Emma Olbers on The Old Library of Sweden’s Nationalmuseum

That Old Library, where material from Nationalmuseum’s Art Library and archives is exhibited, emerges as a highlight of the broader revamp—and standing entirely on its own—speaks to the depth of its exquisitely done interior.

Part of a Sweeping Overhaul of Sweden’s Nationalmuseum, the Old Library Is Refreshed for a New Century With Sustainable Interiors by Emma Olbers

Read the room at the Old Library at Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden and one discovers the virtues of vibrant, sustainably-minded design. Part of a broader five-year effort to renovate and rebuild Sweden’s national gallery—one of the best-preserved 19th-century specimens in Europe—Old Library was built in the past, but with designer Emma Olbers at the helm of its interiors, focused on the future.

Given that the mannerly Nationalmuseum was for most of its years gradual, only coming around to installing electricity in 1931, more than six decades after the gallery opened in 1863, the swift and committed orientation toward the current moment feels a bit radical. Rare is a wait so worthy. To meet the needs of a modern arts institution, Nationalmuseum underwent improvements that included the opening of windows to accommodate heaps of natural light that is central to the overall renovation; repainting display rooms in contemporary colors; and creating space to accommodate more visitors and the simultaneous showing of the museum’s collection of 700,000 art objects set in new historical contexts. 

Instructed to design a room for reflection, rest, and small exhibitions, Emma Olbers aimed to show visitors the look and feel of good materials. “Why good materials?” she asks. “I have always focused on sustainability.” In particular climate and the importance of limiting greenhouse gases, particularly where it concerns furniture production, where materials account for around 50 percent of total carbon emissions.

“Material really is the key when it comes to sustainability and furniture,” explains Emma Olbers, who thoughtfully explored sustainable furniture production via her exhibition at the Swedish Furniture Fair 2016, “Where does it come from, where does it go.” Her commitment to this exploration is central to the Old Library.

“We really wanted to use material with low carbon, like softwood, and fast-growing fibers—for example, seagrass and hemp. We also wanted to show finishes that do that the furniture age with grace and are easy to maintain, like flax oil.”

In not using any mass-produced industrial leather, which she says is 300 times more CO2e than a material, such as birch, or other environmental culprits harmful to Earth systems, Emma Olbers gives credence to modern design with unimpeachable climate credentials.

Throughout the space, hits of library-inspired green suggest environmental association, but this is not entirely the point. The use of green also references the museum’s book collection and the commonly felt mood one experiences in a library generally. “I felt that Old Library is often a peaceful place, so I wanted to create even more of that library feeling,” explains Emma Olbers.

“When I closed my eyes and looked for libraries in my head, green was the first color that came up. I also thought green would help the whole interior to ‘land,’ to make it stable,” she adds. The table, made of pine, lends the space a sense of grounding that complements the palette.

Within the historical strictures of the space—the inability to in any way revise the large bookshelf or the wall colors, for example—Emma Olbers appointed a series of interesting contemporary pieces to help streamline the space’s more voluminous antique components. Among the most interesting juxtapositions include leggy Library Lamps by Swedish design studio Front snaking up wood shelving in clever fashion.

Featuring heavy bases and mushroom-like tops, the lighting reimagines the classic green Clerk lamps of the libraries, banks, and offices of old. Emma Olbers also enlisted small Sweden studios to help finish the space.

Made with home design brand Asplund, for instance, Olbers’ hand-knotted Biblioteket rug reflects the spirit of Old Library, showcasing a motif that reinterprets the designer’s initial sketches for the space, with three arches and large windows. It’s a piece that complements newly laid oak parquet flooring, as well as contemporary oak armchairs, also designed by Olbers.

The mix of period architecture and modern designs liberates Old Library from convention while still respecting the original source material. The seamlessness of the result speaks to Emma Olbers’ rich understanding of the space and how to bring it into the present.

“I think you want to respect to the heritage of the interior while at the same time leaving something from this time to the future,” she says.

The main takeaway from her design calculations—and broader environmental intentions—is how to create a visually unified, eco-friendly environment inside a centuries-old interior. In this, the space is more case study than library.

“Today it feels even more important to show consumers how good quality and good environmental furniture looks like,” says Emma Olbers. She might have added, better than ever.

Emma Olbers | emmaolbers.com

Photograph: Nationalmuseum/Bruno Ehrs

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