So you thought Scandi chic was a modern trend? Kya deLongchamps introduces the original 18th-century version
IN the style files, the term “Gustavian” is unfamiliar to most Irish decorators. Still, if you like period rooms, Scandinavian simplicity and are looking for something fresher and less formal than French or English neoclassicism, this unfussed, aesthetic gem with its pale interest is totally irresistible.
Gustavian started with a visit to the French court of Louis XV by King Gustav III (1746-1792) in the summer of 1784, during which he visited the Palace of Versailles at the invitation of Marie Antoinette. He was offered lush, Rococo apartments at Versailles but the restless Gustav, preferred digs at the Swedish Embassy in Paris, roaming the city and its eclectic cultural quarters and happenings as the mysterious Comte de Haga.
An active playwright and enthusiastic patron of the arts, Gustav feverishly engaged with every element of French society and learning — attending lectures, visiting galleries, museums and pouring over the great buildings of the “grande nation”. It was his second trip to France, and everyone who mattered in the capital knew who he actually was. When the king arrived very late to the Opera, the entire performance was restarted for the incognito royal. The point is — Gustav was completely mad about all things French and was mesmerised by its contribution to architecture and interior decoration. He continued his travels through Italy, where he popped in to see Pope Pius VI and was seduced by the powerful lines and motifs of Greek and Roman ruins and archaeological finds.
His head full of pediments, Empire decor, temples, mythical roman beasts and lyre-shaped chairs, Gustav was determined to propagate French and Italian ideas of refinement at the Swedish court. He invited French and Italian artisans to Stockholm to help him explore a fledgling hybrid style, which was of course soon made popular by his sycophantic followers.
The Swedish people, even today, abhor visual extravagance (the Danes, Finns and Norwegians are also disgusted by material show-offs). King Gustav III was not the Sun King and composer of Versailles, Louis XIV. What marks the Gustavian look out from its French inspiration is a certain modesty, spare colour, subtle dilute tone-on-tone (blue-grey, whites, sage green, putty golds, bone and Delft blue) and a gentrified but slightly rustic feel. It’s cooler, expansive, more understated and altogether more charming. The guiding social principle of “lagom” still prized today (sufficient/in balance/in moderation) was alive and well in late 18th century Sweden.
You would never see blue and white check upholstery or naively painted white or mock parquetry floors in a grand French apartment of the Empire style.
The later Gustavian country style of the mid-19th century embraces notes of simplicity that Gustav’s regular pen-pal Marie Antoinette celebrated at her intimate leisure cottage in the fantasy Hameau de la Reine (Hamlet of the Queen).
In Sweden, limed plastered walls, wood panelling and even doorways were decorated with distressing and spatters of pale colour, marbling, and painted in freehand classical and stencilled scenes of birds, trees and animals. Chalk paint is an ideal medium for having a go at Gustavian style painted furniture — use middling vintage or reproductions before antiques.
Another signature touch for authentic Gustavian interiors is a vast tiled or ceramic stove (kakelugn), usually set in a corner which towered to the ceiling. Invented in 1776 by Earl Carl Johan Cronstedt for Gustav’s Father Adold Frederik, they contain a proper, modern style flue and were highly thermally efficient — radiating warmth into the space even hours after the fire was extinguished.
As a foil to toffee dark French mahogany, Swedish furniture was painted white in the late 18th century and 19th century to brighten up rooms during the long, unforgiving winters. Paler, softer timbers native to the Swedish woods — beech, ash and even pine were deployed with less carving than their French hardwood inspirations.
Decorative ribbons and laurel designs were applied to chair backs and walls and bosomy, long-case “Mora” clocks. Windows were lightly draped in open weave, white cotton which allowed the precious Northern light to penetrate the interiors. Enormous gilded mirrors, rock crystal chandeliers and girandoles (mirror and polished plates set behind wall mounted candle scones) were used in the houses and castles (slott) of Swedish royalty and nobility to ping light around — carefully measured touches of French elegance.
If you want to try out Gustavian — consider a backdrop of white and pale greys accented in rubbed gold. That shy hint at gilded opulence — even in a single mirror or overmantle —is crucial. Vintage white and check cotton and linen for upholstery, bedding and window treatments adds the necessary softness and drifting textures typical of Swedish country decorating (very close to French provincial style if you’re looking up illustrated examples on Pinterest). Look out for shrubby chandeliers at local auctions and lightly carved brown furniture (plenty from the 1930s hanging around for under €50 a lot) and paint it up in exquisite matt, rain grey to greenish-blue that hovering on white walls and bare boards, quietly speaks of the late 1770s.