There are certain attractions around Europe that regular feature on the to-do list of travellers who admire excellent design, such as Arne Jacobsen’s original hotel rooms in Copenhagen and Venetian glassware. In Stockholm, such visitors head to Svenskt Tenn, a design emporium which spans several handsome townhouses on Standvagen in the centre of the city.
The company was set up in 1924 by Estrid Ericson as a pewter workshop (Svenskt Tenn translates as Swedish Pewter). She later saw some furniture that friends had bought in Vienna and loved the designs and prints. The designer was Josef Frank, a huge name of his era, and she set about locating him. Frank moved to Sweden in the 1930s and started to work for Ericson.
‘They were a perfect match: Frank worked as the creative and the designer, and Ericson was the stylist and the set decorator,’ says Thommy Bindefeld, Svenkst Tenn’s marketing director.
The pair went on to redefine Scandinavian interior design by adding vivid and intricate prints to the clean and uncluttered Scandinavian style that prevailed at the time. This caught the eye of Sweden’s elite and time has shown that this was more than just a trend towards pattern and colour – it marked a significant shift in the stark Scandinavian aesthetic.
‘As a middle European who was already 50 by the time he reached Sweden, and who had an established career as a furniture-maker and artist, Josef Frank already had an established style. He was able to bring that to Sweden and to put his mark on Swedish design,’ says Bindefeld.
Ericson and Frank created a new template for legions of designers who followed. This distinct identity is still evident today on the cushions, napkins, lampshade and fabrics sold by the company. From erupting flora and fauna, dancing vine leaves and birds of paradise to jewel-coloured tropical palm fronds, drifting fish and multicoloured tree branches, Frank’s designs were full of vivid colour, depth and richness. But these are much more than pretty adornments, says Bindefeld. ‘He designed prints in a very intricate way and you’ll notice that often the print is repeated and repeated, so that, if you follow a route in looking at it, it’s almost like you are getting mysteriously lost inside the print itself.’
‘His philosophy was that, if a room has white walls and is very clean in design, a splash of print would give the eye something to rest on. A clean white expanse of space doesn’t give the eye something to focus on, but his lively prints do.’
When wandering through the beautiful ‘sets’ at Svenstk Tenn, the timelessness of Frank’s bold prints become particularly clear: some which are more than 60 years old sit happily side by side with cutting-edge contemporary furniture. ‘These prints, in whatever format they come in, work in a modern environment, even though they date from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.’ On Ericson’s 50th birthday in 1944, Frank gave her 50 different prints – it stands as a testament to his vision that the majority of these are still used today.
The production methods favoured at Svenskt Tenn lend a deeper sense of colour and richness to the imagery within the prints. Each piece is screen printed in a process that combines handcraft with a mechanically operated screen, although Bindefeld stresses that a human hand is guiding the process at every step of the way.
‘Frank was unique in his methods because he developed the ability to have two colours printing on top of one another, making a third colour. It allows for much more tone and shade,’ Bindefeld explains.
It’s heartening to note that today the retail business is owned by a trust, on Ericson’s request, which donates money to ecology projects and to medical research. It’s also good to know that unlike other aspects of Scandivanian design, Svenskt Tenn hasn’t been mass produced and copied. ‘It’s a unique, one-of-a-kind place here. You can only buy from our store, or on our website. This ensures that our pieces don’t tire.’ Looking at the rich imagery and beautiful colourways, there’s clearly no danger of that happening any time soon.