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The Swedish Dala horse

Much-loved gee-gees from Nusnäs

Every Swedish home has a Dala horse on the shelf. Not a prize specimen, but perhaps a little knocked about, and probably painted red. There are white, green, blue and black horses too, but warm red is the commonest colour. Black is uncommon, green is almost a rarity. Interest in the Dala horse is greater today than ever before.

When Sven Markelius and Anders Beckman, the great architect and the great designer, were looking for a powerful symbol for the Swedish pavilion at the New York World Fair in 1939, they settled for the hand-painted Swedish Dala horse. Home craft, in other words.

Many contemporary colleagues who had just seen the plain, industrial world picture of functionalism also taking shape in Sweden, were no doubt taken by surprise, but during that dawn of the modernity of jazz and functionalist buildings, neither Markelius nor Beckman could hit on anything more Swedish than a kurbits-painted Dala horse. So a handpainted timber gee-gee three metres high (Markelius had initially demanded twice that) was commissioned from the small firm of Grannas A Olsson in Nusnäs, between Rättvik and Mora. It was then put into production at the Nordiska Kompaniet (NK) furniture factory in Nyköping, and after it had been painted the horse was put on display in the NK department store atrium pending departure for the USA.

The Dala horse was a huge success with the media. The Swedish pavilion (Sweden speaks, with the motto: Simplicity) was among the most visited, and in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper the magisterial critic Gotthard Johansson remarked: "The much-vaunted Dala horse in front of the entrance is rather feeble of stature but still exerts a strong crowd-pulling attraction on the childishly curious public ... One can safely say that the Swedish pavilion has entered the awareness of the exhibition public as one of the Expo's major attractions." Someone has worked out that Sweden speaks generated a total of 254 km of column text in the Swedish and international press.

And so, internationally as well, the Dala horse became one of Sweden's visually most potent symbols. But the fate of the mega-horse following the closure of the New York World Fair in October 1940 is shrouded in mystery. A private person in Brooklyn is said to have bought it from the organisers, but the rest, as they say, is history.

It is September when we travel to the shores of Lake Siljan, in the heart of idyllic Dalarna, to visit the world-famous horse village of Nusnäs.

Not a horse to be seen. Paddocks. Red-painted cottages of every hue and shape. A winding gravel road down to the still, bright blue waters of Siljan. A FOR SALE sign thrust into the ground outside a small farmstead. But not a living horse in sight. Even though the late summer sunshine is as brilliant as a twee paper streamer by cock-a-snook Anders Olsson and even though this is the place with the biggest output of horses.

On the other hand, every Swedish home has a Dala horse on the shelf. Not a prize specimen, but perhaps a little knocked about, and probably painted red. There are white, green, blue and black horses too, but warm red is the commonest colour. Black is uncommon, green is almost a rarity. Sooner or later most of them get relegated to a shelf and relative obscurity.

When they first came in – during the mid-17th century, the books tell us – these horses were children's things and were unpainted. Toys for the tiniest. Carved with Swedish sheath knives ("Mora knives") and nearly always painted by the oldest member of the family. The classical kurbits-patterned horse (the Swedish word derives from cucurbita, the name of a plant family which includes the pumpkin) has a history going back perhaps 150 years. And so the saga of the Dala horse began. The Swedish symbol above all others. During the 19th century roosters began to be manufactured with the same kurbits pattern, but they have now gone out of production.

"Ten years ago," says Kristina Lindberg, one of the partners in Grannas A Olsson, which is still run by the family that founded it in 1922, "we took on a new lease of life. What happened was that we started livening things up a bit, partly by using brighter colours. Dala horses are now an interior furnishing component. You'll find us on posh shopping streets in Paris and at the Åhléns department stores in Sweden. When H & M were opening their first New York store in 2000 they took their publicity photographs here in the factory, in among the horses. That was a big thing to happen."

Nusnäs has a population of 700, many of whom work at Grannas A Olsson or for the smaller competitor over in Färnäs. There is also a cafeteria, and a souvenir shop whose department-store proportions hint at the coach loads of tourists, both Swedish and foreign, invading the village during summertime with their cameras and credit cards at the ready. Grannas A Olsson has an annual turnover of a hundred thousand horses and MSEK 13.

After years and years of being a fairly prosaic chattel in Swedish homes, the Dala horse suddenly hit the big time as a design object when, in 1989, Thomas Sandell and Jonas Bohlin, designing the interior of the Rolf Kök restaurant in Tegnérgatan, Stockholm, made do with one single item of decoration – dismembered Dala horses screwed onto the metal lockers. "Now the Mediterranean countries have also spotted us. The Americans used to shop like mad, but nowadays they're feeling the pinch and we don't hear so much from them. Japan has replaced them a little bit. A red horse there means "great good fortune" and they call the Dala horse THE LUCKY HORSE.

"In recent years we've been represented just about everywhere. The Royal Copenhagen porcelain factory has made a porcelain version of our horse. Only four copies were produced of the largest model, one of them for the Queen of Denmark. And every time IKEA opens a new furniture store we deliver a horse standing 50 cm high!" Pausing in the middle of the small craft factory, with its delicious fragrance of fresh wood, Kristina Lindberg puts the secret into a nutshell. "Four things played a decisive part in the making of the Dala horse. Love of the horse as an animal. The local availability of wood. The Mora knife. And kurbits decorative painting. Without those four components the horse would never have become the unique creation it is today."

Kristina Lindberg's analysis sounds incontrovertible. Quite simply, she has put names to the horse's four legs. I remind her of the importance of play to both children and adults. Had it not been for homo ludens, not even the Dala gee-gee from Nusnäs would have seen the light of day. A point worth noting, incidentally, is that all the (spruce) wood used is waste wood from the nearby Siljan Sawmill.

A total of 50 carvers are today hard at work in their homes round about Nusnäs. Many of them are retired. Most of the painters also work from home. The brush imparting the distinctive kurbits shake to the horses applies two colours at once. Everywhere in the joinery factory there are horses from the past. Valuable originals and play-worn heirlooms. Some with stout nails replacing their forelegs. Some so sun-bleached that the grain of the wood has reappeared. The smallest ones only about a centimetre in height. There are 16 different formats altogether. For a long time now the Dala horse has had a very special standing among collectors, and Grannas A Olsson today has an annual special release, a limited edition of between 75 and 200 copies.

A handful of kurbits painters have etched their way into the Dalarna history books. Gambel Damben ("Old Lady Leg", real name: Tysk Anders Gunnarsson) died over half a century ago, but still rates reverent mention. Perhaps he actually invented the colour known as Dala blue and associated with joinery products of every kind from Dalarna. Everything in his homestead was purportedly painted blue, except that the horses were allowed to retain the traditional warm shade of red with a touch of brown.

The afternoon is calling lights out in the landscape. The wind whispers in the yellowing birch trees. Someone cross the gravel road with an armful of wooden horses. Nusnäs. Not unlike a street in the American Wild West.

Staffan Bengtsson
From the design magazine FORM 2008 #10