The Return of the Decorative Way: The Return of Pewter

Photo: Helsingborgs Auktionskammare, Auctionet.
Tin box from 1930 designed by Estrid Ericson, founder of Svenskt Tenn. The structure of its surface is said to have been inspired by her father’s Panama hat. This particular item was auctioned in the fall of 2022 at Helsingborgs Auktionskammare for 43,000 SEK.

During the 21st century, we have witnessed a clear renaissance of Swedish interior design ideals, once named Swedish grace and Swedish modern. While the fashion on the continent during the 1920s moved towards exclusive, often overly decorated environments in Art Deco, Sweden embraced a classicizing ideal. Drawing inspiration from ancient forms, and perhaps with a closer look at the revived interest in the 18th century, Swedish designers of the 1920s reinterpreted and renewed the expression, giving it a delicacy never seen before. Furniture borrowed attributes such as columns and Swedish glass – which made a splash in Paris in 1925 – decorated in a Greek style. However, this fashion was short-lived as functionalism made its entrance with utilitarian pieces in steel and a fondness for modern machinery. The break was not absolute as the rational design language struggled to gain traction in a country rich in forests and woodworking traditions. Instead, functionalism soon transitioned into a softer Swedish interpretation with organic shapes, which came to be known as Swedish modern. Objects in this style lacked the opulence that characterized significant parts of interior design in the 1920s and 1930s but were by no means the result of radical societal change dreams in metal.

The rediscovery of Swedish grace and Swedish modern initially focused on furniture from those decades. Swedish-made pieces from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s set records not only in Stockholm but also at auctions in London, Paris, and Chicago. The remarkable prices were crowned by Axel Einar Hjorth’s so-called Sports Cabin Furniture in pine, which has come to symbolize Nordic blonde interior design. Following this, almost equally sensational prices for lighting fixtures have recently followed. The area has long been neglected in terms of information about designers and manufacturers but has quickly become the subject of collectors’ and interior designers’ interest. Now it seems that decorative objects in smaller formats are on the verge of undergoing the same trend.

Chess set with accompanying box by Erik Harald Rehn, manufactured by Schreuder & Ohlsson in 1933. The set was auctioned in the spring of 2023 for 50,000 SEK at Stockholms Auktionsverk.

And it would be strange if it were otherwise. These small objects had a natural and prominent place in Swedish homes during the second quarter of the 20th century. After the interiors in abundance of the late 1800s, the desire for ornamentation grew during the 1920s. Innovative candlesticks, bowls, vases, jars, and bookends in pewter became the most popular. The material had been industrially produced for decades with a decreasing artistic quality. Still, when the designers of the 1920s embraced pewter with enthusiasm, the audience woke up as well. Contemporary writers have even described it as if pewter objects became “indispensable ingredients in Swedish homes” and typical representatives of the classicism of the 1920s. Pewter objects with palmettes and antique-style figures became so beloved that excess almost wiped out the market. At the top of the food chain was Firma Svenskt Tenn, whose store on Strandvägen in Stockholm became a beacon for Swedish taste.

In the midst of this development, functionalism arrived with new aesthetic challenges. Form itself was elevated to the supreme, and ornaments were stripped away, at least in theory. Many whimsical objects continued to be produced in the 1930s and 1940s. This was a crucial moment for pewter objects. Bulky, round shapes became more common, but also strict works, sometimes almost excessively angular. Alongside this, objects in bronze and brass, and to some extent, ironwork, also became more common in the 1930s. Numerous new actors took up the production of small metal objects, making the flora rich and diversified.

In a market where designer names and manufacturing information are becoming more and more crucial for the final price, the hunt for information and objects is in full swing. Several books about Firma Svenskt Tenn have been written, but the objects in pewter make up only a small part of the production dominated by furniture, lamps, and textiles designed by Josef Frank. In 2020, Jonas Barros Eriksson published a book about Ystad-Metall, a publication that cleared up many questions about one of the more dominant manufacturers in the field. In the book “Modern Swedish Pewter,” Hedvig Hedqvist and Rikard Jacobson write: “Few materials, like pewter, have been on a roller coaster on the general taste market.” There is much truth in that, and now pewter is once again loved. Crafoord Auktioner in Stockholm has recently held recurring theme auctions under the title “Modern Metall,” and Stockholm’s Auktionsverk has, in recent years, presented one record after another when it comes to modern pewter objects. However, it is likely that the trend is still in its infancy, with the biggest records yet to be broken, and perhaps the most exciting – and decorative – objects yet to be discovered.