‘Everything has a prehistory, and this one is about laziness and wire’ is Swedish design professor Kerstin Wickman’s analysis of the origins of the String shelving system. There was an element of serendipity to the success of this classic, for the concept was already half-formed in the mind of its creator Nils ‘Nisse’ Strinning (1917–2006) when, in 1949, Swedish publisher Bonnier launched a competition to design a bookcase for its affordable editions.
Strinning, then a young architecture student, had already designed one of the world’s earliest dish racks for a company named Elfa. Made of the then newly invented plastic-coated wire, its basket-like structure formed the basis for the String system’s ladder framework, which Strinning developed with his wife Kajsa, a fellow architect. He later claimed to have had his ‘eureka’ moment for the design while sitting on the loo.
Bonnier received 194 entries in the competition, but the Strinnings’ design was a clear winner: affordable, easy to assemble and versatile. Its wood veneer shelves could be placed on any of the ladder rungs to suit the height of the owner’s books – a simple idea, elegantly executed. To say that the String system was a hit would be an understatement.In Europe, it has sold more units than any other Swedish furniture design, and in1950s Colombia, shelf deliveries were paid for in emeralds. There was a temporary dip in fortunes in the 1970s, however, when the design fell out of fashion, and even Strinning began referring to his masterwork as ‘those bloody shelves’. Production ceased at this time, but the pendulum eventually swung back. By the time Swedish entrepreneurs Peter Erlandsson and Pär Josefsson revived the String brand in 2005, the shelves were a cult buy.
To celebrate the relaunch of his work, Strinning created the ‘String Pocket’ – a smaller version of his classic – at the age of 88. Since his death, the brand he left behind has continued to launch new products, including its ‘String Works’ office storage and the ‘String +’ accessories by Anna Von Schewen and Björn Dahlström, which bring the company back to its roots, as they bear a resemblance to Strinning’s dish rack.
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration March 2018