Not unlike the States, where the design sensibilities of the nation’s two largest cities—New York and Los Angeles—speak volumes about their respective East Coast versus West Coast aesthetics, so, too, does Sweden’s left coast, home to Gothenburg, the nation’s second largest city, provide a refreshing perspective on Swedish design.
Consider, for example, the former Fürstenberg Palace, once home to the treasures of Pontus Fürstenberg, the 19th-century arts patron who amassed Sweden’s most prominent art collection—and now reborn as Hotel Pigalle, a Belle Époque boutique hotel that blends elements of a Parisian bordello with haute Swedish design.
Redolent of slightly-illicit romance, the erstwhile palace retains a sense of clandestine intrigue and decadence with dimly-lit corridors, velvet furnishings, and flocked wallpapers, all of which remind me of Oscar Wilde in Paris (though others might feel a kinship with L.A.’s Chateau Marmont).
Similarly, if you are fortunate enough to be in residence at Gothenburg’s Dorsia Hotel & Restaurant, then it’s possible that your sense of the city’s design sensibility would hew closely to the boldly theatrical style of owner Thomas Petersen whose passion for Belle Époque art and antiques is reflected in a sequence of fanciful rooms that read as private storybook realms. Imagine Alice and the Queen of Hearts sharing absinthe with Gaga and Alexander McQueen.
My first exposure to Gothenburg occurred in the midst of midwinter when the city was dusted with white as if in preparation for the arrival of Saint Lucia. Celebrated annually on the 13th of December, Saint Lucia Day marks the winter solstice and the ultimate return of light as symbolized by Lucia bearing light in her hair. The wind off the water was brisk enough to leave your cheeks ruddy—and yet everywhere my husband and I ventured in Gothenburg left us warm and happy.
One afternoon, in particular, lingers—or, should I say, one fika. Our guide pointed out various coffee shops she enjoyed before leading us through a courtyard and into the back entrance of her favorite: da Matteo Magasinsgatan. Housed in an old riding hall alongside a flower and pottery shop and an artfully-curated design shop known as Artilleriet, the café is both roastery and bakery. Nestled amongst 100-pound bags of coffee beans, we devoured nearly half a dozen traditional Swedish pastries, enveloped in a confectionery dream as the bakers and the roasters worked around us.
That sense of rustic industrial design within da Matteo Magasinsgatan is an indirect reference to Gothenburg’s heritage as the largest port in the Nordic countries. Similarly, Gothenburg’s opera house situated along the harbor references the city’s prominence as a shipping capital with a design that evokes the wings of seagulls and the shape of sails.
For another take on Gothenburg design, we journeyed up the Bohuslän coast to a former fish box factory, which has been converted into a guesthouse. On this occasion, it was the peak of summer and the brilliant beauty of West Sweden was in full bloom. A short drive from Gothenburg’s city center, the 8,000-island archipelago is notable for its granite outcroppings and quaint little fishing villages dotted with red cottages.
Owned and operated by a Swedish/Dutch couple with deep roots in the region, Lådfabriken hugs the sea cliffs less than a hundred feet from the water. What was once a family business has been transformed into a four-room boutique inn bursting with Gothenburg charm and rainbow style. A profusion of bright colors and fascinating objects complements the Swedish midsummer—and serves as an antidote to the darkness of winter. With its windows facing onto the sea, Lådfabriken resembles a conservatory of hothouse flora in eternal bloom.
Even more than innkeepers or designers, the two men are ambassadors for the pleasures of West Sweden, which might include a mussel safari at Musselbaren located in Lyckorna. The tiny port once housed a favored bathing resort for Gothenburg’s upper classes who would sail from the city to take the waters.
One of the most ingenious structures in the vicinity of Gothenburg is a floating boatel off the isle of Klädesholmen. Built on pontoons, Salt & Sill features guest rooms with plunge ladders into the pristine waters of the Skagerrak sea. An adjoining catamaran houses a two-story floating sauna with relaxation lounge. The maritime-infused guest rooms are spartan models of functional minimalism. After a dinner harvested from the boatel’s own lobster reef, we slept like babes in a cradle, rocked to sleep by the gentle waves.
Further up the coast, we visited the Nordic Watercolour Museum on the island of Tjörn. A recipient of “Museum of the Year” for its visionary architecture, the museum hangs over the sea along the waterfront in Skärhamn while its seaside restaurant provides panoramic vistas of the island’s pink granite scurries. There are also five artists’ studios available for residencies—a reminder that the beauty of West Sweden is enhanced by its innovative design.