Axel Einar Hjorth’s Sports Cabin series

The unexpected and fresh approach to design adopted by Axel Einar Hjort in the 30s has fascinated Jasper Morrison and Francesca Picchi. From Domus 1044.

This article was originally published on Domus 1043, February 2020.

It might be assumed that design is a completely rational process of analysing a problem, a function or a need and responding with creative logic, trial and error, and incremental steps towards a solution. Certainly that’s the case with design projects where functional aspects are at their most critical, in the design of medical equipment for example.

But even within such serious projects there are often other contributing factors, one of which I would describe as opportunistic. This helpful element of the design process occurs when circumstances of time, place and human interaction align to provide the designer with the necessary inspiration, or more simply when seeing something provokes an unexpected and fresh approach to a project, usually by prompting random associations of form, material, function and expression.

Hjorth’s 1930s Sports Cabin series provides a good example of this unpredictable design approach. He was at the time the chief architect of Nordiska Kompaniet (NK), the Swedish department store which was already a major manufacturer of contemporary furniture nationally.

The project in question involved designing furniture for the newly popular weekend cabins, being built around the archipelago of islands which proliferate the inland creeks and lakes around Stockholm, to which a wealthy elite would retreat to escape the confines of city life for fresh air and cold swims.

The invigorating nature of these new dwellings called for a completely new design approach to enhance the experience with an unpretentious and inspiring atmosphere. That briefing would have been all that Hjorth needed to set himself free from the bourgeois mix of classical and art deco offerings that formed the Swedish market at the time.

Bookcase from the Lovö series, 1932. The design mixes citations from local tradition, seen for example in the forged metal components, with a formal clarity of modern inspiration. Courtesy of Stockholms Auktionsverk.

He chose raw pine as the principal material, which would not have been much seen in polite society homes, and set about designing the basic elements of everyday furniture, chairs, tables, beds and cupboards with a wilful abuse of the prevailing taste for elegance. No doubt he calculated that Nordiska Kompaniet’s customers would also appreciate a change of atmosphere.

This is not to say that the designs are inelegant, but they are a different kind of elegant, the kind of elegant that resists time. We know that Hjorth admired Brancusi because one of the tables from the Utö series (the piece which first drew my attention to Hjorth) is named after the sculptor. I came across it about five years ago in a Danish furniture gallery in Paris but had not heard of Hjorth before.

an interior designed by Hjorth to present the Utö series in the Nordiska Kompaniet department store, circa 1932. Courtesy of Nordiska museets arkiv.

The piece is anything but typical in form, consisting of a straight-sided oval column as a base with a larger oval wooden tray sitting on top of it. The effect of these two forms combined is powerful and satisfying at the same time. Modernised, rural craft without sentimentality or ornament. It is unobtrusive and yet has a powerful presence. 1930s Super Normal. As Enzo Mari says, “Being not seeming.”

Furniture designers don’t usually think of combining volumes like this and I was intrigued. It led me to the other pieces he had designed in the same series, which have similar appeal, and then I learnt the story of the department store and the idea of designing these collections for weekend sports cabins and understood that the exceptional circumstances of the project must have contributed to the results.

Jasper Morrison. Founder of Jasper Morrison Ltd, (London, Paris and Tokyo), Morrison designs an ever-expanding range of things for Vitra, Cappellini, Flos, Magis, Marsotto, Emeco, Punkt, Camper and Muji, among others. He has published many books and curated several exhibitions.

Francesca Picchi. Architect, journalist and curator, lives in Milan. Exhibitions she has curated include “Enzo Mari. Il lavoro al centro” (Centre Arts Santa Mònica, Barcelona, 1999) and “Riccardo Dalisi: la funzione del pressappoco nell’universo della precisione” (Triennale Design Museum, 2017).

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