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Subtle, Contemporary and Extremely Hot

Swedish crystal enjoying renewed success, thanks to a growing interest in art glass.


ORREFORS, Sweden — "Soft, pliable and light" may be an unusual way to describe rock-hard crystal. Yet, the slightly buckled, cylinder-shaped vase, "Squeeze," looks uncannily like flowing liquid. Taking a visitor through the Orrefors glassworks showroom, designer Lena Bergstrom explains that the fluid look that stamps her series--vases, glassware and a decanter--actually began with a mistake.

"The glassblower looked away for a moment when he was shaping the vase," she recalls, laughing. "Suddenly, it started to buckle. It looked beautiful, like it was moving, so I shouted: 'Stop right there, that's great."'

In collaboration with the glassblower, Bergstrom experimented further, devising a special tool made of cork for hand-squeezing the molten glass. The series, which won an Excellent Swedish Design award in 1997, remains in the company product line.

Swedish crystal--Orrefors and Kosta Boda brands in particular--has enjoyed global success since the early 20th century. Yet, it's particularly hot right now, says Kerstin Wickman, a design historian, author and senior lecturer at Konstfack, Sweden's National College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm.

An increased interest in art glass--internationally and in Sweden--is one important reason for the current boom, says Wickman, editor of "Orrefors: A Century of Swedish Glassmaking" (University of Washington Press, $60 to $75) and the author of other books about Scandinavian design. The international careers of Bertil Vallien, as well as the work of Ulrika Hydman-Vallien and other Swedish glass artists during the '80s and '90s, have been crucial for putting Sweden back on the world map of art glass. Their successes, in turn, have inspired young artists, including Bergstrom, who was a successful textile designer when she was recruited by Orrefors in 1995.

Yet it's not just a matter of glass moving into art galleries. In fact, Vallien, who exhibits internationally, also produces functional glassware for Kosta Boda. This dual approach--of art and applied design--is common among glass designers in Smaland province, the country's glass district.

For American art historian Derek E. Ostergaard, Swedish crystal--whether art glass, stemware or candlesticks--has an enduring appeal. And although it's often difficult to distinguish a domestic design tradition from international influences, he finds Swedish glass instantly recognizable.

"You can just tell. It has to do with its subtle, contemporary look," says Ostergaard, associate director and dean of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York. "It's the same expression that comes through in other materials as well, such as Swedish furniture design."

Ostergaard, a contributor to "Orrefors: A Century of Swedish Glassmaking" and other books on European design, dates the international breakthrough of Swedish glass to the 1925 International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris. The modernist art glass and glassware of Orrefors and Kosta from that exhibit toured the United States the next year. Ostergaard explains that although the United States produced some of the best cut glass in the world at the time, the engraved art glass and crystal from Orrefors had a fresh, new look.

"It was both modern and luxurious, opulent yet simple," he says. "It broke with the traditional notion that luxury products had to look like you spent a lot of money on them."

Although the Scandinavian countries have a shared design history, Wickman emphasizes that in Sweden, it is glass that has been most successful in marrying the country's crafts tradition with innovative design.

"In Denmark, ceramics is central to the country's design history and an inspiring material for artists to work with. Finland has a strong glass tradition, but Finnish glass is more graphic and heavy than Swedish glass," she says. "Swedish glass has a lightness to it which I think is inspired by the quality of light here. It's a material that suits our designers."

Orrefors and Kosta Boda, with production at five glassworks in Smaland--located in the communities of Orrefors, Kosta, Boda, Efors and Sandvik--since 1997 have been owned by Royal Scandinavia, a Danish-Swedish company that, besides glass, produces porcelain (Royal Copenhagen), silverware and jewelry (Georg Jensen), and ceramics (Hogans Keramik).

Surrounded by dense pine forest and numerous lakes, the tranquil glass-producing communities seem unlikely settings for cutting-edge design. Yet, this remote location actually has made the glassworks into "a world of its own which breeds creativity," Ostergaard says.

Ann Wahlstrom, who joined Kosta in 1986, is one of the country's leading designers. Spending alternate weeks in Smaland and Stockholm, she describes her workdays at the glassworks as "intense, completely focused."

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