In 1949 Swedish publishing house Bonnier came up with an ingenious idea to encourage people to buy more books – they announced a competition asking for architects to design a new shelving system in the hopes that with somewhere to put their books, readers would start buying more.
“192 proposals were sent in,” says Peter Erlandsson from String Furniture’s stand at IMM in Cologne. “Architect Nils Strinning won first prize. His system could be flat packed and sent economically by post, plus it was affordable and easy to install… all features that still characterize the system today.” The company name “String” is a mixture between Nils Strinning’s name and the appearance of the system – a shelving unit comprising of long thin bits. The String system was hugely popular and in the 50s and 60s was the one of the most sold Scandinavian furniture design in Germany. But the business model lacked ambition and in 1974 production, which had always been in Sweden, ceased.
“A small part of the company remained in Germany, but much of what had been happening fell away,” says Erlandsson, co-founder of the current String Furniture company. “Nils moved to Switzerland for tax reasons, and eventually divorced his wife who moved back to Stockholm. Life continued and String was barely touched.” That was until the end of 2004 when Erlandsson’s own wife, who was running a design store in southern Sweden, was approached by a customer wanting some String shelves.
“She told the customer to wait and she called me,” says Erlandsson. “By then Nils had returned to Sweden and was living with his wife, but had not remarried. It was a strange relationship. He did want to do something with String, but was a bit stuck.”
Erlandsson tracked down the company controlling the product. “I telephoned them and asked if my wife could buy some shelves. They said the company had filed for bankruptcy one week earlier. I thought ‘Oh no this is bad,’ and asked them who was handling the bankruptcy. My colleague Pär Josefsson and I decided we could be interested of buying the String so we called the lawyer who told me he was obliged first to resell the company back to the old owners and that I’d need to deal with them.”
Erlandsson called Nils Strinning who by then was 87 years old. “But still very clear in his head,” Erlandsson says. “I told him we could do it better, we could make things work so much more for the brand. Then we went to visit him.” Strinning sold Erlandsson and Josefsson the rights to produce and sell String, paying royalties to the family. That lasted until 2009 when the pair bought the brand outright.
“In 2005 the company had an 80 000 euro turnover and by 2017 it was turning over 20 million euros,” Erlandsson says. “Now we have agents and distributors all over Europe and America and the Asian markets are also starting to take shape.”
And in case it needs to be mentioned the brilliance of the String system is that it’s strong, light, airy, flexible, versatile and always modern. In city living environments, it is the ideal solution for wall storage.
“It’s pre-Ikea, with flat packaging”, says Erlandsson. “And everything is produced in Sweden.”
I ask him if that really makes any difference, how it genuinely impacts on quality, ethics or even economics?
“It absolutely does,” he asserts. “They aren’t just words. If anything happens I can be at the factory in less than two hours. I know everyone working there and they know me. We work closely with them on the development of new prototypes and we can have more of an influence. It is more expensive, but also more efficient.”
And on the topic of Swedish heritage and staying true to the brand, Erlandsson remains firm. “We have developed add-ons but never are they allowed to interfere with the look and feel of the original range,” he says. “We added materials like metal last year, but we believe change is justified if it is not just a trend. Everything we do should last for a very long time.”