By James Morgan

Good design—the marriage of beauty and function—is a comfort to the soul, a proposition that, taken to the extreme, would seem to make Sweden the most comfortable country in the world to visit, with Stockholm a shining example of elevated design sensibility. Is there any civilized person whose life hasn’t been brushed by the brilliance of Swedish design—by Volvo or Saab automobiles, Hasselblad cameras, Electrolux vacuum cleaners, Orrefors and Kosta Boda art glass, Ericsson electronics, Absolut vodka, IKEA everything?

Those are just the mass consumer exports; a more rarefied list would include Bruno Mathsson furniture and Josef Frank fabrics, and that list could go on and on. Any item of everyday life is fair game, from coat hangers to candleholders, from telephones to toasters. Swedish design was founded on a three-legged code: beauty for all, more attractive everyday products, and artists for industry. In the last category, Swedes invented both the safety match and dynamite (Alfred Nobel), giving new meaning to the term “design boom.”

To witness Swedish design in full glory, book yourself a trip to the nation’s capital. Built on 14 islands between Lake Malaren and the Baltic Sea, in a 24,000-island archipelago (the Swedish word for which, skargarden, means “garden of rocks”), Stockholm has used the slogan “Beauty on Water” to describe itself. It’s an image that’s perfectly apt. At night, the lights of Stockholm dance along the city’s maze of channels and canals.

Looming over Stockholm’s harbor in Gamla Stan, or Old Town, is the Royal Palace, which incorporates structures from as early as the 14th century. Although it is certainly imposing in all its handsome blockiness, the building reveals something essential about the Swedish character. In Sweden’s Protestant tradition, vanity is regarded as a sin. Had this palace been in France, it might have been populated with an army of cherubs tooting trumpets among forests of Greek ornamentation. The Swedish version looks more like a very nice, very large commercial building, as though the Royal Family had opted to move downtown into a cool loft space.

Just walk the narrow streets and wide boulevards of the Old Town and the modern city and you may be reminded of Monet’s Giverny home, though on a grander scale. You might sense the similarities in the bridges over canals, the wandering walkways, the arresting vistas that seemed planned with an artist’s eye, the reflections from water in all its forms. Whatever it may be, clearly there is something in the soul of Sweden that demands refinement, in the most literal sense of that word, and which finds glorious expression in Stockholm.

Paris-based freelance writer JAMES MORGAN contributes regularly to National Geographic Traveler. His book Chasing Matisse was published in 2005 by Free Press.

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