After surviving some bad years, Swedish automaker Volvo is staging a comeback.
The company was owned by Ford between 1999 and 2009, during which time Volvo’s hard Scandinavian edges were softened and its long history of uniquely Swedish, functional, sensible design was discarded in order to create syner- gies and facilitate platform sharing. The result? Volvo quickly lost all identity. Once the car of choice for professors and engineers — and their kids when they went off to university — by 2010 it had become bland and invisible in a crowded market.
But then, as a result of the recession in 2008, Ford sold Volvo in a panic. It was bought by Geely, a giant Chinese automaker, for less than a third of what Ford had paid to acquire the brand a decade earlier, or around US$1.8 billion. In hindsight, this acquisition was the best thing to happen to Volvo since it invented the three-point seat belt. So far Geely has been content to sit back and write cheques, financing Volvo’s rise from the ashes.
But for Volvo’s comeback to succeed, it won’t be enough to simply make good luxury cars. BMW does that. Mercedes-Benz and Audi and Jaguar all do that.
It has to be different. Luckily, Volvo is, inherently, different. The brand needs to get back to its roots. It needs to reclaim its Swedishness.
With its new cars — the XC90, V90, S90 and XC60 — Volvo is not subtle about its Swedish design. It has little Swedish flags sewn into the seats. The front and rear lights — the first and last things everyone sees — are meant to look like Thor’s hammer.
But are Volvo’s new cars truly exemplars of Scandinavian design this time around, or does it begin and end with the headlights? I took a road trip through Sweden to find out.
My first stop was Claesson Koivisto Rune, an interdisciplinary architecture and design firm based in Stockholm. Their office is a glass box on the main floor of one of the many mid-rise apartment buildings that make up the city’s trendy Södermalm neighbourhood. In the back are bookshelves full of miniatures: prototypes for a thousand new chairs, cellphones, houses, a motorcycle.
“It’s always been considered bad taste to flash your money in Nordic countries,” says Eero Koivisto, one of the firm’s three founders and my defacto guide through Swedish design. For example, real estate agents in Sweden always have two cars: a luxury ride for personal life, and a more modest one for professional duties.
“It’s super important to understand that this part of the world was very poor, very unlike Europe,” he says. “For all the old Swedish palaces, they imported the French and German style. We didn’t have the money to do it properly, so we made a kind of peasant version of European castles.” It was called the Gustavian Style. “Wooden floors, not so much gold on the furniture, not so many exquisite details — simpler but the same lines.”
In short: Scandinavians don’t do bling. You can see it walking around the streets of Stockholm and you can see it on Volvo’s latest, the V90 CrossCountry. It’s a modern take on the classic Volvo station wagon. The design is the antithesis of ostentation. Rather, it derives its style from imposing proportions — an exaggerated, elongated station wagon, like a trench coat from Stockholm’s Acne Studios — and a lack of fussy details. It doesn’t have chrome trim or brash badging. It could’ve been carved from a solid slab of marble.
But like everything in Sweden, if the outside is a little cold, the interior is warm and inviting.
Take, for example, the Nobis Hotel, where I stayed in Stockholm. Designed by Claesson Koivisto Rune actually, the interior courtyard is a bright and serene lounge, enclosed under a six-story glass ceiling. The furniture is carefully mismatched over a marble floor. Some tables are oak, some are teak. “Because people’s homes are not too match-y,” Koivisto explained. “It’s subconscious, but it makes you feel more at home.”
Visit Stockholm’s famous Public Library, designed by Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund, and you’ll have a similar sensation. The main room is a perfect circle clad in wood panels, with three-stories of bookshelves and light pouring in from windows high above.
Similarly, the cabin of the V90 CC is unusually open and airy. There’s no mismatched wood as there is in the Nobis, but there is a discernable focus on creating a warm and inviting ambiance. This is particularly unusual because the trend among cars is to have narrower windows and cabins that feel like command centres. Refreshingly, Volvo bucks those trends. The V90 has big windows, and minimal buttons.
However, to reduce Scandinavian design to pure modernism is wrong. It’s playful functionalism. “Things should work,” says Koivisto. The climate is harsh. A beautiful Italian car that never starts or can’t clear a snowbank wouldn’t work here. And from function, there is room for flourish.
The Artichoke Lamp (1958) by Danish designer Poul Henningsen is a good example, as is the Wishbone Chair (1949) by Hans Wegner. The lamp’s cascading leaves help spread light out across a room, and also happen to look spectacular. “This chair is not really a minimal chair, but if you start looking there’s not so much happening,” says Koivisto. “It has beautiful curves.”
The cabin of the V90 CrossCountry does seem minimal initially, but then you begin to notice the details: the knurled metal finish on certain knobs, for example, or that the complex mechanical action that controls the air vents makes the cabin look tidy by allowing the vents to always remain centred.
“It’s not like we sit down every morning and do the prayer for Scandinavian design, it just comes very naturally when you’re in it,” said Volvo’s chief designer Thomas Ingenlath, who happens to be German. “I’m a foreigner. Our design department is 50 per cent foreigners, but we live and work in Sweden; we’re surrounded by it.”
He talked about the light in Sweden, how the cold winters make people want to be cozy, the strong social desire for harmony, the way things never look ugly here, the contrast between the raw exteriors and inviting interiors. “They are all very pure and extreme in the way they use materials,” he said of the Swedes. “It’s certainly very special.”
At Niklas Ekstedt’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Stockholm, Nordic cooking itself is on the menu. It’s pure, simple, fresh food. Smell the birch fire burning in the kitchen. Taste the cast iron cookwear. Appreciate the local ingredients. “That was the way my parents and grandparents cooked,” says Ekstedt, who grew up in isolated northern Sweden. “It just made sense to use reindeer or elk or root vegetables or whatever was around.”
The first dish Ekstedt serves me is smoked elk heart. It’s salty, oily, rich, earthy, delicious. Elk heart is a favourite comfort food from his childhood. Unlike other parts of an Elk, you don’t need to let the heart rest; you could cook and eat it right away after hunting the animal. You cook the heart yourself, frying it in juniper butter in a hot stone bowl that arrives at the table. It’s pure and unadulterated: how it’s made is an integral part of the experience.
This is true of Volvo, too. Ingenlath and his team, immersed in Swedish culture, have created not only a good luxury car, but one that delivers on the promise of Scandinavian design. You feel how it was made differently: calm where others are intense, minimal where others are messy, playful where others are serious.
The Swedish flags on the seats are, in fact, the least Swedish part of the car. That kind of nationalism isn’t cool. That’s for foreigners. “If it was my car,” says Koivisto, “I would take an X-Acto knife and cut them away.”