Sarah Bartholomew Chases the White-washed Gustavian Jewels of Stockholm
mission—actually, two. First, I wanted to explore and learn from palaces and manor homes that best exemplify the late-18th-century Gustavian style of architecture and decoration. I recognize reflections of this in my own work in my Nashville-based firm and online shop. Second, I wanted to spend time with my oldest daughter, Lilly, who had just turned 13. I have four children, and I craved some one-on-one time with her. And she loves design.
We spent a week in venturing out (often by ferry because the city is surrounded by water) to tour one historic property each day. You can appreciate right away that these were summer homes. You have these long days of clear
VERANDA light—it’s light we don’t have here—and the colors of the countryside are magical.
And the Gustavian style, we discovered, possesses its own sunlit magic. King Gustav III, very much a cultural transformer during his reign, had been greatly influenced by the French neoclassicism he’d witnessed firsthand when he visited Versailles in 1771. So, he imported it. But what’s fascinating is that even though the Swedes emulated the French, they did it with their classic restraint. Instead of gilded paneling, they used wood carving. Instead of silk damasks, they slipcovered in quieter cottons and linens. They whitewashed woods and painted with pigments that capture those northern lights—and practically glow with it. The effect is moving and humble at once.
Every day brought revelations. I loved seeing the simple, slipcovered chairs in the library of the royal residence since the 1600s. I imagined the royal princess pausing to read in the sunny space. The Porcelain Room, designed to house the king’s faience collections, had stenciled paneling and painted brackets, all in the most beautiful Swedish blue. The pieces were gorgeous, but I found myself studying the paint; I could see the actual pigment in it. In other rooms I was captivated by the use of trompe l’oeil to create the effect of paneling—again, a Swedish simplification of French abundance.
At which was given to Gustav III’S younger brother Karl XIII, I was taken by the slipcovers with their woven stripes and checks—now I want to slipcover everything. Mid-16th-century
had small built-in beds draped with simple cottons. And
in Haga Park is a monument of the king’s aspirations (and a tribute to the Petit Trianon at Versailles). You tread the beautifully pale, weathered floors in its Hall of Mirrors and imagine how the light must have bounced and filled the space so long ago.
It was thrilling to feel the intent and touch of Gustav himself. But
a nonroyal residence designed by
architect Carl Hårleman and built in the 1740s for a wealthy mill owner, affected me the most. Part of the joy was that it was a challenge to find. Despite it being just on the outskirts of Stockholm, my hotel didn’t know of it, nor did numerous taxi drivers I questioned. Further, the property was only open on Tuesdays, so we had just one shot to see it. We took a guess, hopped a ferry, boarded a bus, and walked forever. I used my GPS like an 18th-century map. I was determined.
And we found it. We stepped in and looked right through the dining room to the water, glinting in the sun. It was perfectly symmetrical on two axes—another French influence. Its
tall and narrow stoves—were covered in hand-printed blue-and-white tiles. The antechamber had the most beautiful Chinese rice paper wallcoverings, no doubt inspired by the owner’s position as a director of the Swedish East India Trading Company. The bedchamber had checked bedcovers in a green that seems to belong solely to the Swedes. The garden was also neoclassically influenced in its symmetry but not formal. It had beautiful apple trees; we pulled a few off and ate them.
This is life when you travel with your children: You look, you talk, you taste. After leaving Svindersvik, Lilly and I found a little cafe next door and right on the water. It was so quaint—eyelet curtains, blue-and-white plates on the wall, and just three items on the menu. We sat there in the low, late afternoon summer light and sketched a design for our own manor home on a paper napkin. We drew it together.