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Thoroughly Modern Stockholm

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.

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