String Shelving: Timeless Swedish Practicality

Strings, what do they bring to mind? Things of undefined length? An idea in sub-subatomic physics that is so fiendishly and multidimensionally complicated even certified geniuses don’t necessarily understand it? Practical things to hold a parcel together. If you’re clued into the worlds of art and furniture, though, it’s probably String Shelving, timeless Swedish practicality in action. 

It is, after all, an idea that links book sales in Sweden with the UN headquarters in New York. A concept that has won furniture design prizes and is also officially and legally recognised as applied art. It is, in short, one of those ideas that looks breathtakingly simple. But after thousands of years of furniture making, it was only in 1949 somebody thought of it. 

The History of String Shelving

In the years immediately after the Second World War, Bonnier, a leading Swedish publishing house still leading the field to this day, wanted to sell more books. One reason sales were not picking up as hoped was that many people didn’t have anywhere to store them. Bookshelves were not part of Swedish house design. If the mass market for books was to flourish, that had to be corrected.

So they held a competition. The terms were simple. A shelving system that was affordable, easy to ship and easy to assemble. Preferably, it would be flexible so it could fit into any space.

It seems picking the winner was pretty easy. No rival ideas could have ticked all the boxes with the thoroughness of the String Shelving system. Nor was that the last prize the design it won. It also took a gold medal at the Milan Triennale and featured prominently in several major exhibitions as the Scandinavian nations started to dominate the furniture design market.

String Theory Meets Nisse and Kajsa Strinning

String was the brainchild of a husband-and-wife partnership, Nisse and Kajsa Strinning. It all started with washing up after dinner. 

In pre-dishwasher days – and arguably even with mechanical help today – just about everybody hated washing up. The worst part was the drying. It was time-consuming and less hygienic than just leaving the dishes to dry on their own. The problem was that to do that, you couldn’t just pile them up, you needed a dish rack. There were lots of them around, but they were cumbersome, ugly, or impractical. 

The Nisse and Kajsa Strinning solved that problem with their first successful invention in 1946. It was a wire holder that would hold the dishes upright. That way they occupied less space while in the best position to dry naturally and effortlessly. 

It was typical of the couple. They were both architects by training, but their interests merged to make them into just about the perfect partnership. He loved to solve everyday hassles, like drying dishes, with creative ideas. She refined them, so that they would work as he imagined them, and went on to produce the construction plans.

Elfa Makes the Grade

Nisse Strinning persuaded his cousin Arne Lydmar to take over the manufacture of the dish racks. By 1949 they had added a crucial innovation by working out how to coat the wire with plastic, at that time still a new product. That Elfa dish rack was born. Since then, it has evolved into all the Elfa wire baskets in cupboards and wardrobes around the world today. 

Nisse Strinning also took the idea and made it the foundation of the String Shelving system. This time the wire frames are the side panels and the slots hold just about anything you want from basic shelves to cabinets or work desks. 

How Does the System Work?

Nisse and Kajsa Strinning understood they had an idea that could go in all sorts of different directions. As long as they designed the stress points properly, they could produce light but strong structures in as many shapes as they wanted.

That’s the secret of the String Shelving system, Swedish practicality in action. Whatever shape you want to fill, no matter how awkward, the String system will do the job. 

The collection comprises a number of basic components – side panels, shelves, desks, cabinets, etc – and you combine them in any configuration you like, so they fit the space you have. 

If you don’t have much room, then one development over the recent years has been the launch of Pocket String Shelving, an alternative for smaller spaces, 

It’s Your Design

The great thing about the String Shelving system is that you don’t buy a unit and try to fit it into your room, you design it yourself to fit the space you have. 

There is even a helpful “Build Your Own” guide on the String Furniture website that allows you to pick the sizes and colours. It then not only shows you the finished product in all its glory, but adds up the costs of all the bits and pieces to produce an exact price.

Finally, you don’t have to do it all at once. It’s perfectly possible to buy shelving and add to it over the years as income and need grows. You are safe in the knowledge that no matter how old the original system, the additions will still fit. Nisse and Kajsa Strinning built expansion into the original design. You may even be lucky enough to acquire some of the original 1949 product. If so, you’ll find it still slots in perfectly with bits bought the day before.

You simply buy some side panels, which come in two basic forms. One stands on the floor, the other screws into the wall. Then you add things to hang between them. Shelves are easy, so are cabinets and drawers. Less obvious, but equally useful, are hanging racks, hooks and rails or possibly trays for storing everything from magazines to bottles. It’s your design, you get what you want.

How Do I Go About Designing a System?

The first thing to worry about is where it is going to go. Every room, after all, has unique challenges. A living room, for example, and it’s a question of where it is going to go and what you will store there. Will it be holding the TV set or just books or ornaments? Do you need cabinets and drawers, or just shelves? Do you want quirky shapes or just solid and square? 

If the room has a more traditional feel, then you would probably opt for wood for the shelves and cabinets, but a more futuristic room would probably suit a painted finish.

If it’s a bathroom, on the other hand, you need to worry about moisture and it is a good idea to stick to coated metals and avoid things like wood veneer. You could add a towel rail and even a mirrored cabinet to hold all your toiletries. 

A kitchen and you might look at hanging racks for your cups and mugs. There’s nothing wrong with remembering the dish rack origins of the system and opting for perforated metal shelves.

Finally, there are bedrooms, which may also double-up as work spaces and demand a desk among all the other String fittings. Shoe racks are always useful, and the system has fittings for hanging areas and storage trays to make for the next best thing to a fitted wardrobe. 

What if I want to change? 

You can’t change everything but you can change a lot. If you buy a wooden shelf, that’s what you have unless you throw it away and buy something new. What you can do, though, is move it and use it in a different way in a different place. 

The string system is simple to dismantle and reassemble in hundreds of different configurations. So while the constituent parts may not change, you don’t have to stick to the same shapes or designs. The only real limit is your imagination. 

The only thing to worry about is that the full-scale String system and the more recent String Pocket system don’t work together. If scaling up over the years is part of the plan, it’s a good idea to start with the full-scale components. That way you can keep adding to the stuff you already own, knowing that every new piece will fit into the ones you have already.

That leaves two things to worry about: colour and materials. Is wood still going to be your look in 10 years? If so, go for it; if not, think about what type of alternative shelving to buy. White, black and grey are good neutral colours and will always fit in but may get boring after a few years. 

String Furniture updates the palette yearly, so it is always worth checking to see if there is something new that grabs your attention.

String in the Open

Nisse and Kajsa Strinning designed the original string system to go indoors. It did spectacularly in the 1960s and 1970s, but then started to fade. It was not until 2004 that the current String Furniture company was founded to relaunch the product. Nisse Strinning was part of that and also added the designs for the String Pocket system plus a bundle of new accessories to make the original even more flexible.

The company could not afford to rest on their laurels, however, and the latest expansion of the range is into outdoor products. 

They make the panels and basic shelving from galvanised metal, which will withstand the worst the weather can throw at it. 

As with the indoor model, the big attraction is the system’s flexibility. In one configuration, you can use it to store the tools and cooking utensils for a barbecue. With only slight modifications, you can use the same components to display potted plants, as a tray to germinate seeds or just as somewhere to store small gardening tools. 

Swedish Practicality

It says just about everything about the quality of Nisse and Kajsa Strinning’s design that more than 70 years after it won the Bonnier competition it is still in such demand. String Shelving is truly timeless Swedish Practicality in action. A simple and clean solution to the kinds of problems people meet every day. More than that, though, it is a solution that changes and grows as people change and grow.

The couple were inventing furniture designs all of their long lives, and many of their other ideas were also winners. None, however, ever matched the sustained success of “the damned shelf”, as Nisse Strinning mockingly dubbed his greatest creation.

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