The great Norwegian furniture rush

A Norwegian saying claims that you can create gold from stone. One proof of this is the booming furniture village of Sykkylven.

Why is Sykkylven such a famous name in the Norwegian furniture industry? How has this small village on the west coast given birth to international businesses like Ekornes? To find out, one might want to visit the unique Furniture Museum, which is situated right here in Sykkylven. We met up with historian Eldar Høidal for a brief tour of their impressive exhibition.
Høidal explains that the furniture industry started in the 1920s, at a point in history when there was a lot of unemployment in the Norwegian cities. People in villages like Sykkylven had to create their own jobs, and this is a part of Norway where there are long traditions of entrepreneurship – building your own business from scratch.
The locals saw that there was a great need for new furniture in the cities, and several businesses were formed, often with no more than four or five employees. Great craftmanship was of course one key to their success, but also the fact that they rationalized the manufacturing process early on, with assembly line-like setups inspired by the Henry Ford model. The most routine jobs could be done by untrained personnel, which also helped cut costs, Høidal says.

One in every other basement

Salesmen from Sykkylven travelled to other parts of the country to sell cheap, reliable furniture from Sykkylven. The village soon had a reputation as a “furniture capital”.
- As the story goes, there was a furniture business in every other basement in Sykkylven, and that’s actually not too far from the truth. In 1955 there were 120 of them in this small community, says Høidal.

Design-wise, the furniture were quite similar in the early years. Designers didn’t leave their marks here until the post-war period, when the producers saw more demand for differentiated products. After the 50s, many of the smaller businesses were consolidated, and larger ventures with high ambitions were formed.

From springs to Stressless®

Jens Ekornes started out by producing steel springs and mattresses in 1934, and soon expanded into other furniture. At first, the springs were wrapped in natural fibers and covered in fabric, which was a time-consuming process. The invention of foam changed this drastically, and helped speed up the manufacturing process. During this era, Ekornes expanded faster than any other local manufacturer. The demand for space-saving and durable furniture like sofa beds was high after the war.
The big breakthrough, of course, came with the Stressless® recliner. During the 60s and the growth of the television industry, many were looking for recliners that you could sit back and relax in for longer periods of time. Ekornes saw this and set out to create the most comfortable recliner possible. This resulted in the launch of the Stressless® Original in 1971.

- It was a brilliant idea, marrying comfort and function. Their best salesman at the time, Jens Petter Ekornes, always urged people to sit down and try the recliner before they formed an opinion. And when they did, they often agreed that it was the most comfortable chair they had sat in, says Høidal.

Høidal says that the furniture industry here is greatly indebted to the workforce, which has always gone the extra mile.

- We have a Norwegian saying that you can create gold from stone, and that just about sums up what happened here in Sykkylven. Resources were scarce, the economy was tough, but workers stood in solidarity with the factories and laid down the work that needed to be done to overcome troubled times. It’s a truly impressive story.
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