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Thoroughly Modern Stockholm

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.

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