Traditional to Contemporary
The American Swedish Institute is bridging generations
What happens when you combine turn-of-the-century architecture with contemporary Nordic design? You get one of the most enjoyable cultural shopping experiences you could hope for at the American Swedish Institute Museum Shop in Minneapolis.
A vibrant arts and cultural center, the American Swedish Institute (ASI) honors the region’s Swedish and Nordic heritage. Founded in 1929, ASI has been the Midwest’s epicenter for celebrating and sharing contemporary culture and traditions of the Nordic countries.
Originally situated in the Turnblad mansion (the turn-of-the-century built home donated by Swedish émigrés of the same name), the shop was confined to two rooms on the first floor of the historic home. The shop office took over the entire kitchen, making that section of the mansion off limits to visitors.
All that changed in 2012 when the new Nelson Cultural Center opened. At 34,000 square feet of modern Swedish design, the Nelson Cultural Center now not only houses the museum shop, but also event and exhibition spaces and the highly acclaimed Fika café. The environmentally friendly building abuts and connects directly to the mansion, creating a juxtaposition of contemporary and traditional that the museum shop seeks to reflect in its merchandise.
The shop offers a wide array of items not only from Sweden, but representing all of the Nordic countries. The three full time employees who run the shop pride themselves on the fact that they work hard to curate interesting and relevant items to showcase. Danielle Langehaug, retail manager, believes this attention to detail has served them well.
The Museum Shop is now a destination in and of its own,” Langehaug said. “We have people coming specifically to shop for special occasion gifts, holiday décor or fun everyday products. We hope that by visiting our store, guests will learn about the wide variety of innovative and smart design happening in Sweden and the Nordic countries.”
One of the ways ASI has been able to inspire such a loyal following of shoppers is by keeping up on design and gift trends abroad, and staff members travel to product shows in Sweden each year.
One of the shop’s biggest sellers comes from their kitchen accessory department: herb scissors. According to Langehaug, “they’re huge in Sweden!” and added that customers coming to the shop also gravitate towards the colorful design patterns on the many Swedish dish towels sold.
The ASI shop makes a point of stocking high-quality gift items to accommodate all budgets, from $7 to $400. On the lower end of the spectrum are things such as cookie cutters and bookmarks, with jewelry and home furnishings filling out the higher end.
“We are continually complimented on our range of price points,” Langehaug noted.
With the interest in Scandinavian novelists in recent years (think Stieg Larsson), they have been able to capitalize on the trend. ASI has devoted an entire section of the museum shop to books, and housed in this section is the largest selection of Nordic mysteries translated into English in the Upper Midwest. Also included are books on cooking and design to complement the other aspects of the shop.
“Jul to the World”
Every year on the first Friday in November, ASI brings a Nordic Christmas to the Turnblad mansion and the museum shop. The shop spills into one of the event spaces and turns it into a wonderland of traditional Swedish and Nordic Christmas items. People flock from inside the Twin Cities and out to shop for holiday pieces not available anywhere else.
The Institute’s curators take advantage of the mansion’s historic spaces to create holiday rooms to represent the five Nordic countries (Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark.) Each room has been inspired by a different contemporary chef of its home country and highlights the trends in modern Nordic cuisine against the backdrop of traditional culture.
While touring the mansion and taking in the various displays, the visitor is treated to a wholly integrative experience. Whether on the Christmas trees dotted around the mansion, the festive chef inspired tables or in the recently opened to the public original kitchen, items from the shop have been used as props.
Langehaug reiterated this notion of integrating the shop into the other spaces of the Institute.
“We curate the shop in house and view it as an additional gallery or experience that we want all visitors to ASI to feel, and that their visit isn’t complete without exploring,” she said.
A favorite event each December is the “Great Tomte Hunt” in the Turnblad mansion. The Tomte, or Swedish Christmas elf, is hidden in the mansion for children to find. The curators help children understand this rich tradition of Sweden life through stories, crafts and of course the hunt itself. Once done, Tomte of all sizes can be purchased in the museum shop. An event such as this highlights how well all sections of the Institute can help each other with cross promotion.
Because the shop is located immediately inside the new Nelson Cultural Center, it’s often the first and last stop for visitors. Directly across from the shop is the extremely popular Fika café, which has become a go-to destination for many people in the Twin Cities.
The cafe and museum shop work in tandem to drive sales from one area of the Institute to another. When people have to wait for a table, they browse the gift shop, and the coffee available in the cafe has been such a requested item that the museum shop now sells the beans.
The Museum Shop at ASI has also branched out beyond the confines of the Nelson Cultural Center. Many of the items found in store can now be purchased online at www.shopswedish.com, with traditional handicraft items along with those that exemplify the best of modern Swedish and Nordic design on display at the website. It is just one more way ASI can reach more people and spread the cultural aspects of Nordic life to those unable to visit.
And for those lucky enough to experience the Institute in person, they can find a memento to remember their visit or simply a unique gift, as this museum shop provides an unforgettable experience by bridging generations and cultures.
By Jennifer Havice
Special to Museums & More