She knows what makes a design classic

Why is the Stringhyllan bookshelf considered a design classic but not the Billy? And what makes the Lamino armchair into the furniture design of the century while Norrgavel’s Länstol chair isn’t even considered a classic?

“I believed, rather naively, that it was quality that determined whether a piece became a

Anna Wahlöö sitting on a Grythyttan chair.

Anna Wahlöö has her personal favourite among the design classics in her own garden. The Grythyttan A2 armchair, designed by Artur Lindqvist and launched in the 1930s.

design classic but there are many factors and many agents that intervene to create a classic. Not least the media”, says Anna Wahlöö, who has written a doctoral thesis on the phenomenon of the classics of Swedish modern furniture design.

The factors include age, flexibility and recognition.

“In my study material on classics, a timeframe of 20, 30 years was a recurring feature”, says Anna Wahlöö. “And the piece of furniture should preferably suit both public and private environments. Then it should be easily recognisable, of course. But it mustn’t be too common …”

That is where the Billy bookcase fell. Ikea’s popular shelving unit will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year.

So a certain exclusivity seems to be required for a classic piece of furniture …?

“Yes, it mustn’t be ubiquitous, but Norrgavel’s Länstol chair failed to become a classic on the grounds that it was not well known enough”, says Anna Wahlöö.

Anna Wahlöö studying photos of chairs – some design classics and some not. Photo: Maria Lindh

For these specific pieces of furniture, she conducted a special survey among a broad and knowledgeable public, including questions about Bruno Mathsson’s Eva chair; the majority of those surveyed agreed that the latter was a classic. The agents include the interior design media (not least online), museums, auction houses, real estate agents, the furniture industry and others.

“It was the interior design magazine Sköna Hem that appointed the Lamino chair as the furniture design of the century. Then it ended up at the Nordic Museum and, a few years later, a bronze sculpture was erected in Vaggeryd which is the home town of the chair’s designer, Yngve Ekström.

Interest from the general public also plays a major role, along with the second-hand market, which has taken off in recent years.

“A classic piece with a little patina can go for a higher price than a new version of the same model. At the moment, the furniture associated with the Swedish welfare state of the 40s and 50s is hyped.”

There are many old classics which have continuously been under production, such as the Malmsten chair, Lilla Åland. These products are relaunched with a minor change, such as a new colour or armrest, again and again. And as long as the interior design media continue to write about them and use them in their editorials – and real estate agents use them to style homes for sale, these pieces will continue to be popular and current.

“Choosing these pieces is a safe bet, you know they will continue to sell so it is a sure thing”, says Anna Wahlöö.

What is considered beautiful or ugly, good or bad design goes back to the early 1900s when the cultivation of taste became a concept in both interior design and other forms of culture, laying the foundations for the Swedish welfare state. The idea was that it would erase the differences between rich and poor and give everyone the same opportunity to make good choices by learning to recognise good quality, leading to better homes and a better life. Not least, the Swedish Society for Industrial design was a driving force and the Sundborn estate of artists Carl and Karin Larsson came to represent the perfect home. In modern times, Ingvar Kamprad and Ikea have taken the democratic ideas of homes and interior design a step further – but have not, so far at least, managed to create any furniture design classics.

Anna Wahlöö is a history of art scholar who teaches on the architecture degree programme. Furniture design became a profession already in the 1930s. The designers and architects behind the furniture classics are mainly men but, today, female students are the majority on the architecture programme.

“It will be exciting to see how this affects future design”, she thinks, adding that she and her colleagues also have a responsibility. “It is easy to continue to highlight the same examples in teaching, preferably the classics, as our predecessors have done”, she says, “which reproduces the classics and thereby supports a norm. There is so much else which is never or seldom shown, after all”.

She explains her choice of thesis subject by observing that there is a lack of informed discussion about furniture design classics and no critical examination of the concept.

“I want to find out what a design classic is and why one particular piece of furniture ends up on a pedestal”, she says, noting that she has become somewhat wiser on the subject even though there are multiple answers to these questions.

Text: Maria Lindh

Photo: Kennet Ruona