The Magic of the Lamp

Looking at it, I’m finding it hard to see where the light is emanating from. As far as I can tell, the ceiling lamp is made up of three tiered shades, and so only emits reflected light. Each of the shades is moulded at a different angle or contour, and each is of a different size and shape. Although clearly made out of the same material—steel—they each glow a different colour in the light emenating somewhere mysteriously from the inside of the object.

The lamp I was describing is the now (in)famous Poul Henningsen lamp, or PH-lamp, as it’s affectionately referred to by Danes and design enthusiasts alike. First produced in 1923, it neatly sums up all the ideals of what is now commonly known as ‘the Scandinavian Style’: functionality, simplicity and beauty. Still in production after ninety years, recent estimates suggest that one in three Danes have either this lamp or one of its sister-versions hanging in their front room.

Scandinavian design, however, is not just popular at home, but also reigns supreme abroad. The blue-and-yellow word ‘IKEA’ comes distinctly to mind, but shops such as Habitat, John Lewis and even Sainsbury’s derive many of their homeware designs from Scandinavian models. Does the popularity of Scandinavian design tell us anything about the cultures of the five Nordic countries?


The term itself originates in the 1950s, from the name of a travelling exhibition—‘Scandinavian Design’—that toured the United States and Canada over five years in order to show off the latest in Northern European chic. Indeed, the idea itself is part cultural myth: particularly in the case of Finland, promotion of a distinct design aesthetic abroad was a form of ‘soft politics’ in the tense era of the Cold War. Sparse, stripped back designs represented both the bleak post-war era faced by the Scandinavian countries, as well as mythologizing cultural stereotypes of hardiness and resilience. Ilmari Tapiovaara, a key player in post-war Finnish design, claimed that ‘scarcity will create its own style’, and definine new cultural identities for the countries on the periphery of the Soviet Union.

Domestic politics also played a role in the success of Scandinavian design. The dominance of social democracy in the five countries—in Sweden, the Social Democrats governed for forty years non-stop—promoted the idea that cheap, well-designed and stylish household goods should be available to all. Design became political, representing the concrete expression of an ideology of social transformation. Perhaps the apex of this trend was the so-called ‘Million Programme’ in Sweden which, between 1965-1974, built over a million new homes for a booming population. A key feature of the program was the integration of public services into the apartment blocks—something that pre-dated European-wide adoption of similar features. The homes are so cherished that many have been restored to cope with the demands of the 21st century. Here, ‘design’ meant more than just good-looking consumer goods: it meant the active improvement of peoples’ lives.

Social housing in Sweden
Social housing in Sweden, part of the Million Programme

The Scandie effect

But do the sharp, anaethetised designs emanating from Europe’s cold northern rim say something deeper about Scandinavian cultural identity? It’s certainly tempting to read something of a Puritan aesthetic into the muted, clean lines of, say, the PH lamp. Critics have also noted the impact of geography within Scandinavian design, particularly on its glassware, and many Scandinavian craftsmen have acknowledged the influence of the distinctive, stark landscape on their work.

Grisslehamn, Sweden

For whatever reason, there is definitely something about the Scandinavian design ethic which appeals. One author of a 1952 article on design notes that ‘one is struck by the large proportion of the population that makes designing a profession.’ Small workshops, and a tradition of factory-floor participation in management decisions—for example, in the making of Saab cars—perhaps translate into a design that is not only elegant, but also better adapted for everyday use. Perhaps it’s this spirit of democracy and cooperation that is in fact the hidden light behind the success of Scandinavian design.

A City Sprung from Marshes

As there’s so much you shouldn’t believe about Russia, at first it seemed facetious to ask you to believe what I say. But, it’s probably safer than most things as I’ve literally been there, done that and, yes, bought the t-shirt.

After living in many different countries all my childhood, I have decided to write about Russia. It is completely different from the UK in so many ways: from the scenery to the language, from the climate to the culture. Moscow (where I lived for two years as a child) is a beautiful and interesting city, but it doesn’t represent the nation’s spirit. So, we shall now go far beyond it, over the Urals and into Western Siberia, to a city sprung from marshes, forests, lakes and people’s hard work: Tyumen. This is the place I write about because I have spent the last four summers in it and part of my family lives there, so I know it much more intimately than any other place in Russia.

Personally, I think Siberia is the most exciting, wild, cultured and little-known part of the country.

There, I have visited forests so huge that a large part of them remains unexplored by humans. Edible mushrooms with caps bigger than an outstretched hand grow there, along with clusters of scarlet stone berries, cranberries and whortleberries.

There, lakes are tucked away in secretive corners, where we have fished, and then ate what we caught after cooking it on a fire by the lakeside. Some fish of the Tyumen region can only be found in Siberia, for example, Muksun and Nelma (members of the salmon family). Many Russians eat it as a delicate-tasting dish, stroganina, made out of the raw, frozen and spiced fish.

Something which is completely unfamiliar to the English is a ‘dacha’. This is an allotment of land, outside the city, which is used as a combination of garden and vegetable plot, so that it both a means of producing food and a place to relax. What is unusual is that there is a house on the land, where part or even all of the summer is spent, and much of the spring and autumn as well. Another important aspect of ‘dacha’ is the ‘banya’. The closest thing I can compare it to is a sauna, but with very high humidity, which is achieved by throwing water over the hot stones. Bunches of leaves from birches, oaks, pines and other trees are wafted for healing purposes.

There are extreme temperatures in Tyumen, it’s true. In winter, it isn’t unusual for the temperature to fall to -30 or -40 degrees Centigrade. Far less famously, it is normal for the temperature in summer to rise to +30 or +40 degrees.

Although Tyumen is a modern, powerful centre of oil and gas industry, the city has a long history, beginning with its foundation in 1586. Its location was chosen for ease of defense, as it is bordered by the river Tura on one side and a deep ravine on another (as our granddad once said on an evening walk along the embankment). Reminders of this history are all around the city, like the plain cross which stands in the centre of one of the squares and marks the site of the first settlement there. Wooden buildings with traditionally carved wooden shutters nestle between concrete office blocks, strange and yet so right.

I was interested by the bone carvings made by the native peoples of the Far North on display at the Museum of Visual Arts which present beauty in simplicity. In contrast to the carvings, the recent exhibitions of Orthodox icons (some of them dating from the 1800s) demonstrate the rich society of those years, when the icons were made of gold and silver.

Think of the dramatic political, social, economic and cultural changes that the local people lived through. The city has a multitude of ‘Palaces of Culture’ (concert halls that also include clubs and cultural events), museums with exhibitions ranging from oil, gas and geology to natural history to art, and churches (including Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, mosques), not to mention a Philharmonic Society (a large concert hall with other functions).

Another attraction outside the city is the hot mineral springs. They are considered to be very good for health, so the water is channeled from the geysers into swimming pools so that people may bathe in it. My grandparents go in the winter, when the contrast between the cold air and hot water is very pleasant, but I found it a little too hot in the summer.

If some people know about all of the things above, then hardly anyone has thought of this: the world famous scientist Dmitriy Mendeleyev, who put together the periodic table of chemical elements, came from Tyumen region.

Bref. Je suis étudiante de MML à Cambridge.

‘Bref’ (‘In short’) is a popular French TV show, in which an anonymous,
unemployed thirty-something recounts aspects of his life in humorous three
minute clips.

Bref. Je suis étudiante de MML à Cambridge.

La vie, c’est super—je regarde des films avec des sous-titres, je lis des livres osés, et des vacances à l’étranger sont fortement conseillées. Tout ça, c’est du travail.

J’ai un gros dictionnaire Oxford-Hachette sur mon étagère. Je ne l’ai jamais utilisé, mais je le garde pour montrer à mes amis que je suis sérieuse. Quand je tape ‘w’ sur mon ordi j’arrive tout de suite sur le site de wordreference.

Il n’y a qu’un garçon dans ma classe de grammaire. Pendant le cours j’imagine souvent des Français fascinés par le rare et bizarre spectacle des Anglais qui se parlent en français. Dans ma tête, je sais qu’ ils se marrent de nos ‘petits accents mignons’.

Une fois, j’ai pris un café de la machine au premier étage de la faculté. Plus jamais. Ensuite j’ai essayé de passer au bureau du Year Abroad. Il n’était pas ouvert. J’ai réessayé le lendemain. Et le jour d’après.

À la fin j’ai choisi ma destination grâce aux photos facebook de quelqu’un qui y était l’année précédente. C’était un bon choix.

J’ai oublié comment former le passé simple pendant mon année en France. Pourtant, j’ai bien appris comment former des monacos, des kirs royaux, des ptits punchs…

Quand j’étais en France, les gens me demandaient sans cesse pourquoi les Anglaises se mettent en mini jupe lorsqu’il fait hyper froid. Je répondais toujours que c’était qu’un gros cliché, en baissant la mienne.

Maintenant lorsque je surprends des touristes français à Cambridge, je souris. Surtout quand ils sont en train de râler du froid, des prix d’entrée ou de la bouffe.

Des fois quand je cherche la définition d’un mot assez dur en français, je tombe sur le même mot en anglais. Ça m’énerve.

Je ne sais pas quoi faire après la fac. Devenir espionne internationale, vedette multilingue ou voyageuse professionnelle me plairait beaucoup je pense.

Mais en fin de compte, il y a plein de choses que je kiffe ici. Mes amis, la ville, même les cours (au moins ceux qui ne sont pas à 9h). Je serai très triste de partir… même si la vie de polyglotte mondiale me paraît bien tentante.

Bref. Je suis étudiante de MML à Cambridge.

A Year Abroad in Moscow

The homestay. What better way to truly experience Russia? You don’t want tourism, you want realism. You close your eyes and put your hands in the life of an online company who promise to find you a host and a home for a month. You’ll get better at Russian, and that’s pretty much all that’s guaranteed. You’ll have ‘a Russian experience’, which is a very ambiguous phrase.

And so I move in with Lyubov.

Fiery red hair, gravelly voice: she’s not going to take shit from anyone and she has seven locks on her door just to make sure. She is the most wonderfully eccentric and fantastic woman, and her name literally means ‘Love’. England has the same trend of taking names from virtues too—Grace, Joy, Hope—but they’re all a bit wishy-washy. In Russia they go straight for the jugular.

As soon as I arrive I realise the catch: I’m sleeping in her room. Not with her, which is probably a good thing, but then she’s moved into the sitting room to sleep on the sofa, and that leaves me with a healthy dose of guilt from day one. I never thought I’d be the kind of guy who forces an old lady to sleep on a sofa. I’m learning every day. So I’m in her bed, with its electric-blue satin sheets, the porcelain cats and cherubs watching me from corners of the room, Jesus looking down at me from above my head, tapestries of bears playing in a wood near Smolensk on the walls, and lacy curtains hiding a view of the local karaoke club, where I know that what goes on is definitely not karaoke or they’d never allow karaoke at children’s parties.

I’ve opted to cook for myself, but nonetheless Lyubov insists on making me the odd meal. Again that phrase ‘a Russian experience’ is thrown out there. But it suits me fine for the first few days, because the endless supply of home-grown apples, onions and potatoes from her last dacha visit has limited my designated fridge space to three square inches. And, to be fair, some of her food is quite tasty. The pumpkin porridge is a triumph. But then the red onion and kidney bean mulch needs a bit of work, and cranberries take all the fun out of an apple pie. And I challenge the politest man in the world to finish a glass of kefir without choking and saying ‘I think there’s something wrong with your milk.’

I learn Lyubov’s household rules by trial and error. When you make a mistake, you learn the rule and remember for next time. It’s a lot like grammar. You wash your hands on arrival. You always leave your keys on the hook. Under no circumstances do you put a spoon in the fridge.

Once a week a very small Tadjik mystic comes to tell her fortune. For a modest fee. I know when he’s coming over because Lyubov boils up a pot of special tea. They go into her study and shut the door. I wish I knew what goes on in there but sadly I never will. All I know is that he can only see into the future short-term because he comes every week. And seeing as Lyubov’s fate remains largely the same, he presumably doesn’t have much trouble finding things to predict. He may have fooled her but he knows I’m on to him. I pass him in the hallway as he stuffs his rubles into his pocket and puts on his boots, and he gives me a look that says ‘Don’t rat me out, mate’. The first thing Lyubov said to me when I moved in was that I should always be careful not to get mugged by a Tadjik. I’d point this out to her but it might look cheeky. Also, I don’t want to cross a mystic. He has the power to make my life very difficult: if he decides to sense an evil presence in Lyubov’s house then I’m gone.

When the mystic is gone I ask Lyubov what he said. He told her ‘she should be careful with her money’. The man clearly has an excellent sense of humour.

I live out of my suitcase because the cupboard is full of Lyubov’s things. When the day arrives when it’s all starting to fester and get a bit nasty I ask her if she has a washing machine. She pretty much laughs in my face. She has a friend over at the time and she laughs at me too. Lyubov says something that I don’t fully understand. It probably translates roughly as ‘Man up, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and wash your clothes in the bath.’

As I prepare to bathe my pants and socks, Lyubov comes to my rescue with her secret weapon: a portable, miniature clothes-washing apparatus. It looks like a phone-charger with a black plastic teardrop on the end of the wire, about the size of a spoon-head. Lyubov assures me that it cleans clothes perfectly well. We fill up a plastic tub with water and detergent and tip my washing in. We plug in the contraption and she places the end in the water. I watch it, expecting it to spring to life. Nothing happens. No noise, no vibrating, the water doesn’t move, nothing. Apparently we leave it for an hour and it washes everything. I’m not convinced. I shut it in the bathroom—perhaps it doesn’t like being watched. I look it up on Google and I can’t find any evidence that phone-charger washing machines exist. The Tadjik mystic must have sold it to her.

After an hour the water is brown, which is progress, I think, but the black plastic teardrop still sits there, looking at me smugly and doing nothing. I poke it and Lyubov tells me to leave it alone. I retreat to my room.

In the end the clothes are as clean as any clothes that have sat in stagnant, tepid, soapy water for two hours. It’ll have to do. Now it’ll probably be a week until they’re dry. I sneak a look at the instructions for this magic washer. They’re very long and I can’t be bothered to translate them, suffice to say that if it actually was a genuine gadget for cleaning clothes, we certainly didn’t use it properly. Part of me thinks it was just a washing machine extension cord.

Lyubov used to be a teacher of Russian literature and language. As well as being extremely useful for me, as it allows me to have long chats in about the books I’m reading, which is great all-round practice, it also means she has a few students who pop in and out from time to time for lessons. On one of my poorly-timed hall crossings I meet one of these pupils as she’s leaving. She’s an English-speaking girl, so I make my usual small talk about how badly I speak Russian and how well she speaks English and what I’m doing in Moscow. It’s a nice enough chat, but then I see Lyubov scurry pass with a sly smile on her face and a scheme visibly forming in her head. Curse my natural charm. I tell the girl that my samovar has boiled and escape to the shelter of the kitchen. I hear the two of them giggling conspiratorially in the foyer.

A few minutes later, in comes Lyubov.

‘You know the best way to get really good at Russian?’

Here it comes.

‘Get a Russian girlfriend.’

I laugh it off and tell her that I already have an English girlfriend, which is why my English is so good. That outstanding piece of humour completely passes her by. She asks me if I like the girl and I say she’s pleasant. She tells me that the girl is sixteen and wealthy and I wonder if she’s testing my moral compass. Regardless, next time she comes over Lyubov is determined to make sure we become friends. Who knows, maybe we could go to a museum together? I make a mental note of the day and the time so I know when to be out of the house.

A week on I know she’s still working on that particular scheme so I have to be on my guard. If Dostoyevsky has taught me one thing, it’s that older ladies love to matchmake naive men. But then if it’s taught her one thing, it’s that students murder landladies with axes, so hopefully she won’t press the matter.

Lyubov is wonderful. I’ve got two more weeks with her, so it’s not over yet, but I’ll miss her when I’m gone. She probably won’t miss me because she’ll be glad to have her bed back. I’ve heard her laughing with her friends at my idiotic, bumbling Englishness, which makes me feel less bad about thrusting her into the blogosphere without her knowledge. I’ve gambled and I’m confident that she isn’t a blogger. Even if she is, it doesn’t matter, because this piece is a tribute to how delightfully quirky she is and how much fun it’s been living with her. She’s taught me so much: about Russia, Russian culture, the food, the outlook, the literature, all of it. I feel like I’m her protégé. I’m certainly her fan. You could even call me her lyubovnik*. And when you start pulling Russian puns like that out of the bag, you can be sure you’ve learned something.

* I’m not her lyubovnik.