Photo by Christian Aslund
I meet up with historian and folklorist Jonas Engman, who tells me the Swedish love affair with the country cottage can be traced all the way back to the 19th century.
“That was when middle-class people from Stockholm began buying up second properties out in the archipelago. They wanted to connect to a notion of their origins and to find the spirit of nature.”
The irony, he says, was that their cozy concept of the peasant life was a long way removed from reality. “They wouldn’t have liked the real thing very much,” he says. “It would have been horrible; cold, smelly. There wouldn’t have been anything much inside most houses, not even food. In the 19th century Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe.”
Engman, though, has fond memories of his own family’s summer cottage, in the southern province of Skåne. “My parents bought a place in the late 1950s and I spent summers growing up in the sunshine. We were the incomers from the big city and we were regarded as very exotic. I was the only person in my school class who’d seen a pig or a cow. I even got to drive a tractor on one of the local farms.
“All the way from the 1960s to the 1980s people found they couldn’t make farming pay and so they moved to the cities. At the same time middle class people bought up cottages in the country. That phenomenon is still happening today. People are trying to express an idea of what it means to be Swedish, wanting to retreat to a countryside where they think they belong. We’re striving to create an aesthetic that we’re copying from late 19th-century art and design.”
The myths are deeply ingrained, he adds. Even that famous red hue, falu rödfärg, isn’t quite what it seems. “It wasn’t until around 1850 that Swedish people even began to paint their houses,” remarks Engman. “Before that they’d have been grey – the color of wood as it ages.” Cottages in Skåne, meanwhile, where Engman’s own childhood was partly spent, were often white.
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