The stripped-down, pale palette of Swedish style is very now, very Nineties, in Britain. But, says Nonie Niesewand, it is a the look that is more than 200 years old
e British tend to think of all things Swedish - from Strindeberg to stripped pine, from group sex to saunas - as modern, but an interiors exhibition at the V&A, "Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style", sponsored by Ikea, reminds us that Sweden has a history.

The title of the exhibition is misleading, for Swedish style as we know it and paractice it in our homes today, goes father back into the 18th century.

Muslin drapes over the chaise longue, painted floorboards and rag rugs, pickled and limed furniture and cafe curtains halfway across the window, may beautifully capture the current mood of simplicity, but they have their origins in the Gustavian period.

Gustavian style was the forefunner of the pared-down simplicity that we associate with Swedish style. The Louis look, borrowed from France, had been all the rage in the 1700s, until Sweden fell upon hard times. Then out went all the gilt and opulence, and in came more muted colours, more spare outlines. The wood-frame chairs that stood against the pale grey walls in fashionable Stockholm drawing-rooms were no longer gilded, but rubbed down with grey paint. Benches with finely-turned legs and lyre backs were upholstered in plain weaves or stripes. Linen, cotton and canvas took the place of rich fabrics. Wide floorboards were painted in shades of golden and dark brown to imitate light-oak parquet.

By the time King Gustav took the throne in 1771, a tradition of painted decoration in buttermilk and Baltic blue, peppermint and pale grey was firmly established. Ornamental motifs, laurels and florals adorned the roughened walls of even the most modest cottage.

Now, more than 200 years on, Ikea is doing a brisk trade in Britain, flat-packing the Swedish lifestyle. It was in 1994 that the simplified neo-classical lines of Gustavian furniture, with its planed-down flourishes, caught the company's imagination. It launched in England a modern version of Gustavian furniture and furnishings - tables, chairs, four-poster bed, mirrors, sconces, fabrics, 47-piece self-assembly chandeliers - and brought craftsmanship into the machine age.

This took a while to perfect, and was achieved with the help of Lars Sjoberg, head curator of the Swedish National Museum at the Medevi Spa outside Stockholm. You can get a fine sense of the real thing from his book, The Swedish Room, which has good, workmanlike captions and an archival knowledge of the interiors.

Then, should you decide to reproduce the look in your own home, for each piece you buy from its Gustavian range, Ikea will make a contribution to the preservation of 18th-century furniture on display at Medevi Spa.

The fabrics in the range simply replicate the original check and handblocked prints at less than pounds 12 a metre, but prices generally are rather higher than we have come to expect from Ikea. The Skattmasno four-poster from Ekebyholm Mano is pounds 1,190, the Medevi Brun armchair with upholstered arms is pounds 575, and the Svenskund three-seater sofa pounds 1,250.

The launch of this collection was timely, coming just at that moment when English-country-house style, with its swags and pelmets and special paint-effects, its fringes and furbelows, was giving way to something cleaner and less cluttered.

A bold TV ad campaign urged us to chuck out the chintz and, it seems, that we did so in our numbers. Swedish style for the Nineties was launched.

Colefax & Fowler, the traditional English decorating house, responded by acquiring the distribution in Europe of Jack Lenor Larsen fabrics, which are coolly architectural and plain, with all the interest in the weave and not the pattern.

A pale pallete in natural woods, uncomplex shapes with form dictated by function, is the essence of Swedish-style furniture. And for a valuable reference, you need look no further than the foreword to Katrin Cargill's book, Swedish Style. "Drape a plain muslin swag at the window. Put a coat of paint on a shabby old piece of furniture. For skirtings, floors and window frames use the distinctive pale grey that has come to be associated with the Swedish look. Reduce rather than add to the room. Choose furniture and accessories that are simple but functional. Position them carefully."

From the rather different style of Swedish painter Carl Larsson (1853- 1919), we may wish to take only so much. At the V&A, five room-sets, including Carl Larsson's bedroom, the studio and library, show all the original furniture and fittings from his house, Lilla Hyttnas, now a museum, two hours' drive from Stockholm at Sundborn. They reveal that the comfortable family life he had there was quite a departure for the 19th century, and that, in style, he was Sweden's answer to the Arts and Crafts movement. Larsson adopted the local woodcraft and pattern and colour. "If it doesn't move, paint it," was his motto. A century later, we're not going to go home and slavishly copy his approach. All that applied art, homespun fabric, clunky furniture and tongued-and-grooved dado boarding is pretty dated. So are the irritating little homilies that Larsson painted on the walls in typical Philip Webb fashion. Above the front door, he painted, "Welcome, dear friend, to the house of Carl Larsson and his spouse."

At the V&A, you can sit at a repro table in the drawing room to leaf through his book, Et Hemm, published in 1899 in which he expressed the immodest hope that it might serve "as a good example for people who feel a need to decorate their homes in a pleasant way". Over 300 exhibits illustrate the Larsson home-life, including photographs, textiles and watercolours which popularised his style. Unpretentious is the word for it. And cosy, not to say fusty. Gingham and geraniums, rag rugs and woollen throws, baskets and bread crocks in an old settled place, with tables scoured to pale straw colour, a cast-iron range and enamelled wood-burning stove, and with the gentle austerity brightened, here and there, with blue-and-white- striped loose covers and sprigged china.

Take the dining room, which Larsson depicted in a painting titled Old Anna in 1898. In it, the bustle-skirted retainer may be seen in the kitchen, framed in the open door to the dining-room. About as dated as the notion of a servant is the furnishing shipped over and assembled in the V&A room set with tongue-and-groove dado-height red boards on the walls, shelves on brackets above it supporting a china collection, greenish rag-rolled walls painted with branches of fir and birch. A little scrolled banner like a fanlight above the door bears the biblical quotation, in Swedish, "Love one another, little children, for love is all."

As style-arbiter Sir Terence Conran concedes, "The detailing can sometimes be twee", but he also warns that, "By placing the Swedish painter Carl Larsson in the context of what happened to the course of Scandanavian talent post-war is, for me, a speculative process."

You got it, he's unimportant in the grand sceheme of design and decoration. But enjoy his watercolours of family life at the turn of the century, and the comfy casualness of his museum-piece interiors

`Carl and Karin Larsson, Creators of the Swedish Style', V&A Publications, pounds 35; `The Swedish Room', by Lars and Ursula Sjoberg, Frances Lincoln, pounds 25; `Swedish Style', by Katrin Cargill, Frances Lincoln, pounds 20; `New Swedish Style', by Sasha Waddell, Conran Octopus, pounds 14.99 This simple bed design (above) is made by extending a wooden pole from the wall and draping white muslin over it and both ends of the

bed; bold colours such as the blue, green and white used in this stairwell (top right) were later taken up by the Arts and Crafts movement

Clockwise from top right: this high-cut bed is a typical Swedish design and should be made up with embroidered bed linen for authenticity; the formally arranged furniture, clear space and grey panelled walls are all combined in an 18th-century dining room; the porch and part of the west front of the Larsson's cottage; `Father's Room' by Carl Larsson, watercolour, 1894-97, depicts Larsson in his own bedroom, which is virtually entirely filled with painted in-built furniture