Turning the tables - Issue 28 - Magazine | Monocle

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Speak to any Swede and they will know all about Carl Malmsten. In fact, chances are, they’ll probably have his elegant, blonde wood furniture in their home. The famous designer and cabinetmaker created everything from sofas to stools, lights to chairs. His intuitive and honest designs were inspired by Swedish folk handicrafts, and featured clean lines, simple silhouettes and always the highest technical spec. After his death in 1972, aged 84, he left almost 10,000 unique drawings in his archive.

Malmsten may be a legend on home turf but look further afield and his profile is modest (by rights he should be as name-checked as Arne Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto). There is just one shop (on Stockholm’s upmarket Strandvägen street, the store was opened by Malmsten in 1940) and historically there’s not been any real push to develop the brand.

But all this looks set to change with Jerk Malmsten, Carl’s grandson, at the sharp end of the business. Slowly (this is no rushed job with bottom lines to meet) he has been polishing what was once a fairly sluggish outfit, transforming it into a firm fit for the 21st century. He has relaunched the shop with a bright new interior, created a slick brand identity with his niece Stefania Malmsten and is collaborating with partners on new product ventures. It’s a smart survival strategy aimed at keeping the business fresh but true to its roots.

Like most older, family-run firms, there’s a complex history behind Carl Malmsten Inc, but Jerk seems to know it all, recounting stories with ease (despite never having got to know his grandfather, who died when he was three). Malmsten stumbled into furniture design after apprenticing at a workshop. His rise to fame was meteoric – in 1916, aged 28, he won both the first and second prize in a competition to furnish the new Stockholm City Hall. The commissions and exhibitions followed fast. A keen educator and promoter of Swedish arts and crafts, he went on to set up two schools; the Carl Malmsten School of Design in Stockholm (now renamed Carl Malmsten Furniture Studies) in 1930, and Capellagården in 1960, a commune-cum-school where pupils and teachers live and learn together in Vickleby village on the island of Öland. To raise funds, he moved away from designing one-off pieces to creating mass-produced products. He sold the licences to factories that owned, manufactured and distributed the pieces (he also sold off shares in the company but continued to oversee it all). After his death, with no clear leadership, the firm ran into tough times and to protect Malmsten’s legacy, the family set up a trust in 1988 to fund the schools, run the shop and safeguard the brand, which it owned.

But still there was no real direction, and when Jerk, then a student, took up a summer job at the shop in 1997, he could hear a death-knell. “I could see the shop was going down and was close to bankruptcy. I just couldn’t let this happen. I felt we had to develop and renew the shop or we would vanish.” So, with no background in design or the furniture business, he bought it back off the trust in 1999. “What I had was my blood, my heritage,” he says.

As we embark on our road trip across the Swedish countryside, passing through an idyllic landscape dotted with fields, forests and shimmering lakes, Jerk chats away. The first stop is the Sjögren factory in Tranås, a quiet town in the south of Sweden famous for its furniture production. The fourth-generation run firm, which specialises in upholstery, was founded 107 years ago and started life making seats for horse carriages.

It is one of the two remaining workshops – which were originally hand-picked by Malmsten – that is still making his ­furniture today. In total four cabinetmakers, four manufacturers and one weaver continue to produce all ­of Malmsten’s pieces in Sweden. The products are sold in over 40 shops nationwide.

Sjögren makes 20 different chairs and sofas, including the Jättepaddan and Farmor armchairs. Current owner, Håkan Sjögren, takes us on a tour. Spindly frames lie stockpiled up and workers deftly nip, tuck and staple fabric. The seats are upholstered with hi-tech foam but the team can mend the older models stuffed with pig and horsehair too. On the factory floor I spy some very different looking seats. These works in progress – large, bulbous forms – are contemporary takes on Malmsten’s ­designs. They have been made in collaboration with a fashion brand and may launch at Salone next year. When it comes to experimental ventures, Jerk sometimes comes up against the play-it- safe board (because they own the brand, the trustees adhere to very strict rules) but he keeps plugging away, keen to inject creativity into the business.

Sticking to the original perfection of Carl Malmsten’s designs is important too. On day two of our trip, we drop by the workshop of master cabinetmaker Erik Johansson, a graduate of the design school in Stockholm. From a small studio in Eskilstuna, a town west of Stockholm, he faithfully reproduces a large body of Malmsten’s work, which is then sold in Jerk’s shop. If Jerk gets a customer who wants a one-off piece, he’ll root around the archives and email a drawing to him. A cabinet can take up to 50 hours to craft and pieces are made using American wood, Finnish birch and Swedish pine. “It looks so simple yet is really difficult,” says Johansson. Tucked away there is a box filled with scraps of wood and oddly carved pieces that didn’t quite make the final cut.

But it’s at the schools that you get a real sense of Malmsten’s legacy. While others cut back on craft in favour of computers, these institutions stay true to the old master-apprentice model. Malmsten felt his academies were a way to engage the youth, and he strove to promote an alternative way of teaching and learning.

The public Carl Malmsten Furniture Studies school in Stockholm, part of Linköping University, started off with just cabinetmaking classes – now pupils can take three-year courses in upholstery, furniture conservation and furniture design too. The school has a worldwide reputation and it’s tough to get into. Students must prove their skills and might, for example, be given a day to make a chair from paper, wire and four bits of wood. Classes are kept small – there are 66 students altogether. Having outgrown the old premises in Södermalm, the school has relocated to a new block in Lidingö. When Monocle drops by, students are busy working on installations to show as part of the school’s opening ­ceremony. “Everyone knows about this school when you talk about design,” ­enthuses one student.

At Capellagården, the pace is slower. The private school is built on old ­farmland and comprises a collection of charmingly renovated buildings. Malmsten did the school up slowly over time, and used to come and stay here – his old house is now the head office. Students study ceramics, textile, cabinetmaking and ecological gardening. There’s also a summer programme of shorter workshops. Capellagården is especially popular with Japanese students, and it runs exchange programmes with Toyoma University in Japan and the College of the Redwoods in California.

It’s a quiet, relaxing spot where students have plenty of free time to explore their creativity. Not that they’re lazy – you can hear the buzz of woodworking machines long after dinnertime. There’s a real sense of community too – students eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together. On the menu is fresh bread, jams and soups, mostly made using vegetables from the garden. Most of the students live on-site in cosy dorms kitted out with Malmsten classics. It’s a powerful way to really understand what Malmsten was about – his approach to design was actually a way of life too. “The most important thing here is that you learn some- thing about yourself, not [just how] to make a chair,” says Carl-Magnus Persson, who has taught cabinetmaking at Capellagården since 1973.

Back in Stockholm at the Carl Malmsten shop, a steady stream of customers come through the door. On display are some Malmsten vintage pieces, best-­sellers, and the new collections. There are rainbow-bright Samsas armchairs, reupholstered in vibrant fabric by Swedish ­designer Pontus Djanaieff, and downstairs an unusual line crafted in pine by ­upcoming Swedish design duo, Olle ­Undeman and Stephan Brian (both are graduates of the Carl Malmsten school in Stockholm). With a growing younger customer base, and keen to one-day expand internationally, Jerk’s vision is to finally link up all the different parts of the Carl Malmsten story. “I would love to ­develop more collaborations between the schools, shops and manufacturers. I want to keep on developing, not preserving. I see enormous potential in the brand,” says Jerk.

Why it works

  1. Take your time when growing a company. Jerk has a 20-year business plan.
  2. Be clear about your vision and stick with it, even when faced with tricky red-tape.
  3. Jerk works with just a handful of producers. Keep your manufacturing and distribution systems tight. Team up with specialists and don’t compromise on quality to cut corners.
  4. Support your country and work with carpenters and cabinetmakers. Most of Erik Johansson’s work is taken up with Malmsten commissions and 60 per cent of the Sjögren factory output is Malmsten originals.
  5. Don’t outsource anything overseas. Working closer to home means quicker delivery times and a more efficient working model.
  6. Hunt down young talent to collaborate with on new ventures.
  7. Consider all aspects of the firm. Jerk is ­reworking the shop, brand and collection.

Monocle fixes

  1. We’d definitely take Malmsten to Japan. With the nation’s appreciation of craft and all things Swedish, it’s a natural fit.
  2. Don’t be afraid to test the waters. We’d start our international roll-out with a series of cabinet shops. They’re a great way to get in (and get out) quickly.
  3. We’d ensure we had a stand at key design fairs. It’s good for publicity and attracting collaborators.

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