Chrystina Schmidt and Magnus England are the It couple of Scandinavian design in London. Schmidt, who is Finnish, and England, who is Swedish, are - appropriately - purveyors of what we have come to know as "Scandinavian style", and have been selling modernist furniture, ceramics, lighting and glass from their shop Skandium for eight years. Scandinavian style is, of course, a nebulous expression which is used by style magazines and property shows to describe anything from bendy plywood chairs to open-plan living spaces. Whether anyone really knows what it means is mere detail next to its almost effortless evocation of a fantasy lifestyle of lakes, summer-houses and never-ending daylight hours. Sometimes it feels as if it was all invented just to torment us.
Partners in life as well as business, Schmidt and England live in a small rented flat in central London. It is understated and chic with flashes of vibrant colour - rather like their shop. In fact it looks a hell of a lot like the shop, as almost everything in it is on sale there: the Alvar Aalto chairs, the Eero Saarinen table, the Marimekko fabric on the wall. It's not surprising - no doubt Sir Terence's home is full of things from The Conran Shop - but still it's a reassuringly glowing endorsement of what they believe in. Because - putting cynicism and mental exclamation marks aside for a moment - Skandium is supposed to be more than a shop; it's meant to be a way of life. An aspirational way of life, that is. The modernist gems they sell from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland are elegant and desirable, and while you may gasp at the price tags, what you get are well-made, useful items, such as comfortable chairs and heavy-duty saucepans, that will last a lifetime.
"Scandinavian modernism was created by great thinkers who were pioneers for social renewal and a more just society," Schmidt explains. "The essence was to produce ordinary things for better everyday living. It was considered very bourgeois to have a Sunday dinner set. They thought you should have the same glass for water, wine and coffee" (though presumably rinsed in-between). Fortunately things have relaxed a little since then - Skandium sells wine glasses and coffee mugs - but durability and versatility are still very much at the heart of what they do. Schmidt looks around her living room. There are simple white storage units by Asplund, and a Pia Wallen Crux blanket is folded over a chair. "We don't need show-off pieces. This furniture just works." Patting the armrest of her bentwood Alvar Aalto Tank chair, she says: "Through time you become good friends with these pieces. They serve you well."
But these friends, as mentioned, don't come cheap. A Tank chair in zebra fabric, for instance, will set you back 2,500. People rarely just pop into the shop and decide on the spot to buy a modern classic. Most of their customers have been dreaming about owning these things for years, and only occasionally does someone turn up with a long list wanting the lot. Not that she's against that. The inspiration to set up Skandium came from a trip home and a visit to an iittala shop in Finland. The couple realised that there was nowhere in London you could buy its colourful kitchenware. "I found furniture shops very boring and soulless," says Schmidt. "We wanted to create one which was like a candy store, one which captured the youthful spirit of modernism." From this starting point, they became the exclusive UK agents for cult textile brand Marimekko and now stock, among others, Nordic favourites Sandberg, Woodnotes and Louis Poulsen.
It's not the kind of shop you go into if you're looking for something with ornate flourishes and decoration. In fact, some of the criticism levelled at the couple comes from the apparent simplicity of the items on sale. At this, Schmidt rushes in from the kitchen clutching a stainless steel teapot. "People ask me: 'How can you sell a teapot for 200?' I say, 'Well if it was so simple how come it has never been copied?' " Arne Jacobsen's Cylinda Line teapot may look basic, but that belies its complex engineering. Drawn in the late 1950s, it wasn't produced until 1967, after four years spent tinkering with a dripping spout. "That level of dedication and care to create the perfect product doesn't happen now," she says.
So what do people who come in off the street buy? "Moomin mugs!" she exclaims. "They just walk out the door." The Moomins are white hippo-like characters from children's books by the Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. The stories are philosophical and quite reflective, "gloomy even," says Schmidt, "but then that's part of the Nordic psyche." In terms of nostalgia, they are to the Finns rather like Peter Rabbit is to us. And at 15 they are entry-level goods, the first baby steps towards a grown-up Skandium life of log cabins, reindeer, and ice-fishing before breakfast.
Reining in the Scandi-lite dreams for a second, Schmidt turns the conversation to the subject of quality. All the classics they sell are original reproductions made in the same workshops they always were, though nowadays she notes wryly, "with better glue". The pieces hold their value and can always be sold later at auction. Provided they're genuine. Want to know if your Saarinen table is a fake? It should have a silver stamp underneath with his name and the date, and the edge of the table isn't a blunt cut, it should slope under. "It's a malady of modern society that everything should be accessible to all," she says defiantly. "When it comes to price, it's linked to care and quality."
One imagines it must have been a dark day for Skandium when McDonald's announced it would be putting vinyl-covered Arne Jacobsen Swan and Egg chairs in its restaurants. But it's obviously a sensitive issue and stays off-limits today.
It is inevitable, though, that the subject of a rather large Swedish self-assembly furniture manufacturer comes up. One of the most recognisable items in the Skandium shop is the three-legged Artek stool designed by Alvar Aalto in 1933 - it costs 105. There is a similar one on the market for 7. Schmidt is quick to point out it is made from cheaper materials. "It's a tatty little thing which quickly goes wobbly." She admires the original in her living room: "It's pleasing to the eye, it doesn't pollute the space and it has durability."
This month the couple launch their second Skandium shop (their first is on Marylebone High Street) on London's Brompton Road, just round the corner from Harrods. There's a difference. Here they will sell a broader product range - not just Scandinavian modernism but pieces from companies such as Knoll, Vitra and Cassina. The new shop is very much in the spirit of the original but it is bigger (and almost intimidatingly cool). Beautiful objects, beautifully displayed, with - it should be noted - rather beautiful people wandering about. England, who was pivotal in the set-up of the new shop, has a sharp eye. There is a fetishistic perfection to the finish, making it somewhere between a furniture shop and a design museum. But that essential sweet-shop element is still there, with the largest selection of iittala pieces in the country. And while style aficionados can drool over the Florence Knoll sofa, considered one of the most beautiful sofas of all time, we can all walk in boldly, safe in the knowledge that we don't have to leave empty-handed. There will always be a Moomin mug looking for a home.Reuse content