by Mattias Hallin
While talking chairs over a beer on an evening during the Chair Chat Class week, the conversation eventually turned upon the Swedish stick chair tradition in general, and Mats Palmquist’s 2018 book “Träsmak” in particular. As it happened, that book and a number of others had been laid out by Chrisropher Schwarz on the coffee table in the Covington Mechanical Library for us to peruse and, if so inclined, be inspired by for our upcoming chair builds.
It is lavishly illustrated with many hundreds of excellent photos of Swedish stick chairs, their design and their production over the last 170 or so years, so as a visual source of design inspiration, it works a treat. The text complements this with an in-depth look at the history of stick chair design and manufacture in Sweden during the same period. In Swedish. Which means that, unless you can at least decipher that language, or have the time on your hands to take the text through machine translation (and the patience to deal with the pitfalls thereof), like Chris and most other non-Scandinavians, you will only be able to view, not read. So, after I had gone on for a bit about what “Träsmak” actually has to say, Chris gave me a look and asked “how about you write a presentation of the book for the blog?”.
As you can see, I agreed.
By the way, “presentation” is a key word; this blog post is not meant to be review, although I do express the occasional opinion or add snippets of information not out of the book. But the basic idea is to give the non-Swedish speaking readership of the blog a taste (pun intended – see below) of what it is all about. Not, however, by sticking to the structure of the book, which, from written sources, photos, memories and anecdotes, weaves a semi-chronologically presented, rather detailed tapestry of intermingled producers, designers and chairs. This makes for great reading and browsing but is not easy to sum up. I will instead attempt to identify some main threads, to stay with the tapestry analogy, and talk about them briefly, one at a time. But for a proper look, get the book!
‘Träsmak – En bok om svenska pinnstolar‘
First, though, the title: What it does it mean?
Trä is wood, and smak is taste or flavour, so a literal translation could be “The Flavour of Wood.” As an idiomatic expression, however, träsmak means a benumbed posterior from sitting on a hard or uncomfortable seat. So, Numb Butt, which, according to the author, has often been the result of sitting on these chairs: “It has been said that the stick chair is the only democratic piece of furniture. It is equally uncomfortable to all.”
As for the subtitle, en = one, a or an, bok = book, om = about, svenska = Swedish while pinnstolar is the plural of pinnstol = stick chair, from pinne = stick, and stol = chair. So, A Book About Swedish Stick Chairs.
Origin Story No. 2: The Book
Mats Palmquist has worked as a journalist, writer and graphic designer for more than 40 years. As far as I know, he’s not a woodworker, but he talks about a long-standing interest in furniture design, and about how, many years ago, he used to see plenty of stick chairs going for not much money at flea markets. His interest roused, he tried to find out more, but soon realised that very little had been written about them. Long years of gathering what information he could find eventually led to the thought that maybe he’d better write about the subject himself. Thus, while freely acknowledging it to be far from complete, he calls the result “a book somewhat like what [he] missed back then.”
Origin Story No. 3: Swedish Stick Chairs
Stick chairs are ubiquitous in the Swedish furniture landscape and have been since the second half of the 19th century – witness Palmquist talking about always finding them at flea markets. Witness also my own experience, growing up in Sweden in the 1960s and 70s. We had a set in the kitchen, so did my grandparents. Stick chairs were in the homes of family and friends, in restaurants, in public spaces. You never really noticed them; they were just there. So normal that they tended to disappear into the background, even as you sat on them.
And for a long time, there was a large industry to make them, some of which survives to this day.
Apparently it can all be traced back to just three people, in an origin story that seems reasonably reliable. As Palmquist tells it, it began sometime in the 1850s, with a Mrs. Henrietta Killander, at the time lady of the manor at the Hook Estate in Svenarum Parish, some 20 miles south of Jönköping in the province of Småland in southern Sweden. She asked Jonas Fagerlund, the carpenter at close-by Lindefors Bruk iron works (that the Killander family also owned), to make a chair from a design of hers. Fagerlund in turn asked a certain Daniel Ljungqvist, for help. The latter was known for his skill in making spinning wheels, an implement that usually involves a staked construction and a number of turned sticks. He would thus have had a foot-powered lathe and been familiar with turning. After the first chair had met with approval, a further number were commissioned from the same two men.
These chairs looked very much like English Windsor back chairs of the same era, but where Mrs. Killander found her inspiration for the design is not known. There is no evidence that she had been abroad, but small numbers of Windsor-inspired chairs had been made by Swedish cabinetmakers since the late 1700s. She may thus have seen some of those, or imported Windsors, or even just pictures of them; the importance of her design and commission lies not in any claim to originality, but in the impulse it gave to in particular Daniel Ljungqvist, who continued to make chairs like these. The idea soon passed from him to local smallholders, for whom it was a good way to make some cash on the side. The raw material – mostly birch – could be found in abundance pretty much on the doorstep, while a user-made, foot-powered lathe was well within reach, both practically and financially. The resulting chairs were then sold in town – Jönköping – or at fairs, and met with a steady enough demand to warrant continued supply.
From Farms to Factories
This nascent cottage industry soon outgrew the cottages where it got its start, and in the 1860s began to turn into an initially small and somewhat primitive but clearly factory-based proto-industry. First out was a certain Johan Wilhelm Thunander, who in 1863, at 19 years old and together with two others, began making chairs by hand at Harkeryd Farm, again in Svenarum Parish. They soon also employed a man who had worked with Daniel Ljungqvist. Thunander eventually came up with the idea to use water power to run the lathe, first at a local flour mill. In 1870 the activities were moved to Horshaga Farm, strategically located next to running water, and where, under the name of Hagafors Stolfabrik (fors = rapids; stolfabrik = chair factory), the machines running on water power soon included band saw, drill press and jointer.
Two other stick chair factory pioneers in the area were Carl Johan Wigell, who started making chairs in nearby Malmbäck in 1868, and Per Johan Andersson, who began his business in Svenarum in 1870, but in 1882 moved the 25 or so miles north-east to Nässjö, a town newly founded around the coming together of five different railroad lines, including the Southern Main Line connecting Malmö to Stockholm. The business was later named after the town as Nässjö Stolfabrik, and eventually became the most productive stick chair factory in Sweden.
On both sides of the turn of the 20th century, many other factories sprang up, first all over Småland, in places like Jönköping, Värnamo, Bodafors, Sävsjö, Vetlanda, Diö, Vaggeryd, Skillingaryd, Smålandsstenar, Moheda, Tranås and more besides, then elsewhere in Sweden, including Edsbyn, Tallåsen, Sparreholm, Holmsund, Stockholm, Tibro and Örebro. Steam (and later electric) power soon supplemented or replaced water for running machines.
There’s not room here to go into such detail as the book does on these many companies and factories and their varying fortunes, but of the original three, Hagafors Stolfabrik gradually ceased production in the mid-1960s, while Nässjö Stolfabrik went bankrupt and closed its doors in 1991/92. Wigells, though, are in business in Malmbäck to this day, and still make stick chairs (and many other types of furniture besides).
From Windsor to Swedish Mid-Century Modern – or SMC Rustic
Up until the late 1920s or so, most (possibly even all) of the stick chairs made in Sweden by these many factories look very much the same, irrespective of who made them. There will of course have been differences of quality, and a plethora of models – back chairs, arm chairs, rocking chairs and so on – with more or less subtle variations in design and finish, but judging from how Palmquist presents the matter, both in pictures and in writing, they were all riffing on a Windsor theme and on each other: decoratively turned legs and sticks; typically curly seat and comb shapes; marked saddling. In short, the Windsor works.
With the arrival in Sweden of Functionalism in the years around the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition this begins to change, and in particular during what might be termed a Golden Age for these chairs in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, a rich and distinctively Swedish stick chair language evolves through the work of a number of well-known and successful designers: Uno Åhrén, Carl Malmsten, Sven-Erik Fryklund, Yngve Ekström, Sonna Rosén, Gunnar Eklöf, and (from Finland) Ilmari Tapiovaara, to mention just a few of the bigger names.
Instead of the old, decorative turnings, legs and sticks become smoothly rounded, seats and combs lose their curlicues, saddling is usually discrete or non-existent, with some seats even made from form-pressed veneer. Much of it is made to fit into what is now often called a Mid-Century Modern aesthetic (including some more daring experiments in form, now perhaps a tad dated), with others in more of a (faux) Rustic style.
This design trend in fact continues to this day. Certain classics from the 40s and 50s are still produced (see also below), and although contemporary designers – amongst those whose work is mentioned in the book are Nirvan Richter, Lina Nordqvist, Thomas Sandell, Markus Johansson, Mårten Cyrén and Jonas Lindvall – may try to stretch the envelope in certain ways, they are yet well grounded in the forms and designs of the mid-20th century.
Oh, and – no surprise – Ikea has of course produced quite a number of stick chairs over the years; almost 50 different designs in fact. In earlier years Ikea often just sold whatever stick chair models were on offer from their suppliers, but with time the company’s chairs came to be designed directly for them by designers such as Gillis Lundgren, Bengt Ruda, Erik Wörts, Karin Mobring, Tomas Jelinek and Nike Karlsson.
Production Processes: Continuity & Change
It should perhaps be said that, even if you read Swedish, “Träsmak” will not teach you how to build Swedish stick chairs; it primarily covers their company and design history. There are, however, some comparatively brief but quite interesting passages on how the work was and is done.
As already mentioned, the production context very quickly became factory based, and powered tools and machines have been involved from early on. As example, Palmquist quotes a newspaper article from 1884 on the stick chair industry in Jönköping, where at the time 20 manufacturers turned out some 60,000 chairs a year, and, according to the article, a machine for saddling seats had just come into use that could do in an hour what a skilled worker needed ten to achieve.
That said, a very interesting account by a certain Allvin Leo, who at 13 years old in 1943 began working at Hagafors Stolfabrik, on how chairs were made there back then makes it clear that many manual or semi-manual elements were still involved. He furthermore explains that the factory bought the timber as logs in the round, and did all further processing themselves, including air and kiln drying.
In fact, from Palmquist’s accounts of modern-day production at places like Stolab and Wigells, it is clear that although some parts of the process are now fully automated. Others, for example assembly, are still skilled jobs done pretty much the way it has always been done: with a hammer for assmebly (although compressed air lends a helping hand with pressing some parts together) and glue.
Swedish stick chair production has also seen its fair share of experimentation, not only with form but also with construction methods. The newspaper article from 1884 talks about how the machine processes led to chair parts being sufficiently interchangeable that chairs could be exported unassembled, thereby saving on both packaging, transport and tariff costs. From at least the 1940s, form-pressed veneer seats has been a way to save on chair weight and speed up production of certain designs. And legs screwed into seats or hardware has both helped production and permitted stick chairs to be (partially) flat-packed.
An Influential Chair & Its Many Children
Probably the most well-known Swedish stick chair of all times is Lilla Åland by Carl Malmsten, a chair that has been in continuous production at Stolab in Smålandsstenar since 1942.
On a visit to Finström Church in the Åland Islands with a group of his students, Malmsten spotted an old stick chair, which they went on to measure and make drawings of. The maker was unknown, but it most likely dated from the latter part of the 19th century, and was in all respects a typical Swedish Windsor-like stick back chair. While most of the actual work was done by one of the students, Sven-Erik Fryklund, then 18 years old, Malmsten supervised and signed off on the design, and eventually handed its manufacture to Stolab.
Then in 1950 Hagafors Stolfabrik began production of Haga, a variation on the design that was entirely by Fryklund’s hand, as was a later (1978) style updated and simplified as Bas (= Basic) for Kooperativa Förbundet, the Swedish Co-op Union.
And in 2010 Nirvan Richter was heavily influenced by both the Malmsten and Fryklund designs when he developed his Pinnstol that is produced by Wigells and sold by the Norrgavel furniture company.
To my mind, all four can be considered almost archetypes of the modern Swedish stick chair; this kind of chair is what I think of first when I hear the word pinnstol, and I suspect the same would be true for many Swedes today.
Although the above is but a brief summary of what is after all a book of 200+ pages, I hope it has given both a basic understanding of the book itself and, by extension, a potted history of the modern Swedish stick chair.
It may also have occurred to informed readers that the chairs in this book are not really stick chairs by the Lost Art Press definition, as they were and are factory made and mass produced. This is not a meant in a derogatory sense – just as a clarification. There is no mention in the book of any vernacular stick chair tradition in Sweden, before or during the time period covered. This does not exclude one having existed – staked construction techniques were certainly known and used – but that is not something that Palmquist sets out to explore. (A while back I wrote up some extremely limited research on the matter in a comment to a Klaus Skrudland post here on the blog; if ever I find the time, I’d love to pursue that line of inquiry.)
No matter your definition of “stick chair” though, “Träsmak” is a really interesting book, and well worth buying, even if you cannot or would struggle to read it. The photos are excellent and many, so it is a fantastic visual source of inspiration and ideas for things such as seat and comb shapes, stick configurations and ways to vary a theme. Not least a woodworker familiar with the American Windsor form would, I think, find much to glean from the similarity of difference (to coin an expression) between two forms with shared roots.
As mentioned above it is not a book of instruction, so some knowledge of how to make a stick chair would be needed for any inspiration to be practically applicable, but even just as something to browse through for the beauty of so many of the chairs I find it most worthwhile.
It is also a gorgeous book as such, with great graphic design, properly stitched signatures, a heavy-duty, half-cloth hard cover and nicely printed on good paper in the European Union.
Practical Details for Getting Hold of the Book
“Träsmak – En bok om svenska pinnstolar” is published by Historiska Media, a medium-sized independent Swedish publisher of books on history and cultural history. It first came out in 2018 and, at the time of writing, is still in print.
Historiska Media has a web shop, but only delivers to Sweden. Outside of Sweden, use the ISBN (978-91-7545-783-3) to order it through a local bookstore. (It might also be possible to arrange an inter-library loan through one’s local library; for the curious-but-less-inclined-to-buy, this possibility could be worth exploring.)