In September 2022, I visited Sweden on a Gottstein Fellowship. The Gottstein Memorial Trust honours Bill Gottstein, a forest products research scientist with the CSIRO who lost his life in a forestry accident in March 1971. My project was to investigate the relationship between the Swedish forestry industry and Swedish woodcraft education, and to participate in the Malmstens Alumni Symposium Woodworking Tools & Techniques – Past, Present & Future.
Swedish forestry is a big employer and an important source of export revenue for the nation. With the war in Ukraine limiting Russian exports, Sweden is currently the 3rd largest exporter of sawn lumber. Swedish forestry is focused firmly on the construction industry, with up to 90% of Swedish forests consisting of either spruce or pine. Forestry and the associated industries constitute as much as 20% of Sweden’s total economy.
Stenebyskolan and HDK Steneby, described colloquially as “Steneby” is a single institution with two education streams. Steneby is located in the relatively isolated village of Dals Långed, roughly 2.5 hours’ drive North-East of Gothenburg. The region is known as Dalsland, which is as much an idea as it is a specific location, much like “The Snowy Mountains” is both a place and a cultural construct.
Stenebyskolan offers vocational training in cabinetmaking, furniture restoration and upholstery. HDK Steneby (which is affiliated with the University of Gothenburg) offers design and craftsmanship training in furniture (wood), upholstery, textiles and metalwork. There is some sharing of facilities and staff but the targeted pedagogic outcomes of the two streams are distinctly different.
HDK Steneby’s workshops are located within the main centre, near the accommodation and other student facilities. Stenebyskolan vocational training takes place in separate workshops about 5km from the village in a semi-rural setting. All the student cohort across both streams live on campus at the main centre within the village, but the vocational students must travel out to their workshops daily.
HDK Steneby offers a path that leads towards design and art, rather than traditional cabinetmaking. The first stage of the education is called Pre-university Art and Culture Education. This two-year course gives students a foundation in technique, hand skills, drawing, materials, and an understanding of machinery. After two years, they can leave the school to study or work elsewhere or undertake a further study focusing on design.
HDK Steneby attracts a significant number of international students and is taught in English. There are typically 8 new students in the woodworking stream every year. The training is not designed to prepare a student to work as an employee in a joinery shop, but provides a broader, more creative woodcraft training.
The school sources timber locally and has a kiln at the workshop. Students are involved in the milling, transport and drying of timber. Most of the timber used by the students has been sourced in this way.
Malmstens – Linköping University, Stockholm
“The hand and mind must engage in creative collaboration.” – Carl Malmsten
Carl Malmsten (1888 to 1972) was a Swedish furniture designer, architect, and educator known for his devotion to traditional Swedish craftmanship (slöjd) and his opposition to functionalism. He is Sweden’s most celebrated furniture designer, with many of his designs still in production.
Malmsten established his first training school in 1930 (James Krenov studied at Malmstens in the 50’s, when Carl Malmsten was still actively involved with the school). In 2000, Malmstens was absorbed by Linköping University. After the initial incorporation, the University realised the true cost of training high craft, and there was a funding crisis. The school was saved by two sisters, Kerstin Skarne and Ann-Sofie Mattson, daughters of master builder John Mattson.
With the financial and moral aid of the sisters, Malmstens future is assured, and the school is now located in a state-of-the-art purpose-built workshop on the island of Lidingö, just outside central Stockholm. Here Linköping University offers undergraduate programs in Furniture Design, Cabinetmaking and Furniture Upholstery.
The building was designed by master woodworkers for master woodworkers. There is extensive use of natural light throughout the building. The dust extraction is fully integrated and whisper quiet. The floors are timber. The temperature and humidity are precisely controlled. The machines are spread out, with generous safety zones around them. The machines themselves are either state-of-the-art modern pieces (almost exclusively Martin) or beautifully maintained older machines (where no modern equivalent of comparable quality exists).
Entry into the furniture stream of Malmstens is highly competitive, with many more applications annually than places. The course is taught in Swedish, so any foreign student wishing to study must first have their fluency in Swedish assessed.
Capellagården – Island of Öland
Capellagården was established in 1960 by Carl and Siv Malmsten in the village of Vickleby, southern Öland. Capellagården occupies a picturesque set of old farm buildings, beautifully modernised to be fit-for-purpose. Capellagården’s courses include wood, ceramics, textiles and organic gardening.
Like Steneby, Capellagården embraces the notion of a wholistic approach to craft. All the students live on campus and share meals together. Interactions between the different intakes and class bodies are encouraged. The school runs like a village, with every member of the community contributing as well as learning. Capellagården has been described as a Creative Monastery by its detractors and its enthusiasts alike.
The layout of the furniture workshop is smaller and more compact than either Steneby or Malmstens. With only six new students admitted each year, the atmosphere is close rather than crowded. There are roughly 90 students across all disciplines and intakes on campus at any one time. The quality of the equipment and machinery is roughly comparable to Steneby and Malmstens, although Capellagården appeared to have both older machines and fewer machines. That said, the workshop still boasts excellent equipment.
The organic gardeners at Capellagården supply the textile students with plants from which to make dye.
Traditionally, a Gesäll Piece was submitted by an apprentice to the cabinetmaking guild to qualify as a Journeyman. A Journeyman was qualified to work for any master in any location within Sweden. A Swedish Journeyman was usually recognised throughout Western Europe.
In its modern form, the Gesäll Piece has become the pinnacle of achievement for a furniture craftsperson. It is perhaps akin to a master’s degree, or even a Doctorate.
The design of a Gesäll piece must include a range of specified techniques and elements. Every stage of the design is submitted for assessment by the Guild. The craftsperson must submit complete drawings along with a time estimate for construction. The drawings are graded, and the time estimate assessed. If the board decides that the time estimate is too generous, they will reduce the allowed hours. The student’s time in the machine shop and hand work area is monitored, to ensure that the construction time claimed is accurate. The finished piece is assessed by the Guild and an over-all mark is issued. A student has a maximum possible grade of 5, which represents a perfect score.
The power of the Gesäll Piece is that any prospective employer or client knows exactly the caliber of the craftsperson. Anyone with a Gesäll score of 5 must by definition be accurate, safe, educated on every aspect of wood technology, creative, disciplined and resourceful. Both Malmstens and Capellagården are geared towards making Gesäll pieces.
Malmsten Alumni Symposium; Woodworking Tools & Techniques – Past, Present & Future, 16-19 September 2022, Stockholm, Sweden
“Malmstens Alumni is a non-profit association started in 2019 on the initiative of long time Malmstens Director, Master Cabinetmaker, Furniture Conservator and Educator Ulf Brunne. The purpose of Malmstens Alumni is to bring together a diverse group of professionals with the common denominators Malmstens and Wood, including art historians, cabinetmakers, upholsterers, conservators, luthiers/guitar builders, designers and artisans. Our motto is knowledge shared is knowledge doubled.” – Malmstens Alumni website.
The 4-day symposium took place at a range of locations in-and-around Stockholm, including The Swedish History Museum, Skansen Museum, Malmstens Campus, The Museum of Furniture Studies and Skokloster Castle.
There were speakers and attendees from all over the world. I gave a paper on craftsmanship and the use of Australian hardwoods.
The symposium had a slight bias towards conservation and restoration, as many of the organisers came from that background. The conservators/restorers were mostly employees of institutions and were thus more likely to be sponsored than the cabinetmakers who were, by and large, employees of commercial joineries and furniture workshops.
Englishman and 2019 Churchill Fellow Joseph Bray from the Sylva Foundation presented a talk entitled The Future of Furniture Craft Education. In his presentation, Mr. Bray discussed the significant expense of training a craftsperson in wood. Mr. Bray, who visited undergraduate wood schools throughout the UK, Scandinavia, North America, and Ireland was able to compare and contrast not only the pedagogic philosophies of the different nations, but also the whole chain or training, from high schools through to training institutions. One of his key findings was the impact that under-funded/under-resourced high schools were having on the tertiary education in all countries. In essence, students were arriving at tertiary training with weaker and weaker basic skills, placing greater strain on the schools. Only Ireland has maintained a reasonably robust public school-based woodworking programme.
In public and private discussions Mr. Bray voiced the opinion that Sweden was still the world leader in fine woodcraft training.
From a cultural perspective, Swedes have no expectation of commissioning fine furniture. I spoke to many teachers, curators, students and private citizens on this matter, and the answer was consistent. If a Swedish person is looking for new furniture, they expect to go to a furniture store and order work through that store. There is no expectation of visiting a workshop and discussing their project with a designer/maker. There is no expectation of selecting timber, influencing a design, or monitoring the progress of a piece. This is completely at odds with the Anglo-Saxon countries such as England, Canada, The USA, Australia and New Zealand, where the Studio furniture movement is alive.
Not only could I not find anything that could be described as an art gallery showing furniture, even the concept was foreign. I saw Gesäll pieces on display at Malmstens, but they were not for sale, and no-one even thought of them as a tradeable commodity. To the students and the teachers, the Gesäll piece was viewed as an exam paper in a physical form rather than as a desirable object.
The Swedish have a taste for lightly coloured, uniformly grained timber. Swedes have extremely limited access to locally grown fine cabinet timbers such as walnut or cherry. In short, Swedish craftmanship celebrates form, technique, and accuracy, not material. This approach is completely at odds with the Studio Furniture Maker’s preoccupation with “interesting” timbers in the Anglo-Saxon countries.
I went to Sweden asking the wrong questions. I expected to find a close relationship between Swedish forestry and Swedish woodcraft education, because both sectors are so strong. If anything, I found a greater disconnect between these groups in Sweden than in Australia. The Swedish furniture and woodworking industry does not rely on Swedish timbers. The primary species of spruce and pine are not good furniture timbers. There is little incentive for Swedish forestry to put any real effort or money into furniture grade timbers and species, as the consumption scale of the furniture industry is insignificant next to the rapacious international appetite for construction timbers. Sweden has never relied on local timbers for its furniture industry.
Swedish forests are thought of as a crop, no different to wheat or potatoes. Almost every tree available for harvest has been planted and managed for this purpose. The Swedish industry faces no significant controversy over native old growth, native regrowth, or plantation timbers. Spruce and pine are native to Sweden, but the forests are not natural forests and haven’t been for hundreds of years (at least, not in the Southern areas). The area under forest grows ever year.
Sweden has the world’s best education in wood technology, craftsmanship and furniture design. A population of perhaps 11 million people supports three state-owned schools that allow Swedish students the freedom to study at minimal cost for “as long as it takes”.
The casual observer mistakes this depth of training as perhaps pointless and possibly self-indulgent. We (Australians) are culturally blinkered to appreciate how this understanding of wood as a material, craftsmanship as an ideal and design as a concept can filter through an economy.
IKEA was valued at US$18 Billion in 2021. It’s no longer a strictly Swedish company, nor are most of its products made in Sweden (approximately 30% still are). IKEA was founded on a complete understanding of wood as a material and design as an applied art. Love it or hate it, IKEA was only possible in a culture that respects and invests in woodcraft training.
It is not possible to predict the heights to which excellence in education and training in a specific discipline will ultimately lead. Its only possible to predict that poor education and training in a specific discipline will lead to mediocrity.