How to Say Cool in Swedish

Swedish antiques
Katherine Tallmadge's Adams Morgan living room, with its light blue walls and pale painted authentic and reproduction Gustavian furniture. (Mark Finkenstaedt - For The Washington Post)
By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 4, 2005

Blue walls, white painted furniture, bare floors, spare surfaces, gauzy fabric framing the view beyond the windows . . . just the sort of cool respite one craves during the malarial torpor of Washington in August.

And yet this unruffled aesthetic hails from a country where it barely hits 70 degrees in July and hovers around freezing for six dark months of the year. The allure of classic Swedish style, according to its many devotees, has nothing to do with average temperatures and everything to do with enduring appeal.

"If you pick up magazines like Traditional Home or Country Living, very seldom will a month go by that you don't see something Swedish," says Leena Granholm, a Frederick County dealer in Scandinavian antiques. "It's just a crisp, clean, light look: The pale blue walls, whitewashed-looking furniture, very simple lines."

The unfussy honesty of line, along with an ability to coexist with other periods and styles of furniture, has created a legion of admirers in this country.

When nutrition consultant Katherine Tallmadge finished renovating her 1909 Adams Morgan house last year, a decorator friend advised her to furnish the formal, high-ceilinged living and dining rooms with Swedish antiques set against walls of the sheerest blue.

Today, Tallmadge presides over two rooms of timeworn pale gray or white painted tables, chairs, a sideboard, sofa and tall case clock from the 18th and 19th centuries, arranged on gleaming hardwood floors to evoke the homeland of her mother.

Swedish antiques
Katherine Tallmadge's Adams Morgan living room, with its light blue walls and pale painted authentic and reproduction Gustavian furniture.(Mark Finkenstaedt - For The Washington Post)
When restaurateur Asa Simone moved to Rockville, her parents -- who live outside Stockholm -- shipped over a container of family heirlooms. To the delight of overnight visitors, Simone filled a guest bedroom with her grandmother's circa-1900 painted white furniture, upholstered in traditional blue and white striped fabric.

Below the ceiling, she put a ribbon and garland wallpaper border designed by Carl Larsson, the beloved Swedish artist who inspired an enduring rural design aesthetic with his 1899 book "A Home," featuring pictures of cheery rooms and painted furniture that he and his artist wife, Karin, designed for themselves and their eight children. Larsson's look was a melding of late-19th-century Swedish Arts and Crafts peasant style with the more regal, symmetry of 18th-century neoclassicism.

When Granholm and her husband, Lars, both Finnish-born, returned from a buying trip last summer, he turned the family sunroom into a Swedish courtyard tableau, using exterior paneling. The more formal dining room is dominated by an enormous antique Swedish crystal chandelier. A whitewashed side table is topped by a lace-trimmed, red-embroidered cloth, while the walls are covered in a textured pale blue paper dating to the early 1800s.

This so-called Gustavian style was brought to Sweden during the reign of King Gustav III (1771-92), who was so taken by the ornate Louis XV and XVI furnishings he saw in France that he had simpler versions replicated at home. Early pieces appeared first at court, and in the homes of aristocracy in Stockholm, often in a single color in a palette ranging from chalky white to vivid blues and yellows; gilding also became popular.

Pieces by skilled artisans from the capital eventually made their way to country estates and castles, and were further adapted by itinerant or local craftsmen. The new aesthetic joined an indigenous Swedish folk style characterized by painted furniture sometimes embellished with biblical and traditional motifs and the clean, architectural lines of neoclassicism, punctuated by restrained ornamental carvings.

While the spare, aqueous Gustavian look may seem chilly, adherents insist it is visually warming.

"It doesn't look cold at all. It looks cozy, actually," says Birgitta von Zelowitz, a Swedish-born antiques dealer whose shop -- Choate and von Z -- near New Hope, Pa., is a source for many Tallmadge finds. "There are still tile stoves in the old houses, in the dining room or big room. People have plants and lots of candles, and a lamp in each window. In Stockholm, when it gets dark at three in the afternoon, you see the lights in every window. It's so cozy to look in."

Light also comes from antique crystal or wrought-iron chandeliers ablaze with multiple tapers or electrified bulbs, and from wall sconces fitted with mirrors or metal reflectors to maximize the glow of flickering flames.

Moreover, the old pale-painted furniture exudes a warmth of its own, says Stefan Michaelsen of Lief, a tony Los Angeles antiques shop. "It's the patina. The colors are pastel, but they are not icy. They have this softness to them."

Tallmadge agreed, splurging on a $6,000 dining table from Lief and a $7,000 clock from von Zelowitz. But she saved money by making long, pooling silk curtains for her enormous windows. "It's very Swedish to keep them open all the time."

Like other styles of popular antiques, fine old Swedish pieces are becoming increasingly expensive and hard to find. American dealers such as von Zelowitz and Loi Thai, a co-owner of Tone on Tone in Bethesda, go to Sweden several times a year to attend country estate sales and auctions and to buy from dealers.

"A lot of the furniture was painted, repainted and over-painted as fashions changed," says Thai. "If [people] changed their curtains or upholstery, they simply put another layer of paint over the old color." His Swedish dealers have perfected the art of scraping off these newer hues.

Some American dealers sell reproductions made as late as the 1930s and 1940s along with the rarer 18th- and 19th-century pieces. And although Thai likes the scraped-down look, others prefer the more colorful, countrified armoires, wedding chests, beds and chairs adorned with traditional images.

Skeptics might wonder how Sweden can meet the growing European and American demand for its antiques.

Von Zelowitz has a theory. "We are such a small country and so few people -- eight million. There hasn't been a war in Sweden in over 200 years, and that makes a big difference" because no homes were destroyed by invading armies, she says. "Swedish people in general are very frugal. They put things away and didn't dispose of them."

Today, those hoping to export the oldest and finest antiques must obtain permission from the national museum. Rare pieces by important artisans are not allowed to leave. The museum now sells replicas.

Tallmadge, who has shopped for Swedish antiques on both U.S. coasts and in Sweden, says she is finished. As if to underscore the oft-made point that Swedish antiques really do mix with modern pieces, she recently set her 19th-century Gustavian-style dining table with early 21st-century Isaac Mizrahi orange poppy plates from Target.

"It really all works," she said, gazing from table to couch to walls, which are painted the color of her eyes and most of her wardrobe. "And I don't think I've seen a lighter, more airy-feeling room in Washington."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company