By Tara Jenkins
Stockholm native Alexis Holm is describing his countrymen’s fondness for surströmming, or rotten herring: “The fermentation process expands the can, so when you open it, it explodes!” he explains. “It smells like a sewer, and tastes like it smells because of the fermentation: a mixture of ammonia and a little bit of spice. I only tried it recently, and hated it!”
He may not be a fan of this particular delicacy, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another Scandinavian in Hong Kong so wholly absorbed in all things Swedish. Arriving in Asia six years ago at the suggestion of a fellow designer, Alexis began by designing funky footwear and quickly diversified into making sunglasses, jewellery and watches – all unmistakably original, and with an elegant Scandi vibe. Now his original retail space in Sheung Wan’s Square Street has been joined by a second premises around the corner, to showcase his current passion: antique Swedish ceramics. Alexis sources each unique porcelain piece from an online auction site in Sweden, his father wraps and posts them, and Hong Kongers can purchase a beautiful little piece of Swedish history to sit on their own coffee table.
“I owned a collection of exquisite cobalt blue ceramics from the 1940s called Blue Fire – coffee cups and bowls – which inspired me to start importing pieces,” explains Alexis. “Once I’d been in Hong Kong for a while, I suddenly became interested in everything Swedish. When you live in Sweden you don’t appreciate your surroundings, but I go back to Stockholm now and think how beautiful everything is: the landscape, the architecture. I’d love to return permanently but I need to save some cash, so I can buy a place there, and a place here – then I can divide my time between Sweden and Hong Kong!”
For now, Alexis and his Hong Kongborn partner Jan – and two energetic dogs – live in a tiny rented flat, a stone’s throw from the Square Street shop. The little space is packed full of treasures, which have either been in Alexis’s family for years, or found along the way. Two of the framed pictures hanging on the walls of the sitting room, for instance – a delicately painted, beautifully observed botanical watercolour and an expansive, bold sketch of a village street – were painted respectively by Alexis’s mother and grandfather. “On my mother’s side all my relatives are classically trained artists; my mother herself, her brothers and her father,” explains Alexis. “My grandfather started off drawing in the army, doing pencil sketches of soldiers in the platoons, and even now at 90, he still paints using everything from watercolour to oils. He’s incredibly talented, and a true artist.”
The precious family heirlooms are hung alongside a huge antique map of the Swedish archipelago, which rubs shoulders with a contemporary mirror from Organic Modernism, some quirky black-and-white photographs, and a couple of gorgeous cobalt-coloured ceramic plates from the same Blue Fire collection as the coffee cups. Dotted around the room are traditional Dala horses – little wooden equine figures painted in various colours to represent different areas of Sweden. The artwork is emblematic of Alexis’s unique decorating style: the curating of antique, retro and modern pieces from several different cultures to create an eclectic mix, which somehow work perfectly all together.
The compact dining table is a classic 1950s Swedish design, which Alexis has given an original twist by combining with Marc Newson chairs, found years ago in a sale at OVO. The sofa is a modern piece, but is flanked by the most exquisite little painted side-table. Alexis picked it up during a road trip around Dalarna, north of Stockhom. “The table dates from 1904, and was designed to store jewellery – the lid lifts up, and there are compartments inside for different-sized pieces,” explains Alexis. “The hand-painting technique is an old Swedish one called Kurbits, and if you look closely, you can see the wood is painted too, not just the flowers. The piece literally glows.”
Alexis loves mid-century modern furniture; he used to have a far larger collection, including a large sideboard from Denmark and an elegant teak sofa, but Mei Mei the dog relentlessly chewed the legs and so eventually it had to be sold! Illuminating the flat are two stunning industrial-style ceiling lights, which Alexis shipped from Sweden but has adapted in his own style: “They’re supposed to have plastic grilles at the bottom, but they were ugly, so I took them off!”
The pieces all sit in 350 square feet, which is essentially two rooms: a kitchen/diner/ sitting room, and a tiny bedroom with ensuite bathroom. Alexis sought permission from the landlady and renovated the flat himself. “I took a sledgehammer and bashed in the whole kitchen sink; it was moulded into the wall, with steel supports!” he laughs. “I replaced it with a much nicer one from IKEA, and tiled the wall around it with light blue mosaics to make it look more contemporary. I also updated the floor with new wood-effect laminate; much better than wood itself, which changes in the humidity and is more expensive. But I would never do that again, it was such hard work!”
His masterstroke was to wallpaper the alcove that sits directly behind the dining table with a beautiful paper he found on a Swedish website. “The wallpaper is over 100 years old, and is embossed with gold,” explains Alexis. “It looks Japanese, but actually dates from the Jugend or Art Nouveau period at the turn of the century – the Asian aesthetic was very popular in Central Europe then.” The sophisticated paper tones beautifully with the warm wood of the Marc Newson chairs and the wooden legs of the Swedish table, and makes a very special feature of the dining nook.
Swedish food – surströmming aside – is another of Alexis’s passions. “Sverige Shoppen in Salisbury Road, TST, is the closest you can get to genuine Swedish fare in Hong Kong,” he says. “It’s undeniably expensive, but the owner’s wife works for Finnair, so they get good deals on importing the produce. At home I like to cook simple, filling dishes like pyttipanna, a stir-fried meat and diced potato dish, or stuvade makaroner, a macaroni dish cooked in milk. Unfortunately, my girlfriend finds Swedish food too heavy: after two spoonsful of the stuff she couldn’t eat anymore!”
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Alexis’ flat is that the décor is completely unexpected: the Swedish curios and heirloom pieces are not the logical choice for a Scandinavian designer with a self-confessed love of clean lines and pared-back style, but Alexis’s design aesthetic is elegance with a quirky twist.
Downstairs in the shop, his footwear brand, Gram, consists of beautifully made shoes, but look closely and you’ll see they’re rather unusual. “We try to design something that is recognisable, but also new and special, using fabrics other brands wouldn’t dare use: exotic materials like wools, polyesters, unusual weaves or softshell waterproof,” explains Alexis. “I like to think of them as funky shoes with Scandinavian style! The best sellers aren’t always our most expressive styles – men particularly are traditionally conservative – but sometimes something catches on which is unexpected.” The stylish Minuteman watches too are constructed from unusual materials, and have a pleasing Mad Men aesthetic. “It’s acetate plastic, the same material they make sunglasses out of,” explains Alexis. “It comes in slabs and you have to CNC, lathe it, then polish it – it doesn’t just hop out of a mould”.
Conversely, the newer line he’s just designed, Aluminum, is closer to what you’d expect: “This design is elegant and clean and weighs almost nothing because it’s made from aluminium. When you hold the buckle in your hand, for example, it’s like it doesn’t exist,” says Alexis. Across the road in the other retail space, the antique Swedish ceramics are a pleasing counterpoint to the dramatic jewellery that hangs on the wall. This jewellery isn’t Alexis’s – he imports it from a designer called Cornelia Webb in Sweden, and there are a few pieces from Faux/Real New York – but each piece is fiercely cutting-edge. The dramatic, draped pieces are reminiscent of body armour or chain mail, and the bracelets and chokers are coolly industrial and very striking.
Alexis’s mind is still working overtime about combining the ceramics and jewellery with another line of products from Sweden, and he’s busy developing new products for the Square Street shop: this time, a line of jewellery based on jigsaw puzzles. “I’ll design anything as long as I can do a good job,” he shrugs. Indeed, everything he does is driven by the thrill of creating something new and beautiful; the desire to make money isn’t high on Alexis’ list of priorities. “If you want to sell high volumes and make a huge amount of money, you shouldn’t be a designer,” he says. “The people who own the most successful brands are traditionally businessmen or women who come up with an idea, then brief a designer to create it. At the end of the day, what I do is about personal satisfaction. I’m from Sweden, remember! A good life is much more important.”
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