22 March 2022

The Birgitta lampshades

Hairy wood-rush, mountain melick, common bent, wavy hair-grass… And liverleaf, wood sorrel and many other small leaves. Vanja Sorbon Malmsten shows some of her dried grasses and leaves. She picks them in spring during walks on Årstafältet, in the archipelago, and on Öland, and of course around Bandhagen where she lives and has her workshop.

The grasses are at their most beautiful from April until midsummer. Once they are picked, they are placed between newspaper pages under a weight for a few days. Then they are glued onto light paper and become the loveliest lampshades; small classics in Swedish furnishing. Made completely by hand and with a unique pattern of hand-picked and hand-dried plants.

“Collecting the plants is perhaps the funnest part”, says Vanja when I visit her in her workshop.

The Birgitta lampshades were created in the 1950s by Birgitta Sorbon Malmsten, Carl Malmsten’s daughter-in-law, and have since then been made by hand by different members of the family. When Birgitta died in 1973, just before her granddaughter Vanja was born, her husband Egil Malmsten took over. Egil continued making the lampshades in his basement in Bergshamra outside Stockholm. And he tried early on to involve his granddaughter Vanja in the production.

Takpendeln Kjolen.

Ceiling Pendulum Skirt.

Vanja Sorbon Malmsten i sin verkstad.

Vanja Sorbon Malmsten in her workshop.

“When my sister and I were small, we could earn some money by going out to pick beautiful grasses. Grandpa explained what he wanted, and he gave us 10 öre (1 pence) for each hairy wood-rush, which was a favourite. As a teenager, I helped him weld the lamp frames, but as a young adult I wanted to do something else. I travelled, went to art schools and had a family,” Vanja says.

But Egil asked her again and in 2008, she was ready to take over. To start with, Vanja and her grandfather worked together. She learned to use the machinery, the technique, and all the steps.

The first is to cut the wires, bend them, and weld them into frames. They are then laquered white by a company nearby.

The thin pergamyn paper, which she buys in large sheets from Germany, resemble greaseproof paper. Vanja measures and cuts suitable sizes for the frames. When we visit, she is laying out pointed ovals for the round lampshades on the table and applying glue on them.

There are four layers of paper with glue in between, and the plants are placed between the two last layers.

“I follow my instinct and measure by eye; there are no templates. I select the plants that I think are beautiful and keep trying until I am satisfied”, she explains.

Vanja placerar ut växterna på det som ska bli lampskärmar.

Vanja places the plants on what will be lampshades.

The sticky ovals are then glued to the frame, where they are left to dry under supervision. The paper becomes smooth, nature shows itself, and soon the finished lamp will shine for us.
Most of the models are the same ones that her grandparents introduced, but Vanja has also made some designs of her own. Like Ovalen and Matilda, named after her daughter.

It takes between one and a half and two hours to make a lampshade, depending on size. Vanja doesn’t know exactly how many lampshades she produces in one year, but definitely several hundreds. And the orders are increasing. Not least since the Malmsten shop started selling online. For the shop on Humlegårdsgatan in Stockholm, the Birgitta lamp shades are by far the best-selling product.

“At the moment, I am incredibly busy”, says Vanja and looks quite pleased when she shows pinned up notes with all the orders.

Text: Dan Gordan

Bordslampa Mandarin.

Table Lamp Mandarin.