Spotlight: Malmsten

Lola A. Åkerström profiles one of Sweden’s top interior design schools, Malmsten, based in Stockholm.

All photos by author.

All photos by author

On the lush island of Lidingö in Stockholm is where Sweden’s future furniture designers and cabinetmakers are being crafted. Through collaboration, they’re keeping the Swedish tradition of innovative design alive.

“I’ve always had this romantic picture of owning an upholstery shop renovating old furniture,” shares Emil Zetterlund, a final-year Furniture Upholstery student at Carl Malmsten Furniture Studies. “But after three years studying here, I’ve quickly realized there’s so much more.” From product development to collaborating with designers and working with unique materials like horsehair, Malmsten’s has not only fostered his creativity, but helped him bring it to life through collaboration.

Together with final-year Cabinetmaking student Josefina Hägg, they designed a signature art deco-inspired chair called [sic] which fuses horsehair fabric, brass and leather. [sic] was exhibited at the Stockholm Furniture Fair which brings in roughly 35,000 visitors from over 90 countries every winter.


Hägg who studied basic techniques of cabinetmaking before applying to Malmsten’s to further her craft wholeheartedly agrees with Zetterlund. Beyond just her carpentry skills, she got involved in the design process on a larger level. “I realized I could be more innovative in my work and I’ve learned how to use different methods to be creative and to solve problems,” she adds.

That enduring spirit of taking traditional knowledge to the next level through innovative design would have made the school’s guiding spirit – Carl Malmsten – very proud.

Commonly referred to as Malmsten’s, the school bears the name of its founder Carl Malmsten (1888-1972), a 20th Swedish furniture designer and craftsman known as the father of modern Swedish woodworking. He specialized in wood and focused on quality, creativity, and design over functionalism and his style became the benchmark for the timeless minimalist style Swedish furniture is known for worldwide.

He founded Carl Malmsten Furniture Studies in 1930. Roughly 40 years after his death, the school was annexed as an extension of Linköping University in 2000. Students can choose from four bachelor programs: Cabinetmaking, Furniture Upholstery, Furniture Conservation, and Furniture Design.


Malmsten took traditional woodworking techniques and made them contemporary and his vision is kept alive by the students. The school has progressed from just a handcraft learning workshop to a powerhouse focusing on furniture design and cooperation between designers and craftsmen like cabinetmakers and upholstery experts. Many classes and field trips are joint affairs.

Designing with purpose

“What makes Malmsten’s unique is that, unlike other schools which give broader overviews, we specialize and build depth in specific materials and techniques,” shares Leó Jóhannsson, an instructor there since 1994. An interior architect and product designer specializing in wood products, he has designed for a mix of clients from IKEA and smaller businesses to special commissions for both the Swedish and Icelandic governments.

“Malmsten’s focuses on wood which is a live material that requires knowledge at the cellular level to fully understand its behaviors and restrictions,” shares Furniture Design alum Julia Nielsen. “This gives a good basis for understanding material principles in the other materials.”

Graduating students are immediately tagged with a high quality status within the furniture design industry. Nielsen interned with noted Swedish designer Mats Theselius and completed an exchange program in Reykjavik, Iceland.

She counts the three months students are given to develop self-designed projects to prepare for exams as some of her favorites. “This becomes the basis and foundation for one’s future design expression,” adds Nielsen. She is now working on parallel projects including developing new products, creative collaborations in the town of Umeå and Blekinge Kommun, and planning exhibitions in Miami, Florida.


Beyond specializing in wood, Malmsten’s also keeps a small number of students – roughly 60 in total across all four of its programs, making it very intimate and perfect for one-on-one collaboration. “You don’t disappear here,” notes Hägg, referring to the small class sizes. “You are the face of the school. You get to know everyone very well and we’re close to the teachers so we can just go knock on their door if we need them.” The teachers have a long tradition there and are easily accessible. “Classes are usually six students around a table,” adds instructor Jóhannsson.

Every spring, the students collaborate to create interdisciplinary pieces that are exhibited at the school as well as museums in Sweden and fairs around Europe. The teachers also curate exhibitions for the students such as shows focusing on surface materials like textiles, fabrics, and an array of Scandinavian wood which they’re familiar with and have expertise working with.

Recently appointed “Design School of the Year 2013” by the Swedish Furniture Industry based in Småland, the Malmsten’s building itself feels like a solid square block of dark wood with roof-high windows carved into it. Inside, you’ll find airy spaces filled with natural light, open floor plans, and no enforced demarcations between departments which fosters cross-collaboration.

There’s a subtleness to its simple yet innovative design that models the values of the school and its students.

Solid, sustainable, and timeless design is at the heart of everything they craft.


Originally published for Korean Air. View the complete gallery of photos from Malmsten.



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Author: Lola A. Åkerström

Lola Akinmade Åkerström is an award-winning writer, photographer, and travel blogger, and is also the Founder/Editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm. Her photography is represented by National Geographic Creative. She tweets at @LolaAkinmade.

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