For nearly 170 years, contemporary wallpapers have been produced by the Åsunden lake in Västergötland, Sweden. In Ulricehamn’s wallpaper factory, the employees work daily to preserve the genuine handicraft tradition and bring that heritage into the future. Today, all wallpapers in Svenskt Tenn's range are manufactured here.
A total of five people work in the factory. Håkan and Ann who are masters of distemper printing and screen printing. Thomas who is a colour expert, and Frida and Anna who work with the administration and everything that belongs to it. Together they develop the production with passion and love of prints.
All of Josef Frank’s wallpapers are printed using the distemper printing technique, a method that endows the wallpaper pattern with a unique structure and vibrancy. The pattern builds a slight embossed effect in the material so that it is possible to literally feel the solid craftsmanship.
The distemper printing technique dates back to the early 1800s and nowadays is a way for Svenskt Tenn to come as close as possible to Josef Frank’s original concept. The technique makes every single roll of wallpaper unique. The wallpaper’s pattern and details can in fact vary slightly due to factors such humidity and temperature during the production process and the characteristics of the paper involved. It can be likened to a potato print, where the pattern is built up using rollers and colours are added layer upon layer. Printing wet-on-wet gives a vivid and almost hand-painted effect.
It's equally fascinating each time the machine rolls, with wheels spinning and colours dripping. The paints are mixed and filtered before being poured into the paint vessel. The rollers are inspected and placed in the machine in the correct position.
Wallpaper with Estrid Ericsson’s Elefant design are printed using screen printing. The technique is not as old as distemper printing, and is somewhat more automated. In conjunction with screen printing, stencils are used where the colour is pressed out through small holes and creates the design image. In this way, many fine details can be printed since the technique is more exact and creates a fine depth. When screen printing, transparent colours can also be used, which provides a lovely watercolour effect.
The Elefant pattern is printed using a stencil and obtains a fine, matt expression. In the final stage, a layer of transparent colour is added which makes the wallpaper hardy and also dryable.
Ulricehamns Tapetfabrik has a unique screen printing machine. It was extended 10 years ago and two new printing stations were added, which makes it possible to print more advanced patterns with more colours. Printing master Håkan Andersson is one of those who works with production. He has been here since the start and, with 30 years’ experience, he knows the machine’s qualities, weaknesses and strengths to a tee.
Erik pours 450°C hot liquid pewter in the 100°C hot mould on the workbench. He has just begun the production of an Estrid Ericson vase and, even with the protection of a fireman’s glove, a steady hand is essential.
He pinches hard as he attaches clamps to the mould to make it stick together. However, it is soon time to remove the clamps again. Pewter solidifies in seconds and it is important to remove the vase section from the mould as soon as possible. Although Erik has done this hundreds of times, occasionally he fails. Ideal temperature conditions are required in order for the pewter to correctly fill the pattern in the mould.
“Pewter is the most time consuming of all the metals; it always contains dross and impurities. Fortunately, pewter also has a forgiving nature: it can be melted down innumerable times.”
Erik and his wife Inger founded the workshop in Västergötland in 1979. The bronze mould used to cast Estrid Ericson’s Peruvian Urn was manufactured at the H. Bergman Fine Art Foundry, Stockholm in the 1920s and the urn is produced in exactly the same way today.
Today the couple’s son Oskar and two other young employees work in the metal workshop, which is one of the few remaining pewter artisan workshops in Sweden. This family-owned business manufactures Svenskt Tenn’s most advanced pewter and brass products, including, in addition to Estrid Ericson’s vase, Anna Petrus’ pewter lions and Josef Frank’s candlestick, The Friendship Knot.
Today, more than 100 people work in the brick buildings a few miles southwest of Borås. The room filled with wool samples from floor to ceiling bears witness to the organisation and the quantity of carpets that have been produced over the years. In the late 19th century, the yarn was spun in the factory, which had its own yarn dyeing works. Today, yarns of wool and flax are purchased and the manufacturing methods have also changed over the years. Nevertheless, it is still handwork.
“Kasthall’s carpets are the carpet industry’s equivalent to art glass,” explains Lena Jiseborn, Range Director. “Product developers and designers work side by side and the personal contact in each step plays an important role for the final outcome.”
Several of Svenskt Tenn’s carpets are produced at Kasthall: both Josef Frank’s design from the 1930s and the latest addition, ”Trädgårdsmattan” (”Garden Carpet”), designed by Jakob Solgren in 2016.
The carpet, which is distinguished by a warped geometry and an oblong hole in the middle, required much innovative thinking for the traditional carpet manufacturer. Jakob Solgren Describes the motif as “A garden seen from above.”
As late as in the 1970s, the glassworks had 150 employees. Today they are 15. Seventy-five per cent of the old glassworks buildings have been transformed into a handicraft village. The old grindery is an inn; the former office is now a library and a shop. However, Ulf Rosén – the newly-appointed CEO – is hopeful:
“Swedish art glass is unique and I believe in its future. At Italian glassworks, the glassblower often designs the glass; in Sweden we have an art industry tradition which involves collaboration between artisan and designer. We intend to develop this collaboration.”
In the old days, glass was always blown in wooden moulds, the production of which requires great skill, which unfortunately is dying out, Ulf says.
“As long as there is steam in a wooden mould it will not burn up, despite the molten glass having a temperature of more than 1,000 °C. This is one of many examples of knowledge that has existed for generations and which I think we should make use of. One thing is certain: We all stand on the shoulders of older generations.”
In Svenskt Tenn’s wide glass range, there are many products, crafted at Rejmyre Glassworks. Some of them are from the archive, while others are items developed by contemporary designers.
In a cellar in the Old Town of Stockholm, three kilometres from Svenskt Tenn’s flagship store on Strandvägen, is Larsson Korgmakare – the only manufacturer of rattan furniture in Sweden. Here, Erica Larsson and her colleague Lasse manage the production of Svenskt Tenn’s rattan armchairs, sofas and stools.
Except producing furniture, the workshop also carries out repairs and chair seat braiding of rattan, rush and string. The long rattan bands, used for binding the furniture together, are made from the skin of rattan. The strands are dampened before they are bound to the rattan. Sometimes the end binding is completed with a staple, a tack or a pin.
The import of rattan to Europe took off in the 18th century thanks to the East India Company. At the time rattan was primarily used for chair seat braiding. It was only after the Second World War that production of rattan furniture began in earnest and it was then Erica’s grandfather, John, initiated the collaboration with Josef Frank. However, the family company has a history that goes even further back: In 1903 Erica’s grandfather and uncle moved from Västerås to Stockholm to found the company Larsson Korgmakare.
Over his lifetime Josef Frank designed about a hundred different pieces of furniture made entirely of rattan, and a variety of chairs with rattan details. The material gives an Oriental accent and is lightweight, something that is typical of Josef Frank’s design.
“It does not look particularly difficult but appearances are deceptive.”
At the far end of the 100-year old building, there is a lathe. And at it, 77-year-old Åke Larsson is hand-turning a table leg with the typical paw foot that will soon be attached to a Josef Frank “Coffee Table 2139”. It does not look particularly difficult. But appearances are deceptive. Åke is turning the lathe with the naturalness that comes from 60 years of professional experience.
Here, the table top for model “2139” and other types of Josef Frank furniture receive their veneer. This is a procedure that requires great artisanal skill at every stage. They use a root veneer, which, in itself, requires knowledge. Root is the name of the part of the tree that anchors the plant to the ground, and root veneer is obtained by using a lathe to turn out millimeter-thin sheets, particularly from the root that grows above ground.
“Fixing and gluing veneer for a single table can take an entire working day,” Åke explains. First you press the veneer sheets at a high temperature to flatten them out. Then begins the time-consuming job of “building up” the veneer: five, six veneer sheets are placed on a plywood board, overlapping one another, and fastened with tiny nails. It is then sawn in a zigzag manner, which produces a wave pattern in the veneer. This is done to mask the joints, because it is difficult for the eye to perceive a crooked line. Now you have two halves, which you fold, fronts facing each other. And then you “fix” the reverse sides with long paper strips, to hold the veneer together. Eventually, the veneer sheets are pinned to a soft laminate board, and glued onto a board, which, in turn, will be pressed under heat to smooth out the joints.”