For both mansion and cottage

Eighteenth century style, not just for the wealthy

In the early 1990s, IKEA wanted to breathe new life into the Swedish furniture legacy from the 1700s. The point of departure was the Gustavian style – an evolution of French Neoclassicism; simple everyday furniture with beautiful lines and sculpted details. It was a design ethos that would stand the test of time and shifting trends, right up to the current era.

During the mid-18th century, a new bourgeoisie emerged in Sweden, a middle class that could treat itself to beautiful everyday items and take time for socialising in the home. Furniture was suddenly not just a practical necessity, but a way of making life at home more pleasant.

When King Gustav III of Sweden visited the Palace of Versailles in 1771, he was greatly inspired by the Neoclassical style of France’s King, Louis XVI. But the Swedish economy was in a bad state, so Swedes had to look for local alternatives to importing furniture and other utility items from abroad – that was too expensive. So instead, Sweden sent for skilled professionals from France to come and train Swedish artists and craftspeople.

Oil painting of Sweden's King Gustav III wearing powdered wig, velvet jacket, silk waistcoat, and large medals.
When King Gustav III visited the French Palace of Versailles, a fancy chair caught his eye. He asked chair-maker Johan Peter Mansnerus in Stockholm to make a simplified version, and 48 were produced. This was the original for the HALLUNDA chair, which was made in far higher numbers.

During the second half of the 18th century, everyday furniture came to be made with increasingly simplified manufacturing methods, in a style known as Gustavian – still very much a part of Swedish furniture making. Making the everyday a little more beautiful with small financial means soon became a natural part of Swedish life.

Good timing

In the early 1990s, IKEA considered making new furniture in the Gustavian style. At the same time, a unique collection of this very type of furniture was under threat of being sold and disposed of.

The old spa, Medevi in Östergötland , had furniture and room settings preserved from as far back as 1687, and still welcomed guests. But due to rising costs, Medevi was about to be sold and a cultural treasure would be lost.

Gravel road lined with older buildings and lush trees, Medevi spa, Sweden.
Medevi Brunn is a spa centre in eastern Sweden, a uniquely preserved heritage environment with around 70 historic buildings. The oldest spa in the Nordic region, it has been welcoming guests since 1687.

At the time Sweden’s National Heritage Board, which is in charge of preserving, using and developing Sweden’s cultural heritage, was helping with renovations of the heritage environment at Medevi.

The Director General at the time, Margareta Biörnstad, decided to call IKEA and ask for a financial contribution to Medevi to help prevent the sale. She could not have got in touch at a better time. Margareta Biörnstad and Ingvar Kamprad met over lunch. This led to a unique collaboration, with IKEA supporting Medevi financially while receiving help with the development of a Gustavian range.

Canopy bed in Gustavian style from the 18th century, light grey with blue and white patterned roof.
Newly produced canopy bed in Gustavian style, light grey with blue and white check roof and fabric canopy.
The original for the SKATTMANSÖ bed (right) in solid hardwood comes from Skattmansö Manor in Västmanland, and the EKEBYHOLM fabric was found at the Ekebyholm estate in Uppland.

Old-fashioned newly made

Lars Sjöberg, curator at Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, was asked to find the ideal originals for the newly made series of 18th century reproductions. He selected various pieces of both heritage and functional value. Lars and other experts also contributed knowledge of how to manufacture newly made reproductions in the Gustavian tradition.

Each piece of furniture and product in the series had a story to tell. The reproductions were carefully checked by curator Lars Sjöberg before they were given the National Heritage Board’s official seal of approval.

Grey-haired man in check blazer, blue shirt and tie, holding up an older chair.
Lars Sjöberg, art historian, author and former curator at Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, helped IKEA to create the 18th century products.
Seal with drawing of an 18th-century chair and the text IKEA of Sweden and the Swedish National Heritage Board.
Craftspeople in the 18th century would sign their work, and in the same way the reproduction pieces from IKEA have a small stamp.

Authentically new-old

Furniture and other products were made to look the way they did back then, without artificial patina, and with brightly coloured fabrics. Only time and natural wear would be allowed to give the new-old IKEA furniture scuffed corners and faded chair fabrics.

Curator Lars Sjöberg worked with product developers at IKEA to find solutions that did not clash with the simple, functional aesthetic of the 1700s. Everyone agreed that the furniture must be of high quality and be made according to Swedish craft traditions. Meanwhile IKEA, as far as possible, wanted to use modern industrial production in order to keep prices low.

Close-up of a person carving a wooden frame at a rustic carpenter's bench.
IKEA worked with smaller artisan suppliers that had passed their craftsmanship down through the generations.

Some of the 18th century materials that did not meet modern requirements on safety and environmental consideration were of course replaced, such as straw used in upholstery and mercury in mirrors. But the reproduction chairs were carved in a single piece and had solid wood seat frames, with underlayer and linen upholstery.

The SVENSKSUND sofa had hemp in its bearing fabric, and natural rubber and coconut fibre upholstery. The flower and leaf decorations were carved by hand, often by smaller artisan suppliers that had passed their craftsmanship down through the generations.

Trough sofa in light grey with blue and white check seat cushion and pillows and carved strapwork on the frame.
Pictured here, the SVENSKSUND trough sofa. The original was probably made by a skilled carpenter and sculptor in the late 1700s. The intricate strapwork on the frame indicate an extraordinary level of craftsmanship.

Too successful

In June 1993, the series was presented at Råshult outside Älmhult, birthplace of the famous botanist, Linnaeus. It was more popular than anyone could have imagined, and soon there were empty shelves in many of the stores.

Light grey chamber pot cabinet in Gustavian style with clean lines in legs and frame.
The chamber pot cabinet was a crucial piece of furniture in the 18th century bedroom. The original for the SANDBRO chamber pot cabinet was from a manor of the same name, north of Uppsala. The original was made around 1770 in a simplified design typical of the Gustavian style, but with no less elegance.
Large chandelier in Gustavian style with hanging crystals and lit candles.
The STUREHOV chandelier has an almost 250-year-old twin at Sturehov Manor outside Stockholm. The original hangs in a silk-lined cabinet. Chandeliers in this style became extremely popular in Sweden and could even be found in rural homes – something that’s unique to Sweden.
Small brown wooden table in Gustavian style standing in a worn setting.
When tea parties were the height of fashion in the 18th century, the original of the KROGSTA table was the ideal piece. To save space after the gathering, these ‘tea tables’ were foldable. The original was from Krogsta village in northern Uppland.
Mirror sconce in Gustavian style with gilded frame and two lit candles.
The original for this mirror sconce was made by mirror maker Nicolas Meunier in 1777 – thus its name, MEUNIER. The original was in solid wood with papier-mâché decor and a foiled mercury-glass mirror. IKEA used solid wood in the sculpted decor, but standard non-toxic foiled glass for the mirror.
Simple white chair in Gustavian style with upholstered seat covered in blue and white check fabric.
IKEA did not use 18th century linseed paints due to their long drying time. But for anyone who wanted to paint it in the traditional way, some of the furniture was made in an untreated version, like the FRESTA chair. The original was made in the 1790s by chairmaker Johan Erik Höglander in Stockholm, and was found in Fresta parish, Uppland.

Since the range involved so much craftsmanship, it took time to make more products, which led to a long-term shortage. Not until 1997 was it time to relaunch the 18th century series. Once again people rushed to buy it – after all, who wouldn’t want to furnish their home like an old Swedish king, at low prices?

Click to read the brochure entitled 18th Century Swedish furniture from IKEA from 1995. It also contains many pictures showing originals and reproduction, from furniture and sconces to mirrors, china and textiles.