Swedish Gustavian furniture may look very familiar… It is a pared down version of French Louis XVI, one of the most admired and imitated interior styles in the world. And from a hugely controversial period in French history. It is also our favourite home decor style of all styles. The Gustavian which oozes charm and formality was invented by Sweden’s King Gustav III in the late 18th Century. Gustav was a well-travelled connoisseur, impressed by the splendour of the palace of Versaille.
The King was keen on French literature, design and creativity which took him to Paris. After one visit to the French capital, he decided to introduce his home to the glamour of French interior. And he started with his own palaces. But he understood the look had to be adapted to Scandinavian sensibilities. Many refer to the style as Swedish Country Classic, but to most Scandinavians it is a bit more than that. It’s elegant, pastel coloured and delicately carved.
Gustavian Furniture – Swedish Country Style explained
The showy glitz and glamour became a high boheme version for the Swedish castles of the 18th and 19th Centuries. And to fit in with the middle classes it was pared down even further. Indeed, there is even a peasant version. That’s the the kitchen bonket seating, which is the trademark look of the farm labourer of 19th Century Scandinavia.
The beauty of Gustavian is that it oozes charm wherever it features: whether it is in a castle or a cottage. Trademark design detail includes stripes and checks, ceramic stoves with gleaming titles, the tall Mora clock, a pale palette and distressed glamour.
Above is my picture of a beautiful, original Gustavian sofa bench – 18th century. It is patina grey and featuring the amazing carving round the edges and legs. I spotted it at the Lots Road auction house in Chelsea, London this week (February 2023) where it was lot number 163 in the Sunday sale.
An original Gustavian piece of furniture is a rarity – and this one if simply gorgeous and classic. The estimated price is £2,500 – £3,500.
The picture above shows the stunning carving around the edge of the original 18th century Gustavian sofa bench (and daybed). It’s symmetrical and intricate, and with its soft rounded patters it’s the perfect contrast with the angular design of the bench (see above for a full image of the piece).
The Gustavian style is very familiar to Scandi Boho – check HERE. It’s a style that is in huge demand today with prices rocketing. An original Gustavian side table – very hard to come by – can sell for thousands. But the market for Gustavian replicas has also expanded hugely. Some original pieces can be somewhat fragile, therefore reproductions are a more practical investment. Young city dwellers love the style.
Gustavian Living – Understated Grandeur and Shabby Chic
This also marks some differences in Swedish and Danish trends. The Danes are famed for their clean lines and minimalist architecture. The Swedes harbour the more casual shabby chic style – thanks partly to Gustav III. But in both countries young professionals mix it up. Boxy living space furnished with tables and chairs featuring delicately carved legs and armrests. This old style is pared with modern accessories – flat screens, art, hi and wi-fi that contrasts.
At DU we are hugely in favour of mixing it up. It’s our favourite look: simple shined up with a bit of grandeur. Check how we’ve matched simple white curtains with heavy, glamorous, tasseled tiebacks – found in a charity shop for a tenth of retail price. Utterly adorable and Gustav III would, no doubt, thoroughly approve. We’re so thrilled with our find we’ve written a post on shopping for interior pieces in charity shops here.
Frequently asked Questions about Gustav and Gustavian Style
What is Gustavian furniture?
Gustavian furniture refers to a style of furniture and interior decor which started in Sweden around 1770 by King Gustav III. The King visited the Palace of Versailles and admired the decor and French neoclacissism. He was so taken in that he brought back ideas to Sweden, adapting the style to Scandinavian sensibilities.
Who was King Gustav?
Gustav III was king of Sweden from 1771 until he was assassinated during a masked ball in 1792. He was a dandy, an aesthete of his day. Although he seized total control of Sweden from the government when he became king, he did so in order to return more power to the people from the nobility. He thought the elite were abusing their political power and privileges.
What was King Gustav III most famous for?
He gave his name to the Scandinavian interiors style which is one of the most sought after styles in the world to this day. Original pieces of Gustavian furniture retain or increase their value. But he was also the first neutral head of state in the world to recognise the United States of America during its war of independence from the United Kingdom.
Paris of the North
How did he become associated with interiors?
Gustav was well read and an art lover. He was patron of the arts. A leading international influencer of 18th century art, literature and drama. A keen writer, he wrote plays and was a keen promoter of Swedish singers and actors. He loved all things French, hence his admiration for French interiors and literature.
What were King Gustav III’s main achievements?
Although he became an absolute ruler, he returned more power to the people after years of what he saw as abuse of power by the nobility in Sweden. He modernised the country by importing foreign styles. Most notably he imported the French Louis XVI style and turned Sweden into a cultural hub. Stockholm was and is so sophisticated and architecturally beautiful that it was nicknamed the “Paris of the North”. He is credited with the building of several theatres and founding a national theatre company.
The Gustavian Chair
Gustavian furniture is pure style and elegance. Chairs are the defining pieces in the Gustavian family of furniture with their delicately carved, columned legs. There’s a distinctive, refined feminine elegance to the chairs – a lightness and an almost gravity defying quality to them. Sometimes the legs and the rest of the woodwork are gently gilded for added glamour. Fabrics are usually plain colours – shades of grey, white and cream or striped. Rarely floral or other patterns.
In fact, the Gustavian style is almost the opposite of Scandi and Danish ‘hygge‘ which has taken the world by storm. While hygge is about cosiness, relaxing, chilling, and focusing on the inner life, Gustavian style is about refinement and elegance. Read more about ‘hygge’ and how to live like “the happiest people in the world” here.
Pieces that look as if they float on air
The Gustavian style is a mix of styles and interpretations. It’s a mix of the ostentatious French court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Regency and the pared down Scandi aesthetic. It is formal meets country style. How remarkable three so different styles merged successfully into the distinctive Gustavian look. That look is more popular than ever.
Gustavian dining chairs are the defining pieces of the popular Swedish interior style, but the Gustavian bench is a close second. The bench is an iconic piece, instantly recognisable. Again, it’s the elegant cut and the shape of the legs and narrow foot which which makes the piece look as if it’s floating on air.
Sometimes the bench will have six or eight such legs rather than the standard four. The armrests on Gustavian benches are unique in the way they are as high up as the back rest. This is perhaps more suited to 18th Century salon life than busy millennial living in the age of working from home and NetFlix. The colour scheme is the same as for chairs. They’re pale grey and white/cream with upholstery in plain colour or striped – sometimes check patterned.
The Gustavian Bed
As with tables and chairs, Gustavian beds are ultra elegant. They too rest on finely cut column legs which are narrow at the foot and give the impression the bed is floating on air. An original Gustavian bed is a rare find and expensive – a single daybed fetches up to £6,000 or £5,700. But prices are often “on application”, because they are so unique and collectable. Headboards – without the rest of the bed – change hands for $3,000 a piece. The design of a Gustavian bed is unfussy. It’s simple lines with a small detail or motif, for instance a flower cut into the wood or a crest-like design on top of the headboard.
Beds come in different styles – the cane back bed, the sleigh bed, four posters, scoop leg, roundel or the daybed. The design symmetry is almost mathematical with pure Scandinavian lines running horizontally and vertically. Like its French over-the-top “cousin” the Gustavian bed is ornate, but in a completely different way. Details and decorations are minimal, but all the more effective some might argue, for their understatement.
There is also the daybed which is a close relation to the Gustavian style. The daybed is a versatile bed/sofa which can be dressed up as either – a place to relax while still being sociable. Read more about the daybed here.
The Gustavian dining room is pure elegance. Soft colour scheme is soft – erring on the side of feminine. But mix it up. The lightness of the look: cushions tied to the backs with large bows, chandeliers, tall candlesticks and neatly folded napkins. It is a beautiful look – romantic, even. But for a more generic, all-season dining room in the Gustavian mold, mix country style with high Gustavian. Take a solid, rustic dining table – any period, no tablecloth – and team it up with Gustavian chairs and unfussy tableware to achieve a sophisticated high bohemian feel. Let the base, or the foundation, do the heavy lifting, such as the chunky table, and build with Gustavian accessories.
The Gustavian Desk
The Gustavian desk is a thing of beauty. The period look matched with the clean Scandinavian lines which change the piece from furniture to art. It is standard Gustavian fixture that adds character to any room. It is also a throw-back to a time when letter writing and non-computer and iPad activities were in vogue.
Spin-Off Gustavian Style
Summed up in one word: Elegance. King Gustav of Sweden, who already had an educated eye for design and fashion, took the best of French grandeur and gave it the Scandi treatment. He applied it to our sense of simplicity and functionality, as well as our economies. But there is a difference between Gustavian and “Gustavian Style”: Gustavian is the original piece brought to Sweden from France by King Gustav in the 18th Century. “Gustavian Style” is the child of Gustavian. It was pre-eminent in the mid to late 19th Century.
It is a style that evolved as it spread throughout Sweden and to the rest of Scandinavia. As a result of shifting away from the capital and into the country, it got pared down and became a version of the original. While Stockholm’s elite could afford the real deal, the middle classes in the outskirts of Stockholm and other major cities ordered less elaborate pieces. Eventually, and landowners and farmers caught up, the style was adapted to their more modest homes. However, the way the look has evolved over the last 2-300 years is testament to the popularity and versatility of the style. For more on how to achieve the Scandi minimal and clean look, read also our blog How to Give Your Living Room the Scandi Makeover.
A Look that’s available to everybody
Today the Gustavian look is available to everybody, not just the urban elites. Even Ikea, the Swedish self-assembly mega brand, has created their own Gustavian versions with great success. So big is the demand for Gustavian furniture that it even pays to make some of those reproduction pieces limited edition. Still, Gustavian is the most durable, versatile and investable of styles on the market today – and, arguably, the most beautiful.