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“Swedish design sucks”

Simon Davies is the brash Brit who’ll tell you where to stick your Swedish design. He made a home for himself here 12 years ago and now he’s helping Swedes to turn their humble pads into palaces.

On the TV show Från Koja Till Slott he’s the noble-sounding, no-nonsense doyen of design. But while Simon’s bark is worse than his bite, the same cannot be said for his aggressive canine sidekick, Albert. The Local joins them on a comfy sofa in his smart Stockholm store, London W8.

You’ve been a ski guide in France and a surf instructor in Corsica so where does interior designer in Sweden fit in?

I was working with Swedish antiques in London and used to come here for work. I turned up on one of those April days when the sun comes out and Swedes become so radically different. I thought this is the most fantastic country and I decided to move here.

Swedes tend to think of English design as green leather Chesterfields and Laura Ashley. But there was so much fantastic furniture-making and cutting-edge design happening in England and I wanted to bring that here.

Swedish design is praised the world over – surely the Swedes have an impeccable taste in interiors?

No, I think it completely sucks. We’re stuck in some awful time warp. We’ve been doing this funkis thing and strict minimalist thing for so long now and it’s just such old hat. We keep saying “oh that’s marvellous darling, how super, how straight and white that is.” But it’s so dull. We’re not pushing any limits, we keep doing the same safe stuff and it makes me crazy. Swedes are extremely reticent about new ideas, new colours and new ways of doing things.

Is that why all my Swedish friends’ apartments look the same?

Swedish design is a reflection of Swedes’ personality. Sweden is a great country – I have to say that again – but for Swedes, social conformity is more important that anything else. They like to look and dress and speak and think like each other and that was one of the most difficult things for me to deal with when I arrived. There’s a kind of security in numbers and, from a design point of view, people are not brave with ideas here.

Swedes seem very bemused by wall-to-wall carpeting and think it is incredibly bad taste – is it?

Carpet is so big at the moment; it’s banging on Sweden’s door but still they resist it. This is a country where we love to put down tiny mats everywhere – little mat here, little mat there – what the hell is that all about?

Often people haven’t been exposed to real carpet – they think of English pubs, chewing gum and old beer. But when you get a 100 percent thick pile – how wonderful is that? It’s so sexy and glorious and elegant and fabulous! Fitted carpet is rather grown up and rather luxurious and Swedes are not good at being good to themselves. They react against luxury and quality.

So have you ever bought anything from IKEA?

Yes, of course I have! The thing with IKEA it’s an amazingly clever concept. I don’t buy furniture or fabrics from there but I do buy ceramics and glassware. Every season they seem to have one or two things that are just dazzling and cost 19 crowns – I’m truly amazed!

Do you live in a big posh house?

It’s quite possibly the ugliest house I have ever lived in. In Sweden they call it an “en plans villa” but it’s a bungalow for Christ’s sake! It was built in 1953 and the architect was rather inspired – it’s up on a hill and there are sixty steps up to it. But nobody wanted to buy this house because it’s plug ugly – it’s red brick and hadn’t been renovated for 40 years. It’s not posh but it’s a fabulous house.

One feels very much at home here in your store London W8 – is that the concept?

The basic idea is that we carry no Swedish designers at all. Other places do the Swedish thing much better than us. London W8 started about 10 years ago and we had a problem on day one when the first person that came in took their shoes off.

A lot of our clients find it very odd – they come in and Albert is lying on a piece of furniture and you can have a glass of wine or a cigarette. But in some respects this is kind of like the British Embassy – I think of it as a bit of foreign soil so I can do my own thing here.

Who gets recognised the most – you or Albert?

I don’t seem to get recognised at all. People come up and ask, “Is that the angry dog from television?” He’s the real star. Jack Russells are usually divided into two types; those who are extremely good with children and old people and those like Albert.

Does Albert understand Swedish?

Yes that’s all he understands – the only time I speak Swedish is with Albert.

Why don’t you speak Swedish on TV?

English is a beautiful, extraordinary language -it’s so incredibly rich. And to do my job I think that I need to be able to speak English. If I’m talking about colour and texture and nuance and shadow and subtlety, I can’t find those words in Swedish – it’s black or white or flat or round or tall. I’m sure Swedes can do it but for me it’s much easier to do that in English.

Selling ideas to people means pushing them much further than they’re used to going and that’s not a natural thing for Swedes to accept. You have to paint a very clear picture in people’s minds why you want to paint everything in the room black.

Simon, Albert and Från Koja till Slott return for a new series on September 4 on TV3. And you can visit London W8 without taking your shoes off here.

MUSIC

‘When I leave Sweden, my fairy tale becomes fake’

Alexandra 'Austin' Muirhead, 31, is about to run her first ever music festival, in Gothenburg. It comes at a hectic time for the Canadian, who is sleeping in a rehearsal studio as her working holiday visa is close to expiring.

'When I leave Sweden, my fairy tale becomes fake'
Alexandra Muirhead is launching her own music festival in Gothenburg. Photo: Lovisa Wallin

This article is part of The Local's My Swedish Career series. Read more interviews with international professionals and entrepreneurs in Sweden here.

“To get out of devastation, I just do stuff, I just do more,” she explains to The Local. We meet her at a Gothenburg art gallery  a few hours before a cozy acoustic concert she has organized herself.

While we talk backstage about her work and experiences in Sweden, her friends cut in to tease Muirhead about how little she sleeps.

An Arts & Entertainment Management graduate, she has co-organized multiple film and music festivals before but always hoped to run her own.

Muirhead's work and love of travel have taken her around the world and she has lived in Vancouver, Galiano Island, Montreal, Toronto, London, Edinburgh, Liverpool, and Glasgow – but it’s Gothenburg where she first felt able to fulfil this dream.

“I don’t think I could have done this outside Sweden,” Muirhead says. She feels that very few major bands play in Gothenburg, only passing through it between tour dates in Oslo and Stockholm, but at the same time local musicians have limited access to the stages, so they don't perform often either.  

It’s that untapped potential that inspired Muirhead to implement her ideas here one year ago.

Before arriving in Gothenburg in August 2017, she contacted the newly created local team for Sofar Sounds, an international startup that runs secret concerts in unconventional places ranging from living rooms to retail shops. She was only the third member of the team, which in two months set up the first show in Gothenburg. Now the events take place regularly.

In March Muirhead becaume part of a production group, Flocken Media, and decided to organize her first festival, called Waves Rolling.

Included in the lineup are bands from Gothenburg, Oslo, Stockholm and even Canada, which she warns “may not play here on another occasion”.

The musicians will also be part of the audience, which is unique, she says, but admits: “I’m scared of whether the people will show up and whether it will sound good”.

Flocken Media. Photo: Achen Jim Liu

Muirhead has always thrown herself into establishing new projects when she has moved to a new area. “If there’s a local problem that you could contribute to fixing, it’s very rewarding,” she explains.

And it's a two-way street: she also believes that staying active helps to solve the problems most expats find themselves facing, from loneliness to trouble adjusting to a new culture. 

“When I feel sad, I make a video. Or start a new project. I would probably recommend the same approach to others, especially if their sadness is because of finances. Some of that stuff will get you money.”

She arrived to Gothenburg without a solid plan as she believed it would be possible to find a job within two weeks, like in other places she had moved to. Today Muirhead says that was a crazy idea.

“It was pretty hard when I came here. Nobody tells you there’s a housing crisis and you won’t get a job. And please bring 2000 dollars that should cover you for three months,” she says, highlighting the high living cost and shortage of affordable housing in Sweden's major cities.


Photo: Ana Paula Lafaire

Like many new arrivals in Sweden, finding accommodation was another challenge. After staying with a couchsurfer when she first arrived, she found her first accommodation for a one-month period, then another that was similarly short-term. The third one was available for five months. In between contracts, she stayed on couches, took bands on tours, and at one point worked at a music festival in Norway. She now lives in a rehearsal studio because it’s the cheapest option.

Despite getting involved in a mix of cultural initiatives, Muirhead has struggled when it comes to finding a stable job in Gothenburg. Alongside her creative projects, she has worked in substitute positions including as a restaurant assistant, a babysitter, and an English teacher at a summer camp

“I’m still trying to get a job in Sweden,” says the Canadian, who estimates she has sent out “hundreds” of application emails as well as knocking on doors.

Each time the effort doesn't pay off, “you get a big heartbreak, it’s devastating and terrible”, she explains. The creative has now applied for a working holiday visa in Denmark as a way to stay in Scandinavia while she continues to hunt for the right role. 

But for her, it's worth it. The region has everything she wants to do, her favourite bands, and friendships that she says are stronger than anywhere else.

“When I go anywhere else, all my friends from here become a story, a fairy tale. No one else gets to touch it or see it – they only hear about it. When I live here, it’s real but when I leave – this fairy tale becomes fake,” is how she sums it up.

Something about the area has kept her coming back, ever since she first travelled to Norway for a concert in 2013. After that, she began to visit every six months, and that soon became every three months. Eventually, she moved to the UK to be closer to Scandinavia, and when that visa ran out,  she moved to Gothenburg and “fell completely in love all over again”.

Despite the challenges she's facing, Muirhead is sure her future is in Scandinavia. She says: “It’s not my style to give up so I probably have to die here trying. I’ve chosen to.”

 

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