The history of Orrefors

The history of Orrefors by Maria Lantz.

Sensitivity to the human need for beauty as part of daily life and celebrations has led to the survival of Orrefors glass for over a century of varying business conditions. Orrefors Kosta Boda continues to produce industrially made glass in addition to unique art objects of the absolute highest quality. With a focus on the artists, the innovative designs and styles of the 1920s guided the glassworks forward. Today’s artists and designers interpret their own era through glass.

The history of Orrefors is a fascinating story of how world-class craftsmanship and excellence have emerged from deep within the southern Swedish forests. It is also a story of people, their dreams and struggles, and of how nature, technology and culture interact in the effort to achieve the perfect result: light, heavy, clear, colorful, reflective, opaque and sheer glass.

The beauty and quality of glass is continuously reviewed, improved and refined – and the possibilities are endless. This glass is far from a final chapter, and its history is being written in this very moment.

A melting pot

How did Orrefors achieve such renown all over the world? How could glass be so advanced here – so far north, in the heart of the lush, green forest?

To understand, we must look back in time. The foundation was laid in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Småland: innovations in glass manufacturing, international contacts, social and political movements… all of these elements are part of the glassworks’ history, and so is the arrival of the artists in the twentieth century. Without them, Orrefors would not have been able to keep up with the competition or become the success it continues to be today. But the roots go deeper still. The glass we call “Swedish” is a fascinating result of relationships with people, with a faraway world, and with the local area, where nature is playing a key role. So allow us to start from the beginning.

Ancient glass – 8000 BC. 

Glass can occur naturally as a result of lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions. Ancient societies likely used volcanic glass, obsidian, to make spearheads and knives. But mastering the production of this material required skill. It began with glaze, which was surely discovered by chance when the clay used to make vessels was burned. If the clay contained the right combination of salts and lime, a glaze could spontaneously arise. This happened 10,000 years ago, around the Euphrates and Tigris. The craft gradually became more complicated, and in Egypt, glass bottles were made by winding threads of melted glass around a clay mold that was later dissolved in water. Glassblowing was eventually tried out successfully in the same regions during the Roman Empire. Then, knowledge of glass production spread to what is now Europe. In early Medieval Syria, the most artistic glass was produced, and it made its way through the trade routes.

Glass moves north – 13th century

In Venice, knowledge of glass came from Constantinople, Italy and Spain. They found that the sand in the Po river could be used for manufacturing and for a long time, Venice was the capital city of European glass, together with Bohemia, Germany. Glass objects became important export products for both cities. We have now reached the thirteenth century, and secrecy was common. Obtaining completely clear glass was still difficult, but when successful, people could make perfect mirrors, which were used as objects and to furnish homes. Indeed, glass seemed to exist in a realm adjacent to alchemy – imagine creating something so remarkable out of almost nothing!

Glass production in Sweden developed surprisingly early, given the country’s peripheral location relative to the center of glass-making knowledge to the south. Or perhaps that is precisely why it happened – in Sweden, people with this knowledge had the opportunity to develop it. As early as the Middle Ages, window glass for churches and monasteries was made locally. It was likely glassmakers from the Netherlands who brought this newly acquired knowledge to the north and found a market where numerous churches were being built.

Glass for the king – 16th century

The decision to replace wooden cups with glass drinkware at the Three Crowns castle in Stockholm is often ascribed to Gustav Vasa, who also furnished all the royal palaces with window glass. Imported goods were used at first, and then two Italian glaziers set up production in Stockholm in the early sixteenth century, in order to secure access. At this point, the glass still wasn’t as artistically inclined as it was in the European glass centers – but it had definitely found its way to Sweden. And the forest is what made its production possible, because even though the individual components of glass are inexpensive, vast quantities of energy are required to manufacture it. Thus, countries like England and Ireland did not establish any sizable glass production factories domestically before coal and Industrialism, due quite simply to the lack of forest. In some cases, glass production was even prohibited there.

The forest and the people – 18th and 19th centuries

The relatively fast-growing coniferous forests were the essential renewable resource that created the condition for glass in Sweden. But the reason the glassworks opened in the late-nineteenth century in Småland specifically is thanks to the downturn for another product: iron ore. That was what happened in Orrefors. A steel mill opened here in 1726, but in the nineteenth century, better ore deposits were starting to be extracted to the north, and profitability fell. Johan August Samuelsson saw an opportunity: scraps from forestry and lumber mills could be used to run glass studios instead. Mostly, they made jars for lingonberry jam and bottles for ink and cologne on a small scale – in 1899, there were about 50 employees. When Johan Ekman of Gothenburg bought the forest in 1913, he acquired Orrefors Bruks AB in the bargain. At that time, crystal and window glass were also manufactured here.

The glassworks was a source of irritation for Ekman at first. He had bought the forest for the purposes of paper production; he had no plans to pursue glass production. But when Ekman saw all the families who lived off the glassworks, he reconsidered. The people needed their jobs, and the hot shops were already there.

New ideas – entering the 20th century

The solution was to make the manager of the cellulose factory director of glass manufacturing as well. Before long, Albert Ahlin – who also knew nothing of glassmaking – became fully immersed in the material and its production. But how would he ensure that manufacturing not only broke even, but was also profitable?

Industrialism was moving through the country full speed ahead at this point, and consumption of goods was spreading from society’s upper classes to more and more people. Fueling this production process were forests and hydropower. The raw materials comprised everything available: wool, flax, wood, metal, clay – and lime, soda and sand for glass. As an industrial product, glass became a significant part of modernity. Public schools, studies, public discussion and health and medical care were all being established – kerosene lamps were suddenly needed everywhere. Glass served an important role in health and medical care for another reason as well: laboratory glass and thermometers, test tubes and microscope lenses – glass is essential to all scientific achievements.

Many people were giddy with faith in the future, but at the same time, that created conflicts, which Ekman and Ahlin knew. A lot of bold, foolhardy and brilliant ideas saw the light of day only to leave inventors and investors destitute. Modernity also brought poverty, misery and war to Europe. With industrialism, a proletariat had emerged – a working class that provided cheap labor, but that was also in distress. Large groups of people emigrated from Småland to America; others began to organize. There were agitators and preachers, but also discussions, social life and the daily struggle for a better living. How could all of these contradictory wants and needs be united and defined in Orrefors?

The combination of industry and craftsmanship – refining industrial, mass-produced goods using the experience of tradition – was a concept that had been established around Europe in the late-nineteenth century, especially in the British Arts and Crafts movement. The Swedish Society of Crafts and Design summed up these ideas in the concept of “More beautiful everyday goods,” and author and peace activist Ellen Key wrote articles collected under the heading ”Beauty for all” in 1897. This involved care for the user, as well as an idea of community across class boundaries through daily objects that marry tradition and modernity together. This early notion of quality, aesthetics and sustainability would encompass all of society.

The artists arrive – 1910s

Glass had evolved and was hotter than ever when Ahlin entered the world of glass production in the early-twentieth century. But what would Orrefors’ niche be? Ahlin was likely inspired by the intellectual tides of the day. And he knew that he needed help.

Through personal contacts, the artist Simon Gate, who had trained at what are now the University of Arts, Crafts and Design and the Royal Institute of Art, came to Orrefors as an aesthetics consultant. Gate was a drawer and painter, but he had never worked with glass. However, like so many others, he was fascinated by the material and its possibilities. He was hired as artistic director in 1916. Gate’s aesthetic manifested first in the detailed engraved patterns on glass and gradually in complex shapes in layered glass. A year later, another artist was hired: Edward Hald, a former student of Matisse in Paris. The two artists were different, but they brought renewal to the forms and patterns of glass in parallel with one another. Incredibly skilled engravers and glassblowers were now working at the glassworks to implement Gate and Hald’s visions.

Critical successes and a continued struggle – 1920s

In 1917, Hald and Gate’s works were shown to a larger audience for the first time in an exhibition at Liljevalchs in Stockholm, where the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design initiated the “Home Exhibition,” which presented the results of collaborations between artists and industry. Over 40,000 visitors came to admire this new glass, a favorite among both critics and the public. Hald and Gate’s works were magnificent pieces with engraved patterns: Simon Gate works with elegant, detailed patterns, and Edward Hald with Expressionist imagery such as “Girls Playing Ball,” a vase with engraving inspired by Matisse.

Abundant activity was now underway at Orrefors; production was increasing, but the Spanish flu took many victims and poverty was still widespread. In 1918, Ekman initiated the construction of a Folkets Hus community center, financed to some extent by the workers themselves with the help of overtime. It would be a place for people to gather and participate in activities including “… everything that can elevate and refine people, but not dancing or religion.” That same year, electricity was brought to Orrefors. In other words, improvements were on the way – a hope for a better future.

Ekman died in 1919 and never had the chance to fully experience what his artistic and social investments helped to foster. But at this point, a stream of successful exhibitions came one after the next, first at the Swedish-French Art Gallery in Stockholm, then at the Gothenburg Exhibition in 1923, and two years later at the World’s Fair in Paris. There, the critics sang their praises: Il n’y a que ça! There is nothing like it! There were numerous international exhibitions at this time, and the glass was shown, among other places, at one of the most prestigious museums of the day: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The boom of art glass – 1925

Swedish art glass was now unsurpassed. More artists, designers and engravers became involved: Bergkvist, Abels, Augustsson. Kåge, Milles, Grünewald. They won international awards, but they were not just making magnificent exhibition objects and expensive collections. Gate, Hald and the others were also designing sets and drinkware for new target groups, as well as simpler everyday objects based on the motto: more beautiful everyday goods. These items were also successful exports and soon, Orrefors had sales agents in South Africa, the US, Australia and all over Europe.

The artists had an undeniable social impact at the glassworks. From the café scenes and bohemian lifestyles of major European cities, they brought curiosity, open good-naturedness, renewed forms of socializing, and a willingness to question conventions. For example, when Gate and Hald formed the Club for the Outstretched Hand. In the club, management and staff members came together to discuss ideas, worldviews and the possibilities of glass in festive yet unconstrained social gatherings. That would have been impossible in the hierarchical factory setting just a few years earlier. Women were still very much in the minority, even if they were there – both in the production and its surroundings. One of them was Flory Keiller. She had studied art in Paris and now she worked at the glassworks as a glass engraver. In 1929, she married Simon Gate, and she would later become a pioneer in ecology.

Modernity in the forest

Visitors from near and far often came to Orrefors. The glassworks had always attracted personalities of all kinds, but now in the new economic boom, Orrefors was a place to meet everyone from migrating workers who worked temporarily in the hot shop, to visiting royalty.

This paints a picture of a community in the middle of the woods where contacts were fostered with the world far beyond its borders. In this way, Orrefors says something about Sweden that is sometimes forgotten – that modernity first came to factory areas, and later made its way to larger Swedish cities. In the homes of workers and officials being built in the 1920s, people had central heating and toilets, which were still uncommon in cities. Orrefors now also had a consumer association with its own store, and unions became acceptable, although that hadn’t happened effortlessly.

Indeed, international political discussions were important here in the forest. This occasionally led to conflicts and tragedy involving private, financial or ideological matters – sometimes all at once. For example, at one point Flory, who was Simon Gate’s wife, befriended the slightly older, internationally familiar feminist and peace activist Elin Wägner. Together, the two took a trip to the Soviet Union. Simon Gate asserted that it was Elin Wägner who had “taken Flory away from him,” and when he was most embroiled in bitterness over their divorce, he wrote on a note that she was not even “worth 25 cents on the altar of idealism.”

Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that artists and craftspeople alike thrived in the factory area. They found friendship, international influences and drama here – but above all, they found artistic challenges. Concentration, trust and faith in the future were essential. It was nearly miraculous that development based on the conditions of creativity – courage and desire – could take an entire industry forward with the simple ingredients of sand, lime and soda, a combination of simplicity and the impossible.

War and unrest – 1930

 But soon the successful roaring 20s came to an end. The Depression had arrived and Orrefors had to carefully review its offering and manufacturing. They held sales and clearance sales; the only truly profitable product was glass for display cabinets. And then it was time for the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930. Many people thought that perhaps Orrefors glass had reached the end of the road. Style ideals were undergoing radical change, and product and fashion design were influenced by austere functionalist architecture. How would the artists find equilibrium in the face of this trend?

In the shadow of economic downturn, new experiments took place with new artists who joined the company. Gate and Hald were still there, but Edvin Palmkvist, the sculptor Edvin Öhrström and Vicke Lindstrand were continuing to work with new colors and shapes. Soon, the techniques known as graal and ariel had been fully developed: layers of glass were applied on top of one another with air sealed in between. This allowed the glass itself to shine, with engraving and patterns inside of it.

Once again at the Stockholm Exhibition, audiences were abuzz – visitors and critics alike. And yet again, the artists of Orrefors had developed the technique, forms and style of glass to suit the times. The new glass was shown again at international exhibitions and Orrefors solidified its position as a global leader in glass. When the new collections reached New York, the phrase “Swedish Grace” was coined. The luxurious ships of the Swedish American Line were decorated with glass from the glassworks – bulbs, glass doors and other interior decor.

But the magnificent exhibitions and awards were not enough when the economic downturn deepened during World War II. Workers were let go, Palmkvist went to Stockholm for continued studies at the University of Arts, Crafts & Design, and Vicke Lindstrand left the glassworks. Hald became head of Orrefors and had a lot on his plate; many people needed his help. When many men are summoned to go to war and materials are in short supply, good advice isn’t cheap. Hald decided to bide his time while continuing to focus on the future. Orrefors needed documentation and marketing in the form of photos and advertising.

Peace and generational change – 1930-40

In this respect as well, Orrefors employees were both innovative and experts at their craft. In 1932, Hald’s newly hired assistant Johan Selbing was given a new assignment as photographer for the glassworks. Selbing’s goal was to design his own products, which he ultimately ended up doing. But for now, he was the photographer. And before long, he was so successful that his pictures were shown at exhibitions and won prizes. Selbing gradually also developed a technique in which photos were transferred to glass and then etched.

1940 was a difficult year. The war had depleted all resources. The production of glass panels for display cabinets continued, but buyers were not prioritizing other products. Gate was exhausted, and when he turned 60 in 1943, he decided to step down as head of the company and work only as artistic director. But two years later, Gate suddenly died, and Hald – who was also over 60 at this point – was left on his own. And then there was a miracle: peace was declared, and orders for glass objects began pouring in almost immediately. When American troops were leaving Germany, they wanted to bring home souvenirs from Europe. The reputation of beautiful Swedish glass lived on and “something from Orrefors” was at the top of many wish lists.

In the aftermath of the war, refugees arrived in Sweden and many found their way to industrial areas. Among others, Sudeten German refugees from Czechoslovakia – a country with a lengthy glass tradition – came to Orrefors. And they were needed, because consumers were also emerging on the home front. Orrefors also hired more new designers: Ingeborg Lundin, Nils Landgren, Gunnar Cyrén and Carl Fagerlund, all of whom had different styles as well as an ability to move seamlessly between art glass, industrial products, and products for public spaces.

New owners – 1950s

Ownership was transferred to the Beyer family and soon, the Beyer son, Johan, took over as the new director. The glassworks employees had renewed faith in the future, which was evident not only in the glass, but also in the architecture and surroundings. Johan Beyer had the old houses fixed up and personal homes built; he made sure gardens were tended and that the factory was modernized. In accordance with the law, workers were granted three weeks of vacation in 1951. With improved personal finances and time off, another wave of consumption arrived as the glass industry benefited from an interest in gifts. Selbing’s photo glass was a popular souvenir, earning large quantities of money for several years. Orrefors seemed to be stable.

A generational change had taken place among the artists and now, no one had overarching responsibility for artistic development. But the new designers enthusiastically experimented and tried new things. Danish Henning Koppel, who was Jewish, contacted Orrefors when he fled Denmark while it was occupied by Germany, and he joined the designers for a period of time. He pushed himself and the limits of glass with his elegant patterns and shapes, in which the glass appeared to be billowing. “Glass has its limits. I want to get as close to them as possible.” Eva Englund developed the graal technique, which incorporates colors and patterns within the glass, in her bowls and vases. Ingeborg Lundin’s cut-crystal set quickly became a classic. And then came the next challenge: increasingly stiff competition from the rest of the world.

Shifting focus – 1970s

Glass originally came to Småland through knowledge from afar. Now, as the world was opening up, aesthetics and expertise emanated from the Kingdom of Crystal. This was thanks especially to the glass school in Nybro that Beyer started, which had developed a reputation around the world. Copies of Orrefors-style glass had begun to pop up in the US already in the 30s, but now there were variations of essentially every product in circulation, made in countries with competent glass industries, but where lower pay resulted in cheaper goods for consumers. How would Orrefors handle this new situation? Broaden the selection, or narrow it down? Enhance or streamline?

In the 70s, Johan Beyer needed support to face these challenges, which he received through the Wallenberg Group. They came in as partners first, eventually becoming majority shareholders. At this point, marketing and the ongoing recruitment of designers were both focused on increased sales.

Experience tourism and a new owner in 1980

“The Kingdom of Crystal” became a tourist destination in the 1980s. It was a way to spread the word about glass from Småland and to increase sales. The glassblowers’ skills were on display, and the hot glass itself became an attraction. Visitors could sit on bleachers and watch this complicated craft in amazement – a form of experience tourism in which the craftsperson was suddenly the product. In summertime, people waited in long lines to see exhibitions and buy seconds at outlet stores. 

In all of this, a question emerged: what was actually being relayed through this kind of function? Is it possible to see, feel and understand the qualitative properties of glass in an environment more closely resembling a theme park? And despite financial muscles, glass tourism and talented new designers at Orrefors – Lena Bergström, Martti Rytkönen, Per B. Sundberg and Erika Lagerbielke – profitability was a problem. Orrefors was backed by the legacy of major artists and was bringing in innovative new designers, but the lack of cohesion that had seeped into production was becoming tangible. Was Orrefors on its way to selling its heart and soul?

Closing the circle – 1990-2020

To take advantage of synergies between multiple glassworks in Småland, in 1990, the glassworks group Orrefors Kosta-Boda was established, with production spanning a vast array of products. New owners were brought in again: Orrefors Kosta-Boda AB has been owned by New Wave Group AB since 2005. At this point, the assortment began to be refined and specialized. New products were made for a target audience of conscientious private buyers, restaurants and businesses with high standards for excellent and sustainable design.

Most glassworks in Sweden have cooled down now, while the country still generates knowledge of glass at art schools and through internships in production. This allows Orrefors to continuously welcome new designers who began working with glass early in their artistic careers, and who can thus work closely with production.

Orrefors’ glass products are now made at a single location in Sweden: the Kosta glassworks, where designers, glassblowers, grinders, painters, glass cutters and inspectors take part daily in the craftsmanship of production at the glassworks, which has around 150 employees. Orrefors also produces products in other countries at glassworks that were once predecessors to the glass of Småland, offshoots in some cases, and often, former competitors. Now they have become partners instead. Lessons, thoughts and ideas are exchanged once again across national borders and between continents – indeed, the same way that glass has always traveled: via trade routes, through people’s knowledge, and with curiosity and a love for glass as a basis for the resulting products.

The future

Orrefors’ history involves complex connections and the interaction and leveraging of ideas. Sometimes, this has meant random events, and bold ideas have often blossomed and occasionally failed. Stubbornness and dedication are the common threads. The forest has provided a key condition, and represents the ways in which glass, nature and society are connected and have evolved side by side in social and ecological interactions. The growth rings of the trees bear witness to the hard work, to the financiers who invested, and to the artists who made waves and brought vitality. Quality, generosity and curiosity are keywords in the history of Orrefors. Today, this is apparent through designers like Ingegerd Råman, who designs glass products with the utmost precision, or Claesson Koivisto Rune, a team that allows each item to be unique.

Glass is a material that is full of contradictions. It can be fluid and firm, hot and cold, soft and hard. Simple and complicated. It can be difficult to tame, but unbelievably beautiful when the artist and glassblower both succeed. The history and future of glass are contained in its lengthy and experienced past, and in the continuous challenge and desire to push even further. Orrefors products will continue to carry memories, to be used, and to amaze generations to come. They are loved, cared for, passed down, passed on – and they always contribute to a more beautiful world.

By Maria Lantz