Swedish Design, Soft Power and the Pedagogy of Modernism


The arrangement of an Exhibition is a piece of Roman statecraft [carried out] within the realm of commerce. Paulsson [Dec 1929 quoted in Pred p106]

 IKEA is soft power. It’s Swedish design, a Swedish way of thinking: pragmatic, easy going, laid-back, egalitarian like Australia. It’s very much soft power for Sweden

Swedish Ambassador, Sven-Olof Petersson {Canberra Times May 9, 2014] 

“We interpret this as a sign that we are heading in the right direction when it comes to the foreign ministry telling the story about Sweden. We all invest a lot in social media, the ministry itself, the embassies, and the foreign minister,” Mats Samuelsson. Swedish Foreign Ministry [No 6 in Monocle Soft power Index]  The Local Nov 28, 2014


There is an important factor in the project which does not follow our clear periodization and our foreshadowed subjects of study. It is a silence but it is deafening, it is invisible but it materializes constantly. It is the way that Sweden/ Swedishness appears as a brand, as soft power, and as a projection that surrounds our subjects. In this case, it is the elements of a projection of a state and a society through its positive and innovative ‘take’ on modernity, a major 20thC feature in social and cultural policy and their commentaries.

It is necessary to illuminate this phenomenon not just in itself but because it may be a significant factor in the way that influence in other areas, like education, research and innovation, grew significantly. The relation between the national and the international, and the different forms of transnationalism, can be studied through the national practices we are studying, their movement across borders and the wide effects they produce, that is, the way they create and extend mythologies of the nation. The 20thC appears as a period when the brand of Swedishness and the Swedish state appears to be created through a series of internal and external acts, by accident or design, and develops into a form of soft power, used in statecraft and with private partners.

The paper continues the narrative about sloyd which, although it begins to decline as an international movement with its strict pedagogic order by the 1920s, continued strongly in Sweden as a distinct practice of handicraft with its own nationally important association. The association was active in supporting new national actors in modern design, indeed in the design of modernism, who produced a major national exhibition of domestic and national design in Stockholm in 1930. It was a point of sale for Swedish design, a crucial event in the production of a new Swedish identity, and influential in the pedagogy of exhibitions[1]. The idea of Sweden as a leading modernist nation, in domestic consumption, housing and culture, continued to grow in the immediate post war years and in turn, it allowed Sweden to take a dominant role in education innovation. So, comparison with Sweden would not be on the basis of particular techniques or objects but increasingly on the idea of societal innovation as a whole. Sweden consolidated its reputation as a modern, innovative education state and society and acted as a centre of attention in the post-war period for European nations in flux. By accident or design, Sweden was able to create a persuasive soft power around its modernist educational and social policies, and through this, flows of ideas and practices took place. Education practices and pedagogy are produced within bordered places but flow over borders and are assimilated into other receptive places of education, and create a cross national/ transnational series of transfers and translations. Even very distinctive and local practices are capable of dislocation and flow from the local to the regional and the international.

Design and the Stockholm Exhibition 1930

The Svenska Slöjdföreningen, also known as the Swedish Society [and now as Swedish Design] was founded in the mid 19thC as mass production threatened traditions of Swedish handicraft. The Society became a leading force in the promotion of good quality, ‘everyday products’, in the words of Gregor Paulsson, its influential director in the 1920s and 1930s. The Society was a prime mover in a series of exhibitions on design and craft from the Stockholm Exhibitions of 1851 and 1866, the Art Industry Exhibition of 1909, and the Hemutställningen 1917.The latter exhibition was intended to show the latest designs of artists and architects for contemporary mass living and it showed 23 fully furnished apartments.

The idea of providing products of good design and function at a low price [Forström p197] had been a fundamental Swedish vision since the late 19thC. Ellen Key produced a strong critique and a guide about practical and beautiful objects, which had an international impact[2], and the Svenska Slöjdföreningen organized a very popular Ideal Homes Exhibition in 1917 in Stockholm. Everyday goods needed an artistic representation, and be practical and easy to maintain. “The artists for the industry” became the objectives of the agency which the association started in 1914. Hemutställningen in 1917 was the breakthrough with hundreds of new products – everything from drinking glasses to entire rooms dedicated to the working class and lower middle class. : “What Slöjdföreningen sought [was to] provide consumers with opportunities for comparison and to stimulate critical reflections.”

Gregor Paulsson, the Director of the Svenska Slöjdföreningen and the Commissioner General of the Stockholm exhibition in1930, had worked with the Swedish exhibition in the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, displaying mainly Art Deco influenced arts[3]. He was also an important element in the growing international impact of Swedish design, including the major Paris exhibition in 1925 at the Metropolitan in New York in 1927, in Paris in 1937, and in New York in 1939. By the time of the 1939 New York Worlds Fair, with its theme ‘Building the World of Tomorrow’, the Swedish exhibition was not as futuristic as many other exhibitors, but more ‘rooted in the present’.

“The organizers of the Swedish Pavilion sought to reveal the great social strides that the nation had made in the previous decade to secure a higher standard of living for its citizens. The production of well-designed goods had contributed enormously to that goal and the pavilion paid homage to that reality” [Ericsson et al p148]

The Swedish government made great play of the significance of the country’s indigeneous decorative arts: these were displayed throughout the pavilion, from the restaurant to the five room settings

The Stockholm Exhibition of 1930 was a national exhibition, with no international representation, but with a dual aim; to promote Swedish design internationally and to create a new internal market for aesthetically pleasing goods for mass consumption. Like the Ideal Homes Exhibition, the Stockholm exhibition was focused on the education of the public, indeed they were intended to construct a new public. Parallel to the new functional approaches to design in objects and architecture was a social modernization, in which the public would be able to view new designs and understand how they were to be used.

Commissioner Paulsson tightly managed the Exhibition which presented designs within a new ‘street’ or corso of buildings and exhibits. Visitors walked along the corso and into apartments in which objects were placed in ideal settings. It was a new and particular way to manage the new European problem of mass consumption and mass production. It stayed within the embedded concern with sloyd, now updated and rationalized into a question of appraisal and judgment. It involved appreciation and instruction. These Exhibition aims were set high. It was a key element in the construction of a new identity of the person and the nation –‘intellectually trained, morally mature’ [Pred p135 quoting Nordstom 1930]. The three storey building, Svea Rike, the Swedish Realm, concentrated on creating a new mythology of the nation by radical new technologies, photomontage and the visualization of fact, and amplified the already strong message that capital and social democracy were to be subsumed in the modernity of Sweden.

The Stockholm Exhibition is an important milestone in the creation of a powerful Swedish modernity, built out of strong commercial and state interests, which projected Sweden into a lead position in European modernity, and strongly aided the construction of a new Swedish identity as modern Europeans. Sweden had demonstrated, according to Naylor, that Sweden was the only European country capable of producing a viable form of modernity [Naylor 1990 p164]. This meant that any action by Sweden in the next decades was treated as an influential act.

Educating People’s Taste

Housing policy, family policy and the issue of material consumption were linked with the creation of taste and aesthetic judgment of the people and the modernization of society.

“It was first in 1932 that a cohesive state housing policy was established, which in turn was largely influenced by the international modernist principles for city planning and architecture. The quest, however, was not only for better housing, but also for better homes. In the late 1920s, the Social Democrats had proclaimed the intention to turn Sweden into a Folkhem − literally a People’s Home − in which all citizens were to have equal rights and equal possibilities. If society were to be turned in to a good home for everyone, it had to be reorganized in a more democratic and modern way. ….. The domestic interior – its objects, furnishing practices and its use – became an arena where the vision of the ideal society should be mirrored in the ideal home, which should be modern, tasteful and rational.”[Göransdotter, p527]

With other partners, the Swedish Society [the Svenska Slöjdföreningen] produced regular series of surveys on the household living of people, to improve their living standards.

“It was not enough to provide good dwellings and sensible furniture and objects in order to raise the standard of living in Sweden. People also seemed to need guidance and information on how to use their homes in a rational way, as the investigations showed that a majority of the families’ living conditions were either materially or aesthetically unsatisfactory” [Göransdotter p530]

People were irrational, and did not use their new homes suitably; they were judged on their inability to organize their homes properly, buy the right furniture or connect their otherwise modern and progressive lifestyle to their conventional tastes. Under the maxim ‘Better Homes – Better Society’, standards of taste and household knowledge were discussed and then taught by a new pedagogy, the study circle. Courses on the furnishing and decoration of the home could be ordered from the Swedish Society and a speaker organized. All this took place within a ‘democratic and participatory form’ and the study circles grew in number [300 in 10 years] from 1944. Good taste was not just a question of good objects, but of achieving an ideal home. Good taste could be visibly shown, and in doing so, the degree of modernity achieved [Paulsson is quoted in in 1944 as saying ’a correct quality of life’ Göransdotter p538].[3]

In a paper for the Yearbook of Education in 1955, comparativists in education were introduced to the Swedish arguments about aesthetics and function, and their development in education. Its author, Steenburgen, used the arguments of Gregor Paulssen, of whom she had been a student in Uppsala, and his promotion of the idea of beautiful, everyday products, which later metamorphosed into ‘acceptera’, a movement for modernity and functionalism[4]. She argued that aesthetic evaluation of ‘things’ can be taught, that the ‘sound and genuine’ can be shown, and that this is connected to function and not taste. This view demanded a cultural programme where things can be appraised and discussed, from the functional qualities of an object, method of production and harmonization of material and function [Steenburg p329] or what Pred called in ‘the lessons of rational consumption’ [Pred p157].

This cultural programme would connect the ‘Swedish art professors, art critics, architects, craftsmen and industrial art leaders’ with the people [Steenburg p329]. The programme, or home course, would create a home knowledge, incorporating functions, economics, sociology and psychology, specialist elements [lighting, colour, textiles and furniture] [Steenburg p331]. The Swedish Society for Industrial Design [Svenska Slöjdföreningen], the Cooperative Movement, the Broadcasting Corporation, the WEA and University Extra Mural departments were all involved in producing study circles or providing material for study. Schools, through the Art in Schools society, worked through touring exhibitions of modern art and in artistic methods [engraving etc].

“Enabling pupils to elect – when the time comes – the objects they are going to use and have around them” [Steenberg p334]

Schools were advised on the arts and crafts, and decoration of schools. The whole point was to

“share in the education of the child by showing that there are aesthetic values in our daily surroundings – values which perhaps are only too liable to get lost in a highly mechanized and over-efficient world” [Steenberg p334]

Even the housing corporations of Sweden took part in this major educational programme; they built ‘nurseries and paddling pools, set up furniture and textile shops, undertake lectures, films and exhibitions to educate the public in house management and hygiene, and organize sporting and holiday clubs in the summer resorts. [Holford p70]

As a consequence of these social and cultural innovations, and the large scale democratic, pedagogic engagement that was associated with them, Sweden’s modernity became powerfully associated with design and cultural and social policy. It was total –

“There have been few countries in recent years which achieved what Sweden has in making the public at large, and the various government agencies In particular, conscious of good design. Architecture, furniture, housing and household ware – in fact, design in all its ramifications as it affects people – have been forced towards certain high aesthetic levels or they will suffer public inattention as a consequence… This rather enviable situation has not come about overnight. It has been achieved by – and it is still progressing, for such a policy can never end – by an intelligent, far-sighted educational programme, which a group of patriotic citizens, the City of Stockholm and the Swedish crown, have undertaken to make everyday Swedish articles attractive from a design point of view. This propaganda is inculcated by the schools, the press, radio and various exhibitions.”  [Kidder Smith p87]


From the design community’s point of view, Slöjdföreningen, the problem of improving Swedish aesthetic taste and consumption became an education and research programme

“For the last twenty years or so, the planning and equipping of homes and public buildings, and the design of things in everyday use, have prompted theoretical speculations, experimentation, and practical action”. [Steenburg p329]

According to Steenburg, Slöjdföreningen had to change over time. It had begun with the aim to promote handicrafts and then the qualities of mass produced goods, but by mid century, it was promoting knowledge about modernity and design. This shift into education and research was paralleled by the growth of state inquiries into housing, everyday life and the family,

“a vast array of state commissions and inquires into the standards of housing and the practices of everyday life were initiated. As parts of these different investigations, a number of so called “surveys of dwelling habits” were undertaken by state departments, housing organizations” [Göransdotter p530]

Swedish modernity was strongly associated with learning and knowledge, and not just with objects and their relation to each other. Study circles grew with several organizing bodies and with different purposes in mid century. In 1949, there were over 17, 000 study circles organized by the WEA and Young Farmers as well as the Swedish Society’s home course circles. The powerful Cooperative Association [KF] developed Cooperative groups [based on the practice of the English Co-ops] which discussed the ideas of cooperation and the economy of production of modern objects and the problems of family costs and the Domestic Economy [Childs p 49]. They were organized within a Correspondence school so that new courses in this area could be developed and distributed easily.

The policies and practices of Swedish society and the deliberate performance of modernity, operated by voluntary organizations with state support, and its focus on education and research, created a model and a mythology out of particular social circumstances which was to become a brand, a form of soft power in which our project subjects were located and received.



Childs, Marquis W ‘Sweden – the Middle Way’ [15th Ed]  Yale University Press 1947

Ericsson, A-M, Ostergard, DE and Stritzler-Levine, N ‘The Brilliance of Swedish Glass 1918-1939: An Alliance of Art and Industry’ Yale University Press 2012

Forström, Stina ‘The Infancy of Fine Swedish Design’ pp197- 201 in kid size 1997

Göransdotter, M ‘A Home for Modern Life: Educating taste in1940s Sweden’

Conference Proceedings :Vol 02 Design Research Society 2012: Bangkok

Holford, William. ‘The Swedish Scene – an English Architect in wartime Sweden’

[Sep 1, 1943 pp 60-70 ].

Key, Ellen. ‘The Century of the Child’. New York; London, 1909.

Kidder Smith, GE ‘An American looks at Sweden’ The Architectural Review

(Sep 1, 1943) pp 87-88].

Lengborn, T ‘Ellen Key (1849-1926’) in Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIII, no. 3/4, 1993, p. 825-837.

Malmsten, Carl ‘Training of the Form-Sense in the Age of Machines’ p323 – 328 Yearbook of Education 1955 Chap Sweden –

Pred, Allan (1995) ‘Recognizing European modernities : a montage of the present’ London: Routledge

Steenburg Elisa ‘Functional Aesthetics, Swedish Society of Industrial Design’ p329 – 334 Yearbook of Education 1955 Chap Sweden

Vitra ‘Kid size – the material world of childhood’ Vitra Design Museum 1997


[1] Ekström, Anders. “International Exhibitions and the Struggle for Cultural Hegemony.”Uppsala Newsletter 12 (Fall 1989): 6-7. This article summarizes Swedish participation in various nineteenth-century world’s fairs. Ekström discusses Swedish exhibitions in light of national consciousness, industrial development, and the establishment of cultural hegemony. Applying Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, the author argues that the Swedish exhibition at the world’s fair at Stockholm in 1897 represented a “manifestation of hegemony” which legitimized the social dominancy of industrialists.

[2] The German version of The Century of the Child had been printed in thirty-six editions by 1926. Both before and after the Second World War Ellen Key’s works received great attention in German-speaking countries. Ellen Key’s books and ideas also drew attention in several other countries. Already in 1909, The Century of the Child had been translated into nine European languages. In the United States, her ideas played an important role in the ‘Child-Study Movement’. Less known, perhaps, is the fact that Key was also discussed in the early Soviet debate on education, side by side with Dewey and Montessori. A Russian educator, K.N. Ventcel, considered The Century of the Child to be a central work in education. In Japan, the interest in Ellen Key’s ideas on education has grown strongly in recent decades. The Century of the Child was translated into Japanese in 1916, a second edition followed in 1960 and a third edition in 1970. [Lengborn 1993]

[3] Fact Sheet on Adult Education, Swedish Institute 1988. 309,000 study circles operated, sponsored by voluntary educational associations, were eligible for government subsidies: two thirds of them were on civics or aesthetics subjects.

[4] During the 1930s, Steenburgen was the editorial secretary ,”Craft and Handicraft in Sweden between 1930-1940″ collection. and was engaged as an employee in the Swedish Pavilion at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937.

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Martin Lawn

Martin Lawn, Honorary Professor, School of Education, University of Edinburgh.

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