A Conversation on the Works of Axel Einar Hjorth

"The really interesting is the furniture in pine, created from 1929 and onwards, which mixes aesthetic from peasant handicraft with international modernism in a deep personal way. The “tastemakers” or the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design ignored him totally both at the time and later." - Thomas Ekström

"So this “the other side” has always interested us, as we in a country informed by conformity."

Recently I've found myself lost in the works of Swedish furniture designer Axel Einar Hjorth, and his primitive modernists works in pine. "Hjorth's sport cabin furniture, while completely displaced in the Swedish and international modernist design history, stands today as so revolutionary and radical in its time and end up as status symbols in the interior of an international character."(here)   I reached out to Thomas Ekstrom, a dealer in 20th century design and decorative arts based in Stockholm.  Christian Björk  and Thomas Ekstrom are currently writing the biography on Axel Einar Hjorth, and were kind enough to speak with me about his works, and his position in Swedish history and international modernism. There's a gentle intensity to these forms that I find captivating and even enchanting.  They offer simplicity in their form and function, and a sense of escape connecting to the "weekend house." 

A (lost) weekend away if you will. - David John

David John: How did you personally become interested in the works of Axel Einar Hjorth? 

Thomas Ekström: Axel Einar Hjorth's furniture has always been around in the auctions. At the same time, the main source for Swedish design history, Form, the magazine of the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, failed to mention him with a word. So this “the other side” has always interested us, as we in a country informed by conformity.

David John: Can you tell me about the Axel Einar Hjorth archive?

Thomas Ekström: Axel Einar Hjorth did not have any children, and there are no personal archives from Hjorth, so in one way we had very little to go on.  Actually someone before us had already tried to write a monograph about him, but eventually gave up. Anyway, an archive with drawings and photos together with an order book from the furniture department are part of a large archive from Nordiska Kompaniet in hands of Nordiska Museet. This archive is fairly known, and Christian did, when studying at the university, a 6-month practice in this very archive. This is where we found drawings and photos of the so-called summerhouse furniture. This together, with the find of 2 separate archives of Stockholms Stads Hantverks Förening.  (About: the association of craftsmanship in Stockholm) where the greatest discovery we did. We also found an old lady, now dead, that we think was his mistress that could tell us a few things of his private life


"The furniture of Axel Einar Hjorth had aesthetic expressions that were well in accordance with their time but simultaneously very distant from the socially oriented ideas characterizing the activities of Svenska Slöjdföreningen." 

How would you describe the aesthetic expression of Hjorth's works?  How were they received at that time?

Aesthetic Hjorth's furniture followed national and international trends. While his furniture for Stockholms Stads Hantverks Förening and early furniture for NK were Neo-Classical or Swedish grace, they shifted to modernism in the late 1920´s.    The really interesting is the furniture in pine, created from 1929 and onwards, which mixes aesthetic from peasant handicraft with international modernism in a deep personal way.   The “tastemakers” or the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design ignored him totally both at the time and later.

Why do you think his works are beginning to escalate in value in auctions? Is there a renaissance in appreciation for his works?  Which of his works have received the most attention in the recent marketplace?

Well, one of the reasons is simply that no one knew about the pine furniture. While all other furniture from NK are marked, most of the summerhouse furniture works are unmarked. They were also unpublished, and subsequently never showed up at auction or at dealers. The first one who saw the potential in the aesthetics was actually a French dealer, Eric Philippe, who already in 1994 had a Utö dining table on view.   Another reason why his works are beginning to escalate in value in auctions now is because they, as all interesting art, can be read in different layers. Besides looking great, often with almost a sculptural quality, they also have a historical context. Besides the early modernist connection there are references to traditional peasant giving them a certain depth. Today they also seem groundbreaking in the modernist canon. Looking at what Perriand and Royere did years later you can almost believe that they had old Hjorth furniture at home. Then, on another layer, you’ll find traces of Swedish contemporary society and political life. In the 1930´s the Social democrats introduced a law that gave all employees the right to two weeks vacation every year. The weekend cottage became fashionable and the idée of making furniture for this certain kind of houses came up.

Are all of his pieces marked?

Almost all furniture by NK except some Summerhouse furniture are marked with a metal tag. Furniture from his own company are often marked with a stamp. But almost all furniture made before NK are either unmarked or marked with carpenter or company name only (see for example these cabinets designed for Bodafors at Christies: (here).

How did you get into furniture and interiors?  

Thomas used to run a non-commercial contemporary art gallery together with some friends in the early 90´s. The gallery picked up historical artist and designers. Later, also contemporary design, fashion and film. So we did not feel any borders between the disciplines. Recently Thomas also curated a museum exhibition on the gallery. (Go here for more info) Anyway Christian was hanging at the gallery, and at the time there were very few interested in furniture and interiors in Stockholm.

What is your background, and where are you from?

Both of us are born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden. While Christian is living in a row house in the famous 1950´s suburb Vällingby. Thomas is living in central Stockholm. Both studied History of Art and. Thomas is working on a Master while Christian is working on his PH D.

"At the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930, and with the break through of Modernism in Sweden, Axel Einar Hjorth was one of the most abundantly represented designers. His pieces of furniture for Nordiska Kompaniet were characterized by craftsmanship of high quality and advanced combinations of material. The furniture was manufactured for a financially strong clientele with modern demands - but it sharply contrasted the social program that in many ways was typical for the exhibition."

Did he mainly design for private clients, and produce one of a kind furniture?

At this time he was the head of the furniture department at NK. Nordiska Kompaniet at the time was the most exclusive department store in Sweden. So yes he had the most demanding private clients. But also as head of design at NK, with a big furniture factory, he also designed simple things as furniture for cinemas, hospitals etc just to keep the factory running. But his exclusive furniture at the Stockholmexhibition was a scoff to all the political conscious writers, architects and critics.

What materials did he favor?

At his own company in the late 30´s and early 40´s he seems to have favored chalked oak.

 How would you describe his furniture? 

In one word probably: multifaceted. He was from the old school, learned every style from Rococo via Gustavian to Modernism but had a certain talent to mix his impression making all pieces “Hjorth”

Why did his furniture business fail?

Well I think he was 50 when starting out with his own business just before the war. This was probably a bit late in his life. He also had horrible luck at the worlds fair in New York in 1939 when a cabinet was left out during the night, and destroyed by a rain (once again we can blame Swedish Society of Crafts and Design who left it there). This took him hard. Then the war came, which made people not think of new furniture first and foremost. For Hjorth the war also meant that exotic wood for inlays of exclusive cabinets became unavailable.

"Thomas Ekström is a dealer in 20th century design and decorative arts since 1995. He was also one of the founding members of the contemporary art gallery Ynglingagatan 1 in 1993. As a result of his knowledge in the field he has been contributing as a freelance writer in various magazines and books.   Christian Björk is a dealer in 20th century design and decorative arts. He is also working on his doctor thesis on early modernist architecture in Sweden. He is writing on freelance basis on the subject as well as do talks. A book on Näferqvarns bruk is being published in the fall of 2012     Together they have done extensive research and been writing the biography on Axel Einar Hjorth."

this post dedicated to Jason K.