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Originally published Sunday, February 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Freakishly cool designs in Stockholm

Give Stockholm a few hours and all those preconceived notions will start crumbling. You know, the blond Vikings in ABBA platform shoes driving...

Universal Press Syndicate

If you go

Stockholm

Designer hotels

• Chic Hotel Rival, a boutique hotel created by Benny Andersson of ABBA fame, is in the artsy area of Sodermalm, a five-minute walk from Old Town. Doubles from $200; www.rival.se.

Give Stockholm a few hours and all those preconceived notions will start crumbling. You know, the blond Vikings in ABBA platform shoes driving their Volvos, and sun-deprived dour socialists putting together Ikea furniture with miniature wrenches while downing Absolut vodka.

Simon Anholt, a British expert on nation branding who conducts an annual survey of international images of countries, has also tapped into the new vision of Sweden: "Sweden is seen as trustworthy, like Switzerland, but exciting at the same time, which is an unusual combination. Swedish design, fashion and creativity account for the excitement."

Nowhere does this ring more true than in Stockholm. There's no big-city angst, no frenetic bustle, and everywhere you go you'll come face to face with freakishly cool design.

You'll have to forgive me some of this enthusiasm. You see, Stockholm is my town. I liked it so much I moved here. The design infusion begins the moment you set foot off the plane in the award-winning Terminal 5 of Arlanda, Stockholm's international airport. Your feet glide over Brazilian hardwood floors while your eyes scan views through the floor-to-ceiling steel-buttressed glass walls, a more dynamic version of the classic Scandinavian design. Swipe a credit card to buy a train ticket from the touch-screen yellow vending machine and then descend to a train platform that feels more like Batman's garage. At 120 miles per hour, the Arlanda Express takes just 20 minutes to reach the city center. This time you are left at the entrance of an actual hotel lobby, the Nordic Sea Hotel, where you can stop for a cool drink at the world's first permanent Ice Bar inside a walk-in freezer. Use of a jacket and a cup of solid ice come included with the drink. And for $20, they should.

I prefer the more-interesting and less-touristy stop across the street at Nordic Sea's sister hotel, the Nordic Light. The lobby was revamped last spring by Stockholm's renowned lighting architect, Kai Piippo. It's now on a 24-hour mood schedule: yellows and oranges in the morning, pastels midmorning, white lighting during lunch, blue in the afternoon and deep purples and reds for the evening club effect. The lighting of each guest room, however, is left in the hands of the guest, who can choose from a dozen tricked-out settings.

Water, water everywhere

Outside, it hardly feels like Stockholm has changed since I first visited in 1993, or even in a few hundred years. The city isn't dotted with an eye-popping collection of modern architecture. Traditional buildings, though inspiring enough to keep your camera busy, do not scream for attention, which helps keep the focus where it should be: on the water.

Stockholm is located on 14 islands, and it's hard to walk more than a few hundred yards in any direction without crossing a bridge or at least coming to a dead end at a parked boat serving beer. The permanently docked boat concept isn't limited to refreshments. There are also boat restaurants, boat discos, boat tours, boat hostels and boat hotels.

On those precious sunny summer days, you can take a swim (yes, right in the downtown waterways, no biohazard suit required) or explore the city with a rented kayak. If you're feeling particularly ambitious, just turn the vessel east and you've got the 24,000-island archipelago adjoining Stockholm to explore within a day or two of paddling.

Come winter, the waterways become an ice-skater sanctuary and, when there's enough snow, the nearby nature reserves fill with cross-country skiers. If this feels just a bit too Arctic, concentrate on the defrosting, which is practically an art here. Exorcise the chills with a sauna or, better yet, one of the many public bathhouses, possibly the most authentic local experience available to visitors.

Fashion in the jeans

The design aspect of Stockholm is mostly an inside phenomenon: interior refurbishment, fashion, lighting, furniture and household gadgets.

"Stockholm is an exciting place to be for design right now. We're breaking free from the stereotypes," says Marie-Louise Bowallius, senior lecturer of design history and theory at Beckman's College of Design, a virtual factory of the country's top designers. "In the mid-1990s, everyone who wanted to be considered a good designer had to work within that classic Swedish look with clean lines and light, natural materials. Now there's more variation, and designs can be communicative or aesthetic and still be respected."

Park yourself at an outdoor cafe with a cup of Sweden's rich, turbo-powered coffee and you'll have a front-row seat to a fashion show of sorts. Swedish fashion has a vaguely American quality, yet not quite what you'd see on the streets of America. There are familiar labels like Levis or Lee jeans, but Swedes pay $120 for them.

It took me a while to put my finger on it, but Swedes appear to wear what the models are wearing in American advertisements and catalogs. That is, the clothes match and fit so cleverly, it can look as if they're on their way to a photo shoot. Look closer at the fashion, and you'll find a groundswell of appreciation for handcrafted attire created by talented designers such as Ringstrand. Other celebrated up-and-comers creating limited women's lines include Sandra Backlund (sculpted knits and impossible, origamilike short dresses), Helena Horstedt (deceptively complex black, frilly tutulike dresses) and Martin Bergstrom (draping, clingy, melting-wedding-cakelike dresses).

But if you spend a few days walking the town, you won't likely spot more haute couture than you'd find in, say, Seattle. Instead, it's the decade-old established Swedish labels that seem to jump from most body curves. There's now an impressive domestic range of nearly affordable designer wear: simple elegance of Filippa K, the classical men's wear of Tiger of Sweden, the uber-trendy urban wear of former Diesel designer Johan Lindeberg. (When Levis cost more than $100, paying $175 for a designer version somehow doesn't seem so obscene.)

Where the trends live

Perhaps the best place to spot the latest trends in the hip, eclectic scene is on the Southern Stockholm island of Sodermalm, where there's also a strong community of artists. The area around Nytorget, a residential area loaded with funky shops, is a 10-minute walk south from Old Town and especially good for people-watching and design-shop browsing. For the more upmarket, summer-house-in-Monaco crowd, head to the chic Ostermalm quarter and look for original textiles, furniture and gifts in shops such as Asplund and Svenskt Tenn that will have you phoning the airline to ask about checked-luggage limits.

For handmade crafts, one company in particular has helped bring artists' work to the masses. Design Torget (Design Square) has a chain of stores around Sweden, and the always-trendy shops sell work from more than 600 Swedish artists who make everything from baby clothes decorated with ants (called — what else? — Ants in My Pants) to designer oven mitts.

• Nordic Light Hotel is just a few steps from the Central Station's airport express train. Doubles from $185; www.nordiclighthotel.se.

• Berns Hotel is the boutique version of the Grand Hotel just across the square, with doubles from $400; www.berns.se.

Designer shopping

• Asplund. Features cutting-edge furniture from Swedish designers Jonas Bohlin and Thomas Sandell. It's at Sibyllegatan 31. Information: www.asplund.org.

• Design Torget is a good stop for design-friendly gifts that won't break your budget (five locations in Stockholm; the easiest to find is below Kulturhuset at Sergels Torg). www.designtorget.se.

• Svenskt Tenn has many modern, colorful (yet delightfully expensive) derivations of traditional Swedish handicraft. Pick up Wallpaper magazine and you'll spot plenty of items from this shop; Strandvagen 5A. www.svenskttenn.se.

• Stockhome is Sweden's answer to Urban Outfitters; Kungsgatan 25. www.stockhome.se.

• J. Lindeberg was made famous by Swedish golfer Jesper Parnevik (the one who employed the nanny who became Tiger Woods' wife) and has brand recognition as well-known as Nike in Sweden; Grev Turegatan 9. www.jlindeberg.se.

• H&M is the mother ship of the budget fashionista, now featuring collaborations by Madonna and Karl Lagerfeld; Hamngatan 22. www.hm.se.

• Nakkna is where fashion-magazine editors make a required pit shop when visiting Stockholm; Tjdrhovsgatan 3. www.nakkna.com

• Design Sverige allows you to browse and order items from more than a dozen Swedish designers online, http://designsverige.jetshop.se/default.aspx

More information

Sweden tourist information: www.visitsweden.com,or phone the New York office of the Scandinavian Tourist Board, 212-885-9700. For a comical, tourism-promotion online musical from Stockholm's tourist office, see www.stockholmthemusical.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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