The night before I left for Stockholm I went to the opening of yet another New York restaurant that uses design as a backdrop. It was a clangorous hangar with all the comfort of a business-class lounge decorated by IKEA. I like the spare look, but it seems to me that too many modern interiors are soulless places organized for efficiency, to keep us passing through rather than inviting us in.
I was expecting to be met by more of the same in Stockholm. After all, modern design there is religion, the way food is in Paris or movies are in Los Angeles. For the past five years, the tourist board has been packaging the city as a "design destination," distributing special maps that direct interested parties to bare-walled shops sellingbent-wood furniture, felted wool fashion, and the famous Swedish glass.
But I was wrong; instead, Stockholm seduced me in seven minutes. That's how long it took me to check into the Grand Hôtel, open the curtains in my room, and look out across the canal to a cluttered skyline of burnished copper spires, cupolas, and bell towers. Floating at the intersection of the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälaren, the city is built on 14 islands connected by 52 bridges. Rather than a sleek glass-and-steel metropolis like Berlin, I saw a cleaner, more spacious version of Venice. Clearly there was life beyond the lifeless Modernism for which Stockholm has become known to the world.
As it turns out, much of what I saw from the Grand is a fake, at least in terms of native design. For most of its 750-year history, Stockholm was an isolated outpost on Europe's northern fringe, occupying one tiny island, Gamla Stan (which, with its winding lanes, narrow alleys, and houses that lean like rows of crooked teeth, is still authentically medieval). The majority of the city wasn't constructed until the 17th and 18th centuries, when Swedish aristocrats finally began venturing out to the Continent and bringing back more "civilized" ideas of architecture, dress, and manners.
Nowhere is this imported style more apparent than at Drottningholm Palace, the royal residence incorrectly known as Sweden's Versailles. An hour's boat ride from the center of town, Drottningholm is by turns excessive and tatty. Built in 1662 by the Swedish architect Nicodemus Tessin the Elder and his son, there's not a bare inch in this 200-room "Barococo" extravaganza. Every surface is painted, muraled, frescoed, flocked, and draped to hide the fact that the royals who commissioned it were strapped for cash. (Sweden's reigning king and queen are still paupers by European standards. They once complained to a friend of mine that they couldn't afford to cut down the dying trees outside their 22-room palace apartment. My friend thought they were joking. They weren't.) Once your eyes recover from the visual overload, look around the edges: much of the French-inspired décor is smoke and mirrors. Rather than real marble, all the "stonework" and "stucco relief" is faux painting; the grandfather clock is finished to resemble mahogany.
The monarchs' 1820's summer residence, Rosendal Palace, in massive Djurgården park, is another poor man's castle, though a more authentically Swedish one. The interior is a splendid showcase for Empire design, but the wooden walls were constructed in a shipyard, assembled on-site, then covered with pink plaster. It's the world's first prefab palace, a wooden box dressed up with chintz. In it lies the roots of IKEA.
It wasn't until I stumbled upon the National Museum and saw the paintings of Carl Larsson that I fully understood the roots of modern Swedish simplicity. Larsson was Sweden's original Martha Stewart—by painting everyday life in his simple home, he and his decorator wife, Karin, introduced the idea of casual living to a country reliant on stiff formalities. Out went the heavy furniture, velvet curtains, and other pretensions of wealth favored by aspiring Swedes at the turn of the last century. In came eclectic rustic furnishings, brightly painted rooms, bare windows, and light wood floors, all of which maximized the scant winter sun. In his depictions of children getting dressed for school, clothes lying crumpled on blue-and-white-checked chairs, or his wife fixing snacks before a card game, Larsson showed his countrymen how to loosen up. Each of those dreamy books on Swedish Country Living owes him a nod.
Stockholmers call their city Europe's best-kept secret. There are three reasons why.
One, it has no postcard-friendly image—no Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower, or trapezoidal titanium museum celebrating man's triumph over nature (or geometry). Two, a decade ago Stockholm was hideously costly. Today, food, hotels, and most products except alcohol are a good value. The third and most important reason is Jantelagen, a Nordic concept that means something between modesty, restraint, and the notion that no one should stand out. Developed by the 20th-century Danish-born novelist Aksel Sandemose, it's the foundation upon which Scandinavia's social democracies were built. Jantelagen, or the Jante Law, is also the sociophilosophical version of Prozac: while it keeps everyone comfortable, it's also a little boring, blunting any urge toward the edgy. It's an irritation to ambitious young Swedes, who are fed up with blending in and denying their accomplishments, which are not insignificant. Sweden is, after all, the birthplace of dynamite, lighthouses, food processors, ball bearings, the Nobel Prize, Ingmar Bergman, and Greta Garbo.
Sweden sacrificed individuality to effect social change because just 150 years ago the country was the poorhouse of Europe. While the upper classes indulged their taste for European frippery, rural Swedes were living in grinding poverty. You can see evidence of this in Skansen, an outdoor museum created in 1891 by a teacher who moved buildings from every region of the country into Djurgården park. Design aficionados make pilgrimages to see its extraordinary examples of decorative art, but what most impressed me was the grim austerity of the farmhouses. Families and farmhands crowded into one dark room with a fireplace, sleeping on hay benches, eating and working around a common table. Glass was expensive, so windows were rare. Starvation was common, disease rampant. Seeing it firsthand explains why a million Swedes—more than one-fourth of the population at the time—emigrated to North America, never to return.
Between the Jante Law and the German ideas that led to the Bauhaus, the country began to flirt with Modernism early in the last century. The relationship deepened in 1917, when a group of Swedish industrialists invited artists to help them design "more beautiful objects for everyday use." Extrapolating from the Bauhaus theory that the design of office buildings, houses, and cooking utensils could uplift people, the two groups stripped away unnecessary ornament and replaced it with simplified forms and mass-produced materials. Today the echoes of those decisions reverberate in everything from Gunnar Asplund's much admired cylindrical Stadsbiblioteket (public library) to well-groomed housing estates (of particular note are the curvy, functionalist houses built on pillars in the vast Tessinparken) to the Volvo. The latter will never be as sexy as a Porsche, but it's affordable, handsome enough, and built to survive a harsh climate.
We of the lower latitudes can't quite grasp the effects of that climate on the Swedish aesthetic until we've experienced those vitamin D-drenched summers and Absolut-imbibing winters. Summer is electrifying, and it jolts the entire country outdoors. Stockholm's many beaches are filled with Swedes in varying states of undress, picnicking and swimming. Everything shimmers in the endless light, which helps explain the Swedish obsession with loud floral prints and architect Josef Frank's early-20th-century furniture. But by and large Swedish design is built for the interminable winter. Native materials—glass, wool, iron, and pale wood like ash and birch—are used generously to brighten interiors. In one context Swedish Modernism is light and airy; deracinated, it suffers a problem in translation and can feel ticky-tacky and cold.
The great monument to the twin themes of nature and restraint is the Woodland Cemetery. Most tourists don't make it here. Perhaps they are put off by the impossibly Swedish name (Skogskyrkogården), or the journey itself, which takes you four miles south of town through a snarl of highways and industrial parks. No matter. Once you're inside the gates, you enter a sanctuary where the rhythms of life and death can be felt and seen. Designed by Swedish masters Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, the cemetery is free of all religious iconography. Instead, the architects used traditional Scandinavian forms to inspire reflection. The first image is a giant granite cross (not a crucifix, more a Nordic plus sign) set in a dramatic sea of sloping lawn. To the left, a pavilion of columns; to the right, a circle of birch trees crowning the top of a hill. Deep inside the 250-acre grounds is the grave of Greta Garbo, inscribed with only her name. It's difficult to spot: there are no flowers or crowds gathered around the gravestone, and no age-betraying dates. She manages to maintain the same aloofness in death as she did in life. It's the ultimate example of Jantelagen.
The perfect curve of a chair or the exact proportions of the façade of a building can be deeply pleasing. But without a Lorenzo de' Medici or a Donald Trump mixing it up with some extravagant monument to his own ego, restraint and purity can feel a bit Calvinist. It's the curse of the moderns and a gaping flaw in social democracies, often criticized for (and guilty of) a low fun quotient. After a week in Stockholm, I began to long for some loopiness. I finally found it in the city hall, a building that resembles a cross between a Florentine bell tower and a factory in Leeds.
The architect, Ragnar Östberg, flouted all Swedish conventions in his masterpiece. He spent 12 years and three times his budget revising the building every time a new inspiration struck. Newspaper columnists labeled him a spendthrift and repeatedly called for his head. Eventually the city cut off funds, forcing him to raise private capital to finish the bell tower. His building, completed in 1923, was worth the wait.
The famous Blue Hall, for example, where the Nobel Prize dinners are held, is red. (Östberg so liked the wall of exposed brick, he abandoned plans to paint it the azure color he'd hoped would reflect Lake Mälaren.) The sweeping staircase is equipped with special short steps for a woman in formal attire. To perfect the measurements, he forced his wife to put on a gown and repeatedly ascend and descend. While the stairs succeeded, the marriage failed. The Golden Room has a massive mural made of 19 million gold-leaf fragments, at the center of which is the queen of Mälaren, guardian of Stockholm's famous lake. When the mosaic was unveiled the nation was apoplectic. With eyes like bulging golf balls, and coif styled by Medusa's hairdresser, she was considered a blight; outraged citizens lobbied to have it removed. But time has served it well. Today Östberg's rendering is cherished as one of the town's few examples of good bad taste.
If the heritage of Jantelagen is "like a heavy weight we drag around after us," as the concierge at the Grand Hôtel described it to me, there are signs that the burden is starting to lighten. The government has dismantled some of its social welfare programs, which have liberated (or forced, depending on your perspective) sectors of the population to be more entrepreneurial and wily. Four out of five Swedes own cell phones. Cafés, especially on the island of Södermalm—like the East Village, only cleaner and without a whiff of danger—are jammed with tattooed locals drinking beer with one hand, text messaging with the other. Even the cuisine, which is generally stodgy and traditional, moves toward thrilling when enhanced by Asian and Mediterranean fusion. The best example is Pontus in the Green House, where I had a memorable six-course tasting menu that included sushi and hot smoked salmon.
To accommodate the rash of business travelers, several hotels have been grafted onto plain, old buildings in the grayer parts of town. The Nordic Light hotel occupies a former office block near the Central Station. Its white, hard-edged lobby has holograms and "audio architecture" (a.k.a. sound effects) and feels more like a museum than a place to stay. Likewise, the Birger Jarl advertises a top floor of suites that have each been decorated by a trendy Swedish designer. Both hotels are flogging design as a marketing strategy.
For every building that gets it wrong in Stockholm, there's another that nails it. One of the most popular places is the restaurant and salon in the Berns Hotel. Inadvertently repeating history, the owners imported Sir Terence Conran to turn their 1863 salon into an inviting place, free of irony and cynicism. Beneath the carved ceilings and massive chandeliers, Sir Terence has installed slick seating, leather banquettes, and low tables. The environment is totally modern, yet resonates permanence and grandeur without being posh or stuffy. Like Stockholm itself, it may portend the future without obliterating the past.
Stockholm is safe, environmentally conscious, and efficient. The water is so clean a mayor once famously took a sip from Lake Mälaren; many residents fish from bridges in the city center and eat what they catch. Subway stations double as art installations, taxis take credit cards, and cars and bikes share the streets. While the best time to visit Stockholm is in summer (80-degree days, sunny nights), winter also holds a special appeal.
All prices include breakfast.
Berns Hotel A boutique hotel with a thriving bar scene. Rooms are small but well designed. Doubles from $230; 8 Nackströmsgatan; 46-8/5663-2200; www.berns.se
Hotel Birger Jarl BEST VALUE Doubles from $154; 8 Tulegatan; 46-8/674-1800; www.birgerjarl.se
Hotel Diplomat Bland décor—but in an Art Nouveau building. Doubles from $242; 7C Strandvägen; 46-8/459-6800; www.diplomathotel.com
Grand Hôtel Stockholm The grandest hotel in town. Rooms are spacious, and the location is central. Doubles from $375; 8 S. Blasieholmshamnen; 46-8/679-3500; www.grandhotel.se
Nordic Light Doubles from $320; Vasaplan; 46-8/5056-3000; www.nordichotels.se
Green House Six antiques-filled residences in Gamla Stan. Each apartment has a stocked kitchen. Doubles from $264; 17 Österlånggatan; 46-8/237-392
Bon Lloc Sweden meets Catalonia. Dinner for two $155; 111 Regeringsgatan; 46-8/660-6060
Divino When Milanese retailers come to check on their shops, this is where they go for Italian food. Dinner for two $120; 28 Karlavägen; 46-8/611-0269
East Groovy Asian cooking and a groovy crowd, in the grooviest area of town. Dinner for two $86; 13 Stureplan; 46-8/611-4959, ext. 1
Franska Matsalen French meets new-world, with dishes like Asian dumplings in oyster consommé. Dinner for two $176; 8 S. Blasieholmshamnen; 46-8/679-3584
Fredsgatan 12 A crossover kitchen with a twist, run by top Stockholm chef Melker Andersson. Dinner for two $130; 12 Fredsgatan; 46-8/248-052
Pontus in the Green House Dinner for two $176; 17 Österlånggatan; 46-8/238-500
Rolf's Kök The best potato pancake in Stockholm, if not the world. Dinner for two $88; 41 Tegnergatan; 46-8/101-696
Tranen Trendy and modern, yet relaxed. Fusion cuisine. Dinner for two $100; 14 Karlbergsvägen; 46-8/5272-8100
Villa Källhagen Elegant waterfront restaurant for traditional Swedish dishes. Dinner for two $100; 10 Djurgårdsbrunnsvägen; 46-8/665-0310
Klara A more stylish version of IKEA. 36 Nytorgsgatan; 46-8/694-9240
Modernity A specialist in mid-century Scandinavian design. 3 Köpmangatan; 46-8/208-025; www.modernity.se
David design Nybrogatan has several first-rate interiors stores. David design sells products that are trendy, functional, and often funny (like knitted wine bottle covers). 7 Nybrogatan; 46-8/611-9155; www.daviddesign.se
Jacksons One of the world's great Modernist design shops. Paul Jackson sells the classics—Wegner, Jacobsen—and rare pieces from Josef Frank and ceramist Wilhelm Kage. 20 Tyska Brinken; 46-8/411-8587; www.jacksons.se