Inside Sweden's Manor Houses

In a small rural province called Scania, three country estates define classic Swedish style.

It never occurred to me when I was living in Sweden, in the 1970s, that "Swedish style"—in furniture, interiors, and fabrics—might one day become popular in America. Swedish design, like Swedish humor, has a certain restraint, a quiet wit, that I would have thought lost on outsiders.

Yet classic Swedish design—and I don't mean the 1950s masterpieces of Gunnar Asplund and Carl Malmsten or the Ikea explosion of the '90s, but the checked-fabric side chairs and spindle-backed settees of 250 years ago—is experiencing a great deal of international attention these days. Shops showcasing Swedish antiques have recently opened in London, Paris, and New York, and decorating magazines seem obsessed with Swedish furnishings. The most obvious explanation is that 18th- and early-19th-century Swedish furniture, in its spareness and rectilinearity, fits in quite well with modern furniture; but there's certainly more to it than that.

There is, I think, a real similarity between 18th-century Swedish and contemporary American taste, a psychological affinity that transcends history and geography and owes much, I would argue, to the ancestral Protestant craving for paring down, for simplicity. Many of America's foremost furniture creators, from the Shakers through Gustave Stickley and the Eameses, have stressed economy, availability, and clean, well-defined lines. As it happens, these are also typical features of the Swedish interior.

Classic Swedish design reaches its apogee in the royal palaces and aristocratic country houses of Sweden. As late as the 17th and 18th centuries, Sweden was a very poor country whose noble families were often hard-pressed to maintain even the barest semblance of elegance. Many of the landed gentry were really glorified farmers who kept a sharp eye on expenses and shunned ostentation as wasteful and irreligious. Yet these families also wanted to enhance their status, and as they enlarged and improved their arable acreage, as revenues expanded and their tastes grew more refined, they began to remodel and embellish their houses. Toward the late 18th century, a style of design appeared that was simple enough to be affordable and also fashionable enough to give tone to a country seat. This was the Neoclassical style, and its chief exponent was King Gustav III, who ruled from 1771 to 1792. Because he offered so much patronage to builders and designers, he, in effect, created a revolution in taste.

High-strung and aloof, reserving his deepest affection for the theater, Gustav wrote full-length dramas of his own, shocked the court by performing onstage, and built himself a superb little theater in Gripsholm Castle, near Stockholm; some of his courtiers complained he was confusing statecraft with stagecraft. Having made a trip to Paris as crown prince, he was also keenly interested in Neoclassical art and design; in 1883 he traveled to Italy, where he visited Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Paestum. From France and Italy Gustav brought back drawings, paintings, statues, models, and a highly trained painter-architect named Louis Jean Desprez. The so-called Gustavian Style, still greatly admired by art-conscious Swedes, is in fact the Swedish naturalization of what we call the Louis Seize Style.

Gustav commissioned many grand interiors for royal palaces in the Stockholm area, but his subjects couldn't follow his example to the letter. Too expensive for most of the Swedish nobility, his preferences were translated into a simpler, more provincial visual syntax. What emerged was the intimate, companionable, and at times rather countrified look of Swedish style.

In adapting French decorative manners, Swedish craftsmen sought to economize, dispensing with costly materials and techniques. Marble ornamentation was replaced by cast plaster or even trompe l'oeil; gilded furniture mounts were sparingly used; wood inlay, though practiced with distinction by masters like Georg Haupt, the great Stockholm ébéniste, appeared rarely; and silk wall-hangings went by the board. The Swedish country-house salon was consequently less pompous, less encrusted, and less glittery than its French counterpart; it was emptier, lighter, and more strictly dependent on beauty of proportion. If French salons of the early and middle 19th century tend to resemble menageries of exotic animals, their Swedish counterparts are more like serene, unpopulated landscapes.

The best place to study, firsthand, the architecture and decor of these country houses is Sweden's fertile, southernmost province, known as Scania, which, although a seven-hour drive from the Swedish capital, is now only half an hour from Copenhagen, via the two-year-old Øresund Bridge. In fact, Scania belonged to Denmark until the Swedish crown acquired it, by force, in 1658, giving wealthy Swedes the chance to move in and buy land and houses, sometimes former Danish castles, which they then altered to suit their own tastes and ambitions. Scania to this day remains a thoroughly rural landscape of tilled fields and low, wooded hills. You don't have to hunt very hard for castles or manors, as there are more than 100 here: Everywhere battlemented towers and tiled mansards loom up behind copses of ancient beeches and poplars. I recently visited several of these homes, and was able to trace, step by step, the emergence of a very particular and recognizable style of architecture and design.

I came to Krageholm Manor and its mix of the Baroque and the Neoclassical almost by accident: The tall gabled structure looked as unreal as a stage set and just as magical when I first glimpsed it through a beech wood north of the city of Ystad. Situated among streams choked with lilypads and overlooking a small lake, this perfectly proportioned building was erected around 1710 by the Countess Christina Piper, an enormously rich widow who enlisted the services of Nicodemus Tessin the Younger, the foremost Swedish architect of his day. Yet almost immediately after her death, in 1752, her son refashioned the house to suit his own tastes.

Krageholm, like so many estates in Scania, is still a working farm. The manor is now lived in by Marie Piper, who, if the Swedes still used noble titles, would be the current countess of Krageholm Manor. The first thing she did was march me up to the family chapel on the second floor. It was an enchanted moment. The late-spring sun was hanging so low on the horizon that it flooded through the chapel windows, setting the entire white-and-gold interior mysteriously aglow. This Baroque design is one of Tessin's masterpieces, and it showcases the Swedish drift toward minimalism: Nothing by Bernini or Borromini was ever this quietly self-contained.

The rest of Krageholm (excepting Tessin's splendid staircase leading to the chapel) is best described as eclectic. It is, however, particularly rich in Neoclassical furniture, and the grand salon gaily proclaims the Swedish habit of using gingham fabrics in aristocratic settings.

Mrs. Piper was especially eager to show me the many bedrooms upstairs, each individually turned out and each with its own tiled stove. The invention of this type of stove changed Swedish homes forever. Previously impossible to heat, these grand houses were uninhabited for much of the year. In 1767, however, Carl Johan Cronstedt and Fabian Wrede introduced a tall, column-like stove containing so many winding flues and ducts that it gave off enough heat to warm up a big room in winter. Usually covered in cream-colored tiles painted with frond or urn motifs or with bits of chinoiserie, these stoves caught up and reflected, like multiple mirrors, the light coming through the windows. During the Gustavian and subsequent periods, ceramic stoves appeared everywhere, even in upstairs guestrooms like those at Krageholm. While expanding the possibilities of everyday life and of social interaction, they also brought a new warmth into the houses of this most wintry of European nations.

Among several castles in northwest Scania, Wrams Gunnarstorp is a particularly magnificent, robust example. Erected in 1633 on medieval remains, the squarish Renaissance structure, with its inner courtyard, delicate brickwork, and rounded, corbie-stepped gables, reflects the influence of the Christian IV style of Denmark. The interior is notable for the painted ceiling in its library, at once masterful and bizarre. In 1636, an unknown artist was commissioned to cover every inch of this vast wooden beamed ceiling with a painting of a flock of diverse (and, in many cases, alarmingly aggressive) birds. Flying in all directions through a sky of umber-colored clouds are herons, storks, eagles, swans, pheasants, partridges, hawks, and ravens. At the time, the ceiling was done to reflect the hunting spirit of the region. Today, it feels like a hymn to nature.

The castle holds many fine examples of 17th-century art and artisanship, including a set of bewitching, quasi-naive oil portraits of Swedish monarchs and an ensemble of Karl Johan furniture (the Swedish equivalent of the French Empire style). But it's in the little Gustavian salon that you see the emergence of a native decorative style. The room's superb set of painted, straight-legged chairs and settees is muted in color, perfectly proportioned, and remarkably harmonious. This marriage of delicacy and reserve would set the tone for generations of Swedish designers.

I was able to see a consistent, full-fledged Gustavian decorative scheme at the nearby baronial seat of Övedskloster. This large Italianate villa is still lived in by the Ramel family, one of whose ancestors built it in the 1760s; like Krageholm, the estate continues to function as a working farm, with a complex of modern agricultural buildings branching off the right wing of the Neoclassical cour d'honneur. Behind the villa is an English-style park, romantically shady in parts, where, as the current owner, Hans Ramel, put it to me, his 18th-century ancestors would sit and read ("but, you know, very guardedly") Rousseau's theories about sexuality and child-rearing.

Övedskloster is unusual in that much of the interior was designed by a royal architect, Jean Erik Rehn, who had created rooms in several of King Gustav III's palaces. The Red Salon, the manor's tour de force, reflects Rehn's ability not only to produce an extraordinarily airy interior but also to round up the finest artists and artisans of his day. The room's several pieces include three intricately carved side tables by Jean-Baptiste Masreliez, two very tall Marieberg stoves covered in a daring combination of emerald and white tiles, and a marble bust by Tobias Sergel, the most influential Swedish sculptor of the period and an early exponent of romantic Neoclassicism. The Gustavian sofa and armchairs are upholstered in crimson silk, and Rehn himself designed the gilded moldings that interact so suavely with the cream wall panels. The salon is a robust composition in red, green, and gold, a performance so dazzling that King Gustav resented it as "too royal" to be owned by anyone but himself.

The chief design problem in Sweden, even in the comparatively luminous region of Scania, has always been how to get some light indoors. The Swedish year is manic-depressive, with long hours of dispiriting darkness in winter and equally long hours of soft brilliance in summer; in both seasons, the sun often seems to dawdle motionlessly on the horizon, casting slanting shafts of tremulous, watery light. Maybe that's why you don't get a lot of dark, Pompeian red walls in Neoclassical Swedish rooms, or, for that matter, a lot of swagged damask screening the windows. What you do get is plenty of relatively unadorned walls, often deftly divided into "panels" by the paintbrush alone, and a wide range of sophisticated pale grays, which are well-suited to picking up gentle variations in the available light. Most of the windows are tall and often lightly draped with sheer or gingham curtains, such as those still found in the main salon at Krageholm.

The use of checked fabrics in highly formal contexts is one of the most charming elements of classic Swedish design. It is a typical 18th-century conceit, a bit of class-travesty, like going as a shepherdess to a ball or running away with the Gypsies for a day. It spices the grand manner with a touch of the farmhouse, which may be why we Americans, with our democratic traditions, find the idea so congenial and amusing. There is a feeling in 18th- and early-19th-century Swedish design, as there was in our own Colonial and Federal periods, of natural modesty, the avoidance of vain excess, and, above all, of purposes well served.


Mind Your Manors

Visiting the manor houses
Most of the manors and castles of Scania are not open to the public, but guided tours of the three we visited, WRAMS GUNNARSTORP, ÖVEDSKLOSTER, and KRAGEHOLM MANOR (as well as a handful of others), can be arranged through the Swedish Tourist Office in Malmö; 46-40-34-12-00; fax 46-40-34-12-09.

The best place to stay
KRONOVALL, a manor house north of Ystad, has extensive vineyards, a baroque formal garden, and a restaurant, Petri Pumpa, that may be the best in Scania. Thomas Dreijing, the head chef for more than 15 years, specializes in mating robust, simple ingredients like parsnips with more luxurious items, like lobster and goose. He matches them with unusual but well-chosen French and Italian wines. Kronovall offers a few very large, lordly guestrooms furnished with eclectic 19th-century antiques. (The bathrooms are shared, but they're huge and modern.) 273 95 Tomelilla, Sweden; 46-417-197-10; fax 46-417-232-16.

Worth a detour
TORUP This splendid moated Renaissance castle west of Malmö is now a museum. 230 40 Bara; 46-40-34-18-53.

SVANEHOLM A manor house converted to a fine museum of traditional Swedish design. 274 91 Skurup; 46-411-400-12.

Getting there
Most flights from the U.S. to Scandinavia go through Copenhagen, which is just a half-hour's drive across the Øresund Bridge from Scania. SAS (800-221-2350) has two nonstop flights daily from Newark (seven hours, 40 minutes).

When to go
Between late May and July, when the light is at its fullest. Late July and August can be wet and buggy.

Dan Hofstadter, a contributing editor, wrote about Naples in the May/June issue of Departures.