SWEDISH ART GLASS 2
ANDRES LASZLO JR.
In 1991 I wrote Svenskt Konstglas. It was an exorbitantly expensive coffee-table book, designed to make: 1. Myself rich (enough to embark on my all-those-things-a-man-should-have-done project), and 2. My fellow Swedes aware that Orrefors art glass 1925 – 1950 (apart from the Vikings’ wood and silver artefacts) is the only thing we Swedes have ever, at least undisputedly, been best at, when it comes to arts and crafts. VIDEO
Though the book failed to make the Swedes look after this part of their cultural heritage any better - a really good piece sold on auction is still likely not only to go abroad but also to sell for an (in my opinion) ludicrously low price - the book did succeed in fulfilling its other purpose; it became popular, and I have now started to fiddle with a new edition, because:
- My book Svenskt Konstglas, when published in 1991 became popular and the fact that it (in its poshest version) even today on occasion fetches close to $200 in the second-hand market suggests that an upgraded version could find some demand.
- Some of Svenskt Konstglas' attraction allegedly came from the book's narrative style – in parts it reads like a work of fiction – and writing fiction is precisely what its author has dedicated himself to for the last 20 years.
- Much of what is said in the original text is no longer valid, and esp. what is said about the prices paid at auction needs an upgrade. Much has happened in the Swedish art glass market - glass unmentioned in the book has become popular, and some glass that used to be in demand has been forgotten - and therefore collectors, investors, and auctioneers with an interest in Swedish glass could be well served by some more recent information.
- Stockholms Auktionsverk has held a successful auction of “The Crawford Collection” and then "A New York Museum Collection," and they have since sold several pieces at prices suggesting that interest may be increasing. This seems corroborated by a renewed interest in Swedish glass from abroad and good prices have been reported from Wrights Auctions (Chicago), Christie's (London) and Phillips de Pury & Co (London). It could be that at least one of these auction houses might be interested in some form of cooperation.
Against this background, as I am launching myself and my father online in e-publishing, I figured that making an improved and updated version of Svenskt Konstglas – including new photos, new price information, new stories and suggested new trends/artists to invest in – could be a good idea. I have started out on this project with the intention of leaving as many options as possible open.
- First I made sure that I owned all the rights to my book Svenskt Konstglas.
- I then scanned the book and "OCRed" it, separating texts from illustrations.
- Next I started out on restoring Svenskt Konstglas to its original state, only now as a digital book, all while correcting mistakes, eliminating stupidities and making some improvements when obvious/called for, yet always keeping the page-brakes so as to allow for the possibility for a new printed “original but improved” paper edition. I am in the process of doing this (actually, right now I'm pausing), and once I am finished (if that ever happens), it is my intention to stash it away as "an improved digital version of Svenskt Konstglas in Swedish," ready to be turned into any of several possible formats.
- Once this is done, if I get interest from a publisher, I intend to replace much text and photos with new and to bring it all up to date by bridging the quarter of a century that has passed since Svenskt Konstglas was published.
- This new text, I believe, could be a good seller both as (i) An e-book (in a reduced version), helping the bargain-hunter, the collector, the auctioneer and the investor, and (ii) An upmarket printed coffee-table book (just as the original).
- I have also considered an English or bilingual version (maybe even an English/German).
INTRODUCTION TO SWEDISH ART GLASS 2:
(Please think of ”Ten Little Indians”)
‘Those are from Orrefors and excellent examples of Danish Design at its best,’ said Lou, the pretty Chinese guide, to her group of ten rich Indian business tourists. While explaining this, she was, quite ecstatically, pointing at a pair of Anne Nilsson candlesticks on display in the exclusive crystal shop. ‘And this week there’s a special on all Danish Design, and if you explain that you are with me, you’ll get an additional ten percent off.’
It was eleven o’clock in the morning, and I was strolling along inside the Ocean Galleries right next to the Star Ferry in Hong Kong with Lou and her Indian business tourists. I had been out with Lou the previous night, and when she’d offered me to tag along on her guided tour of the galleries the next morning, I had been delighted to accept. I knew that Lou had a percentage on whatever her tourists purchased in the crystal shop, so I figured I’d better set her right.
‘Those candlesticks are Swedish,’ I whispered, ‘from Orrefors; Orrefors is in Sweden and Sweden doesn’t belong to Denmark. You can take my word for it because I’ve even written a book about Orrefors.’
‘Miss Lou is quarreling with her Swedish boyfriend! He has written a book about Danish Design even though Orrefors is Swedish!’ exclaimed an annoying businesswoman from Kolkata.
‘We are not quarreling!’ Lou angrily answered, turning to the eavesdropping lady and the rest of her group, ‘this is André Lasso, he has written a book on Orrefors,’ she continued. ‘Orrefors is Swedish but when it comes to arts and crafts, Sweden is sort of a part of Denmark. I realize that this might seem a bit strange, but I’m sure mister Lasso will be happy to explain.’
Ten minutes later I found myself, in a cafeteria, surrounded by ten Indian business tourists and my pretty guide. All, especially Lou – who glared at me with a saccharine smile – expected me to explain why Orrefors crystal was really Danish Design.
‘Orrefors is not a Danish company, it is Swedish,’ I explained, ‘a Swedish honorary counsel bought it over a hundred years ago. Actually, he bought the forests surrounding the glassworks and at the time it’s quite possible that he didn’t even realize there was a little glassworks in his forest. But, whether he initially knew about the glassworks or not, he soon got ambitious. He modernized the facilities, he gave the master glassblower time off for experimentation, and he employed properly educated designers. These were unusual measures in the early twentieth century, but the counsel probably figured that as long as he got his profit from the surrounding forest, he could afford to run the glassworks with no other ambition than to produce beautiful artifacts. All this resulted in a great atmosphere, and with the World Fair in Paris 1925 Orrefors took over from the French as the world’s leading glassworks. Thus Orrefors’ climb to world fame was built on a desire to produce beauty for the sake of beauty rather than a desire to make a profit. That’s an approach to business and a philosophy that I like a lot.’
One of the business tourists seemed to get a piece of apple pie stuck in his throat; the man looked quite offended, ‘There is nothing wrong about trying to make a profit!’ he exclaimed as he stood up, ‘And I’m not at all sure that honorary counsel of yours was in it for nothing but beauty! With those words the man left, giving a loud cough.
‘So Orrefors was the best!’ Lou encouraged, ‘They must be a very good investment,’ she added, blinking knowingly at the well-heeled tourists.
“Orrefors was the best in the world,” I continued, “and they kept that position from 1925 to 1950. They had great skill, had outstanding artists, they invented a lot of new techniques, and in addition, it seems they had a comradeship – the “Orrefors spirit” we call it in Sweden – which was something really special.”
Lou continued to smile encouragingly, ‘And now they’ve got this double special offer for just you.’
And, in producing great glass, they pulled a whole lot of other Swedish arts and craft companies – and not only glassworks – along with them. Orrefors’ success was the main force behind the concept of “Swedish Crystal, ” and they also contributed to the birth of “Swedish Grace” and later “Swedish Modern.” In 1939 – just before the start of World War II, at the World Fair in New York – Swedish Modern was on everybody’s lips and Swedish Design, with Orrefors in the front line, was the hottest ticket in town. Then World War II – where Sweden got off so lightly that it could emerge as one of the world’s leading industrial nations despite our rather small population – came along.’
One of the Indians muttered something about that he would oversleep the next day unless he got his siesta, and left the company. ‘There’s nothing wrong with a country having a big population,’ he muttered. ‘Because in the end, such a country will always and inevitably become more powerful than a small one.’
‘I bet they couldn’t keep it up,’ said one of the eight remaining Indians, ‘because to me it seems that Orrefors were just lucky and as if they didn’t understand much about business. What happened next?’
‘They had their ups and downs for the next few decades, and once or twice they got pretty close to bankruptcy, so in a way you’re right. But at other times things went really well; there was lots of skill in the glassworks, and they employed some good new artists who again were given a lot of freedom. By this, and by technological frontline thinking, Orrefors continued to survive and sometimes even to flourish during the second part of the 20th century. Overall, however, the competition from the Italians, the Finns and later from North American studio glass, got too tough.’
At this point, the manager of the cafeteria came over to complain that I was talking too loud and that I was scaring off his customers. I answered that this sounded strange as we were his only customers, but the manager obviously didn’t interpret the causality behind the situation in the same way as I did. However, Lou came to my rescue, explaining that I was lecturing to her group of industrial leaders, helping them to make up their minds regarding future purchases. The manager softened and was content just to shoo us off onto the terrace outside. As we left one of Lou’s business tourists said he’d stay, ‘Too much artistic freedom can be very costly,’ he said as we left him, ‘one must keep control.’
‘So what happened then?’ Lou inquired, ‘In the eighties?’
‘In the early eighties, Orrefors was recovering from a bad patch. Once again they had great artists and competent management. Then – as the good times of the eighties came along and as demand started to skyrocket – Orrefors got a surprise bonus. At an auction in Switzerland record prices were paid for art glass made in techniques called “Ariel” and “Graal” and in one big leap top prices on old Orrefors glass went from hundreds of euros to thousands. At first, this didn’t produce much of a reaction back in Sweden but then somebody – a tall, dark, handsome man from southern Sweden – bought up much of the Ariel and Graal pieces in the crystal shops.
That helped to get things going, and soon prices on old Orrefors art glass went through the roof, and five years later top prices had reached well beyond a hundred thousand euros. Soon, even though Orrefors collectors are spread all over the world, one single collector came to dominate things. This collector was a bit of a philanthropist and harbored a personal desire to see Swedish art glass regaining its international status; that made the prices…’
‘Ouch! I cut myself,’ exclaimed one of the Indians as he dropped his fork and stood up. ‘People calling themselves philanthropists are very dangerous people because they upset the market forces,’ he added before striding off.
‘So now Orrefors glass started to become very valuable…’ Lou half suggested, half stated.
Lou obviously figured I was finished, but I did not. It’s not often I get the opportunity to lecture a large – if shrinking – audience on Orrefors. ‘All this – the philanthropist, record prices, new books, and articles – caused prices on old Orrefors glass to skyrocket and it didn’t take long before Orrefors’ marketing department produced advertising slogans as “Today Orrefors, Tomorrow Sotheby’s.” Such an approach, of course, can never succeed long-term and after a few years of tremendous success – because of too high prices on both old and new glass – it all came to an end.’
‘There are bees around here, and I’m allergic. See you later,’ said an Indian and stood up. ‘And I’m not at all sure there’s such a thing as too high prices. I suspect Orrefors’ good times came to an end because in the early nineties all good times came to an end,’ he added before leaving.
‘So Orrefors are dead and buried?’ somebody asked.
‘They still operate,’ I replied, ‘but they are no longer producing as exceptional glass as they once did. The last decade the brand name of Orrefors has been used to promote all sorts of junk import, including Chinese.’
‘Chinese imports isn’t junk!’ Lou protested vigorously, ‘Today Chinese products are very good quality, especially here in Hong Kong, like in the crystal shop, and you are wrong.’
”Låt inte den där lilla myran reta dej” viskade affärskvinnan från Kolkata, i det att hon reste sej upp. ”Låter du henne komma undan med det en enda gång så är loppet kört.”
”Tack” sa jag, ”det där skall jag komma ihåg.”
‘But for once she is right. A good brand name can be very useful,’ said the eavesdropping businesswoman as she stood up, ‘and I bet you Chinese import, or better, Indian, can produce a lot of jobs in your country. If you try to keep us from entering your markets the law will sooner or later catch up with you; then you will be held responsible,’ and with that, she left.
‘But,’ why did Miss Lou say that Orrefors was Danish?’ asked another businessman.
‘The Danish government takes great care to promote and nourish its arts and crafts industry, past and present,’ I answered. ‘The Swedish governments, however, have rarely done that. Therefore the whole world has started to forget that Sweden was a world-class design nation well into the twentieth century. Concepts such as Swedish Modern, Swedish Design, and Swedish Crystal are getting lost, and the closest thing for the foreigner to find is Danish Design. That’s probably why Miss Lou thought that Orrefors was Danish.’
‘Somebody said they sell pickled Danish herring over by the seafront; I’ll go over and check,’ said an Indian, ‘and thank you for your information, Danish Design seems to be a very good investment.’
Lou gazed after her departing Indian, shaking her head in irritation.
‘Is there nothing you Swedes can do to make people realize you’re not Danish?’ asked one of the two remaining Indians.
‘Maybe, but in the sixties, for some reason, we Swedes stopped being proud of our past. The problem is that in our major cities there is virtually nothing dedicated to what we were best at or most famous for. What the tourist really wants to see and learn about – the Vikings, the Nobel Prize, Abba and Swedish Crystal – we don’t promote. If we started to push this – in museums, in tourism information, and in the media – then maybe things would change.
‘They tell me they’ve got a zoo with panda bears out here and they say you’re even allowed to hug them; I think I’ll check it out. And, mister Lasso, I don’t think that – even if you managed to remind Swedish people of your past glories – Orrefors’ old business philosophy will ever again be possible. Actually, I think you’re a bit of a dreamer mister Lasso,’ he said as he left.
I turned to the one remaining businessman. ‘He could well be right you know; maybe today’s world is so penetrated by the desire for profit that recreating what once happened at Orrefors is impossible. Maybe the creation of beauty for the sake of beauty is no longer a viable idea. However, I’m convinced that world-class art glass could still be manufactured on the studio level.’
‘I think I’ll go out in the sun, even if it’s getting hot out there, but mister Lasso, I too think you should stop dreaming about that old Orrefors spirit. To me, it sounds a bit like Jim Corbett.’
‘He was a hunter who shot our man-eating tigers, risking his own life without ever accepting a reward. Things like Orrefors and Corbett were possible in the past but not today,’ and with that the last of the Indians departed, leaving me alone with my guide.
Lou looked at me angrily, ‘Why thank you very much!’
‘Don’t mention it; it was a pleasure. You see Orrefors is…’
‘That was my only group for this week and now look what you’ve done!’
‘These guys would have shopped glass enough to give me a commission of at least fifty dollars without your so-called help! Do you think businesspeople want to hear about the success of a company that doesn’t want to make a profit? You are absolutely impossible, just like your bloody Orrefors of yours!’ she exclaimed, ‘Now I will have to eat noodles for the rest of the week, all thanks to you!’ and with that Lou strode off.
I started to follow her, intending to explain. Lou was a very pretty girl, but after a few steps, I decided that though I liked her a lot, I didn’t like her enough to pursue her. However, Orrefors 1925 – 1950, that I do like enough to write this article. And, even if it’s true that we’ll never get back the Orrefors spirit of the 1920s, yet there’s a lot we can do to honor its memory. We can praise Orrefors, and we can tell the world what Orrefors was once capable of producing. We can show the world that René Lalique was right when, in 1925, he said of Orrefors, “There’s nothing except that.” We can tell the world about the Orrefors spirit, its workers, its owners, its artists and of how Orrefors made little Sweden the best art glass producer in the whole wide world.