Swede Collection is a quiet little furniture company
(mostly wholesale, but retail as well) creating
beautiful, inheritable, made by hand, Franco-Swedish
furniture from American species hardwoods.
One of a kind antiques inspire Swede’s pieces, which
are resized to fit naturally and proportionally
in today’s interiors.
Founder and Creative Director of Product Development,
Colleen Stratton Martin is on a mission to bring back
the masterful designs she loves from the past to
make them accessible now and onward.
I recently caught up with the Creative Director
a few questions.
What is it about European inspired decor that thrills you?
Although I appreciate décor from many European countries, Norway, Austria, France, Italy — the thrill of Swedish pieces has my heart. Words people use to describe Swedish style include: elegance but calm, refined, simple, or pure.
I love how Swedish pieces have never gone out of style…
200 years and counting. They are lasting, enduring and inheritable due to their design.
Because they are not overly embellished,
you don’t get tired of the look.
Gustavian is my first love but I do like some Rococo pieces.
What sparked your passion for Swedish antiques?
I first decorated my homes in French antiques due to access as that was what was available in antique stores where I lived and as far as I could travel to antique shows. Keep in mind this was pre-Internet years so purchasing access was limited to as far as you could travel. Even though I lived in larger cities, Swedish antiques or reproductions were not available.
I loved the straight legs of Louis XVI. I have always been a huge shelter magazine reader so that is where I first saw Swedish pieces and then realized Swedish was where my true love was which was similar to French Louis XVI. In fact, today many people confuse Gustavian pieces as being French. (Complicated by King Gustav III who lived at Versailles for years around all the high-end French furniture.)
When the Internet made access easier, my passion for Swedish design intensified. As the Internet developed, one could see and purchase Swedish pieces in the US and Sweden. I enjoy studying about the makers in Stockholm and what they produced in 1770 to 1790. Finding one of their signed pieces is a thrill.
Was it difficult getting into the furniture crafting business?
Setting aside the financial resources needed, timing is everything in the ups and downs of the economy. Before 2008 it was a challenge for indy makers to get skilled furniture workers, or at least the best ones, because the major manufacturers employed them. When the US economy declined, employees by the thousands lost their jobs in North Carolina and their former employers took the work overseas.
That timing opened the doors for my entry into furniture production by allowing me to get the best skilled workers, however, furniture sales were at an all-time low with the instability of the financial and jobs markets. Compounding that was the collapse of the mortgage industry as many homeowners used home equity loans to finance furnishings, remodels or redecorating their homes.
If timing is everything, access is its equal.
I made the decision to commit to my passion of bringing back to life the design of original master cabinetmakers’ pieces to give access to those who loved pieces no longer available.
Sometimes you just have to do what you love or do it even if you work for free. You have to decide what you want on your tombstone. What do you want to be known for achieving?
I was a 55+ woman who had worked many decades in the business world. I decided to move ahead slowly with baby steps and I highly recommend that method. I encourage and support all women in their 50’s or 60’s not to let age limit them.
I started with getting my trademark in February of 2010. Once I started the baby steps, opportunities just fell into my lap.
You have heard the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention?” When I wanted new oval back dining chairs, I could not find any that I liked. I even purchased a chair from a major maker before committing to 12 and was very disappointed.
Most chairs I looked at were either too small or had no Swedish detail. Access to Swedish antique chairs was also impossible. Some of the beautiful antique pieces were too pricey to purchase or were now not in the size of today’s people and homes.
I didn’t want my husband to “perch” on the chair, I wanted him to comfortably sit in it. Americans are much bigger people now than Swedes were in 1790. So, I decided to make my own.
Can you explain the process of replicating an original
piece and the craftsmanship involved?
To acquire the designs, I purchased antique Swedish pieces in the US from major dealers and traveled to Sweden with a guide to fill a container.
For the most part, I own the original of what I reproduce. There are a few items in my line that my talented crew were able to duplicate just from a photo of the antique.
Having the original to look at when carving is best. Once you decide which piece you want to make, a CAD engineered drawing is made. From that a sample is created. It is either adjusted or is perfect and it goes into production.
My business model is to contract the production. To own a factory is a multi-million-dollar operation which I am not interested in. Contracting allows me to specialize as some makers are more highly skilled in making chairs, for instance, and others’ expertise is in tables or specialty hand carving.
My pieces are both hand carved and hand crafted in Maple, Ash or Cherry. When I see the pieces finished, I feel like the new mother of triplets! It is an incredible feeling and what fuels my passion.
Are your pieces in strictly traditional contexts
or eclectic ones as well?
Today, décor is all about the mix. What is fabulous about Swedish design is that it fits smoothly in any décor and very surprisingly with contemporary. Mix a couple pieces with an Italian table and French mirrors. Art work will pull it all together.
Tell us about your newest pieces!
All are made from antiques, however, I changed the proportions. I like my benches to be around 19” high so you can use them as seating at one side of a dining table. The original was 17.5” high which I felt was a little too short. I also added storage inside the Gustavian bench which was not in the antique because the frame supported the space for the storage area and it could easily hide placemats, tablecloths, magazines, etc. Both benches make my heart sing.
As a furniture “mother” I do admit I have favorites among my children. For October High Point market, I am making a “backless chair” or stool which I am already in love with. I enlarged it as well so it could be used in multiples on one side of a dining table if desired. I also sometimes add Italian silver leaf which was not on the antique just to be a little bit different and perhaps update the style.
The tufted barrel back chair needed to be made bigger as well and the seat higher up off the floor to fit today’s proportions. I find most antique Swedish chairs are not deep enough in the seat so I add a couple inches.
The Mora clock is a “looker” and what most people don’t know is that they are very difficult to make with all those curves. I put German clockworks inside as they are the best. This clock will definitely go in my own home. Also for October market we are making pairs of Demilune tables which are in high demand and so flexible to use in any room. Can’t wait to see these new “children.”
Tell us about your home and living with Swedish furnishings.
I only have one French piece left of all the pieces I thought I could never sell. I fell out of love with them. I changed from liking walnut brown wood furnishings to loving painted wood.
I have found that Swedish furnishings embrace you with calm in the plainer pieces and excite with the hand-carved details of the more elegant pieces. A good mix is essential.
As I have grown older, I changed from liking richer colors to loving white, pale blue/greens and greys. When I was young I thought why people had white interiors was because they couldn’t make up their mind on a color. Now I know better. I am in good company with the thousands who love white. Performance fabrics have made living with white totally attainable.
I made the finishes on Swede Collection pieces to blend seamlessly with antiques. Unless you have an expert eye, you probably couldn’t tell the difference. Making the new pieces allows me to fill in the blanks smoothly where unattainable pieces can’t go.
Changing out my décor slowly over time with Swedish pieces has given me great peace. When you love how your house looks and you feel good inside your home, that is happiness. Plus a cat!
What advice would you give someone who has just
begun to collect fine furniture?
If you have reached the fine furniture place, most likely you have made a decision on lasting, enduring quality. Go slow. Collect over a long period of time. Not everything you love will be available to you all at once. It is that “access” thing. Look at price only as a guide not your primary deciding factor. I don’t want to know the price until after the piece meets my other requirements.
Try to purchase once — fabulous items of quality that sing to your heart. You can resell a well-made piece. Also, don’t purchase each piece because it is a “star”. A room looks best with a mix of simple pieces that rest the eyes. Too much ornamentation is just too much. That is why people love Swedish pieces as many of them are calm and don’t fight for attention.
Keep in mind your likes will change with age, knowledge and experience. An important step is to understand furniture quality and what to look for. Education is key. Some high-end brands market their brand as exclusive but make crap. We’ve all seen their double page ads. I have seen a big maker sell a chair for several thousand dollars that has no hand work detail [where the production expense is] that cost them $40 to have made in Indonesia.
The more you know to be an educated buyer the better you will be in purchasing. Ask a million questions. One thing most people don’t know is that a furniture plant often makes pieces for multiple brands. The same workers make the goods.
Thank you, Colleen, for sharing your expertise
and artistry with all of us admirers of timeless style.
Learn more about Swede Collection on their site
and find select pieces at Dering Hall.
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Peace to you right where you are.
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