My first exposure to Swedish design occurred in the dead of winter more than one hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle at ICEHOTEL.
Previously, my only experience with Swedish design came from professors on sabbatical who arrived in the college town where I grew up. Friends of my father at the same university, they would furnish their homes in Scandinavian mid-century pieces whose lean lines and spare cushions reminded me of Shaker furniture.
And now, here I was, seated on a dogsled as the hounds raced across the tundra beneath a sliver of moon which shone gamely on the snow illuminating our path to one of winter’s most extraordinary wonders. Each year, while the Torne River is frozen, the crystal-clear ice is harvested and stored for the construction of the world’s largest ice hotel, which is built each winter by ice artists and sculptors invited from around the world. And then in the spring, it melts—the chapel, the Ice Bar, the various rooms furnished in blocks of carved ice, all of it melting under the May sun—flowing back into the Torne River.
And right there is one of the central tenets of Swedish design: environmental sustainability. In a land that adheres to the policy of allemansrätt (or “right of public access”), where all are free to roam through forest and shore, the primary objective for all is to leave no trace behind. In essence, a Swedish variant of the Hippocratic dictum: do no harm.
For another example of Swedish design in perfect harmony with nature, consider Stockholm’s Skogskyrkogården, also known as Woodland Cemetery—but perhaps best known as the final resting place of Greta Garbo, which was, naturally, my primary reason for wishing to visit.
It was late in the summer, the season so beloved by the Swedish for its white nights and outdoor celebrations—and by the time I arrived at Woodland, it was nearly gloaming, the late afternoon shadows foreshadowing autumn.
One of Sweden’s fifteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Woodland was created in homage to Swedish romanticism by the winners of a 1915 architects competition whose goal was to fuse architecture with Nordic landscapes. With nature as the focus (rather than graves or headstones), the 250-acre park is a brilliant example of “architecture wholly integrated into its environment,” in the words of UNESCO.
What becomes readily apparent at Woodland is one’s own immersion into nature, albeit into a kind of sylvan Arcadia marked by birch trees and pine forests spread across lush green hills and grassy slopes. Only later do you take note of the low-lying headstones, all of which are roughly the same size: a symbolic reminder that all people are equal.
Which, of course, is in keeping with Swedish design’s manifesto: creativity driven by equality.
A visit to Woodland can be as meditative as it is therapeutic. Chapels infused with natural light are nestled into the topography, which includes a meditation grove that serves as a metaphor for the circle of life.
And then there’s Garbo, resting in a terraced grave a short walk from Woodland Chapel. A series of limestone steps leads into a pastoral glade—and there she is, as circumspect in rest as she was in public, guarded by a butterscotch blond feline who patrols the knoll, purring for those she approves.
Garbo’s grave is overlooked by a statue atop Woodland Chapel that was carved by Carl Milles, the Swedish sculptor whose erstwhile home Millesgården and its sculpture park represent another perspective on Swedish design and its integration with nature.
Situated on the island of Lidingö on a cliff above Lake Värtan. Millesgården stands as a testament to the environmental awareness pervasive throughout Swedish culture. Newlyweds Carl and Olga Milles purchased the property in 1906 with the intent of incorporating their artists’ studios into their home. Behind the guidance of architect Carl Bengtsson, Millesgården expanded over the years to its current five-acre museum with sculpture gardens, fountains, terraces, studios, and stairways.
Evocative of summer gardens along Italy’s Mediterranean coast, Millesgården is equally remarkable in winter when a blanket of snow renders the extraordinary estate into a wonderland of meringue. Perhaps most remarkable of all, in keeping with the democratic principles of Swedish design, Millesgården became a foundation in 1936, which was donated to the Swedish people.