By Sara Stromberg Ayeb
A search for the essence of Swedish style displayed through old quarters, nature and modern design.
As soon as I step off the train it hits me, people in this city seem to have an approach to life different than many other places around the world. The effects of a long winter seem to be visible wherever you walk, as the most unexpected spaces feel welcoming. Despite still being underground, the air feels fresh and the platform spacious. It is clean and people are walking towards the train ready to depart but with no rush, instead they are walking with a decisive pace, minding their own business. People from countries all over the world, both old and young, walk past me. And what catches my attention is that they are all well dressed, with an edge. After making an effort myself, I still feel far away from reaching what these people have achieved in looking stylish.
On the underground taking me to T-Centralen, the central station where on the streets around it, you can find all kinds of stylish shops, I meet Sofia. She works in one of Sweden’s most popular high street clothes shops and has done so since she left college. Dressed in dark blue tight fitted jeans, white shirt loosely tucked in, a big knitted cardigan and a few odd sized bracelets and rings, finished off with a pair of leather boots she looks effortless. Effortless but with so much style pouring out. Her friendly blue eyes look at the people around us as she talks about what is fascinating about Swedish design; ‘Style can be anything you like, but I think people here seem to have a general idea that it is all about making it look simple and then use their personality to add a twist to it.’ Not only young people adopt this way of thinking and she says that all types of people walk into her shop every day. Sofia is convinced that she is able to tell if someone is Swedish just by looking at their style no matter that country they are in. It might sound like an overly confident statement, but after only a few hours time in the capital I am beginning to see how she would think that.
‘The actual city itself and the way it is built seems to have been done solely for the purpose of being attractive’
Water, islands and nature
The essence of Swedish style does not only come from people dressing and carrying themselves in a certain way, the actual city itself and the way it is built seems to have been done solely for the purpose of being attractive.
Stockholm is spread across 14 islands divided into different districts and 57 bridges connect each of the islands to each other. The intriguing structure of Stockholm does not end there, the city build on islands is also surrounded by thousands more. Typical Swedish cottages and the old sense of pure Swedish style can be found by looking just a little bit outside what is seen as the city. The Stockholm Archipelago is made up of about 30 000 islands harboring incredible nature. As I pass through it I can hear it carefully telling anyone who experiences its existence about a way of life, rare in many other areas of modern day Stockholm. This could be where the Swedish sense of style started.
‘Instead of responding straight away, with a smile on his face, he lifts his hand creating a gesture as if to say ‘look at this’’
Göran has worked in the archipelago for over 10 years but to him it does not feel like work. He looks after nature and preserves buildings that date back to as early as the 18th century, and like today, he occasionally also works on the boats taking tourists out to see the archipelago. When the boat stops I ask him what he thinks it is that defines the Swedish style and way of life. Instead of responding straight away, with a smile on his face, he lifts his hand creating a gesture as if to say ‘look at this’.
A few seconds pass of complete silence as I look out over the curved rocks with pine trees standing on them and a few little red houses adding colour. The air is crisp and the sound from water splashing against the boat generates the perfect soundtrack to this encounter with nature. Göran breaks the silence, ‘Most people think of fashion, furniture and design when they think of Sweden, but to me this is the best part. I think many young people today probably forgot it, but our identity has come out of this way of life, the simplicity and the nature. After all, the first pieces of furniture were built from the trees in our woods’. ‘This is very different from the centre of Stockholm and the style that can be seen there’ I said to him. ‘Yes, he said. But this is where the tranquility and simple ideas all stem from’.
We head back to Stockholm city, leaving the red wooden cottages, windmills and fishing boats behind and I watch nature once again go to sleep until the next boat arrives.
Blending the old with the new
After my journey out to one of the thousands of islands I get on foot and wander through the streets of Stockholm. It soon becomes obvious that there is a great blend between old and new. The city is about 750 years old and there is a lot of history to explore throughout the different districts. Many of the old terracotta coloured houses still stand with cobbled streets tightly squeezed in between them. In Gamla Stan (meaning ‘the old town’), which is the most preserved old part of Stockholm the merge between what is old and what is new becomes apparent. Following the streets in Gamla Stan I come across the narrowest street in Stockholm named Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, which stretches only as far as 90 centimeters from side to side, so narrow that it is easy to walk past without noticing it.
Unlike the narrow street Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, it is near impossible to miss the amount of interior design shops available in Gamla Stan, from specialist Scandinavian traditional design, modern shops with the latest inventions, decorations and colours, to typical tourists shops selling Dala Horses which over the years has become a symbol for old Swedish handcraft.
The wide range of choice just for interior design might seem out of place for such an historic place. But this is probably part of what makes Swedish style what it is, the mixture of old and new with a touch of straightforward ideas.
Something that has always influenced and eventually shaped Sweden and the way people live their lives is the changing of the seasons. When winter comes there is a lack of daylight and it is cold for several months. What all the interior design shops, old houses, new houses and people have in common, is a clear focus on the home as a place not just to eat and sleep but also to decorate and to use as somewhere to show your style and to create light.
Throughout the rest of the city there are endless shops selling things for the home, and not things you necessarily need, but things to make it look homely and inviting. Candles, throws, beautifully coloured plates and glasses, decorative cushion covers and so on. Everything has a purpose outside its original purpose, and that is to look good and be used to decorate and light up your home. The importance of warmth and light shines through in so many ways and the way Stockholm is designed shows a need for practicality and simplicity.
A view of the city
‘The water surrounding Stockholm reflects its history and striking looks, making it twice as easy to drown in’
Making my way from Gamla Stan, past the Royal Palace and through to Sergels Torg and the shopping street Drottningatan, I feel embraced by the combination of architecture and nature so close together. The water surrounding Stockholm reflects its history and striking looks, making it twice as easy to drown in.
My destination is Vete-Katten, one of Stockholm’s oldest café’s/bakeries opened in 1928 by a woman called Ester Nordhammar. The name Vete-Katten has two meanings, one being literally ‘wheat-cat’ and the other being the response that Ester gave when she was asked in 1928 what she was going to name the café, a Swedish expression meaning ‘I don’t know’. The café is beautifully decorated with pale colours following a white and blue scale and the space is almost like a nest with various coffee rooms some with high ceilings and some feeling snugger. Inside are also a bakery, a shop and old-fashioned hatches where people get their hot drinks.
In one of the coffee rooms I meet Ola. As a professional photographer and artist, capturing the essence of Stockholm is something that is very important to him. ‘I have taken a lot of photographs during my time, but there is nothing like trying to transfer the view of Stockholm onto a photograph’. His photographs are used in promotional contexts all the time to show the best of the city and surrounding areas like the archipelago and they have to be appealing. ‘I do it because I love the view of this city’ he says. ‘Both from the inside and the outside.’
Ola tells me about the Swedish artist Carl Larsson, who was born in Gamla Stan in 1853. What Carl Larsson came to do with his life is something that has had a major influence on the view of Sweden and Swedish style. In 1888 Carl and his wife Karin were given a little house called Lilla Hyttnäs, together they decided to create an art project that was made up by them decorating the house with modern architecture and expressing themselves through colour and light. His paintings from then on illustrated the Larsson family life in Lilla Hyttnäs and have set a stamp on the typical Swedish style.
Showing me some of his photographs I can see the inspiration of the style used by Carl Larsson shining all the way through history and lighting up the modern day Stockholm depicted in Ola’s photographs.
Innovative style, design, tranquility and culture has walked side by side with Sweden for years and after spending time in the core of it, I am sure it will stay that way.