Carl Malmsten 1888–1972

Carl Malmsten – furniture designer, interior designer, educator and founder of a number of crafts schools, in addition to being awarded the title of professor. Carl Malmsten was one of the great cultural icons of the twentieth century and is somewhat of a legend in Swedish design and interior design history. He was also one of the great cultural icons of the last century, with a strong impact on domestic environments, public environments and contemporary public debate. Stolab is one of his key workshops and it was in its capacity as one of these that Lilla Åland and the product line Vardags became available to the Swedish public starting in the 1940s.

1915 was when Carl Malmström had his great breakthrough as a furniture designer. This took place in relation to a competition for simple furniture for the recently launched massive project to build the Stockholm City Hall. This furniture designer, who had been unknown up until this point, was awarded both the first and second prize for his interior design of the Council Chamber and the city hall offices. This competition proved to be a turning point, both personally and professionally. He finally received confirmation that the path he had chosen after years of hesitation had pointed him in the right direction. He now launched a workshop of his own, the spirit of which was permeated by notions he had cultivated for a long time and which were to become the running theme of his life: to recreate the sense of community of the old days by working with one’s hands, where both the craft and the design involved clear traces of Swedish folk art and craftmanship traditions, albeit adapted to the needs of the modern public.

Prestigious commissions
In the 1920s, Carl Malmsten became one of the most commissioned interior decorators and furniture designers and prestigious commissions pour in. The wedding gift from the inhabitants of Stockholm to Crown Prince Gustav Adolf and Lady Louise Mountbatten is a cosy family room at Ulriksdal Palace. The architect Ivar Tengbom gets him involved in the construction of the Stockholm Concert Hall, Ivar Kreuger’s Matchstick Palace and the Swedish Institute in Rome. Waldorf Astoria in New York calls him up and wants him to decorate and design furniture for hotel rooms, lounges and dining rooms. Banks, insurance companies, the Swedish parliament – as soon as a more luxurious board room is to be decorated, Malmsten is brought up.

From craftmanship to industry, without compromising on details, by means of key workshops
In relation to the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, he rejects the sterile varieties of functionalism. And he becomes a part of the establishment through his furniture, interior design and his clear opinions. However, he himself is criticised for focusing too much on craftsmanship and neglecting the great factor of production of the time: the industry. His furniture was primarily manufactured at the school he had launched and some nearby small workshops. Following the war, however, he saw an opportunity to combine craftsmanship and industry, but as Carl Malmsten never left anything to chance in his creations, he sought to maintain total control over his works. As a result, he handpicked a small number of high-quality, small-scale factories, so-called key workshops. These were factories he frequently visited in order to inspect and inspire, and he truly enjoyed walking around the workshop talking to the workers, keen to offer good advice and reprimands. One of these was Stolab, which at the time was named Stolfabriksaktiebolaget.

Lilla Åland
In the summer of 1939, Carl Malmsten taught a course at the folk high school in Åland. During a field trip with his students, he is captivated by a stick back chair, whose original creator is unknown. Carl and his students carefully measure the chair, draw it and after some careful work and adding details characteristic of Malmsten, the stick back chair Lilla Åland is born. It was meant to be a chair that would suit people and that would be possible to mass-produce. The original, quite austere, chair was turned into a comfortable chair with soft, shapely lines and finishes. And no other factory was better suited for manufacturing this chair than Stolfabriksaktiebolaget in Smålandsstenar. The first Lilla Åland was produced in 1942. The number one stick back chair, which ended up becoming a symbol for Swedish furniture design, an icon, whose popularity has only increased. Lilla Åland was originally produced in an unpainted version, where only wood oil was applied, and a version painted in the sky-blue nuance that was one of Malmsten’s favourite colours.

In 2012, Lilla Åland was also given a welcome addition in the form of children’s chairs in a tall and short model designed by Stolab in collaboration with the Siv & Carl Malmsten Memorial Foundation and furniture designer Leif Burman.

“Beneath the hands of my skilful chair-maker, my seat was transformed from a bulky, thick square of wood into this minimalistic, comfortably hollowed-out seat. Note the thickness of the wood where the legs and the back sticks have been inserted and how they have been made thinner towards the edges so that the seat should not look bulky. Note how the holes for attaching the legs and the back sticks have been drilled sufficiently far away from the edge so that the seat has not cracked from the stress and note how this pull forces the tension of the legs and the back sticks that makes the back wider and the legs stand firmly on the floor.*

“And imagine that I will have thousands of children. They will originate from the world-renowned chair manufacturer Stolab and be produced automatically for the small dwellings of modern man. They retain the springiness, the gentility from the vestry and the kind willingness to serve, for which I am grateful.”*

From “Carl Malmsten hel och hållen” by Eric Wennerholm (Bonniers, 1969)

Vardags was launched at the 1944 exhibition ”Kontakt med Nyttokonstnären” at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. The magazine Form wrote that it was “...some of the healthiest and most beautiful that Swedish furniture design and interior design is capable of creating”. Manufacturing began here in Smålandsstenar two years later. With its seven sticks in the back, Vardags serves as a variety of the classic rustic chair from the province of Dalarna, the so-called Leksand chair, and here Malmsten combines folk art with a Gustavian tradition. It is also noticeable how Carl Malmsten carried on the heritage from Carl Larsson in the form of the simple piece of furniture, the family piece of furniture meant to withstand wear and tear. What is referred to as everyday living.

Paving the way for the Folkhemmet. Designs for the people
Carl Malmsten had his great public breakthrough in relation to a 1956 exhibition at the Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg. For the first time, he here exhibits furniture designed to be mass-produced and which soon finds its way into the Swedish Folkhemmet. So, what distinguished his way of thinking?

 “All edges are thoroughly broken”... something Carl Malmsten frequently wrote on his sketches and he had a recognised sense of proportions and designed furniture that people would truly enjoy – and sit in comfortably. In this process of creating, his great source of inspiration was nature and there are hardly any sharp edges or corners in nature. Nor, he explained, does the light, the eye or the individual like to bump up against sharp corners. That is why all edges should be rounded off so that they become friendlier to touch and look at. His work as a designer spans almost six decades, but it is possible to discern the characteristics of his designs already from the outset: an expressive simplicity, clearly based on the tradition of Swedish peasantry furniture but which has been modernised and refined. Anyone interested in the lifework of Carl Malmsten may visit the Nationalmuseum or the Röhsska Museum. On Strandvägen 5 in Stockholm, there is also a store mainly focusing on Carl Malmsten’s furniture: Malmstensbutiken.

Royalties are made into schools
Carl Malmsten was also a great educator. When Malmsten in the 1950s collaborated with a number of small factories, the royalties went to the Nyckelvik project. Once the Nyckelviksskolan on Lidingö is up and running (1955), the revenues are transferred to the Capellagården on Öland (1958). In these schools, as in the Malmstensskolan on Lidingö – which is now simply called Malmstens and is a part of Linköping University – the basic notion of “hand and mind in a collaboration of creation” lives on.

Widemar designed in 1942, interpreted in 2019
In 1942, Carl Malmsten designed the elegant armchair Widemar commissioned by lawyer and politician Ingrid Gärde Widemar, who in 1966 became the first female justice on the Swedish Supreme Court. This armchair was manufactured in a few copies, but it was never mass-produced. Commissioned by Stolab and the Siv & Carl Malmsten Memorial Foundation, furniture designer Julia Greek has interpreted and analysed Carl Malmsten’s sketches from 1942 and then adapted these to the modern furniture manufacturing at Stolab, where craftsmanship and automatic work go hand in hand in a distinct manner. In 2019, the chair was relaunched during the Stockholm Furniture Fair and is a part of the collection Archive Collection, consisting of furniture and patterns designed by Carl Malmsten.

The Siv & Carl Malmsten Memorial Foundation
This foundation owns all intellectual rights originating from Carl Malmsten. It enters into and monitors agreements with mass-producing companies in terms of licensing and marketing products designed by Carl Malmsten. Stolab is one of these licensed companies. 


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