Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Gothenburg Highlights

Gothenburg, Sweden

Just to shake up this week's Sydney-centric focus, here is another article from international contributor James Conway, who recently visited Gothenburg in Sweden (aka "the Melbourne of Sweden"). Must say, his lyrical and very entertaining writing style puts me to shame! Please enjoy, and I'm sure James would appreciate any feedback if you enjoy his article! - Lucy :)

Sweden’s second city is number one for design – James Conway points out some Gothenburg highlights.

Look, I generally know my geography. My nerdy childhood habit of poring over maps and atlases means I’m usually good for a blue wedge in Trivial Pursuits. But it was only after my friend Sheryl suggested a trip to Gothenburg that I discovered a) it’s on the west coast of Sweden, not somewhere in Germany as I’d always thought, and b) that it’s the same place as Göteborg (as the locals call it, pronouncing it something like “yerteborry”).

Not that they tend to make a big deal about themselves; Gothenburg’s half a million inhabitants go about their business with minimal fuss, pausing from their cheerful industriousness every now and then to give us Volvos, Hasselblad cameras and Björn from Abba. And behind many of the Swedish design classics we admire today there’s a good chance you’ll find a graduate of the city’s world-renowned HDK School of Design & Craft.

Among Swedes themselves the city has a reputation for being friendlier and more progressive than Stockholm. Consider this alongside the significant migrant population, enviably high quality of living and a few trams, and you’re basically looking at the Melbourne of Sweden.

Our visit coincided with what Swedes traditionally refer as “the rotting month”, the tail end of summer when – back in the day – food tended to go bad in the heat. Modern refrigeration aside, the autumnal temperatures and persistent rain which marked most of our week there made the idea of climate-related spoilage seem a little fanciful.

We started our explorations on Avenyn, the main shopping street, but it was dominated by the kind of shops you could find anywhere in Western Europe. More promising is the local branch of Swedish chain Lagerhaus, with its chic, affordable tableware, and decorative bits which allow you to outfit the rest of the home in various degrees of tastefulness, from bland beige to Bangalore brothel. Some of the trashy novelty items on display make you suspect that their typical customer is buying a leaving gift for a colleague they don’t particularly care for. But tear yourself away, if you can, from the Hello Kitty soap dispenser; the real treat in this store is when you look up to discover you’re actually in a converted Art Deco theatre.

Older still is Haga, a handsome neighbourhood of pedestrianised streets lined with grand 19th century timbered houses. Here you’ll find cafes, bookshops, antique stores and independent galleries like Sintra, which has a rotating programme of contemporary crafts and design, with an emphasis on ceramics.

To put all of this into context, head for the Röhsska Museum, the country’s only museum dedicated to design. The collection traces the evolution of the Swedish aesthetic over the centuries but really comes alive for two key eras: late 18th century Gustavian style, which took French interiors, dropped a lot of the frills and lightened up the colour scheme to make the most of the wan Nordic light, and post-war pieces of the kind which dominate international auction sales these days. Across town, the light-filled blond-wood expanse of the Museum of World Culture, designed by London firm Brisac Gonzalez, was opened in 2004, and its goal of intercultural dialogue is a legacy of the city’s outward-looking maritime history.

Top - Museum of World Culture, bottom - sculpture by Korean artist Suh Do-Ho at the MWC

Installation outside the Museum of World Culture

But for me the real gem of Gothenburg’s institutions is also its smallest – the Kortedala Museum, a completely preserved example of ’50s and ’60s interiors in a modestly proportioned apartment in the most non-descript building imaginable. It’s like being on a movie set; everything, from the bric-a-brac on the occasional tables to the toiletries in the bathroom, is authentic to the era.

The Kortedala

Kortedala was home to a forward-thinking housing project which reasoned that a social democracy had an obligation to provide quality accommodation to all. The teak table in the apartment, for instance, came from Denmark, as it was then acknowledged as a world leader in design. The lovely couple who welcome visitors to the apartment had themselves moved into the development in 1957, and proudly displayed the television with peek-a-boo wooden screen which was introduced in the early 60s, and the then-radical inbuilt refrigerator.

The Kortedala

A little hunting in the city’s fleamarkets can turn up your own time-travel souvenir; our expedition yielded a hand-held cake mixer with in-built egg separator. OK so I’m not much good in a kitchen but according to Sheryl, who knows more about baking than I ever will, this is apparently a stroke of design genius.

ingenious cake mixer

Heading north out of the city, pausing briefly to goggle at the Bräckbod factory, which sells imperfect biscuits at drastically reduced prices to coachloads of tourists (I am not making this up), we were soon in a shampoo ad wonderland. Around every bend there were breathtaking vistas of rolling pine-covered hills, wild rocky outcrops, serene bays and lush green fields grazed by happy cows.

shampoo ad wonderland

You could spend weeks exploring the little fishing villages up and down the coast, with the islands and inlets along the way offering endless visual variety. Water is key to everything here – the frequent downpours, the fish-heavy diet, even the art; the Nordic Watercolour Museum, designed by Danish architects Niels Bruun and Henrik Corfitsen, has a dramatic setting in the town of Skärhamn. Its oxblood façade echoes the traditional farmhouses which dot the landscape in this region. The museum has thoughtfully erected live-in studios for visiting artists, in the form of wooden cubes weathered to match the rocks they perch upon.

Nordic Watercolour Museum

Gazing out over the bay through the soaring windows in the gallery’s restaurant, we agreed that we would wholeheartedly recommend Gothenburg and the surrounding area for anyone who wants a crash course in Scandinavian design, some spectacular scenery, or just to pick up some less-than-perfect biscuits at knockdown prices.

Nordic Watercolour Museum restaurant


  1. Don't forget Surry Hills markets, this weekend on the corner of Crown + Foveuax streets.
    You could also visit Danks street... the galleries as well as Sopra and Fratelli fresh...

  2. gotta love the flying ducks on the wall... solid gold!

  3. ooohh Maisonette sorry for my delay in replying to your comment :) Yes we must check out the Surry Hills market tomorrow...! I am turning into quite the Surry Hills resident! It's such a beautiful area :) We checked out Fratelli Fresh and Sopra yesterday.. but ended up having quite a lavish lunch at Fratelli Paradiso :)

    Thanks so much for your suggestions!

    Craft Vic - yes Flying Ducks, so cliche but so fab :) Hey I checked out Object Gallery here this week - will post a little write up next wk.. They remind me of Craft Vic a lot! Perhaps its Ms Rhodes' influence ;)