In the Swedish Countryside, a Home With Space to Think

A creative couple have transformed a former schoolhouse into a minimalist live-work space that spurs their art — and reflects it, too.

Article by Nancy Hass

Sweden interiors_1Råman’s pottery studio, designed by Claesson Koivisto Rune in 1998 and set in a field of wildflowers. Photograph by Mikael Olsson.

Sweden is among the world’s most egalitarian societies, but you might not sense that when surveying the ancestral estates that rise above the gently rolling landscape of the southern Skåne province, near the border with Denmark. Among them is the 14th-century Högestad, outside the town of Ystad, which has been owned for the past 300 years by descendants of Count Carl Piper, a nobleman who purchased the agricultural spread around 1705. His wife, Christina, was one of the most successful entrepreneurs and real estate developers of her time.

The Pipers still farm beetroot and wheat on the land, but modern machinery long ago made obsolete the tenant farmers who once occupied dozens of cottages there. In the last century, the Pipers sold off most of those peaked-roof brick dwellings and, over the past few decades, new owners, including Copenhagen residents who make the drive over the bridge that connects the two countries, have reimagined some as weekend homes — cosy retreats into an agrarian past.

But for years, one building remained largely untouched. Set on a quiet, grassy lane, the former schoolhouse built for workers’ children in the 1920s had long been maintained by the local government. The light-filled, 400-square-metre space, split into five rooms, served as a community centre and a venue for weddings and christenings.

In 1995, the officials sold it at last. The buyers were Ingegerd Råman, now 80, the legendary Swedish designer — responsible for iconic Ikea collections, including the limited-edition 2016 Viktigt rattan-and-bamboo line, as well as pared-down crystal vessels for the Swedish glassmaker Orrefors — and her partner of more than 50 years, Claes Söderquist, 84, an artist and experimental filmmaker.

When the couple first saw the former schoolhouse, its interiors were painted in dowdy shades of yellow and green, but they were instantly struck by its pleasing proportions: the two-storey structure, with white lime mortar-covered brick walls and a traditional red tile roof, is a near-perfect rectangle. In the years since, with help from the Stockholm-based architecture firm Claesson Koivisto Rune, they have transformed the building into a starkly graceful tabernacle of minimalism, as much a tribute to Japanese aesthetics as to modern Scandinavian style, warmed by artifacts from their bohemian life together and examples of Råman’s ceramics and glass. At a right angle to the structure, in a plot of purple-blue and canary yellow wildflowers, there is a detached studio, an ultracontemporary concrete cube in which Råman handcrafts limited-edition earthenware of uncommon beauty.

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In the open-plan living space of the designer Ingegerd Råman and the artist and filmmaker Claes Söderquist’s home in southern Sweden, a bronze candelabra by Saint Clair Cemin on an oak table by Claesson Koivisto Rune, mismatched chairs painted red by Söderquist and Alvar Aalto stools. Photograph by Mikael Olsson.
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In Råman’s workspace, a group of potted plants, including irises and geraniums, and artwork by (from left) Helena Blomqvist, Robert Whitman and Andreas Eriksson. Photograph by Mikael Olsson.

The designer and the filmmaker have always functioned with marked independence from each other. Since 1969, they have maintained an equally understated apartment in Stockholm, about 650 kilometres north, which they use both together and separately, sometimes living apart. Råman, who has lately been collaborating with a company in the historic ceramics enclave of Arita, Japan, often flies to the capital from nearby Malmö airport for a week or two of intense meetings and design work in her studio not far from the Moderna Museet; Söderquist spends time in the city on his own, too, recently producing a book about his films that was published last spring.

But on a late summer afternoon, the couple opened the 100-year-old doors to the former schoolhouse in Skåne together. They were dressed in black, as Råman always is — she favours draped and tailored garments by Issey Miyake. “It’s not as though I don’t like colour,” she said, “but I think there are just the right times and places for it.”

Those places would not, for the most part, be inside the couple’s home: it takes a vivid imagination to picture a pack of rambunctious schoolchildren galloping up the granite steps that lead to the building’s entrance. Today, the tall wooden doors open onto a monastic white plastered hallway, which runs the span of the 12-metre-long structure. The floor, like those throughout the house, is the original pine sublayer that was covered with mustard linoleum when Råman and Söderquist bought the place; before bleaching the narrow boards, Söderquist pulled up thousands of nails, sliding across the surface in stockinged feet to make sure he got each one. On a shelf just beyond the entrance, one of Råman’s charcoal-coloured thrown pots holds a cascade of black petunias. At one end of the corridor is a small chamber containing a hulking grey steel machine on which Söderquist transfers and edits 16-millimetre film; at the other is the home’s sole bathroom, as simple and plain as an ancient Roman steam room. “We have always lived with emptiness,” Råman said.

Behind the hallway, she and Söderquist have configured the house in a way that defies domestic convention but perfectly serves their partnership, in which there is always space for their work. Instead of using the entire expanse as a vast living area arranged with huge-scale furnishings, in the manner of a loft, they confined their kitchen, dining and sitting room to little more than half of the available floor space. A black velvet-upholstered couch by the Swedish designer Alice Kunftova and an angular Eero Saarinen chair flank a white-painted cylindrical wood stove, which reaches nearly to the 3.7-metre-high ceiling; against one of the walls, tall white kitchen cabinets hold unassuming but elegant dishware and glasses of Råman’s own design, including pieces from her spartan, handblown Bellman series, first created in the 1980s, which the couple use daily. A long custom-made oak dining table sits beneath the windows, bare but for a tall cast-bronze candelabra in a blobby organic shape by the Brazilian postmodernist sculptor Saint Clair Cemin. Surrounding it are six austere straight-backed wooden dining chairs amassed over decades. Each is slightly different, but Söderquist has painted them all the same shade of glossy red, a rare splash of colour that throws the room’s black-and-white palette into crisp relief. The effect is subtle, but emotionally redolent. “That way you have the memories of each, yet there’s visual harmony,” Råman said.

But in the adjacent 170-square-metre room the couple’s priorities become clear: the 19th-century oak table at which Råman works, a relic from a nearby castle, sits in the centre of the almost empty space. Here, as light streams through the windows, which were set high enough that distractions including passing cows wouldn’t interrupt classes, she sketches and puzzles out ideas for glass vessels, candlesticks and carafes, as well as less expected commissions, including a series of large-scale peat-fibre acoustic panels for the Swedish company Okko Design.

Though the home’s surfaces are mostly clear, the desk is laid out as a constantly changing library of inspiration, so dense with beautifully shaped and patinated things that it’s impossible to tell which are decorative and which are tools for Råman’s practice. “This is a French pipe for bird hunting calls,” she said, picking up a carved wooden straw. “This one with the little pouf at the end? A Chinese ear cleaner. And here are my grandfather’s calipers, which I use constantly. He was an engineer.” In a central spot sits a small ivory-coloured metal orb; the industrial designer Michael Anastassiades, a frequent houseguest whom Råman taught to throw clay on the wheel in the next-door studio, made it to commemorate a favourite stone he found long ago on a beach. Often, before she travels, she slips it or something else from the table into her bag for comfort, an unexpectedly Proustian gesture for a diehard minimalist, perhaps, but one that reflects her complex relationship with objects, however simple they may seem. “They remind me of my life,” she said.

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A pendant by Claus Bonderup and Torsten Thorup hangs over Söderquist’s film editing table. Photograph by Mikael Olsson.
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An oak bed by Söderquist, a birch Aalto chair and glass vessels by Råman and others. Photograph by Mikael Olsson.

The second floor is as sparsely furnished as the first. Echoing the layout of Råman’s office, the couple’s extra-low platform bed, dressed in black woolen sheets, stands in the centre of the spare peaked-ceiling chamber. “You want to wake up with all the air around you,” she said. Running along the wall beneath two large casement windows is the room’s sole nod to embellishment: a shelf holding an array of glass pieces designed by Råman and others, from squat columns with frosted geometric etchings to tall clear vessels. Some artisans and designers argue that the line between such high-level craft and fine art is porous, but Råman, an admirer of Donald Judd and the colour field painters, isn’t one of them. “I don’t see what I do as art,” she said, “which doesn’t mean that it isn’t good, but I am someone who needs material and an aim.”

In Söderquist’s office down the hall, next to which is a capacious guest room that looks out over the fields, the neighbour’s cat lounged on a pine day bed designed by Söderquist. (“He knows when we come home from our travels and invites himself in,” Råman said.) On a wall hangs the final painting Söderquist made, in 1974, the year he gave up oils for film. It depicts a trapezoidal brick barn, which stood across the road from a house they once lived in, set against a snow-frosted field. Söderquist sold the canvas right after he finished it, but the couple had always dreamed of buying it back and did so in 2011. On a shelf below sits a group of rough-hewn, black animal-shaped whistles made of fired clay, found in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Råman picked up a tiny cow and blew softly into it. The pure, high sound filled the air. “They still seem so beautiful to me,” she said. “You see, they have a purpose. Having a purpose, you know, is everything.”