Åke Axelsson – Designed for sustainability

- 90-year-old Åke Axelsson keeps his shape

The book “Sustainable design” (Swedish: Den hållbara formen) provides an insight into designer Åke Axelsson’s 200 chair models. Axelsson turned 90 in 2022 and is still active in all parts of his profession, including as part owner of Gärsnäs since 2003.

In November 2019, the book “The sustainable form” was published, where Åke Axelsson’s thoughts and stories behind some of the more than 200 chair models he created during his career were put into print by the author Petter Eklund. Of course, the book also touches on several of the major interior design projects that Axelsson has worked on – for example Sweden’s Parliament, the Jubilee Room at the Royal Palace and a large number of libraries and other public environments.

“It is as an interior architect that I have made my greatest contribution,” says Axelsson. “The fact that I have also always created furniture means that I have been able to work with my projects on a deeper level.”

Åke Axelsson turned 90 in 2022 and is still active in all parts of his profession, including as a co-owner of Gärsnäs since 2003. In 2017 he built a 100 square meter carpentry workshop at the back of his home in Engarn, east of Stockholm, where he, together with cabinetmaker Daniel Ericson was in the process of creating a small-scale furniture factory.

“The idea is to demonstrate that it is be possible to have small-scale production with sales both on site and via a website, explains Axelsson.

One of the first products to leave the carpentry shop was the Nomad chair, a model that was first launched in 2013 but has since been refined.

“With Nomad, I have pushed the chair concept to the limit in terms of functional simplicity, both for the manufacturer and for the user,” says Axelsson.

The origins of the chair can be found in ancient Greece and, as the name suggests, it should be easy to move and easy to take with you. The construction contains no nails, screws or glue, but rather the wood is joined by holes and pegs and held together by fabric and the weight of the person sitting in the chair.

“You must be able to assemble and disassemble it yourself for example when you move,” says Axelsson. “And the joins ensure a mobility that adapts to the surface it is placed on while never feeling unstable.”

The first examples of Nomad were entirely produced at the in-house workshop, which is equipped with all the necessary machines. But the point of the chair’s construction is to link small-scale industrial craftsmanship to the opportunities of large-scale industry. For example, some parts have been manufactured at a factory in Tibro.

“Sawing, splitting and turning wood at exactly 23 millimeters is not rational, and as industry is so much better at that, small-scale production must use this capacity.”

Åke Axelsson qualified as a furniture maker at Visby City’s workshop school as a 19-year-old in 1951. During the following year, he worked in furniture factories, but felt that he wanted to move on. Between 1952 and 1957, he attended Konstfack’s training for furniture design and interior architecture in Stockholm and entered a sector that was crying out for his professional skills.

“The community exploded with activity,” remembers Axelsson. “The cities were being renewed and public areas such as hospitals, schools, libraries and civic centers were to be designed and furnished. It was just a matter of getting on and working.”

Axelsson has always acknowledged the past through anchoring history into his work, but it has always been important that his furniture and interior design projects were based on rationality and contemporaneity. Prototypes for the project’s chairs and other furnishings were produced using craftmanship in his own workshop before being mass-produced with machines.

“There should be no contradiction between industry and craftsmanship, machines have always been used as they have developed,” says Axelsson. “The CNC machine is just a continuation of the industrial movement that progressed throughout the 20th century.”

An example of this is the chairs for Fredrikskyrkan (Fredriks Church) in Karlskrona, which were produced in 2018.

“I was commissioned to make 400 chairs, which is not a task for a single craftsman – only large-scale industry can deliver this,” says Axelsson.

The church chairs were manufactured by Gärsnäs based on a prototype that Axelsson developed in the 1980s, but which did not go into production at the time. You can see it as the reuse of ideas and it also becomes a symbol of the sustainable production methods that Axelsson has always strived for. His furniture uses wood in the most efficient way and is almost always designed to be easily taken apart and refurbished. For example, there is an agreement with the Swedish Parliament that their furniture should be reupholstered and refurbished at regular intervals.

“For Gärsnäs, it is good business to have a long-term agreement for recurring work and for the customer it is good that the life of the furniture can be extended,” explains Axelsson. “Today, society strives for circularity, which is something that I have always strived for, but now there is finally the will from society to implement it.”

Axelsson is constantly surrounded by his work. His home and the exhibition premises, where he also has his studio, are built on the same old barn grounds, with a 44-metre unobstructed field of view from gable to gable. Under the house is the new carpentry workshop where Axelsson still works almost every day. He has no plans to retire and draws on his experience to find the best solutions.

“I am definitely much more confident in what I do today than when I was 30 years old, or 65 years old,” concludes Axelsson. “It is quite clear that furniture making is a profession that takes time to learn. And you dare to achieve more over time, you have nothing to lose.”

LIVES: Engarn outside Stockholm.
EDUCATION: Qualified at the Visby city workshop school for furniture carpentry in 1951, between 1952 and 1957 he trained as a furniture designer and interior architect at Konstfack in Stockholm.
WORK LIFE: Own architectural office and carpentry workshop in Vaxholm from 1967 and later in Engarn. Founded and managed Galleri Stolen 1988–2003. Partner in Gärsnäs AB since 2003.