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Memories of Swedfurn

May 9, 2024

An aerial view of Swedfurn

With Maud Skoog, Cecil & Don Young, Ivan Carpenter, Caroline Fenelius-Carpenter and Jan Fenelius

From the time he was a boy, Ingvar Skoog was always interested in furniture. Born in 1928, as a fourteen-year-old boy, he designed his first piece. It was a simple stool, that a lady would use to sit in front of a makeup table. For Ingvar, this passion would last his whole life. “He was always dreaming furniture. He designed each piece in his head, then he would make a drawing, then a prototype, and then we would mass produce. Ingvar had a lot of really good design ideas,” his wife Maud recalls.

Ingvar would make a career out of producing simple, functional pine furniture in a Scandanvian style. He started out in Slatte, Sweden with a factory named Slatte Mobler (mobler = furniture), but by the 1960s, he was operating a factory in Toreboda, in partnership with his brother Holger and brother-in-law Wallskog. Toreboda was a village in mid-latitude Sweden, being a few kilometres from the country’s largest lake, Vanern. Though he was Swedish and operating a company in Sweden, he selected a new English name, SwedFurn, because it was stylish to have an international company. “Nobody in Sweden would think twice about an English name,” Jan explains.

While Ingvar loved to design and build furniture, he soon befriended an excellent salesman, Jan Fenelius. Jan would travel to furniture shows in Copenhagen, Milan and London to find buyers for Swedfurn’s products, and in a few years, a large proportion of their sales were in North America. What was designed as cottage furniture in Sweden, fit right in for the same purposes in these new markets half a world away. At its peak, SwedFurn was operating a 25,000 square metre factory, turning out 300 swivel chairs and 65 upholstered sofa sets per day. The furniture primarily sold in Sweden, Norway, Great Britain and North America.

After managing export sales for SwedFurn in Sweden for a couple of years, Jan and his wife Helene decided to move to North America, initially planning to work in the fishing industry. While Jan was in New York, he witnessed how saleable Scandinavian furniture was in North America, then as he came to Canada to seek employment, he noticed that tax free grants and subsidies were available for companies looking to locate. He got in touch with his old employer, SwedFurn, who were also interested in setting up a plant on the other side of the Atlantic.

Jan began searching for a location for the company to open a factory in Canada. “As the salesman, in the beginning I was travelling 6 weeks at a time, covering the whole of North America, visiting Scandinavian stores. We exported from Sweden to the various customers by container. When we had built a certain amount of business, we decided to move to Canada to maintain the market closer to the factory. This made it a lot easier. It had been exhausting as the salesman to have a young family in Sweden and travel for 6 weeks at a time.”

“Canada was a compromise between Europe and the United States, and was offering subsidies, which were tempting,” Jan notes. His search began in the Maritimes, where he looked at a plant in Nova Scotia that was altogether too big, then some former army bases south of Fredericton, New Brunswick. “I thought it was important to be within 100 miles of Toronto, so I was looking at Lindsay, Peterborough, Cambridge and Waterloo. While I was in Lindsay in 1974, I met a real estate agent, who took me to Fenelon Falls to see an old factory that was coming up for auction. I saw it on Wednesday and sent a telex to Ingvar and Holger. They flew over to see it on Sunday, money from a large order with Sears transferred to their account on Tuesday, and then we bought the factory on Wednesday.”

For a generation, that ‘old factory’ had been Fenelon Falls’ largest employer. Allen Wood Products had started out making utilitarian wood products like tool handles, only to focus on wooden toys after the Second World War. With many more families being able to afford multiple toys for their children to play with, for a few years, it was a successful business as Tinkertoys, Bingo Beds (aka pounding benches), abacuses and croquet sets were marketed nationally through major retailers like Eaton’s. However, the toy business changed as plastics and more economical offshore manufacturing became the norm. In 1972 the factory closed, as all of the workers lost their job.

Maud and Ingvar had married in Sweden, and were not quite sure what to expect as they set out to make a new life in a different continent. Before long, they felt right at home, “Ingvar and I loved Fenelon Falls,” Maud observes. The factory and their new home was located right on the lakeshore and “we loved Cameron Lake. We loved that everything here is easy living, it is much more relaxed than in Sweden. Here you don’t have to dress up to go to the grocery store. Sweden’s taxes were crazy back then. Because Ingvar owned more than 50% of the company, he had to pay the taxes, which ended up being more than his share of the income.”

When Ingvar arrived, his English was not the best, but he would learn living in Canada. He always had been a quiet person, as Jan remembers: “He was a genius, he was great at coming up practical solutions. He was a chess player, the kind of person who always thought things through, a couple of moves ahead of time. But he was always someone who didn’t say more than he had to. His interest was making furniture and that was about it.”

After Maud, Ingvar, Helene and Jan moved to Fenelon Falls, SwedFurn carried on its Swedish operations under the management of Holger and Wallskog. But from that time on, the two branches of the company operated relatively separately. Though the Swedish factory closed in the 1980s, its productions still commonly sell at European auctions.

Before purchasing the Fenelon Falls factory, SwedFurn had already been shipping 40 foot containers of furniture to North America. At first the Fenelon Falls plant was just a distribution centre for the product coming from the Swedish factory. Selling wholesale, they often moved product by the container, which held about 250 chairs. In the 1970s, Ingvar’s furniture was very much in style. They shipped to Sears, Simpsons, Hudson’s Bay, Mobilia, Nordic Craft, Scandinavian Design, Eaton’s, Idomo and Ikea. Typically, the furniture did not have markings to identify it as SwedFurn, Fenelon Falls, but it was commonly featured in the catalogues of these national retailers.

By the time that SwedFurn purchased the old Allen Wood factory, the building was already 32 years old (having been rebuilt after a 1942 fire) and was starting to show its age. “It was in rough shape when we bought it,” Maud recalls. “We had to invest in electrical upgrades, then we had problems finding water. Clarke Watson drilled a well for us, but he found sulphur, so you couldn’t drink it.” Other than the old boiler that heated the factory, SwedFurn did not use the same equipment as Allen Wood Products. The Skoogs set about refurbishing it, as they gave it a dramatic facelift. The old cement block building was repainted blue and yellow—the colours of the Swedish Flag. It was ready to reopen by January 1975.

It had been a traumatic moment for many in the village when the Allen Wood Products factory suddenly closed, throwing many workers out of a job. Some of the former workers soon came back to work for the new company. Red Bryans, a long time woodworker returned, as did Ivan and Jean Carpenter, who had met at the factory and married. In the next generation, their son Brian would marry Jan and Helene’s daughter Caroline. Another young man who came back was Don Young, who had worked with his brother Cecil in the toy factory.

“Working at Allen Wood Products, it wasn’t the highest paying job, but it was a steady job,” Don explains. “When Ingvar bought the factory, I was looking for a job, so I went over to the factory and said hello to him…. I Loved working at Swedfurn. It was one of the best places that I ever worked. While Allen Wood was strict, Ingvar and Maud were much warmer, top notch employers. They did pretty well everything with a handshake, and were always fair in the way the dealt. You felt like they were your friends, and that it was a big family.”

“Ingvar was kind of quiet,” Don remarks. “He would analyze things before he did something. We used to deliver all our furniture, and when I went in and said that I thought we should buy a new truck, he replied, ‘Leave it with me, Don.’ About a week later he came back to say, ‘I don’t think I’m going to buy a truck, I’m going to rent one so I can claim it on my taxes. He was a very good businessman, and very personable.” He was the kind of person who would take everything in stride. “I often thought that Ingvar could talk to the Queen and think nothing of it.”

“Jan was our salesman,” Don explains. “He travelled all over the place, often overseas. He would be in Sweden one week and Japan the next. When he was on the road he would also buy the fabrics for us. He was a very nice man to work for, we never had an argument. When he was back at the factory, he would be just like one of the guys, but when Ikea called, he would be the one to take the call. He was very funny, always cracking jokes. They really made you feel at home.”

At its peak the Fenelon Falls factory employed about 25 people. Lorne Robinson (another employee who had started out at Allen Wood Products, and who later operated Lorne’s Live Baits) manned the boiler room, feeding the fire with sawdust to heat the factory with steam. “It was a hot area, so you would get sleepy, and after he fed the boiler, he would often doze off,” Maud recalls. Typically, two people worked stuffing cushions with foam. Delilah Everett cut foam, perhaps with someone else. One person worked in the spray booth, and another wrapped the finished products in plastic. Jean Carpenter and Roni Brelsford sewed, while Roni’s husband Mark was the plant manager. Later on, Don Young became the plant manager. Because Ingvar did not speak English well, Maud would answer the phone calls. Local trucker Jim Graham would bring loads of foam back from Toronto—having carefully cleaned his cattle trucks first.

The locally available white pine was soft, so Ingvar imported lodgepole pine from British Columbia. For his purposes it was a higher quality wood, with fewer knots in it. But this imported wood was more expensive. Quality mattered in the furniture market of the 1970s, but as time went on, customers came to expect more for less, and cost became a primary consideration.

SwedFurn finished their furniture in a spray booth. There had been a spray booth in the Allen Wood building, but they added another in the new building. Typically, the furniture was finished with clear coat, though sometimes colour was added to the spray.

“My favourite part was going to the upholstery factories in Toronto to pick out the fabrics,” Maud recalled. “To fill the cushions you had to have a zipper. To get the thick foam into the cover, my husband sucked all the air out of the foam. He would put the foam on the machine, coat it in plastic, then thread the cover over the foam that had shrunk. Otherwise it would be hard to get thick foam into the upholstered cover.”

SwedFurn was not the only furniture factory operating in Fenelon Falls at the time. Rosedale furniture set up shop in the old grist mill in 1968, only to have the premises burn on April 28, 1970. Afterwards the company moved to 91 Murray Street (now the Salvation Army). In 1980, Jan Fenelius purchased Rosedale furniture, in partnership with Acke Svanberg, financing the purchase through a huge order from IKEA for more than 1,000 Arboga sofa sets. They operated it for a year, then sold to Folke and his son Bjorn Alfredsson, who had worked with them stuffing cushions. The Alfredssons would operate it until 1991.

While SwedFurn initially made their own furniture, as time went on, they grew closer with Rosedale Furniture, which Brian Armstrong managed for a few years. “Rosedale furniture did the woodwork and made the frames for many pieces of furniture, while we did all the fabric and upholstery work,” Don observes. “If we were making a couch, we would make the frame, because the whole thing is one piece. Ingvar designed a loveseat called the Paddy and Idomo was a big buyer. We would make the frames ourselves at SwedFurn, and do all the upholstery.”

In 1984, SwedFurn sold their business to Folke and Bjorn Alfredsson (Rosedale Furniture). The company would run into financial troubles, and six years later the old property was available at auction, and once again the Skoogs purchased it. Afterwards, they operated the company as Swed Design, and continued to manufacture wooden furniture. Swed Design converted the second floor of the old Allen Wood factory into a showroom for their furniture. Whereas SwedFurn had been wholesale, Swed Design had a retail component as well. Bjorn Alfredsson would go on to operate Holsag Furniture in Lindsay.

In 1999 Ingvar passed away, and Maud carried on the business with her sons Chris and Daniel. “My husband was the designer, both in Sweden and here,” Maud explains. Without Ingvar’s inspiration, the company would not be the same. Before long, her boys would go away to school, and the company was much smaller than it once had been. The company still employed five people making beds and chesterfields, making models that had been popular when Ingvar was running the company.

By the start of the new millennium, the business had changed. As had happened to Allen Wood Products, domestic manufacturing was undercut by cheaper foreign labour as fashions changed. While Ingvar’s designs had broad appeal in the 1970s, as time went on Sears stopped buying the furniture. Towards the end, it was just Idomo. “Over time furniture prices dropped,” Maud recalls. “There was competition from factories in China and Romania, they did it cheaper, so we had problems competing, because our labour cost more than labour in those countries. We did not change the designs because of the competition, but we had to change the prices.” SwedDesign tried importing and reselling Romanian furniture, but in that market it was hard to compete with larger retailers.

Maud saw little choice but to close the factory, and leased parts of the building out. Guy Lesterrented the back to service cars and install mufflers. Another part became a sign painting shop, another a carpentry shop. The building caught fire in 2001. “That was a terrible night,” Maud explains. “At 1 am my neighbour phoned and told me ‘Your Factory is on Fire!’” Since then, all the buildings that comprised SwedFurn and Allen Wood Products have been demolished, and today it is being redeveloped as the Fenelon Lakes Club Condominum.

SwedFurn’s cottage furniture has a lasting appeal to it. “I still meet people in Sobeys who have a sofa or a bunk bed,” Maud says. “One family took it with them to Florida. It is really heart warming when they come up to tell me, 20 or 30 years later that they still have the furniture. Though they might have to replace the foam cushions, the frames are still going strong.” Ingvar Skoog spent his life dreaming up interesting furniture designs, and even as fashions change, many people still appreciate what SwedFurn created.

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you: curator@maryboro.ca

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