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Swedish country. What your living room needs is a wide-bellied clock, a pickled floor, and a painted chest

By Marion Laffey FoxSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1988


MOST collectors and antiques buffs will happily admit to cherishing the chase for a special object or piece of furniture. Whether that search translates into a quest for tin soldiers, inlaid writing boxes, or velvet pincushions, the impetus to find the best or most unusual of a particular category can become a raison d'^etre for travel. Parisian flea markets attract those who crave eclectic offbeat treasures, while London's Camden Passage and Portobello Road are historic trading points. But as fickle styles change, and yesterday's layers of chintz give way to the world's current love affair with painted country furniture and the spare Swedish look, France and England no longer monopolize the scene.

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Almost overnight, trendy decorators are re-creating the innocent look immortalized by painters Carl Larsson and Anders Zorn: Windows are dressed in romantic white linen, and floors are pickled to look freshly scrubbed. Vividly painted cupboards brighten demure gray Gustavian pieces (dating from the 18th-century reign of King Gustav III). Wide-bellied clocks smile beneath fluttering wooden ribbons. Bowls of wildflowers grace transparently colored tables and chests.

But those collectors who come here find that the simple rural furniture, once considered a giveaway, is no longer cheap. As a rule, it is less costly than in America, and bargains can be found at remote auctions. But after Christie's London sale of Scandinavian art set record-breaking prices last February, Swedish antiques skyrocketed in value. International style-shapers say this is only the beginning.

Prospective buyers with limited time should head for Stockholm. First, take your own lesson in design by visiting the Nordic Museum and the open-air museum at Skansen. Within walking distance of each other on Djurgarden, both institutions feature excellent examples of furniture from all districts of the country in simulated room settings. There are both rare and typical examples of distinctive rustic painting done between the 17th and late 19th centuries on walls, ceilings, and liberally applied to caskets, jugs, bowls, chests, and enormous clothes cupboards. Many are initialed and dated to commemorate engagements, weddings, and birthdays. Geometrics resemble weaving, while the acanthus motif extends delicate tendrils, leaves, and blossoms around doors and drawers.

Vigorous colors create exquisite contrasts; deep honey-brown is swirled with black; white streaks gray or clear blue; red, green, and yellow appear with frequency. The thin, almost transparent technique of overlay, executed by untutored and mostly anonymous craftsmen, is a lively art form infused with fresh impulses and such invariably strong regional characteristics that it's usually possible to tell at a glance where a particular piece comes from.