The Gustavian Design

By on July 24, 2015, in Soft Surroundings

What is it and what makes it popular?

Gustavian, or Swedish design has been popular since the middle of the 18th century, and is still trending today. If pressed, most furniture designers and enthusiasts would define Gustavian style as having neutral blue and gray tones and clean lines. That’s certainly part of it, but a deep dive into old and new Swedish homes would turn up brilliant colors and plenty of Baroque and Rococo influences. So what characterizes it all?

Gustavian design has deep roots in the way the Swedish people live in their environment and have for generations. The land’s topography and quirks, and its wide variation are what define Swedish homes and furniture the most.

The Swedish countryside goes literally from one extreme to another. The south features rich, fertile coastline along the Baltic and North Seas, great waterways, and thousands of inland lakes. But when you travel north the terrain becomes heavily forested with pines. Farther yet, the land is barren with arctic mountains, long severe winters, extreme cold, and little light.

Because of this land, the Swedes are a self-sufficient people. They have learned to be comfortable with the ups and down of the vast wilderness around them in order to survive.

But, honestly, how does that impact furniture and décor? A lot, actually.


70827Long, dark winter months are in direct contrast to the constant light of Swedish summers. This was true for the farmer, certainly, but also for the rich aristocrat back in the day. So their décor style needed to allow for a maximum amount of light to enter the home, especially during the winter. Thus, interiors were clean, simple, painted in light earth tones and the palette of the sea.

In the mid-to-late 1700’s, Sweden’s world-traveler king, Gustav III, brought back to his country many wondrous things from Italy and France. The fusion of 18th century European styles with Swedish needs and tastes became known as Gustavian design.
One more word about Swedish light: because it was at such a premium most of the year in their part of the world, they learned to enhance and multiply it. Crystal chandeliers were suspended over the simplest of tables and chairs. Large mirrors were used to bounce light here and there. Panels of natural muslin were used as window coverings, much like our Raw Silk Woven Panels that let light filter through even when drawn.


Soft Surroundings features several pieces of furniture and accents inspired by Gustavian design. For example, our Vienne Mirror and Vienne Cabinet both have the quintessential Gustavian blue color and distressed patina. The defining shape of our Serpentine Dresser and the Swedish grey tone and ivory detailing of our Flemish Commode, Demilune and Bedside Chest are in keeping with the style as well.

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Color pays a huge part in the look of Swedish design and the reason goes back to the land. The lack of resources didn’t stop them. Lime was plentiful, and when mixed with other pigments it was used to paint decorations on furniture and walls. Lime-wash was used to pickle wood floors to simulate marble and French limestone blocks. These faux finishes were popular then and still are today.

Shape and Size


Another key ingredient in Gustavian or Swedish style is the shape and size of the furniture. Often a piece had to serve more than one purpose and take up minimal space. So the people created multipurpose cabinetry, a lot like our Selma Secretary. A beautiful but utilitarian hutch, with cupboard doors below and fold-down writing surface like this would appeal to Gustav III himself! We love the gracefully arched top, with fully functioning circular clock.

Sweden is somewhat famous for its tall case clocks called Mora clocks. They have lovely feminine curves and our Selma Secretary clock takes its cue from them.


Function and form are big components of this style because space was as scarce as light. This is why vintage corner cabinets are often from Sweden. Although we found our Stockholm Corner Cabinet in a market in France, it boasts traditional Swedish design from the 1890’s.




Snuggled into a corner an angular cabinet like our pretty Maldives takes up less space but is still stunning. It can also add storage to a room’s nooks and crannies that wouldn’t otherwise accommodate furniture.


Swedish Gustavian style is sometimes said to be so simple and clean it pairs well with nearly any décor. It’s true the soothing creams, blues and gray colors traditionally used in paints and finishes are adaptable neutrals. The style’s signature symmetry and straight surfaces with gentle fluted lines blend perfectly with a French Louis XVI settee or the delicacy of French toile fabrics. Even Grecian style statues and figurines inspired by nature work together with Gustavian furnishings to evoke the feeling of a vintage fairy tale.

But the versatility of Gustavian style goes back to the land and the people of Sweden. As a country of extremes sitting nearly at the top of the world, sustainability and adaptability is part of its genes.

Try a piece of Swedish Gustavian furniture in your home. Be sure to let us know what it brings to the room! We’d love to hear from you.