A Few Days In

Museums in Backpacks and Hotels Carved from Ice: Swedish Lapland Is a Design Powerhouse

by Nicole Trilivas
Treehotel Treehotel's 7th Room. Photo courtesy of Treehotel.

As we take stock of places to travel, the far reaches of the world hold even more appeal. Swedish Lapland is not only a natural wonder but also a design powerhouse.

UMEÅ, Sweden — A study in simplicity, functionality, and beauty, design has always been one of Sweden's recognizable signatures and most important exports. The world over cannot seem to get enough of the Scandinavian aesthetic. But high in the wild northernmost reaches of ,he country — far from the international design hubs of Stockholm, Malmo, and Gothenburg — the design scene doesn’t give way but instead advances to merge with the raw natural world and create progressive cities and a new genre of landscape architecture that’s unlike anything else in the country — or the world.

As a former European Capital of Culture, the university city of Umeå is a must for design-lovers brave enough to veer off the well-trodden paths of southern Sweden. The city is young, dynamic, and politically aware, with an idealistic activist scene and a DIY mindset. "People geek out," says Linnéa Therese Dimitriou, an artist and curator based in Umeå. "They start bands and make their own movies."

The backpack at Swedish Design Museum To Go. Photo by Tina Stafrén / courtesy of Visit Sweden.
The contents of the north backpack curated by Nina and Johan Kauppi. Photo courtesy of Swedish Design Museum.

The Museums Are Innovators

To help visitors understand the unique creative soul of Umeå and other Swedish cities, the Swedish government and tourism board, Visit Sweden, has launched the Swedish Design Museum, a virtual museum with no physical or permanent collection "with the purpose of making Swedish design accessible and visible to people in all corners of the world." The exhibition Swedish Design Museum To Go was designed to change the way travelers experience Swedish cities by providing them with a physical backpack full of functional design item connected to the region they’re visiting, along with tips on where and how to use them. There will be different backpacks for each region of Sweden, pegged to a city: the north (Umeå), the south (Malmö), the east (Stockholm), and the west (Gothenburg). Dimitriou curated the design-themed contents of the north backpack, which visitors can borrow for free for the duration of their trip to Umeå. The project is on hold while travel restrictions are in place, and for now can be explored virtually.

Bildmuseet. Photo by Tina Stafrén / courtesy of Visit Sweden.
An exhibit at Bildmuseet. Photo by Tina Stafrén / courtesy of Visit Sweden.

The idea that Swedish design is made to be used and experienced, rather than simply admired, is also the ruling concept behind Umeå University's Bildmuseet, a museum of contemporary art and visual culture, which acts as the public heart of the city. All exhibitions are free, and lectures and events make up a large part of the city’s social calendar. Founded in 1981, the museum attracts some 100,000 visitors per year and focuses on international contemporary art, design, and architecture that tackle the questions of our time. The recent exhibition Design Matters looked at design objects crafted from biological waste and new technologies that could make us self-sufficient, like using mycelium (the root of mushrooms) to grow clothing and furniture.

The #MeToo statue "Listen" has become a symbol of Umeå. Photo by Philip Avesand / courtesy of Visit Sweden.

Amazingly progressive, Umeå is also the site of the world’s first statue dedicated to the #MeToo movement. Forged from the kind of high-gloss chrome that typically clads Italian sports cars, "Listen," by Swedish artist Camilla Akraka, is 14-foot statue of a roaring red puma who has escaped the cage. The statue has become an unofficial symbol of the city.

Sara Kulturhus. Photo courtesy of White Arkitekter.

Outside northern Sweden’s hub cities, design is being used to reverse depopulation trends. In the industrial and mining town Skellefteå, on the border of Swedish Lapland, Sara Kulturhus will be the city’s impressive new cultural center — as well one of the world’s tallest building (20 stories) to be crafted from timber. Slated to open in 2021 with the goal of being carbon neutral over the course of its lifespan, this new meeting place, clad in local spruce, will house art and performance spaces, studios, a city library, retail and office space, and a new hotel, which will be run by Swedish brand Elite Hotels.

The exterior of Icehotel. Photo by Tina Stafrén / courtesy of Visit Sweden.

It Began with Hotels

Of course, it’s not possible to talk about the design scene in northern Sweden without mentioning the pioneering hotels that first put the area on the map for international travelers.

It all started 30 years ago when the world’s first hotel crafted from ice and snow welcomed its first intrepid visitors in Jukkasjärvi. Icehotel almost singlehandedly transformed Swedish Lapland into a winter destination. Beforehand, the region was considered Europe’s first destinations for summertime river rafting, which gradually lost its singularity as other European destination began to offer rafting experiences. When founder Yngve Bergqvist, who had been living and working in the area since the 1970s, opened Icehotel, Jukkasjärvi was transformed into an iconic destination for trailblazing design and architecture.

Every year, 2,000 block of gin-clear ice are harvested from the nearby Torne River and carved into a temporary temple of ice that melts away come summer. Most of the winter hotel’s 37 individually styled ice rooms are concepted and created by international artists, many of whom have never worked with ice or snow before. This is done deliberately to ensure that designs and methods are fresh and cutting-edge: New techniques are always being introduced, usually by simple trial and error.

Ginkgo Ceremony Hall. Photo courtesy of Kauppi & Kauppi.
Ginkgo Ceremony Hall. Photo courtesy of Kauppi & Kauppi.

Big names in the design world also participate. For this year’s winter edit, the award-winning Swedish design studio Kauppi & Kauppi, by husband-and-wife team Nina and Johan Kauppi, conceived the hotel’s impressive gingko-themed ceremony hall, which was be the site of weddings and events — before melting back into the river.

"We believe it to be poetic and beautiful to create large-scale designs, designated to last a winter," say Nina and Johan Kauppi of the ephemeral nature of the project. In the end, all of the work and effort and art can almost be seen as a sacrifice to nature, evoking the deliberately fleeting spirit of a Tibetan sand mandala. "It reminds one to appreciate the moment, to see the beauty in transience, and to celebrate life." Kauppi & Kauppi also curated the South/Malmö backpack for the Swedish Design Museum To Go project.

Alongside the always-different winter edition of the hotel, Icehotel introduced the Icehotel 365 concept in 2016, a permanent, 22,600-square-foot ice hall with 21 suites, an ice bar, and event hall that runs on solar power generated from the summer's midnight sun phenomenon.

Treehotel's Mirrorcube. Photo by Tina Stafrén / courtesy of Visit Sweden.

No doubt inspired by the success of Icehotel, Treehotel — a collection of seven unique tree houses in the silvery birch forests of Harads — has also been drawing design lovers since its inception in 2010. Some of the most prestigious Scandinavian architectural firms designed the electric tree houses set the Narnia-like pine and birch forests near the Lule River. Two of the seven tree houses, UFO and the pine-branch festooned Bird's Nest, were designed by Bertil Harström, who describes the projects as, "more like art than architecture." The property will be celebrating its ten-year anniversary in July 2020, and word has it that an eighth tree house is forthcoming by a Danish studio.

Arctic Bath in the summer. Photo courtesy of Arctic Bath.
Arctic Bath in the winter. Photo courtesy of Arctic Bath.

Harström and the Treehotel team are also the behind the extraordinary new Arctic Bath, a twelve-room floating hotel and spa inspired by the timber industry of the past, when felled trees were transported downriver. Already an architectural icon, this new, design-forward hideaway currently takes pride of place in Northern Sweden’s ever-growing portfolio of landscape architecture, which blends high design with the raw natural world.

While you're in Sweden, check out Four Adventures Found Only in Sweden’s Wilderness, Dog Sledding in Swedish Lapland, and our Stockholm guide.