When most people think of traditional Swedish furniture, they usually envisage pale muted colours with clean simple lines. This style originated from Sweden’s "Gustavian" period in the 18th and early 19th centuries and could be described as a restrained interpretation of the French Louis XV and Louis XVI style. Simpler in design and execution, Swedish furniture from the Gustavian period usually has a light, matt-painted finish, with the most typical colours being grey, yellow ochre and Swedish blue.
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Gustavian furniture takes its name from Gustav III, who ascended the Swedish throne in 1771 after the untimely death of his father. He had travelled extensively to France, attending the court of Louis XVI in Versailles, and was eager to create a "Paris of the North" in Sweden. Under his patronage, Sweden designers began to develop a strong neoclassical style that was initially heavily influenced by the examples that Gustav had seen in France. However, the style soon developed into a very Swedish vision that sets it apart from the French pieces that originally inspired the genre.
The Gustavian style we are familiar with today tends towards the use of grey and off-white. In the late 1700s, however, while this would have been usual in private family rooms, guest chambers and servants’ quarters, Gustavian furniture in the salons, ballrooms and other main entertaining rooms would have been made of polished inlaid woods with extensive gilding. In middle-class families, this style would have been used for the prized family possessions and by the aristocracy as an important way to emphasise their status.
Original Painted Furniture
Finding a Swedish antique with its original paint intact is quite difficult today. According to the website Real Gustavian, the original 18th-century finishes were achieved by multiple layers of a pigment, such as black iron oxide, mixed with linseed oil. The typical Gustavian grey that is so popular nowadays was reached by mixing these two ingredients, with the depth of colour depending upon how much iron oxide was used. Most antique Gustavian furniture found with the original paint today will have very likely gone through a process called "dry scraping."
Most pieces of furniture originating from the Gustavian period were repainted in the 19th and early 20th centuries so, in order to reveal the older, original layers of paint underneath, the furniture has to be dry-scraped with a razor. This is a very long and laborious process involving many man hours and is one of the main reasons why Swedish antiques, and Gustavian furniture in particular, can command such high prices today.
Where to Buy
Examples of traditional Swedish furniture from the Gustavian period can be found in auctions or in the shops of antique dealers specialising in Swedish antiques--particularly those with good connections in Sweden. Most common furniture items offered for sale are chests, cabinets, desks, tables, sofas and chairs and these can vary wildly in price depending on whether they still have the original paint or are offered repainted.
It is also possible to buy traditional Swedish furniture through specialist shops advertising on the Internet. Antiques and high-quality hand-carved reproductions can be found, although prices are usually expensive. As an example, a provincial Gustavian desk dating from around 1800, 60-inches-wide by 30-inches-deep by 30-inches-high, was priced at £2,275 as of July 2010.
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