Stig Lindberg: Defining Swedish design

A selection of Berså ceramics, by Stig Lindberg for Gustavsberg A selection of Berså ceramics, by Stig Lindberg for Gustavsberg

If not for a wood-cutting accident in his northern Swedish home, Stig Lindberg might well have followed an early interest in the piano. Fate intervened, though, and instead the inventive and prolific designer was to bring a fresh, uncomplicated approach to decoration that would come to define Swedish design for years to come.

Wilhelm Kåge and Stig Lindberg

Wilhelm Kåge and Stig Lindberg (right), Gustavsberg, circa 1938 (Image via Wikimedia Commons).

“If you hire me I will see to it that the factory will have enough work!” proclaimed a confident 20-year-old Stig Lindberg. Little did his employers at Gustavsberg know at the time that as well as bringing in future profit, he would also usher in a golden age of Swedish design.  

Stig Lindberg’s career began at Gustavsberg, a porcelain manufacturer east of Stockholm. Without this pairing the world may never have had the famous stem of green leaves ceramic design that made his much-imitated Berså series so sought after (see image above). This design would thrust Lindberg and Gustavsberg into the limelight and lead to a booming interest in refined mid-century Scandinavian design. 

But it wasn’t just ceramics that Lindberg lent his craftsmanship to, as his prolific desire to create also led him to a variety of materials, from melamine to textiles and enamelled steel, as well as book illustrations, public fountains and even the era-defining Lumavision TV that somehow manages to typify 1950s design in one crisp vision. Versatile doesn’t even begin to get close to Lindberg’s era-defining output. 

Hire me, I’m Stig Lindberg!

Lindberg studied at the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm; from there he applied for a position at the Gustavsberg porcelain factory around 1936/37, a time of serious financial hardship. The Great Depression had hit the USA a number of years previously in October 1929 and struck the Swedish economy in 1930-31, so Lindberg’s application a few years later was rejected due to ongoing financial constraints.

Unperturbed, and perhaps flush with the confidence of youth, the 20-year-old replied to his rebuttal with: “if you hire me I will see to it that the factory will have enough work!” and after being given two months to convince the artistic director Wilhelm Kåge (another pioneer of Swedish design) of his ability, incredibly his proclamation would be proved correct. 

Not content with being just another employee, Lindberg ushered in a golden age of Swedish design as his whimsical and colourful patterns became a fixture in every other Swedish home throughout the 1950s and beyond. 

Set of ten vases and pots, Stig Lindberg.

Set of ten vases and pots, Stig Lindberg. Sold for €27,300 via Piasa (October 2020).

Leafy longevity

One of his most famous, enduring, and often imitated designs over the years is the Berså from 1961. The famous stem of green leaves by the Swedish designer has become his calling card for his modern and colourful designs. The design has proved so popular that it’s been imitated on ceramics and linen, but perhaps the best indicator of its longevity is that the series is still produced in the same way, according to Gustavsberg’s long-standing pottery tradition.

A Swedish Porcelain Partial Dinner Service, Stig Lindberg for Gustavsberg.

A Swedish Porcelain Partial Dinner Service, Stig Lindberg for Gustavsberg. Auction passed (Est: $700 – $900) via Hindman (May 2013).

Similarly refined in style, Lindberg’s Spisa Ribb porcelain preceded Berså and was produced in 1955. The crisp and clear linear lines exaggerate the shape of the cup for a real Midcentury-style cup of Joe. The line was produced until 1974, and then reintroduced in 2003, but the earlier examples are the ones prized whenever they come up for auction. As a sign of just how much influence his work has had in Sweden, Lindberg’s Berså design has even appeared on McDonald’s cups. Every form of imitation is flattery, apparently!

Lindberg’s Salix and Adam series continued in this vain of restrained and sophisticated simplicity. Instantly recognisable, Lindberg’s pieces vary in style, color, shape and all have their own identity, but all clearly have a familial likeness and can be instantly paired together. 

Stig Lindberg and his whimsical attitude

Not content with redefining the approach to – and design of – ceramics, Lindberg also began to design patterns for fabrics in 1947. They were characterized by a bold colour palette and playful motifs, and so bore a similarity to the carefree and whimsical attitude of his ceramics. 

Lindberg died in 1982, but not before picking up a host of awards for his era-defining work and its universal appeal. He twice won the gold medal at the Milan Triennale in 1948 and 1957, he won gold in 1962 at the First International Ceramics Festival in Prague, and in 1970 he was given an honorary professorship by the Swedish Government. High praise indeed.

As for Gustavsberg, little has changed. Marie Bohjort, managing director of Gustavsberg said: “a lot of manufacturers have moved their production overseas, but we have chosen to continue making everything here in Gustavsberg, and by hand” before adding “The only difference from 1825 is that production is on a slightly smaller scale. And we are very proud to have kept that history and tradition alive.”