Nicodemus Tessin’s convenient house

The Tessin family had, by the late seventeenth century, become very influential as architects, politicians and collectors in Sweden. Nicodemus Tessin (1615-81) was born in Stralsund, studied fortification and architecture, and was appointed Royal architect in 1646 by the Swedish queen. His son, Nicodemus the younger (1654-1728), studied architecture in Rome, and travelled all over Europe to learn more about architecture and new techniques. They were highly influential on architecture in Sweden, linking the country to developments elsewhere in Europe.

In his Observations on both Public and Private Houses of 1714 he wrote that he prefered the Italian exterior design to houses, but the new French style for interiors. He especially liked the French organisation of rooms, the enfilade system, and the double row of rooms, corridors and back stairs. He also enjoyed the decorative use of mirrors he had seen in Paris and found the French garden art superior. A few exceptions where Tessin found the Italian interior design more interesting were their apartments designed specifically for showing collections of art. He had revisited Rome in 1687 and noted how rooms, as often in France, were conveniently separated in summer and winter apartments. In Rome, the objective was to find cooler rooms for summer, while in Paris, as in the north, house owners were more in need of warm winter dwellings.

In letters and diaries written during this travels (in Swedish, French, German or Italian), he often made very detailed descriptions of houses he had visited and he was quick to pick up on new ideas and technology. For instance, he wrote to his mother in June 1687, how he had seen new ways of making windows during a visit at Het Loo, the retreat and hunting house of the Prince of Orange (soon to be William III). These were sash windows, described in his diary as ‘big French glass panes’ set in wooden frames and held with ‘a white material’ (putty). However, a few years later, he wrote in his Observations that for Sweden he preferred French windows to ‘the English sash windows’. He also discussed new French ideas about chimneys and double grates which helped control the draught and preserve warmth. He also received ideas and drawings from contacts all over Europe and beyond, including some of Turkish pavilions, ovens and a hamam: ‘a Turkish bath of many rooms, easily heated with a minimum of firewood’. Perhaps could this technology be used to warm up some of the larger rooms in the Stockholm castle?

A good example of Nicodemus Tessin the younger’s ideas can be seen in the house he built for himself and his family during the very last years of the seventeenth century. The house was built in central Stockholm, and it had two cellars and three floors and a partly used attic. The state rooms were found on the second floor, while the family lived on the first floor.



In 1697 Nicodemus Tessin and his family could move in to their new house in Stockholm. Painting by Johan Pasch senior, probably in the 1740s. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm


As the visitor entered a vestibule on the ground floor, he found the stairs to the right and a room for servants to the left. Straight ahead was a hall, resembling a loggia, with big glass windows and doors, which opened onto the garden. Tessin called this room his summer dining room, and the room is almost as much a part of the garden as of the inside of the house. The entrance floor also houses a smaller private dining room for everyday use. Food had to be carried from a kitchen (situated to the right of the summer dining hall) through the hall. In winter, the large windows in the dining room could be covered with wooden shutters or doors. Tessin noted that a fireplace, which could be hidden during the summer, made it possible to use the room as an extra conservatory for plants in winter. To keep as much warmth as possible, drapes were hung through the room to form a corridor into the smaller dining hall. The ‘ordinary’ dining room also had a small heating kitchen attached to it, with a stove and an oven. A smaller back stair led through all the floors on this side of the house, which gave the family a convenient access to the dining room. Servants used this back stair as well, and water for washing and baths could be heated in the smaller kitchen close to the stairs.


The drawing shows how the ground floor of the house (the walled court yard and the main building in the bottom of the drawing) had been adjusted to the irregular plot in the city, the wings behind the house and the baroque garden. (After a drawing by Tessin in 1696, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm). The second drawing show how the second floor state rooms, situated on the garden side, has extra height.


The first floor family apartment comprised a parlour, drawing room and bedroom along the garden side, and two smaller cabinets toward the entrance side. The eastern wing (to the left) with its library, was reached through a long gallery. A smaller room next to the library might have been Nicodemus’ drawing room. A staircase led to the second floor guestrooms and down to the ground floor and the alley behind the house. In the wing to the west, the first floor held three enfilade rooms, probably used as bedrooms for their children. Above, the appartements de parade comprised a salon, antechamber, state bedroom (without an actual bed), and two cabinets (with lower ceilings). The attic was used as storage, for drying laundry and it also had a few rooms for servants.

Back on the ground floor, the first part of the wings was built as open arcades, part of which could be turned in to conservatories in winter by fitting windows into the arcade. The conservatory under the western wing was heated by a stove and a portable iron stove could be moved into the other one. The irregular plot made the western wing wider, which Tessin rectified on the ground floor by adding a corridor on the inside of the arcade. This corridor held a well and was heated in winter. The wing on the right hand side, under the library, was attached to stables, utility rooms and a bakery, which enclosed the garden.

This was a convenient house, then: one in which the organisation of rooms reflected different functions and different levels of public access. It was also adapted to the needs of its owner and to the Swedish climate. Significantly, this layout was conceived and constructed a generation before Blondel expounded the principles of convenience in this famous treatise. Tessin’s design and writings show how ideas of convenience and comfort were circulating widely in Europe by the turn of the eighteenth century.


Cristina Prytz, October 2017