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Nordic Exposure

The Glass of Orrefors and Kosta Boda
By Nicholas M. Dawes | From Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

The five countries that make up Scandinavia are often referred to as "the top of Europe," but they have always been as distinct from most of continental Europe culturally as they are geographically. The cultural divide was evident at the International Exhibition held in 1897 in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, where the decorative arts of Belle Époque Paris outshone all but the finest of Sweden's efforts. In displays of glass, the products of Kosta, Sweden's oldest glassworks (established in 1742), were no match for the ethereal Art Nouveau masterpieces of Emile Gallé. If mimicry is the greatest form of flattery, Gallé would have been impressed by the Swedish efforts to reproduce his work in the period following the exhibition. If flattery got Kosta nowhere because the cameo-type glass it produced was considered too formal for commercial success outside Sweden, it did lead to the discovery of a new technique at the nearby Orrefors Glassworks, where the unique style of Scandinavian art glass was born and grew to maturity in our century.

Orrefors was a new kid on Kosta's block in Sweden's southern Småland (pronounced: Smoeland) Highlands region when the factory was established in a converted iron foundry in 1898. Initially a small and modest works making simple inkwells, lingonberry jars and the like, Orrefors caught the artistic fever that infected Sweden following the 1897 exhibition. The enthusiasm was spread largely by the Föreningen Svensk Form (Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, established in 1899 and still active) and its slogan, "Vackrare vardagsvara" ("more beautiful everyday goods"), which provided a common objective for Swedish artistic designers for more than half a century.

The well-financed and progressive Orrefors had branched out into artistic ware by 1913, but this area of output would probably have dwindled had it not been for the employment in 1915 of Simon Gate (pronounced: Gar-tay), an artist from Stockholm, previously known only for his book illustrations. Within a year of experimental work at Orrefors, Gate hit the mother lode. In an attempt to smooth the protruding decoration of Gallé-type overlay, Gate added a layer of clear glass to encase the colored decoration, potentially for eternity, and then enhanced the design by further blowing or forming. Gate's plant manager, Albert Ahlin, drew a rather grand analogy for this technique and proposed to name it Graal glass, from the Swedish den helige Graal (the Holy Grail!). Ahlin recognized the impact of his term, but wrote in explanation to Gate, "The name may be thought pretentious, but I really don't give a damn." The name stuck and Graal glass has been the signature of Orrefors and other Scandinavian artistic ware ever since. Gate remained at Orrefors until his death in 1945 and was responsible for some of the finest and most innovative of the factory's artistic ware including Graal as well as architectural commissions for public buildings. He was also represented in the Swedish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition of 1925, where he was awarded the Grand Prix.

Gate's work for Orrefors, much of which bears his signature, is among the most valuable and collected Nordic art glass. According to William Geary, a dealer based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who has specialized in Scandinavian art glass for more than 10 years, the collector's market grew in Sweden during the second half of the 1980s, reaching a peak in 1989 when a "Bacchus" bowl by Gate brought $60,000 at a Stockholm auction. The vase was one of seven made for the Paris Exposition of 1925 and was bought by an anonymous collector thought to be Swedish. "Swedish collectors are the main market," observes Geary, "followed by other Europeans, particularly Germans, and Americans." This trend is confirmed by Herold Walz, a Nordic glass expert for Stockholm Auction Verket, the national auction house established in 1674 that claims to be the oldest for fine arts in the world--a title also claimed by Sotheby's (established as a book auctioneer in 1744) and Christie's (established in 1765). Stockholm Auction Verket's annual sale of Nordic art glass is held in August. The sale typically contains up to 300 offerings, mostly period artistic ware from Orrefors--by far the most popular and valued--together with Kosta and minor makers, notably Reijmyre. The parallels between the artistic glass market and that of modern art are evident in the auction catalogs, where pieces are described first by their maker or designer and not by their form. Geary and Wald both agree that most collectors buy the work of artists and that many view their habit as an investment strategy.

Gate's colleague and contemporary Edward Hald, who worked at Orrefors from 1917 until his death in 1980 (long after his official retirement), also took a Grand Prix in 1925 and earned the respect of collectors past and present. His most successful design range is the Fisk Graal, introduced in 1937 and still in production. Fisk Graal vessels are typically globular bowls patterned with swimming fish and water weed to produce an aquarium effect and were particularly popular during the 1950s. Hald developed and named the Ariel technique (after the airy sprite in Shakespeare's "The Tempest"), which was probably invented by his colleague Vicke Lindstrand in 1937. Ariel work, usually found on artistic vases and bowls, is similar to the Graal technique that inspired it, but air bubbles are sandwiched between the colored and clear glass layers and then stretched into decorative images such as faces, animals or abstract designs.

The popularity of Ariel work was expressed at Sotheby's in New York in November 1992, when an early example of a vase in the technique, designed by Vicke Lindstrand, sold for an astonishing $60,000. The price took everyone by surprise, especially Sotheby's experts who had estimated it to sell for up to $3,000. There is a saying in the auction business that if something sells strongly once, it is a fluke. If it sells strongly twice, it is a trend, and three times, a market. This sale is still considered a fluke, but it heralded the modern resurgence of interest in good Nordic art glass, demand for which has been severely affected by an economic depression in Sweden during the early 1990s.

Vicke Lindstrand is an artist of great significance to modern collectors. Having been previously employed at Kosta, he came to Orrefors during a boom period in 1928. He is best known for the extraordinary engravings of figure subjects on thick, optical-quality glass vessels produced during the early 1930s. These vital and powerful Art Deco images are virtuoso examples of the technical and artistic ability found in the most expensive Orrefors art and can command impressive prices in the secondary market. The vases "Pearl Fishers" and "Shark Killer," first produced about 1930, are considered among his finest work, but examples are not extremely rare and it was a surprise for all present at Sotheby's, New York on June 9, 1988 to see the "Shark Killer" vase sell for $30,000. Sotheby's had estimated the vase at $2,000 to $3,000. One dealer remarked that he had had one in his gallery for several years, priced at $7,500. All agreed that the Scandinavian glass market is unpredictable, to say the least--one reason, perhaps, why so few dealers care to venture into the field. There is also a lesson here for the shrewd collector: many of the best examples of Swedish art glass are appearing on today's market in a fresh state and may go unrecognized by even those who should understand them. Scandinavian design in general is unfamiliar to most Americans, who tend to ignore it, so there is a potentially rich harvest for the informed and diligent collector.

Thus the Orrefors style was shaped by Gate, Hald and Lindstrand in the interwar years and it found favor with the postwar generation, creating few incentives for change. The combination of producing unique or limited artistic pieces and utilitarian production ware was also found to be a commercially successful formula from its inception at Orrefors. The company's modern legacy includes artistic pieces priced up to $100,000, with the majority of output and sales in production ware.

In 1991 Incentive AB, the Swedish conglomerate owner of Orrefors, bought a controlling interest in its chief glass-making competitor, Kosta Boda. Kosta Boda has operated largely independently from Orrefors since then, although the company's five retail showrooms (Stockholm, Tokyo, Melbourne, New York and Costa Mesa, California) operate as Orrefors and Kosta Boda. Kosta Boda has four glassworks located within a few miles of each other and less than an hour by Volvo from Orrefors. They include the historic Kosta works, founded by two men named Anders Koskull and Georg Bogislaus Staël von Holstein in 1742, and the Boda works, founded in 1864 by two Kosta renegades. Kosta and Boda were amalgamated in 1976.

Throughout the twentieth century the output of Kosta was more diverse than that of Orrefors, but the preference was for traditional, cut or engraved work and production pieces, especially table ware. There is a strong similarity among much of the artistic output, due in part to the tendency for many artists to work at both companies. Vicke Lindstrand, for instance, designed for Kosta before and after his term at Orrefors (1928-1940).

As the market for Nordic art glass has grown over the past 10 years, it has attracted more collectors who view the glass as contemporary art, which may explain the market irregularities that are also found in the modern-art world. These collectors select from the impressive range of modern artistic ware produced by glass artists working at Orrefors, Kosta Boda or independently and often assemble a spectrum of contemporary glass from many sources, as one would paintings or sculpture. The majority of modern glass artists trace their origins to the 1970s, when the combination of a free university system and a rebellious, free-spirited young generation (remember Bjorn Borg?), drew creative talent away from Swedish industry and technical pursuits. Industrialists had welcomed and channeled design talent in the spirit of Vackrare vardagsvara up till then, but the new generation of glass artists preferred the individualism of studio work and experimentation in their pursuit of liberalism. The results of this still flourishing movement can be seen in the rich variety of glass by contemporary Swedish artists, much of which is technically and artistically highly innovative and can best be described as expressionist. Orrefors employs up to a dozen artists who make and design unique or limited-edition artistic pieces as well as contribute to the production range. Among these, the best-known include Jan Johansson, who prefers to work in polished, clear crystal, and Anne Nilsson, who trained largely in the United States and makes a variety of styles, including colored-glass fruit forms and tableware evocative of the 1960s. The artist Eva Englund produced fine examples of the New Wave glass for Orrefors in the 1970s and 1980s and now operates as a successful, independent glass artist, designing principally for Venetian companies.

Kosta Boda has excelled in this area of production and employs a stable of young artists, notably Anna Ehrner (whose work includes the "Line" and "Epoque" stemware patterns) and Göran Wärff, who cuts colored-glass vessels into prisms and also employs a version of the Ariel technique. The most celebrated of Kosta Boda's glass artists is the husband-and-wife team of Bertil and Ulrica Hydman-Vallien. Bertil Vallien has produced innovative designs for Kosta since the mid-1970s, including the starkly modernist Oktav tableware pattern he designed in 1977. In recent years Ulrica Hydman-Vallien has been the enfant terrible of Nordic art glass, consistently producing works of extraordinary technical virtuosity in an abstract style that is against all the rules of Swedish tradition. It is this category of Nordic glass that attracts the highest retail prices and most discriminating patrons (including Japanese collectors) and that best continues the Swedish tradition of excellence in design.

Nicholas M. Dawes writes frequently on the antique-glass market.