Åke Axelsson is working on a bookcase, a modular system in pine. His hands scan the wood’s surfaces, fits and joints. Bis-cuits and springs are picked out of boxes and pressed into routed grooves. Spring 2021 marked exactly 70 years since the same hands built a cupboard in mahogany and pear wood. This was his apprenticeship test, a masterpiece by a 19-year-old that was graded a »pass with distinction« at Visby’s woodworking school in 1951. That same schoolboy built Malmstens furniture that sold in stores on Stockholm’s smart Sveavägen.
»These were quality products that we teenagers were mak-ing. I remember the Staken floor lamp, the Sprätthöken cof-fee table and a cabinet with a Baroque style pediment. That was a challenge.«
This year, Åke Axelsson turns 89. For decades, he has been one of Sweden’s most sought-after interior architects and designers of furniture, particularly chairs, which have be-come his signature.
»My main job has always been interior architect. The chairs came about as part of my commissions,« he says.
But Åke Axelsson has also designed chairs directly for serial production and has been part owner of the Gärsnäs furniture factory since 2003, along with his daughter Anna Klockby and her husband Dag Klockby, who is CEO. The facto-ry makes Åke Axelsson’s mass produced chairs, a familiar sight in public environments such as the Riksdag, museums, schools, libraries and restaurants.
»Craftsmanship and industry complement each other and are of equal importance,« he says.
Craftsmanship can also inspire industry to make better, more sustainable furniture and think in longer cycles. Reuse is now an exciting and growing market for the furniture industry, and Gärsnäs is one of the leading companies in the field, with its circular vision to be completely carbon-neutral by 2030. Reuse is going to drive the design of new furniture, which has to be able to be updated and renovated effectively over a long service life. Environmental issues affect furniture design just as much as architecture.
Åke Axelsson and his employee, joiner Daniel Ericsson, work in their own workshop, built a few years ago next to Åke’s home in Engarn outside Vaxholm and fully equipped with professional machinery. With his own furniture production and online sales via his website, Åke wants to show that this type of making can work.
»This kind of small-scale production is what we do best. It’s too small for a factory, but perfect for us. I call it industri-al craftsmanship. I want to lead the way and inspire others,« he says.
Interest in this kind of production is growing against the backdrop of the environmental crisis and the sustainability drive. Customers are looking for local products with a clear identity and good materials, and it all has to be ethically sound.
Åke Axelsson’s long love affair with wood dates back to his childhood in Småland in the 1930s and 40s. He had to help out and learn to fell trees and produce timber from them at an early age. He also learned to select wood types based on their properties. Oak for posts and fencing, slow-grown spruce for exterior walls, long-fibred pine for load-bearing structures. All this knowledge that he has collected over the years still comes in handy in the workshop today. He shows off some new step stools that are both light and strong. The lightness is in the alder legs and the strength in the elm steps; timeless know-how that applies as much today as it did in the antique furniture that he has spent many years study-ing by building it himself. The wood in the workshop is all certified. The wood store contains planks of pine, ash, Got-land elm and walnut. In a corner stand dark planks of Cuban mahogany, sawn in the 1950s and rescued from a factory where Åke managed to grab them before they were thrown away.
Åke Axelsson wishes that woodworking courses would focus more on making practical furniture.
»It’s easy to end up with design for design’s sake. I’d like to see a clearer emphasis on practical, functional, everyday objects.«
He calls himself a functionalist – not in style, but in terms of function for a better life, creating functional environments and furniture where use is the key. This is an approach that has spurred him on ever since his studies as an interior archi-tect at Konstfack in the 1950s, when the students were trained in a drive to provide all the new homes and public environments with furniture. The emphasis on quality ran deep; only the best was good enough.
»I see it as a responsibility. Being of use to society and to people has been something of a mantra for me down the years.«