“If you have five homes,” says Max Hansson, sitting in his 300-year-old farmhouse on Gotland, a large island off Sweden’s Baltic coast, “everything has to work.”
Mr. Hansson, 66, is a Gotland native, but he also has homes on the Thai island of Phuket, in Cannes, in Stockholm and in the small city of Visby, Gotland’s walled medieval capital, where his pan-Scandinavian financial-services company, PayEx, has its headquarters. But when the weather starts to turn warm, he heads here, to a sprawling compound, dramatically situated on the island’s eastern coast.
Stylish Scandinavian Homes
Bought in the 1970s and still a work in progress, the farm now comprises several buildings spread over 25 acres and includes its own sunken tennis court, driving range and a wooden gazebo, which Mr. Hansson uses as an office. Mr. Hansson, who got his start in his father’s rural Gotland auction business, personally oversees all the renovation and refurbishment of the compound’s centuries-old buildings. “I am my own architect,” he says.
From the spectacular setting of Max Hansson’s seaside estate to secluded clearings in the middle of the forest, Gotland has become a prime destination for Sweden’s high-end second-home buyers and builders, who want to personalize their vacation settings.
Swedesâand a small group of discriminating non-Swedesâare drawn to the island’s natural beauty and its rural character. Roughly the size of Long Island, N.Y., Gotland, the Baltic Sea’s largest island, has a year-round population of around 50,000. Although agriculture is no longer a dominant source of income for residents, the island is a foodie’s paradiseâand a key supplier to Noma, Copenhagen’s celebrated restaurant.
Blessed with an abundance of high-quality natural building materials and a number of expert craftsmen and artisans, the island has been discretely but unmistakably transformed in recent years. Once a remote place to spend the brief Swedish summer, Gotland, now a mere 35 minutes by commuter plane from Stockholm’s Bromma Airport, is gradually becoming a testing ground for ways to combine old and new building techniques, as part-time residents move from makeshift summer cottages to stylish second homes.
In addition to local materials and talent, Gotlandâalong with its more austere neighbor, the much smaller island of FÃ¥rÃ¶âalso offers that rarest of Scandinavian treats: the bargain.
After being long undervalued, Gotland real estate is starting to see a rise in prices, says Fredrik Lindahl, a broker at the Stockholm offices of Sweden Sotheby’s International Realty, but it is still significantly more reasonable than that of the Stockholm Archipelago, the chain of thousands of rocky islands that have become a byword for the good life in Sweden.
“You can buy a Gotland country house of about 80 square meters, with a 1,500-square-meter plot, for 2.5 million Swedish kronor (â¬273,000),” he says. “On Sandhamn,” he adds, referring to one of the more prestigious destinations of the archipelago, “that would cost two or three times as much.”
Transplants from the archipelago have built many of Gotland’s most interesting new homes.
When summering on the chain of islands, says Ulrika Arph, head of business development at Oscar Properties, a Stockholm-based real-estate company, “you are on the same spot.” The life there, which is often spent on tiny, naked islands or in transit on a boat, “has its charm,” she says. But she enjoys the variety on Gotland, which is covered by rich farmland, winding country roads and dense forests. “You never get bored,” she says.
A few years ago, after visiting the island’s pioneering design hotel, Fabriken Furillen, which transformed a limestone quarry into a gray-and-white, post-industrial showpiece, Ms. Arph, now 28, asked the hotel’s owner, Johan HellstrÃ¶m, if she could buy some nearby land. Working closely with Stockholm architect Love ArbÃ©n, she was able to build and furnish a stunning glass-and-concrete structure in less than a year. Although the single-story house has an air of neo-modernist luxury, thriftiness is actually behind many of its details. The dimensions were determined by the standard size of some of its construction materials. And although you will find vintage furniture by Danish modernist master BÃ¸rge Mogensen, you will also find new IKEA kitchen components.
Located on Furillen, a peninsula in the far northeast of Gotland, Ms. Arph’s home is part of an ambitious plan to bring luxury-level, ex-urban living to the area. The development is the brainchild of Mr. HellstrÃ¶m, a former fashion photographer, who came to Gotland in the late 1990s after discovering the island during fashion shoots.
Comprised of 580 hectares, with 18 kilometers of shoreline, Furillen will be limited to around 50 homes and a handful of corporate getaway facilities, all of which will use the hotel as a kind of clubhouse. One of the first residents is Swedish crime novelist HÃ¥kan Nesser, whose superbly outfitted home has both a forest setting and a sea view. Another potential star resident, ex-ABBA member BjÃ¶rn Ulvaeus, had planned to build a Furrillen studio complex near the water, but he abandoned the project last year, Mr. HellstrÃ¶m says, after negotiations broke down with the island’s zoning authorities, who were in favor of leaving the coastline intact.
The north of Gotland is one of the island’s most expensive locations, says Visby realtor Leif Bertwig, who handles high-end and historical properties on Gotland and FÃ¥rÃ¶. Other prime locations include the southern tip, which is known for attracting Sweden’s cultural elite, and an enclave on the island’s eastern edge, called Ljugarn, where a group of Stockholmers began summering in the late 19th century. A desirable Ljugarn property now on his books is a charming 127-square-meter terraced house, built by a harbor pilot in 1921, with an asking price of 4.5 million kronor.
Mr. Bertwig, a Gotland native, says sought-after properties are old farms near the sea or medieval houses in Visby, which was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995. Currently, the most expensive property on his books is a 211-hectare farm a short drive from Visby. Comprised of a main 10-room house and several outlying buildings, the property is “near to Visby, but in the real countryside.”
While most of his prospective buyers are Swedish, Mr. Bertwig says he has begun to notice a number of buyers from Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands. An exception was in 2008, when the combined properties of Ingmar Bergman, who spent four decades living in isolated comfort on FÃ¥rÃ¶, were about to be sold following the director’s death. Mr. Bertwig, who advised the Bergman estate during one stage of the sale, fielded calls from around the world. (The actual sale was handled by Christie’s Great Estates.) One of the benefits of his involvement, he says, was getting a glimpse of the Bergman interiors, which are dominated by the furniture of Swedish modernist Carl Malmsten. The properties, which include several structures and a small movie theater, were eventually bought for an undisclosed price by Norwegian entrepreneur Hans Gude Gudesen, who has allowed them to be used for an artists’ residency program. Next week, the public will get a rare look inside the movie theater, when FÃ¥rÃ¶ holds its annual Bergman Week film and cultural festival, which runs this year from June 28âJuly 3.
Bergman’s presence on FÃ¥rÃ¶ extended to Gotland, as did that of Swedish politician Olof Palme, who spent his summers on FÃ¥rÃ¶’s northern tip. Both Messrs. Lindahl and Bertwig agree that Bergman and Palmeâtwo of the leading Swedish personalities of their timeâgave the two islands a distinct cache in the 1970s and ’80s. This cache, argues Mr. Lindahl, eventually translated into property sales, as curious Swedes began to wonder about the islands’ attractions.
Mr. Palme was assassinated in 1986, but his family still spend their summers here, and one of the most compelling new houses on FÃ¥rÃ¶ has been designed by his son, Stockholm architect Mattias Palme. Working closely with his brother and sister-in-law, who were the clients, Mr. Palme and his firm, LLP Arkitektkontor, created an ethereal wooden house with sliding barn-door panels that can accommodate the change in seasons.
Mr. Palme, speaking by phone from Stockholm, says that it was a struggle to get local approval for the house, because of his desire to use wood, which isn’t a traditional building material in this part of FÃ¥rÃ¶, where most homesâmany of them centuries-oldâare made of stone. The house’s height and relative transparency were inspired by the clients’s wish to maximize views of the sea.
Gotland is home to some of Scandinavia’s best limestone, which has been used to build everything from Visby’s medieval fortifications to a striking kitchen counter in the recently built home of Stockholm architects Hans Murman and Ulla Alberts. Located in Katthammarsvik, on Gotland’s eastern shore, not far from Mr. Hansson’s farm, the home has a tree-patterned fabric faÃ§ade, which is in contrast to the nearby stone and plaster houses belonging to Ms. Roberts’s extended family.
The two architects were inspired by nearby juniper trees. With a mind to build a wooden houseâunusual for new Gotland houses, the two found an ingenious way to blend the house into its natural and architectural surroundings. They photographed the juniper trees, then transferred the images onto a wrapping of sturdy perforated nylon, which serves as camouflage.
The shimmering concrete counter was made in conjunction with Stina Lindholm, a Finnish-born sculptor, now based in Slite, in the middle of Gotland, where she uses the island’s stone as a basis for masterful home fixtures. “The stone is almost like wheat,” she says, of its ability to take on different forms, while retaining its pure gray-white color.
Another Stockholm architect, Morten Johansson, used unpolished Gotland stone from a local quarry for a tabletop in the interior of his south Gotland home, finished last year.
The general minimalist style of Gotland’s noteworthy new homes is a departure, says Stefan Haase, a curator at Visby’s Gotland Museum. Mr. Haase, who has spent many years documenting the island’s historical interiors, says that, traditionally, “color showed prosperity” in the island homes. The prized pale-gray limestone and its derivatives were often disguised by tinted whitewashâa technique that still marks the homes of Mr. Hansson, who insists on using traditional methods at his farm, as well as in PayEx’s Visby offices.
At one of the island’s few true manor houses, Katthamra GÃ¥rd, owned by Stockholm risk manager Jakob Gustafson, early 19th-century neoclassical paintings decorate just about every room. Although hardly a template for new houses on the island, the lavish dÃ©cor is being restored by local teams of artisans and experts. During a recent visit to the house, you could see discrete excavations of the walls, revealing many layers of paint.
“There is [now] a huge demand for local artisans and carpenters,” says Bo Madestrand, who writes a column about art and design for Dagens Nyheter, the Stockholm daily newspaper.
Ten years ago, Mr. Madestrand and his wife, Swedish photographer and video artist Maria Friberg, bought an old gas station and workshop in Alskog, a village near Ljugarn. He says they have spent just over one million kronor on renovations, which have included an ongoing conversion of a building on the property into an “art motel,” as well as redoing an expansive second-story storage space into an office for Mr. Madestrand.
“The property market has really exploded,” he says. Gotland “has become more of an upmarket destination, which is both good and bad. It means there are more options when it comes to fine dining and lodging. There is a growing cultural scene and the season is prolonged. The downside is that Visby gets overcrowdedâthere are just too many BMWs and Audis on the road during the summer season!”