Scandinavia's northern pine forests provided the raw material for the development
of a long-lasting traditional style whose influence spread worldwide in the 20th century.
The hallmarks of Swedish furniture are its homely, unpretentious style and the use of paint rather
than veneers and varnishes to achieve a decorative finish. The paintwork eventually fades and gets a little distressed in the same way that veneered pieces acquire a pleasing patina with the passage of time.
Northern Scandinavia is cloaked in great tracts of conifers. The cold climate supports no hardwoods, with the occasional exception of oak, the hardiest of the deciduous trees.
As a result of this, Swedish furniture has always been made almost exclusively of pine or deal. Only the wealthier families could afford to indulge themselves in pieces made of imported walnut and mahogany and based on German, English, Dutch or French styles.
Because soft woods deteriorate relatively quickly, few pieces have survived from before the 16th century, but since then there has been an unbroken tradition of sturdy and simply
constructed pieces, including cupboards, wardrobes, chairs, trestle tables on X-shaped supports, blanket chests and marriage chests.
Veneers were inappropriate for such simple pieces. Pine furniture was usually finished by being scrubbed almost white or by painting. The favoured colours were soft greens and blues, pink,
greyish-white, yellow and other pastel shades.
The decoration was usually confined to picking out details in contrasting colours, but some pieces, particularly marriage chests, were also adorned with fruit, flowers, birds and decorative scrolls.
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From the 18th century on, native softwoods were also used to reproduce foreign furniture styles; chairs that were based on early Georgian and Hepplewhite originals were particular favourites in Sweden. Paint was used to mimic hardwood veneers, stringing and other decorative inlay.
Unlike many of the other countries in Europe, Sweden maintained its craft traditions as it became industrialized, and was well placed to cope when the style pendulum swung away from mass production and mechanization at the turn of the century.
Traditional materials and techniques were used to provide functional furniture that seemed very up to date. After World War 1, a Finn, Alvar Aalto, combined with the Swede, Josef Frank, to promote the Swedish
This allowed for mass production, but employed only wood, not tubular steel. Several new techniques and materials, including
heat moulding and plywood, were used in its manufacture, but Swedish Modern, one of the most popular furniture styles in the world after World War 1, still has strong links with the nation's past.
Traditional Scandinavian softwood furniture - though Sweden is by far the most important of the Scandinavian countries for furniture production, Norway, Finland and Denmark also produced it in markedly similar styles
- can be found in specialist shops and on occasion in more general second-hand and antique furniture dealers. It can be well worth tracking down; it's usually affordable, and goes well in light, airy modern interiors.
Not all painted pine furniture is Swedish. A great deal of it, particularly chests of drawers, was machine made in 19th-century England as a cheap alternative to veneered pieces, and widely used to furnish children's and servant's bedrooms. For authenticity, look for signs of hand, as opposed to machine, construction.
If you're considering buying a painted piece, look for one where the decoration is in reasonable condition. Slight restoration of the paintwork is acceptable, though the paint colours can prove very difficult to match;
don't attempt to restore paintwork yourself, as a perfect job won't add value and a less than perfect one will subtract it.
Painted furniture can be kept clean by wiping it gently with a damp cloth and drying immediately. Don't rub small areas when cleaning as this may take some of the pigment away.