Swedish Glass Design is inventive and well crafted

Well crafted and masterfully designed glassworks have become one of Swedish design’s most recognisable and sought-after products. Since World War II, both in terms of design and production, Orrefors Kosta Boda and numerous other speciality glassmakers have gained Sweden a worldwide reputation for quality and sophistication. But, despite the fame of modern Swedish glass design, its early history, especially outside of Scandinavia, is surprisingly little known.

Kulturparken Småland Småland Museum and the Swedish Glass Museum

In Sweden, glass making has a long history. The earliest traces of glass making date back to the middle of the 16th century, and 1742 saw the establishment of Kosta Boda, the oldest Swedish glassworks still in operation. The southwestern corner of the country, in Smaland, which is still the heartland of the Swedish glass industry, was the centre of much of this early glass production. But although during the first centuries of Swedish glassmaking (partially under the guidance of German and Venetian glassblowers), some highly refined works were designed for royal or noble patrons, much of the production was practical in nature-windows, ordinary drinking glasses, bottles, and the like. New technological developments in the 19th century, including the invention of pressed glass, allowed for a substantial increase in production and higher quality. But most of the moulds and designs were borrowed from abroad, and for most of the century, Swedish glass varied little from items produced elsewhere in Europe.

In the 1890s, when Kosta and Reijmyre, another influential glassmaker, started manufacturing art glass in the style of the famous French glass designer Emile Galle, this situation began to change. Many of the designs were provided by noted Swedish painters of the time, including Gunnar Gunnarson Wennerberg (1863-1914), Alfred Wallander (1862-1914), and Ferdinand Boberg (1860-1946), who just as Galle did, signed their distinctive works. But it was not until about the time of World War I that Swedish glassmakers started making works that were genuinely new and original for the first time. A variety of companies engaged full-time artists, following the leadership of manufacturers in Germany, Austria, and Bohemia, allowing them free rein to create their own personal visions.

An Art Nouveau cameo glass table lamp, Reijmyre 1915

From Housewares to Art Glass

In this movement, Orrefors Glasbruk was among the founders. The company was first established in 1898 and manufactured popular household glass products, such as window glass, ink bottles and other essential practical products. However, Johan Ekman bought the business in 1913 and turned it into a creative manufacturer of high-quality art glass with the help of manager Albert Ahlin. Simon Gate (1883-1945), a recent graduate of the Royal Swedish Academy of Art School, was recruited as a designer in 1916, and Edward (Edvard) Hald (1883-1980), another young artist who had trained in France, Germany and Denmark, joined him the following year. While both men were painters by training, they quickly adapted to the technical requirements of glass making and soon began to make their own vases, bowls, and very distinctive dishes.

Orrefors glassworks

Gate and Hald’s early works, like those of most of the Swedish designers of the time, reflected a strong interest in neo-classicism and native Scandinavian folk design. Yet despite their clear debt to historical forms, Gate and Hald’s works possessed a simplicity of conception and design that set them apart. Hald’s often witty and joyous scenes of everyday life, in particular, represented a revolution in glass engraving, marking the beginnings of a new, decidedly modern trend in glass making. For the 1925 Paris Exposition, both artists designed a series of spectacular, exquisitely engraved works whose refined elegance prompted noted English critic Morton Shand to describe the works of the Swedish glassmakers as “Swedish Grace.”

Gate and Hald’s early works expressed a strong interest in neo-classicism and native Scandinavian folk design, like those of most Swedish designers of the period. But Gate and Hald’s works possessed a simplicity of conception and design that set them apart, despite their substantial debt to historical styles. In particular, Hald’s frequently funny and cheerful scenes of daily life reflected a glass engraving revolution, marking the start of a new, distinctly modern glassmaking trend. “Swedish Grace.”

AN ORREFORS GRAAL GLASS VASE – designed by Edward Hald, of ovoid form with green and black fish inclusions, etched mark to base

Orrefors most original contribution, however, was the discovery of the technique of making so-called Graal glass, which features coloured scenes and designs encased in thick outer layers of clear glass. In addition to talented designers, the firm also employed several master artisans, including Knut Bergqvist, who helped to perfect the process. Invented in 1916, the technique was based on Galle’s standard cased glass vases with attached flower patterns. But while Galle’s cased glass was finished with etchers and engravers working on cold glass, Graal pieces were completed in a hot furnace. The result was a very different and softened look, with subtle and muted decoration contained within an outer enclosure rather than sharply defined on the surface. Hald, Gate, Vicke Lindstrand (1904-1983), and others developed and refined the technique in the 1920s and early 1930s, producing some of the most remarkable early examples of modern glass design.

Technical Advances and Modern Designs

The related technique of Ariel, in which air bubbles in the glass were formed into figures and patterns, was also developed by Lindstrand and Edvin Ohrstrom in the 1930s. And Sven Palmqvist (1906-1984) invented another technique known as Ravenna, in the early 1940s, which permitted vibrant, mosaic-like designs to be produced inside an outer shell. Palmqvist has also become known for a glasswork series called Fuga. Simple and durable, the parts were neither blown nor moulded but were created using centrifugal forces instead of a technique that generated simple “natural” designs. Numerous pieces, some of them very large, were produced in the 1930s using these different techniques, marking the peak of early Swedish modern glass production in many respects.

But Orrefors was not the only glass factory to create new and innovative designs. During this time several other Swedish factories also produced fine glass, including Eda, Elme, Gullaskruf, Kosta, and Limmared. There were many talented artists, such as Kosta Glasshouse, employed during the 1920s and 1930s, including Elis Bergh (1881-1954) and Sven Erik Skawonius (1908-1981). Their works included not only large and intricate etched pieces but also less costly blown glass items featuring the simple, purist lines that became increasingly popular when functionalism was introduced to Sweden by the Stockholm exhibition in 1930. Edvard Stromberg (1872–1946) and his wife Gerda Stromberg were other pioneers in the industry (1879-1960). Stromberg started his career at Kosta, worked for Orrefors for a while and moved to Eda in 1928 with his wife. They established their glass studio, Strombergshyttan, in Smaland in 1933, establishing a reputation for bowls and vases of straightforward yet very high quality.

Swedish glass vase designed by Sven Erik Skawonius, by Kosta.

A decided change in Swedish glass design has been seen in the years after the Second World War. A new interest in abstract forms and free-form compositions has gradually given way to the focus on pure, regular forms, and crisp, intricate engraving that had dominated the design work of the pre-war century. In the works of early post-war designers such as Ingeborg Lundin (b.1921), who joined Orrefors in 1947, and Erik Hogland (b.1932), who started working at the Boda factory in 1953, this was already evident and has become even more pronounced in recent years. The new focus on abstraction, and the fact that so many Swedish designers are now heavily inspired by foreign design trends, has led to a particular blur of national lines, resulting in the loss of some of the distinctive quality of earlier Swedish designs. However, some of the older “classic designs continue to be manufactured by most of the larger glass manufacturers, including Orrefors and Kosta Boda, which are still very much in demand around the world.


Christopher Long, “Inventive and in Demand: Swedish Glass Design,” Scandinavian Review, Winter 1996, http://www.questia.com/read/1P3-10929467/inventive-and-in-demand-swedish-glass-design.

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