Before I moved to Sweden a few years ago, my knowledge of Swedish interior design and décor was limited to the big “I.” As in, IKEA, which is pronounced “HE-K-HA” instead of its popular mispronounced version “I-KEY-HAH,” I might add.
You know, minimalist do-it-yourself endeavors that seemed affordable enough for college students and their equally minimalist budgets. Surprisingly, IKEA still remains popular amongst locals in Stockholm who flock to its flagship store in Kungens Kurva to fill up on meatballs with lingonberry and potatoes before scouring for cheap furniture and decorations.
And the keyword is “cheap” — relatively cheap because true Swedish décor, though simple and deceptively minimalist, is quite sturdy and not cheap.
Real Swedish style
Many Swedish homes are sparsely decorated, and you’d be hard pressed to find homes that are unnecessarily cluttered with furniture, knickknacks, and decorations, mostly because Swedes are obsessed with space and light. Any form of light. Centuries of dreary dark winters means light — be it natural or artificial — is greatly revered. So you’ll find lots of airy floor plans and clean lines, bare furnishings with heavy emphasis on windows and lamps, light-colored fabrics, and tons of candles.
When shopping for Swedish designs, here are elements you need to keep an eye out for to start creating your own Scandinavian haven back home.
There are three types of patterned fabrics that remind me of Swedish summers. The first are navy blue and white vertical stripes that celebrate Sweden’s nautical flair and archipelago summer living. The second are bright fabrics with neutral or pastel colored leaves, twigs, and abstract patterns that remind me of sitting around kitchen tables in summer cottages out in the countryside. And the last traditional style is known as “Kurbits” — multi-colored bulbous floral folk patterns that remind me of early 70s dining table placemats at most grandmothers’ homes. Kurbits dates back to the 1720s and hails from the Dalarna region of Sweden.
Be on the lookout for pillows, napkins, hand towels, table spreads, and other home furnishings made with these soft, airy patterned fabrics, and you’ll bring a bit of Sweden’s folk style into your home.
Did you know Sweden has a region called “Kingdom of Glass”? Well, I didn’t either until I moved here. Sweden has a strong glassblowing tradition that dates back to the 1740s, maybe earlier, and in the Småland part of the country, you’ll find dozens of glassblowers and blowing rooms pushing the edge in terms of crystal production.
One name associated with Swedish glass is Kosta Boda, which has been operating since 1742. They even have their own hotel built using Kosta Boda glass — from chandeliers and bars to artworks and centerpieces.
But you really don’t have to grab your horse and carriage and trot down to the Kingdom of Glass to find exquisite crystal pieces. Many Swedish design stores carry their own version of glassware, so look for candleholders, small intricate shelf pieces, vases, plates, or maybe a coffee table centerpiece bowl.
Swedes love their coffee, so much so that they observe a daily social institution called “Fika.” Pronounced “fee-ka,” though the word translates into “to drink coffee,” it actually means taking a break from work to socialize over cups of coffee. Sweden is peppered with small coffee shops that sell strong coffee and sweet pastries to cater to hourly fika crowds.
So you’ll find a couple of cool-looking mugs in that stereotypical sparsely-decorated Swedish home, and you really can’t go wrong picking one up while in Sweden. Even better if the mug has a Kurbits pattern or one of the other patterns described above.
Standing lamps, table lamps, hanging lamps, spotlights — you name it, Swedes take their light sources seriously. While most lamp shades and standing lamps tend to be in neutral or single bold colors to blend in with whatever interior décor you have, you want to be on the lookout for lamp shades with patterned fabrics as mentioned.
In the same vein, candle holders are popular design items, so colorful mini glass bowls for miniature candles or set holders are good buys as well.
Closer to winter when advent begins, it’s a symbolic tradition to decorate windows with large illuminated paper star lanterns which evoke a sense of warmth and coziness once nights get longer and darker during winter. So add paper star lanterns to your list.
Festive Gnomes and Goats
Moving on with the festive theme, you’ll find gnomes and goats in many Swedish homes during Christmas. For example, you’ll find odd-looking Jultomte figurines (Christmas Gnome, or more commonly, Santa Claus) that look more like the American band, ZZ Top. Alongside these figurines stands the goat. The Julbock (“Christmas Goat”) has been a symbolic figure in Scandinavian history dating back to the 1800s, when it was presumed someone dressed as a billy-goat doled out Christmas gifts. Way before Santa Claus. Nowadays, you’ll find this goat made with woven straw or raffia, or sometimes carved out of wood gracing storefronts, restaurants, and cafes during Christmas.
Well not literally, but a small wooden horse known as “Dalahästen” — The Dala Horse. Honestly, in general, you should stay away from tacky souvenirs when traveling through Sweden, but if you must indulge in trinkets, the only homegrown souvenir you may actually find on the shelf of a Swede is the Dala horse.
Often hailed as the most bought Swedish souvenir, this wooden horse is usually painted red with Kurbits patterns or other traditional folk art. It has been produced in the Dalarna region of Sweden since the 1600s and is continually produced in the village of Nunäs.
So you probably can’t go wrong bringing some of these quintessential designs home with you.
Another big insider tip for you in terms of shopping for Swedish design? Secondhand shopping.
Most of the items mentioned above can be bought for half their prices at secondhand or vintage shops, so head to neighborhoods like Södermalm, Kungsholmen, and Hornstull if you’re in Stockholm.
Photo credits: author, author, Kosta Boda, author, David Design, author, and Cecilia Larsson.