Apartment With the Brass Cube
The Scandinavian architecture firm Claesson Koivisto Rune infuses its pared-back aesthetic with warmth, lightness and a bit of good humor, all of which are on display in this home in Stockholm.
Ola Rune arrived at the apartment by bicycle, looking very much like your archetypal Scandinavian designer: funky glasses, drop-crotch pants, a strangely bulky synthetic scarf wrapped around his neck. “It’s a Hovding,” he said, which I later discover is a Swedish-made bike helmet that inflates a split-second before a collision, like an air bag. Rune is a founding partner of Claesson Koivisto Rune, one of the most influential architecture and design practices in Scandinavia, and he has chosen this apartment, in a stately neighborhood above Stockholm’s Humlegarden park, to show off his firm’s handiwork.
The apartment, in a fin-de-siècle building on a street filled with embassies, is owned by Ursula, an Austrian transplant to Stockholm, and her Swedish husband. (Private and press-shy, Ursula has only shared her first name for this article.) He’s a management consultant, she’s in finance — they both have frenzied work lives and wanted an apartment that would be a cozy sanctum, a place that radiates ruhig, which, Ursula explains, is German for quiet, still, serene.
The layout is L-shaped. Rune first viewed this as a limitation, until he and his partners decided to divide the apartment’s two segments into private and public spaces, which fuse together at a kitchen that’s also a sort of salon. Here they hid all the kitchen appliances and storage in two blocky custom-built islands — one in white Corian, the other in smudgy brass — and, to face them, placed a little sofa by the Danish designerFinn Juhl. The piece sits atop a circular grass-green shag rug, where Ursula and her husband’s two young children play and sometimes take naps.
One imagines stopping by the house on a random weeknight for dinner. Ursula is still cooking. (“I’m always late when I cook,” she said, “so I wanted a kitchen where I could face my guests, talk to them, and not feel too rushed.”) You take your drink to the sofa and watch as the children gleefully ride tricycles through the apartment.
Bikes inside? This is quite a dispensation on any wood floor, but especially on these giant soaped planks of Douglas fir, which measure up to 40 feet in length. The planks are so long that they had to be inserted into the apartment by crane, through a side window. “Most people wouldn’t notice how the wood doesn’t break — it’s continuous,” Rune said. “But once you know it, it’s a luxury, it’s a treasure.”
After first seeing such flooring at the Saatchi Gallery in London, Ursula learned ofDinesen, the Danish company that sells them, and of how they are harvested from 200-foot trees in the south of Germany. “The trees are descendents of the Douglas firs imported to Europe from the Western United States in the 19th century,” said Ursula, who is that kind of homeowner — she wants to know all the details. And that’s exactly how Claesson Koivisto Rune prefers it.
“When we meet clients with strong personal ideas about their life, we are able to be even more creative, and the result of the project becomes both more personal and characteristic at the same time,” said Rune, 50. “We make some kind of bond, which feels like their apartment also become ours.”
Claesson Koivisto Rune was founded in 1995, shortly after the trio graduated fromKonstfack, the prestigious Stockholm design school where they met. There they became fast friends, often closing bars with late-night conversations about architecture, design and music. Today the three partners think of each other almost as brothers. Eero Koivisto, 56, and Marten Claesson, 44, even look something alike; both have shaved heads and dress only in dark clothes.
CKR’s breakout project was the Sfera Building in Kyoto, Japan, completed in 2003. This tall, narrow “culture house” for the Japanese product designer Shigeo Mashiro contains three restaurants, an art gallery and a shop. It is situated in Kyoto’s traditional district, Gion, and alludes in its design to the bamboo sunscreens that shade the area’s ancient wood houses. In CKR’s version, the shade, made from perforated titanium, becomes the facade of the building. Light streams in to form transfixing patterns that are shaped like the leaves of cherry trees. In 2006, the project was selected for the Biennale of Architecture in Venice, launching CKR’s international profile.
The firm has since designed everything from USB flash drives to the Swedish ambassador’s residence in Berlin. In every case, they pursue the functionalism associated with much of Scandinavian design, but manage to infuse it with wit and good cheer. One of their recent series of upholstered chairs, made for the Italian brand Arflex, has armrests angled upward and outward, as if reaching out for an embrace; it’s called Hug.
CKR’s multidisciplinary portfolio — which includes Stockholm’s plush Nobis Hotel, as well as shampoo bottles, salt shakers and cellphones — is central to its identity, and, the founders say, a bit of a throwback. “One of the big mistakes architects made was to give away furniture to the product designers,” Koivisto said at the European Design Symposium a few years ago. “We have furniture today that looks like Smart cars or toothbrushes. But furniture always exists in an architectural context.”
In Ursula and her husband’s apartment, that context is one of lightness and tranquility: creamy gray walls, those sweeping soaped floors, an unstructured sofa byPiero Lissoni plopped smack in the middle of the vast living room. The only real artworks in the apartment are two funky chairs suspended from the walls — one by Markus Hofer that’s also a clock and one by Philipp Schweiger that looks like a pair of sunglasses. Behind the floating spectacles, in the corner, Schweiger bent and then painted a piece of steel, making the wall look warped, as if it could be peeled back like parchment.
This elegant trippiness pops up elsewhere. The kitchen is connected to an airy minimalist bedroom by a long hallway wardrobe that’s draped in heavy curtains (walking through, you feel like you’re lost backstage). In the master bathroom, a giant soup bowl of a tub by the Italian company Agape is framed by a narrow wall covered in a puzzle of mismatched blue and white Portuguese tiles.
CKR’s thoughtful approach to design is not only reserved for its privileged clients. For several years, the firm worked with a social entrepreneurship company to develop a compact stove, made from recycled aluminum, that could replace the extraordinarily inefficient and dangerous three-stone cooking method used throughout Africa and other parts of the developing world. The World Health Organization estimates that preparing food this way indoors — on rocks, over a smoldering flame — is linked to the premature deaths of more than 4 million people each year.
The trapezoidal replacement stove that CKR came up with, which went on sale in Kenya for $25 last year, requires a third of the wood consumed by a three-stone fire and dramatically cuts down the amount of harmful smoke produced. But, crucially, it does not require changing the essential culture of cooking, crouched over an open fire, that has been a custom in Kenya for centuries. This pragmatic approach brings to mind the designer Erik Adigard’s idea that good design connects the dots between survival and humanism. But for Rune and his partners, it sprang from an even simpler philosophy. “Whenever there is something we need to solve, we try to find an existing solution,” he said. “If not, we design it ourselves.”