“Break all edges thoroughly”, was a frequent instruction on Carl Malmsten’s drawings. Nature was his great source of inspiration, and there you rarely find sharp edges or corners.
“Neither light, nor eyes or people like bumping into sharp corners”, he explained. Therefore, all edges had to be smoothed so that they were kinder to the eye and to the touch. Carl Malmsten (1888–1972) is not only one of the most famous furniture designer in Sweden. He was also one of the great cultural celebrities of the last century, with a strong influence on domestic and public environments and the social debate of the time.
His career started in 1915. When the results of a furniture competition for the massive new building project, the Stockholm City Hall, were announced, the surprised jury realised that they had awarded both first and second prize to a hitherto unknown designer. The interior of the Council Chamber and other meeting rooms in the City Call became a great break-through for Carl Malmsten, and the furniture is still used by the City Council. Oddly enough, the beautiful writing chair with which he won the competition, never found a place in the building.
In the 1920s, Carl Malmsten became one of the most sought-after interior and furniture designer in Sweden. Prestigious commissions were rolling in. As a wedding gift to Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Lady Louise Mountbatten, he designed a comfortable living room at Ulriksdal Palace. The architect Ivar Tengbom engaged him for the Stockholm Concert Hall, Ivar Kreuger’s Matchstick Palace and the Swedish Institute in Rome. Waldorf Astoria in New York phoned and asked Carl Malmsten to make the furnishings and furniture for bedrooms, salons and dining rooms. Banks, insurance companies, the Riksdag – as soon as luxurious board rooms were required, his name was mentioned.
In connection with the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930, Carl Malmsten took a stand against the sterile varieties of functionalism. Malmsten himself was accused of being a narrow-minded apostle of handicrafts, disregarding the great production factor of the time: industry. It was not until after the war that Malmsten started combining handicraft and industry in his work. Up until then, the furniture had been made at the school he started in 1930 (see below) and at a number of joinery workshops suited to artisanal production. He established contact with a group of high-quality small industries, the so called Key Workshops.
The break-through came in 1956, with an exhibition at the Röhsska Museum of Design and Craft in Gothenburg. For the first time, Malmsten showed furniture designed for serial production, and which soon found their way into the Swedish “People’s Homes”.
Some of the original Key Workshops still make classic Malmsten designs. For example, Stolab in Smålandsstenar, where Lilla Åland and Vardags are made, and O H Sjögren in Tranås, where upholstered armchairs such as Rundrygg, Farmor, Hemmakväll and Samsas are created. Just like Josef Frank and Svenskt Tenn, Carl Malmsten represents a distinct style of interior design that lives on long after its creator has passed away.
He had a tremendous sense of proportion and designed furniture that people would feel very much at home with – and comfortable in.
Carl Malmsten was at the forefront within Swedish crafts and furniture design, but he was just as much an energetic educator. At the time of the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930, he opened his second workshop, which was also designed as a school: Olofskolan. In 942, Carl Malmsten founded the Workshop School, where pupils received “a technical art education” in furniture making and where “the physical and mental forces develop together”. In the 1950s, the royalties from Carl Malmsten’s collaboration with a number of small industries went to the Nyckelvik project. After the opening of Nyckelviksskolan on Lidingö (1955), the royalties were directed to Capellagården on Öland (1958). In all of the schools, including the Malmsten School of Furniture on Lidingö – now an extension of Linköping University and simply referred to as Malmstens – the basic philosophy is still that of “hand and mind in creative collaboration”.
Many people have testified to Carl Malmsten’s eccentric and strong-willed personality. Depending on the time of year, he went from his home in Bergshamra on the northern side of Lake Brunnsviken to the office in central Stockholm on foot, by bicycle or on skis. Driving was not his thing. Another peculiarity was that he never ate at set times, only when he was hungry. This could be difficult for those around him, especially if they wanted to invite him for dinner. Carl Malmsten was simply an awkward person with a hot temper and generous love, depending on when, where and with whom he interacted. The potter and glass designer Ingegerd Råman has told how she fell out with Carl Malmsten when she was a student at Capellagården. “I remember how angry I was with him, but he didn’t crumble. He knew what he stood for and it was wonderful to meet such a person. I learned about simplicity and tradition, the quality of materials and that things must function.”
Carl Malmsten i timeline
Charley Per Henrik (Carl) Malmsten was born
Apprenticed to the master carpenter Pelle Jönsson, Stockholm
Self-studies within handicrafts and architecture
First and second prize for writing desk and chair for Stockholm City Hall
Furniture for Stockholm City Hall
Married Siv Munthe
Participated in the Home Exhibition at Liljevalchs
Son Ulf was born
Own carpentry workshop at Arbetargatan in Stockholm
Daughter Kerstin was born
Son Egil was born
Course leader at Nääs School of Crafts
Gothenburg Tercentennial Jubilee Exposition (five rooms for Swedish Furniture Factories)
Interior design of large living room at Ulriksdal Palace
Son Vidar was born
Participated in the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris; received a Grand Prix
Son Torgils was born
Furniture for Grand Hotel, Stockholm
Furniture for Stockholm Concert Hall
Held woodcraft courses at Sigtunaskolan
Exhibition at Liljevalchs
Olofskolan was founded
Olofskolan’s workshop set up on Humlegårdsgatan
Furnishing for the Matchstick Palace on Västra Trädgårdsgatan in Stockholm
Furnishing of three rooms at Stockholm Exhibition
Furnishing of the Swedish suite at the Waldorf Astoria in New York
The company Carl Malmsten is registered
Exhibition at the Röhsska Museum of Design and Craft in Gothenburg
Held woodcraft courses on Åland, in Bruksvallarna and Hedemora
Exhibitions at Liljevalchs, in Riga, Reval, Dorpat and Kaunas
Furniture for the Council President’s room at the League of Nations in Geneva
Awarded the title of Professor
Participated in the Swedish Pavilion at Expo 37 in Paris
Furniture for Svenska Handelsbanken
Interior design of m/s Stockholm
Furniture and furnishings at the New York World Fair
Furniture for the Swedish Institute in Rome
Exhibition and office moved to Strandvägen 5B and Väpnargatan 8
Participates in “Bo bättre” (Better living) at Röhsska Museum of Design and Craft
Utility artists at Nationalmuseum
Solo exhibition; From Bark Boat to Own Home, at Nationalmuseum
Carl Malmsten AB was formed
Started and held summer courses at Viggbyholmsskolan
Furnishings for the Supreme Court in Stockholm
Woodcraft teacher at Konstfackskolan
Furniture for the Swedish Riksdag
Mittens rike (Middle Kingdom) – a summary of the setting up of Nyckelviksskolan
Workshop moved to the new Hantverkshuset (Arts and Crafts Building), Renstiernas gata 12
Nyckelbrödernas förbund (Association of Key Brothers) founded
Participated in H55 in Helsingborg
Key Brothers’ exhibition Living Swedish Tradition at Röhsska Museum of Design and Craft
Capellagården was acquired
70th jubilee exhibition Bo i ro (Peaceful living) on Strandvägen 5B
First summer course at Capellagården
Furnishing of several rooms at Folksam in Stockholm
Participated in the exhibition Swedish Chairs at Nationalmuseum
Root and Crown, the last major exhibition, at Liljevalchs
Carl Malmsten died