beautiful one step further.
Interested in finding out more about the history of Swedish decor? Below, we spoke to three experts to get to to know the Scandinavian style a little bit better.
Meet the Expert
What Is Swedish Decor?
“Swedish design is so appealing because it embraces the timeless allure of indoor/outdoor living with a focus on high quality natural materials, light, functionality, art, eclecticism, balance, color and a deep reverence for nature,” explain Rhonda Eleish and Edie van Breems, authors of Swedish Interiors and owners of Eleish Van Breems Antiques, a premier Swedish antique store in the United States.
“Working with our clients and customers, we return to these touch points again and again and are always excited to see how the principles of Swedish design lend themselves to both contemporary and more traditional spaces, always invoking a sense of calm and beauty,” explains Van Breems.
Eleish and Van Breems also note that Swedish furnishings and accessories are, for the most part, so elegantly designed that they can stand alone almost as sculpture and artwork in any setting.
The origin of Sweden’s style is deeply rooted in its location. “Sweden is really a country of geographic extremes. The south is rich and fertile and the coastlines, with their great waterways and archipelagos, open up onto the riches of the Baltic and North Seas,” explains Van Breems. “The north has great pine forests, giving way to a barren and arctic mountainous landscape marked by winters of great length and intense cold.”
Historically, Swedes needed to become one with the rhythms of the vast wilderness around them in order to survive. Self-sufficiency was a necessity and looking towards nature for inspiration, well-being and connectedness became ingrained in the Swedish character.
Using what was natively available and repurposing materials is an aspect of Swedish design that was truly bred out of necessity, explains Van Breems. Isolated from the rest of Europe, the importing of luxury fruitwoods, marble and precious metals was affordable only to the monarchy or very top aristocrats.
Furniture in the 18th and 19th centuries, though influenced by trends on the continent, was for the most part pared down to a purity of form. “What we respond to today is Swedish furniture’s integrity of design without fussy adornment,” says Van Breems. “Without gilding or ormolu, the simple lines and patina of painted Gustavian furniture, as well as it’s handcrafted carvings, fluting and marguerite details, have a purity and elegance that we can easily relate to and that mix beautifully with modern interiors.”
Historically, things were designed from the best available materials in order to last and living space was at a premium, so items were designed with great thought and care.
“Beds with built-in clocks and cupboards, benches that convert into pull-out beds and chairs that can turn into tables are just a few of the many ingenious space-saving furniture forms found in Swedish design,” explains Van Breems, adding that furniture often served multiple uses and this concern with practicality continued most notably with the Scandinavian mid-century master furniture makers such as Hans J. Wegner, Arne Jacobsen, Poul Kjaerholm Josef Frank, and Finn Juhl, to name a few.
The key characteristics of Swedish decor really exist in its history and how Sweden made do with what they had—and thrived with a less is more mentality. Modern Swedish decor has held onto these elements while mixing in contemporary and period pieces.
“An eclectic layering of pieces from many different periods is how most Swedes live, and why their interiors are so gracious and sophisticated is not only this mix but their use of light, symmetry and negative space,” explains Van Breems. “In our own interior design work we take a cue from the Swedes and try to always maintain a calm that comes from the balance of positive to negative space and the key here is not a lot of clutter and broad areas of empty floor space.”
Van Breems also notes that simplicity is never that simple. The “white palette” that is associated with Swedish design is almost always layers of white, greys and soft mellowed natural wood surfaces mixed in with lots of texture to keep it from being hard edged.
“The heritage of fabulous and fun textile design adds cheer to the Swedish interiors,” says Van Breems. “Winters being so long and light being at a premium, decorative textiles add warmth as well as much needed color to rooms.”
Mirrors, gilt brass and crystal chandeliers have also been used for centuries in Swedish design to capture the feeling of winter and celebrate and reflect the long summer days. Light floors also reflect sunlight, a precious commodity in Sweden and lime and Danish oil are the traditional ways to treat floorboards, says Van Breems. Windows are unadorned and if there is a treatment it is a very simple linen shade. Nature is revered and fresh plants and flowers are always brought in and lend a freshness to the interiors.
“Swedish decor places an emphasis on functionality, simplicity, and clean lines. I approached the design of Eastwind with the sentiment of ‘lagom,’ the Swedish word meaning 'just the right amount,’” adds Julija Stoliarova, the creative director of Eastwind Hotel & Bar. “To incorporate a taste of Swedish design into your own space, consider wood tones, vintage accents, and a neutral color palette that allows for natural light.”
“The simplicity and strength of Swedish design, with its reverence for nature and materials creates a calming and supportive atmosphere that nurtures all who experience it.” adds Van Breems.