matkoillani ... mina resor ... meine reiser ... mine rejser

I’m now back in Cambridge and have just started going through all my photographs from the trip to sort them out.

The whole thing started because some friends asked me to meet them in Stockholm for a few days but it seemed like the ideal time to do a rapid tour of all four capital cities to look at galleries and design shops and to get a broad overview of design right now in each country.

Of course there were obvious shortcomings in the scheme. For a start how do you see and take in everything with only four nights in each city. Also of course, not all designers or manufacturers are located in the cities. Far from it. Already I am trying to pencil in a trip that will take me to Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland because I want to visit GAD and I really want to go to Fiskars in Finland to see the work of one of the furniture makers there.

Also, I wanted to look carefully at and think about the differences between the four countries. English customers, though obviously not all of them, tend to see Scandinavia as a sort of single area and all much of a muchness - to use the English phrase. Any talk of Scandinavia also tends, I’m afraid, to conjure up an image of Lars the Swedish Chef on the Muppet show and his meat balls because of course few English people speak the languages of the region.

That’s not to say the English don’t appreciate Scandinavia ... otherwise how can you explain the phenomenal success here of the TV series The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge and Wallander and the popularity of the Stieg Larsson books let alone the films.

And isn’t Scandinavian design much the same ... all bright patterns, simple shapes in beech or pine? Basically IKEA.

Well no actually. For a start, although IKEA was founded in Agunnaryd in Southern Sweden by Ingvar Kamprad in 1943 he was of German descent and the company is now based in Delft so, being pedantic, should either be defined as being an international company or possibly Dutch.

Also of course a lot of people here are a bit unsure about which are the Scandinavian countries and which are the Nordic group. By strict definition, the Scandinavian countries are just the three monarchies ... Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The Nordic Passport Union of 1954 included Denmark, Greenland, Sweden, Norway (though not all its territories) Finland and Iceland and from 1966 the Faroe Islands. 

Anyone in England would be shocked and hurt if a visitor said that they really couldn’t see any difference between Newcastle and Liverpool and confused them. Those cities are only 150 miles or so apart. Oslo is 260 miles from Stockholm and over 300 miles from Copenhagen. There is only 254 miles of sea between Stockholm and Helsinki and from Stockholm to Copenhagen is 325 miles. Between Padborg on the border with Germany and Alta in the northern part of Norway there are huge changes in the landscape and huge differences in the way people live and work but it is not just distance of course but fierce and often hard won independence that separates the countries.

Helsinki  Stockholm

Oslo and Copenhagen

Obviously there are some significant similarities. All four capital cities are still major ports and the sea and the importance of trade have had a massive influence on how all the countries have developed. All four countries are hugely influenced by bright, sharp summer light, by cold and often difficult winter weather and, as a consequence, by a respect for and a love of nature.

Could I see real differences between the four cities on this trip? 

Well I was surprised at how confident and relaxed Helsinki is with a thriving artistic and design culture. It seemed the least influenced or worried by fashion elsewhere, confident to go it’s own way. Perhaps Helsinki would be the place where the old (or young) hippie would feel happiest.

Stockholm is Stockholm and good for that. It seems to be the loudest and fastest and most cosmopolitan of the four but it always strikes me as odd that it seems to have two extremes ... the young and noisy of pop and rock and business and the middle-aged and affluent older matrons of Ostermalm - the area of the city where you see the long-established middle-class wealth of Stockholm. 

Oslo seemed more uncertain of itself than the other cities and maybe that can be understood because of the awful events of two years ago. Maybe many Norwegians are also uncertain about how they should move forward with their increasing wealth. Several people I spoke to talked about Norway being a poor country until recently but high-quality buildings from the early 20th century in Oslo somehow undermined that assertion. What I detected was a reticence ... a deep pride in the buildings and design of Norway but a concern that if that was said too loudly neighbouring countries might dispute their claim.

Copenhagen as always just seems confident and relaxed, despite the disruption caused by the building works for the extension to the metro. It is an affluent and comfortable city that does most things with style but restrained by a real sense of good taste. I can see exactly why Monocle magazine has declared it to be the best city in the World to live in for this year for their annual assessment. Helsinki came in at number 3 and Stockholm at 7 in the World in the same survey.

Does all this translate into real differences between the countries and the the architecture, furniture, design and fashion they produce and sell? In this age of global companies, outsourcing of manufacture and mass media shaping mass taste I really do hope so.