I’ve been obsessed with questions about home as a concept for years. I drift in and out of them, but it always seems to come back around to that. The final section of Rybczynski’s The Most Beautiful Home in the World sent me in a direction I wasn’t expecting, to Carl and Karin Larsson. My wife of, of course, had been there long before me in appreciating Lilla Hyttnäs.
I located a book, and positively devoured it. I find it fascinating that Carl Larsson’s first job was as a photo retoucher, and that his home began as a sort of country compound not unlike the sort of place I was raised.
Lilla Hyttnäs was a hodge-podge of things cobbled together, both modern and traditional— which evolved into a sort of Swedish National style— a distant though unquestionably genetic relative to the now pervasive Ikea. Coincidentally, at the same time I’ve been digesting Chris Schwarz’s latest, The Anarchist’s Design Book.
Ikea has long been the nemesis of Schwarz, who commendably has called for a new furniture movement— the build it yourself movement. Curiously, that’s pretty much what Carl and Karin Larsson did. Schwarz knows that the idea of everyone building it themselves is more than a little utopian, and like all utopian notions is pretty much predestined for failure.
Though Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style is more than a little over the top in its praise, it strikes at the core of why dreams like this eternally return. The foreword of this exhibition catalog from the Victoria and Albert Museum, written by Anders Clason, “Cultural Counsellor” of the Embassy of Sweden, is a perfect crystallization of the character of the book:
Carl and Karin Larsson were children of the nineteenth century, the century of utopias. It was Britain that lead the way in recognizing the great change wrought by industry, and in struggling against the monster of technology. The town had become a living thing, tearing Western man away from the soil that had been the basis of life. The Larssons, in their own utopia, created a permanent dream picture of Sweden and Swedishness, a country idyll bathed in Nordic light.
Certain artists have the ability to spread gold dust on the wintery path of life. The Larssons were such artists. Their vision of Swedishness is more firmly embedded in the national psyche even than the Swedish sense of community. To have a lilac embowered cottage in the country in your family’s place of origin, that is the Swedish dream. To have it light and white, clean and airy, like a summer meadow sprinkled with ox-eye daisies, is the very essence of that dream. (vi)
Though this might be laying it on a bit thick, the concept of home found in Carl Larsson’s paintings is more detailed and useful than Norman Rockwell, at least to me. It’s closer to a sort of space I find attractive. In fact, that’s the thing that always annoyed me about Schwarz’s anti-Ikea tirades; many people really aspire to that sort of middle ground populist design, largely because it looks, well, happy. Regardless whether the construction quality is something to admire or not, it brings good design within the reach of millions.
Though it isn’t the best quality, this photograph shows a familiar sort of workshop, filled with trees brought in for the winter and assorted projects in process. Larsson painted workshop scenes as well, no doubt with his own children and local artisans as models.
More and more, I’m drawn into the Arts and Crafts movement as a global phenomenon. It was a reaction against technology of a sort, but it was also an embrace of technology too. Not all technology is considered bad, as evidenced by William Morris’s News from Nowhere: Morris, in a memorable passage suggested in his utopian future that genuinely useful technologies were embraced, while tech with little to offer was simply left behind to rust. The question of what is a good tech, versus bad tech, was left unaddressed in the novel though he really did attempt to lay out some guidelines elsewhere.
One of the key essays in the exhibition catalog by Gillian Naylor, “Domesticity and Design Reform: The European Context” really gives me some new avenues to traverse. Her essay points at the deeper roots of Arts and Crafts to the social upheavals of the mid nineteenth century. She talks about the contributions of the German author Hermann Muthesius, whose The English House has been on my list to write about for a while, citing a passage from Stilarchitektur und Baukunst (1902) suggesting that buildings might transcend “academic and socially divisive preoccupations with style. The English approach to the building arts, he wrote, was:
nothing other than a rejection of architectural formalism in favor of a simple and natural, reasonable way of building. One brought nothing new to such a movement: everything had existed for centuries in vernacular architecture of the small town and rural landscape . . . Here, amid the architectural extravagance that the architects promoted, one found all that one desired and for which one thirsted: adaptation to needs and local conditions, unpretentiousness and honesty of feeling: utmost cosiness and comfort in the layout of rooms, colour, an uncommonly attractive and painterly (but also reasonable) design, an economy of building construction. The new English building-art that developed on this basis had now produced valuable results. But it has done more: it has spread the interest and understanding for domestic architecture to the entire people. It has created the only sure foundation for a new artistic culture: the artistic house. (78)
The focus, Naylor argues, shifted away from easel painting and fine arts, into design reform bent on reinforcing national identities and bringing fine art to the masses. The passage from Muthesius is really interesting to me on multiple levels, not the least of which being that if you substitute “furniture” for architecture, you’ve just summarized the core thesis of Chris Schwarz’s latest book—at least the aesthetics of it.
Usefully, Naylor brings a more critical eye on the phenomenon:
This was, of course, a middle-class vision: it reflected the prestige and elitism associated with ‘high art’, and at the same time romanticized the role of the working class. By aiming to transform factory hands into creative and contented artisans, and by concentrating on vernacular ideals of workmanship, this generation of design reformers also challenged the policies of their predecessors rejecting any form of training programme based on attempts to control or rationalize the design process. (79-80)
The rejection of a rationalized design process by the Arts and Crafts practitioners includes both Taylorism and factory-efficiency analyses and moves to impose any sort of design grammar (such as Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament from 1856). I note that Lost Art Press has also been publishing admirable work on pre-industrial design by George Walker and Jim Tolpin that implies that a grammar of design is at least possible. It stops short from creating a full program, although it does include a new workbook with design exercises.
Such programmes were rejected by the Arts and Crafts generation because they denied the role of individuality and creativity; they were devised to impose rather than generate order, and they isolated the object from the context of making and use. (80)
To be fair, recent work by Jim Tolpin and George Walker does base its design practice completely on the context of making and use. Opposed to a controlled and rationalized design process, Naylor aligns the Arts and Crafts generation with the resurrection of a modified medieval guild system (through Ruskin and Morris) and “the restoration of the ideal and reality of the home” as “a political as well as social necessity” (80). The political nature of this has unique repercussions in Germany:
Policies to improve standards of worker’s housing had been instigated in Germany from the 1840s, and the association of Wohnugsreform (the reform of the dwelling) with Lebensreform (the reform of life) acknowledged the English celebration of home. In Germany, however, the home came to be associated with the homeland, Heimat, that powerful and politically uncompromised symbol of national unity and continuity. Heimat was (and is) a value-laden concept and therefore difficult to translate; it signified home, locality, and country, as well as a sense of belonging and the inheritance of a shared past. Unlike Morris’s gentle Utopia, however, Heimat was somewhere; its roots were in the German soil and the German homestead, and in the bitter struggles for survival of the German race. (80-81)
Home and homeland are complex topics. Reform through design seems to have spread like wildfire virtually every nation at the dawn of the twentieth century. And not just design in general, but design in the lived environment. It’s wonderful to hope that the same thing might be happening at the dawn of the twenty-first.