Swedish Glass

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While supervising design construction in Sweden, I took the opportunity to attend the Stockholm International Antiques Fair.In this case, the word “international” means Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway, not quite what it means in New York. This recurring fair is extensive, however, given that dealers have only this major show in February and one in Göteborg in July to strut their stuff.

What is particularly unusual and wonderful about this huge exposition is the mix. There is a substantial vetted section, where authenticity must be proven. If a dealer claims that a commode is Gustavian, you can bet your lingonberries that the chest of drawers is late 18th century.

Added to the mix there are aisles and aisles of non vetted “antiques,” which range all the way from Viking swords and doors (questionable) to folkloric embroideries. Rug merchants range from the refined weavings of the 1930s and 1940s to delightful 1960s rag runners.

Painted Norwegian cupboards—camera-ready for a Nordic blonde braided lass in checked apron to open up for her pail of milk—sit colorfully amid bolts of striped linens. Booths are decked with fresh flowers decorating the gray- and white-painted furniture, interspersed with well worn pine.

The show’s entrance lavishes the attendee with large floral sprays of colorful carnations, luxuriously spilling out of huge iron antique urns. Spotlit dramatically, these extravaganzas lead the eye to elaborate booths, theatrically focusing on exquisite Swedish and Danish mahogany bookcases, armoires and a host of elegant painted furniture. Delicate crystal chandeliers sparkle among the polished gleaming furniture.

From this eye-popping worthy-of-Manhattan’s Winter Antiques Show exhibition, the fair’s landscape transitions to Danish modern (the real thing) and Norwegian country furniture so evocative you just know that two days ago it was hauled out of a grass-roofed log cabin.

The Scandinavian modern would be snappier if it enjoyed the kind of restoration New Yorkers demand and receive from their mid-century dealers. But then, this is where I saw all those New York dealers! This section quickly deteriorated into a flea market free-for-all with the appearance of a Nordic gypsy jamboree.

The crowd transitions as well; first you see the tall well groomed be-suited and coiffed connoisseurs. They are followed by the chicly-hip subtly tattooed and scarf-swathed crowd. Lastly come the noisy well-fed day trippers in baggy hand knits and comfortable shoes, sporting chubby pink cheeks with a strong scent of Tuborg about them. It’s really all great fun.

What caught my eye this time around were the displays upon displays of glass—from spectacular art glass to the most utilitarian vessels—which spanned centuries. Growing up, I had always been aware of Swedish glass but really had no idea how it suffused their entire cultural and decorative landscape.

Though glassmaking came to Sweden relatively late, in the 1500s, the oldest continental glasswork company, Kosta, was founded in 1740 and is still in operation. Sweden’s glass industry grew out of another industry’s pain: the wholesale failure of the ironworks industries in southern Sweden, which was in an area called Småland, now cutely referred to as “the Kingdom of Crystal.”

The closing of the ironworks offered an existing infrastructure, an endless lumber supply for stoking the furnaces and sand. Plus, there was a plentiful, cheap labor force accustomed to harsh working conditions, below-subsistence pay and one-room-per-family housing. Child labor, cruelty and beatings—common in Europe up until the 1880s—were also the norm in Sweden.

All of these conditions contributed to a booming business in Sweden, and for export as far away as India and the United States.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the high-end Swedish crystal that catered only to the wealthy was supplanted by pressed glass, a hugely successful export. With the Industrial Exposition in 1897 though, the prosperous glassmaking Swedes got their comeuppance when international critics totally dissed their product.

As a result, Kosta, mindful of its reputation, hired its first artist, Gunnar Wennerberg. Other manufacturers followed suit. By the time of the Paris World’s Fair of 1925, Swedish glass was forever recognized for its beauty, quality, craftsmanship and innovation, stealing the limelight from Venice, France and Bohemia.

From the 1920s to the 1950s, apart from the charming pressed glass in rich jewel tones with classic decoration, more than 50 Swedish glassworks produced spectacularly thin, delicate glassware, finely etched with a restrained sensibility that only the Swedes could offer, especially when compared with the overly decorated product produced by its neighbor to the south. At the fair, an entire section was devoted to booths showcasing this extraordinary glass. Though smaller in scale to our big American appetites, I believe, with the current restaurant trend of placing smaller and more elegant wine glasses peppered in with the place settings, this refined, restrained glassware would be the chicest and most price-sensitive choice around.

Stockholm art dealer Fredrik Knutsson walked me through the golden years of Swedish glassmaking. The 1950s through the 1990s, was a period in which Orrefors, Kosta Boda and numerous other glassworks provided a platform for great artists, many of them women, who elevated the craft and technique.

Knut Bergqvist of Orrefors developed the Graal technique, which is trapping a pattern or design in between two layers of glass and then blowing it up. Known for the thinness of her glasswork, Ingeborg Lundin blew enormous spherical vases, dubbed “apples” impossibly thin and thoroughly modern. Inspired by the mosaics of Ravenna, Italy, Sven Palmqvist created thick glassware with rich-colored mosaics of gold, ultramarine and cranberry floating inside. Nils Landberg’s famous “tulip” vases—soaring attenuated tulip forms in razor-thin glass veils—attracted amazement and wonder.

Though the large conglomerate Orrefors (purchased by an uninterested investment fund) has extinguished its fires, the remaining smaller glassworks are firing up for a new generation of glass artists. For example, the work of Peter Hermansson, inspired by Jackson Pollock, Picasso and a host of graffiti artists, is igniting the bellows and creating remarkable art pieces at extraordinarily reasonable prices.

As much as I respect the work of American glass artist Dale Chihuly, the “Chihulization” of America could well be nudged a bit by the surprising artistry emerging from this northern nation, whose mind is once again to become the forerunner of this remarkable medium.

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