The unusual way Sweden once solved its housing crisis and boosted living conditions



“The good home knows no privilege or neglect, no favourites and no stepchildren,” proclaimed Swedish Social Democrat Per Albin Hansson in 1928. “In the good home, equality, caring, cooperation and helpfulness prevail.”


This was the dream of Folkhemmet (The People’s Home) – comprised of the “great home” of the Swedish nation and the “small home” of each citizen – which would, in Hansson’s words, “signify the breaking down of all social and economic barriers which now divide citizens into privileged and disadvantaged, rulers and dependents, rich and poor, propertied and impoverished, exploiters and exploited.”


For the majority of working-class Swedes who had flocked to urban areas starting in the 1920s and were living in crowded, squalid and often dangerous conditions, this ideal “good home” was indeed a dream.


“During the first decades of the 20th century, Sweden had one of the lowest standards of housing in Europe. In cities and towns, around a third of the inhabitants lived five or more persons in small one- or two-room apartments,” explained Maria Göransdotter of Umeå University in her 2012 article, A Home for Modern Life: Educating taste in 1940s Sweden.


“Despite a surge in housing construction and an increase in real wages for workers over the course of the 1920s, affordable, hygienic and spatially adequate housing was beyond the means of the vast majority,” architect Lucy Creagh wrote in her 2011 article, From acceptera to Vällingby: The Discourse on Individuality and Community in Sweden (1931-54). “The fact that almost 70 percent of all dwellings lacked proper bathing facilities and 60 percent had no central heating only exacerbated a housing problem reported at the time to be the worst in Europe.”


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Resolving the housing crisis and improving living conditions were therefore central to the creation of the People’s Home. But rather than address the issue through the single solution of mass urban housing development, Sweden took a more nuanced approach that put at least some of the responsibility for improving living conditions on Swedish citizens themselves.


Beginning in the 1930s and particularly following the end of World War Two in 1945, Sweden’s strategy for realizing Folkhemmet included a highly organized national campaign of “home reform” and “taste education” designed to bring the country into a collective and uniform modernity one home at a time.


“The centrality of the housing question in the socio-political agenda was a strongly contributing factor for establishing the home as one of the most important arenas for, and concepts in, social and material reform in the mid-20th century,” according to Göransdotter. “Specifically, the reform efforts concerned the domestic interior, and aimed at promoting a new and modern way of using and decorating the home through advice literature, educational efforts and legislation.”


Through this programme of social education, it was instilled in average Swedes that modern citizenship began in the home, and an outdated, poorly organized, and “ugly” home that did not exhibit a certain level of uniformity reflected similar attributes in the individual. It was made clear that in each home, “There should also exist a correspondence between the degree of modernity, the awareness of social and political issues, and the level of taste,” Göransdotter explains.


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These principles of Swedish Modernism – also called functionalism – were rooted in the philosophy of Swedish intellectual and writer Ellen Key (1849-1926) who, Creagh writes, “proposed that beauty in the home was as essential to the democratic cause as employment, better working conditions and educational reforms, for beauty was the innate and common longing of all people, a necessity that transcended the logic of class and wealth.” 


The campaign to indoctrinate Swedes with these principles, which would help them achieve “ideal” homes and, by extension, become “ideal” citizens, was defined by specific standards and clear visual models. One way these were perpetuated was via exhibitions designed “to spread good taste and make propaganda for a better way of living and furnishing the home,” according to Göransdotter.



The NK-Bo exhibition in 1947. Photo: SvD/TT


After World War Two, specialty departments like NK-Bo in the Nordiska Kompaniet (NK) department store in Stockholm also spread the Swedish vision for the ideal home to citizens through model interiors not unlike what we find in Ikea today.


Though the contrast between the images of how an actual working-class family lived in Swedish cities in the 1940s and how such families were being educated to live seem to represent an unbridgeable chasm, history has demonstrated just how effective these tactics were.


“This period saw the development and implementation of the Folkhem model for housing provision, a model recognised as one of the most effective in the world,” explain scholars Karin Grundström and Irene Molina in their 2016 article, From Folkhem to lifestyle housing in Sweden. “The Folkhem programme eliminated a national housing shortage and by the early 1970s had achieved decent housing conditions for the entire population of Sweden as well as a high housing standard.”


Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.





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