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The arts are the focus of attention as PG Nilsson, Ben Loveless, and Jockum Nordström have lunch with Pontus Silfverstolpe to discuss the ambience of three of Sweden’s greatest restaurants

11 min read

By virtue of genuine interest, unfailing curiosity and determination to create an interesting and dynamic restaurant setting for their patrons, Svenska Brasserier make dining out something more than just a culinary experience.

P.G. Nilsson is one of the principal owners of the Svenska Brasserier group of restaurants. When Sturehof acquired Riche in 2000, it was a run-down establishment.

In the eighties, years previously, Sandro Catenacci had acquired Tore Wretman-gruppen consisting of i.e. Riche and Stallmästargården restaurants for an unknown sum of millions, and then sold the most valuable art for a sum equivalent to a major part of the acquisition fee.

This may have been financially astute in the short term, but in the longer term it was less well advised. The flagship of the Stockholm restaurant scene had declined in popularity since their heyday in the 1980s, and now on top of that they had been divested of their fantastic art collection, which included original paintings signed by Bruno Liljefors, Sven X:et Erixson, Bror Hjorth and other luminaries.

“PG” realised that Riche needed to profile itself through more than just its strategic location and illustrious past, and that art was one of the ingredients of renewed successes.

Round-table discussion (from left): PG Nilsson, Pontus Silfverstolpe, Valentin Nordström, Jockum Nordström and Ben Loveless.

Ben Loveless at that time was a busboy and bartender at Tranan, another classic watering hole in Stockholm, also owned by PG. A few years after throwing in his bartending job to run the Zinc Gallery, Ben was invited to arrange art exhibitions at Riche. Under his artistic direction, the place achieved the dynamic it was aiming for, namely that of reinstating the central point of Stockholm’s social life. He now works at Galleri Nordenhake, and Calle Carboni has been entrusted with picking up where he left off. “Even if we can’t afford works by Zorn or Liljefors,” says PG, “we still want to fill our restaurants with art.”

In any case, those particular artists would perhaps not have been on the cards, given that the proprietors of Svenska Brasserier are more interested in acquiring good art from our own time.

“Both we and our restaurants are a part of the contemporary scene. We want to buy what we like and we appreciate getting to know the artists themselves.”

Ben’s first and perhaps most talked-about project is Jonas Dahlberg’s installation with surveillance cameras in the toilet, among other places. That installation triggered the debate on cocaine abuse in Stockholm restaurants and garnered full-page reviews in both Swedish and international media. The Modern Museum eventually added the work to its collections, and currently Jonas Dahlberg is very much in the news with his Memory Wound monument on Utøya Island, Norway, commemorating those massacred by Anders Breivik.

Whichever of the group’s restaurants one visits, there is always a new work of art or a new exhibition to feast one’s eyes on, at the same time as some of the art is more specific to the location.

“We were already working with art,” P.G. Nilsson continues, “when we were refurbishing the Sturehof restaurant, and even then were intent on the art we purchased remaining on the premises. There must not be any risk of art being sold off to help finance the restaurant business. For that reason, art was integrated more closely with the architecture, as with, for instance, Ernst Billgren’s murals.”

You’ve built your restaurants slowly and from the very outset art has played a pivotal role in their branding and identity. How deliberate is this on your part?

PG: “People often say that writing the business plan after the event is a good thing, but in this particular instance, our commitment to art was a supremely conscious decision.

“Several of us have shared an interest in art and believe in what that interest can give. We began working with art in the 90s. Since then, many people have seen our successes and tried to do the same thing – putting on exhibitions, collaborating with artists and galleries or buying art, but this often falls pretty flat because they don’t know why they’re doing it. With them, unlike ourselves, it doesn’t come from within. We’ve pursued this thing together, and, being a group of people, we’ve been receptive to very different kinds of art by different artists of different ages and both sexes, which makes for greater credibility.

“I also believe that liking the place where they work is tremendously important to the staff, waiting and kitchen staff included. It makes a vital contribution to the mental climate,” says Calle, who, like Ben, started off as a bartender but was ushered into the art world by other people.

The important thing to me, says Jockum, was for it to be something belonging to the restaurant, and not just advertising

Jockum Nordström is one of the artists who has been in on things right from the outset. As of April, Taverno Brillo will be serving its house wine from bottles adorned with the idiosyncratic pictorial world of this artist. Svenska Brasserier’s partnership with him began with a children’s book, the illustrations for which suddenly appeared on the menus of the legendary Stockholm restaurant Riche twelve years ago.

“Jockum became a figurehead of the new Riche,” says Ben, who was instrumental in getting that restaurant’s art development seriously underway. Music was the unifying factor in those days, and Jockum, recurrently manning the Little Bar record player, was invited to decorate everything from menus to cardboard napkin rings with his Pekka and Sailor figures.

“The important thing to me,” says Jockum, “was for it to be something belonging to the restaurant, and not just advertising.”

We are lunching together today on account of Taverna Brillo’s new wine labels and the Artworks cover design, attributed to Jockum and his son Valentin.

Jockum, have you had a free hand in this partnership?

“I look on it as an illustration job, and then you always compromise to a greater or lesser degree. In this particular case I know I have to design wine labels. That in itself imposes a limit on size, but otherwise I’ve had very much of a free hand. I’ve always felt trusted by PG, Ben and Calle in what I do, even if I’m prepared for having to do everything all over again when we’re in a meeting about my designs and Valle’s.”

“Has that ever happened?” PG asks.

“Very often in my lifetime, but not in my dealings with Svenska Brasserier.”

Calle laughs. “The original idea was for Jockum to design one label, but he and Valle came along with eight.”

“I thought,” Jockum responds, “that seeing a new label on every bottle ordered would be more fun for the diners. It widens their experience and, hopefully, the bottles will inspire new topics of conversation over the course of the evening.”

“Some artists are adamant about starting with an underlying thought, but for my own part I’m messier – I plug away and ideas come to me as I go along. I’m more like a musician improvising. For the first three days, everything sounds awful. Then I suddenly hear a chord that is just perfect, and it seems things are beginning to turn out alright. I keep building on this for a month or so until I realise it’s a dead loss,and then I change direction and something else comes out instead.”

Can the wine labels be deemed as a preview of what we’ll be seeing at your next exhibition?

“Perhaps in part, but I’m not sure. Anything can be refused. Besides, these wine labels were ‘made’ under the camera, so there isn’t really any pasted-up original – all the collages are separate.”

Your son Valentin did the graphics, with alphabetic characters and typefaces. What’s it like to be working with your son?

“Valle, as we call him, is the best person to work with. He’s best at sizing up what I’ve done, at the same time as he’s phenomenal with graphics. As you know, eight labels materialised, four for the white wine and four for the red. That was fun, because Valle could tell instantly which labels were destined for which bottles.”

What was Jockum told about the wine before he and Valle got started?

“We talked a little about the valley the wine comes from and about it being a Côtes de Rhône from the Jean Luc Colombo domaine,” Valle recalls.

“There are so many incredibly good wine labels, and a fair number of bad ones. I wanted people included on them, people of different ages and both men and women. In addition, people are shown different scenes on different labels. I want to highlight the process and ambience of people coming together, not just bottles and food.”

What has been the biggest challenge to your partnership?

“We always bargain for the possibility of our work being refused,” Valle replies. “We really take nothing for granted.”

And deadlines?

“The only time we’ve had a deadline was when Jockum designed a plate with a production run of 300, for a New Year’s eve at Riche,” Ben replies.

“Sometimes there have been budget constraints. A long time ago, when our partnership was quite new, we were designing a menu for which Jockum had created a completely new typeface with lots and lots of symbols, but it had to be scrapped. The cost was prohibitive.

“Nowadays Calle will say just how much money he can afford, which is a relief, because then I know from the very outset how much time I can spend on the job. When we did these wine labels, Valle had to be paid, just like a photographer. This kind of work isn’t overly remunerative.”

How important has this partnership been artistically?

“I don’t see this as a commercial undertaking for my part, because it comes outside the restaurant. To me it’s like collaborating with an author on a cover design or with a musician on a CD cover. Or again, carpets for Märta Måås Fjetterström. This is a branch of my artistry. It involves a good deal of compromise, but I can live with that. On the other hand, I wouldn’t care to do too much of this kind of work, even though I find it stimulating for my development. Just once or twice a year, though, it’s thrilling and enjoyable.”

Ben, you work regularly with various artists. How important is it for an artist to sometimes go “out of bounds”?

“It’s important to give an artist room to manoeuvre. I can offer advice as we go along and take part in a dialogue with the artist during the actual creative process, but I try to keep my distance until the working process has been completed.”

How do you view the interface between pictorial art and the gastronomic experience? What extra do you want to give me, the diner?

“The thing for us is to show that we take our guests seriously. If we put up posters or reproductions and phoney fittings, we’re hinting at similar goings-on in the kitchen,” says PG.

“Art has enabled many well-known restaurants, international ones especially, to create a public space. Tore Wretman was an early starter in Sweden.”

Ben chips in: “Both diners and staff need to find everything genuine – the food, the wine, the music and the art. It’s only when all that comes together that we’ve created a cultural institution.”

Would you call this public art?

“I think of public art as something specific to a place, whereas the art in our restaurants has a dialogue with the guests and the milieu – they activate each other. Public art, though, more often than not, is meant to be permanent and has to withstand a lot of wear and tear.

“When we talk about public art, often it is someone else who has decided what’s to be put where and what it means,” Ben continues, “whereas the art in our restaurants is more social in character.”

“The food comes first,” says Jockum, “and people, and the art follows.”