Swedish Modern

Opening pages of Swedish Arts and Crafts- click to enlarge for full effect.

I was looking for furniture designed by Carl Malmsten, or any sort of book about him, when I stumbled on Swedish Arts and Crafts: Swedish Modern —A Movement Towards Sanity In Design, a public relations effort published by the Royal Swedish Commision on the occasion of the New York World’s Fair, 1939.

The Swedish manor culture, which subsequently was to have a tremendous influence on the rebirth of Swedish applied art, reached its height in the eighteenth century. French influences in furniture and interior design marked its entire development, but in the hands of excellent Swedish artists and  craftsmen they were gracefully blended into a native Swedish style—simple and unpretentious, with clean lines, and a sound conception of ornamentation. This 18th century received, fittingly enough, during the last part of the century the name Gustavian, because it is a faithful reflection of the spirit which pervaded the age of the great charmer king, Gustavus III—a refined, sophisticated, if rather formal way of living. (8)

This choice of language is strangely parallel to the autobiography of Carl Larsson, first published in 1931. Gustavus III was a “charmer,” while Larsson claims that he himself was not; both also place ornament, and the control of it, at the center of their concerns. One twist here is vital though—the Royal Swedish Commission immediately cites its ties to manor culture.

Larsson appears not long after this “charming” passage:

While during the major part of the nineteenth century Swedish artists and artisans busied themselves with copying the styles of bygone days, at the beginning of the present century a new style was born. It was a romantic, Nordic nationalistic style which found its expression in a great number of monumental buildings, all needing artistic embellishment. The romantic influence was felt also in the home, and Carl Larsson, the famous painter, exercised a tremendous influence on the Swedish taste through his home, a romanticized “peasant” interior of great charm and hominess. (9)

In fact, the development of Swedish Modern design is traced through three different types of home: the manor home, the burgher home, and the farm home. I was taken by many of the farm home interiors displayed in the 1939 World’s Fair propaganda, and did a little googling to find an interesting blog post from BuildLLC, which reproduces a contemporary pamphlet on Swedish Farmhouse design with this commentary:

While the guide is regulating and pragmatic, this method of design probably didn’t feel restrictive to homeowners when these farmhouses were originally constructed — in fact it probably still doesn’t feel restrictive in Scandinavia. There are a variety of options to fulfill a homeowner’s desire to make personal choices, and ample opportunity for each farmhouse to be unique. The important element is that this design freedom all occurs within set boundaries defined by sensibility; by what works and what doesn’t, by what is available and what’s not, by the practicality of time and budget. There are six varieties of roofing, seven types of siding, and nine distinct door designs. These three variables alone allow for 378 unique farmhouse designs and while one completed design could vary from another, each individual design decision is manageable. The nine door options are locally made from community resources, not a thousand from every corner of the earth. The same philosophy of decision-making applies to all aspects of this guide: Design decisions are informed by the collected knowledge of the people who built a house before you did.

While on the surface this seems quite laudable, what’s missing from this is celebration is any admission of the narrow nature of the Swedish conception of Arts and Crafts. As the Royal Commision explains directly in the 1939 book:

Under the aegis of The Swedish Society of Arts and Crafts, (Svenska Slöjdföreningen) a state-aided organization founded back in 1845, one industry after another began to employ artists as designers and production leaders. The result of this close cooperation between the Society, artists, and did not long delay its appearance. Along the entire line the output of Swedish home furnishings industries improved in form as well as in technical quality. However, the Society did not confine its efforts to raising the quality of the industrial products, it also launched a lively campaign to improve the taste of the general public and the standard of the homes of small income groups. By a never-ceasing propaganda, by exhibitions, lectures, courses, publications it hammered the gospel of home culture into the consciousness of the Swedish people, to make them realize the necessity for home furnishings in better accord with their actual needs and in harmony with modern life. By thus directing its program to the entire people rather than to limited groups of society, it was inevitable that the arts and crafts movement was to take on a social character. (8-9)

The social character was not simply the embrace of modern industry, but also traditional homecraft. It makes sense that the Arts and Crafts movement, in its most nationalistic zeal, would thrive in a country with a comparatively small amount of ethnic diversity. Traditional ethnic crafts (homecraft) has been lovingly preserved; it’s admirable, although it seems much easier for a country without large immigrant populations to achieve. In 1899, Lilli Zickerman (1858-1949) formed the Swedish Home Craft Association (Föreningen för svensk hemslöjd).

Lilli Zickerman, lower left.
Lilli Zickerman, lower left.

What Zickerman proposed was a grand program to relieve the idleness and poverty that she saw as a result of industrialism. In her view, it was a matter of national concern and a moral duty that she and her associates help poor people to help themselves to work and to enhance the moral and aesthetic quality of their lives. To accomplish this, she and her associates had to educate people of all social classes to turn away from cheap mass produced goods (gottkopskram) and teach them to appreciate the quality and beauty of home-made crafts. In particular, people were to learn from those who still mastered the traditional arts. The idea, then, was not only to preserve and copy traditional artifacts but also to improve them. All peasant furniture and textiles were neither well made nor tasteful enough to please demanding buyers, and stern control was needed to maintain high quality and proper styling. Ultimately, Zickerman and her associates hoped that their program would have even grander effects: they expected that people’s love of their homes and their home region and its place within the Swedish nation would be awakened and strengthened. That love would have a moral and educational value and would prevent both the exodus to the United States and the growth of a rootless, “unswedish proletariate” of the kind that was joining socialist parties. It is no wonder that it was primarily conservative politicians who supported the homecraft movement, not their political adversaries on the left.

(Barbro Klein, “The moral content of tradition: Homecraft, ethnology, and Swedish life in the twentieth century” Western Folklore (Spring 2000)

Only since the 1970s has there been much backlash. Klein remarks that the social character of homecraft studies has been by described by those who enter it as “pompom research” or “pixie research.”  Looking at the propaganda from 1939, it seems that little had changed. The “We Know” that creates the parallel structure of the introduction downright reeks of condescension. The ambivalence since the 70s is manifest in the language used to describe what used to be an optimistic, utopian project:

Few contemporary Swedish ethnologists study in earnest such phenomena as homecraft. The exceptions are a handful of highly accomplished, now retired, women, such as Ingrid Bergman, Sofia Danielson, and Gertrud Grenander-Nyberg who have all been employed at the cultural historical museums. Within the homecraft movement they are sometimes lovingly called “the homecraft mafia.” But their books and papers, which include important Ph.D. and M.A. theses, have not been at the center of the ethnological discussions. Indeed, neither pre-industrial craft nor the homecraft revival have been dominant topics within the discipline during the past thirty years, just as little as peasant art, legendary, or traditional medicine have been. The many ambivalent feelings toward homecraft, from irony to love, come forth in such widely used puns and word plays as hemsk slöjd (“horrible craft”) and slemhöjden (“the slimy hill”).

The pattern here repeats with alarming frequency, in different countries although at completely different time. The task of preserving craft is a difficult one, particularly when its organizing principles (like preservation of national identity) are either adopted uncritically, or hypocritically. There has to be a better organizing principle than nationalism.

I think that the concept of home as a situated but reasonably generalizable locus for the study of craft is worth pursuing.

The ornamented snake

I dreamed this past night that a strange young man urged me to enter a house where he would show me that he could charm snakes. He went ahead. Naturally, I followed him.

In there, I actually saw him standing in the center of the room, and in front of him, raised almost as tall as he, a thick gigantic cobra moved its head, following the beats of unheard music.

In the dimness of lights and smoke behind them I could faintly discern a group of spectators. Apparently they were convinced that the snake charmer had the dangerous snake completely under control.

I did not. Arriving late and totally alone, I suddenly found myself standing quite close to the actors. I felt unpleasantly insecure and would have liked to be outside again.

For a moment, I closed my eyes and thought: “The snake has noticed you particularly.” I feared it might be coming close…and then…and then I felt it close to me. It had slithered to my feet….It rose along my body…it chilled me and filled me with terror. I knew that one sting meant immediate death, namely if I showed the slightest fear.

“Introduction” Carl Larsson: The Autobiography of Sweden’s Most Beloved Artist, 1

This seems a strange way to commence the story of your life. After all, this isn’t Jim Morrison we’re talking about here, but a man known primarily for painting placid domestic scenes. No wonder many have described this book as “dour.”

Rather than a snake, it seems to me that the story of domestic design at the turn of the twentieth century is more like a hydra with many heads. The northern outpost of Arts and Crafts differs sharply from the English or Mediterranean variants. But snakes? What gives?


In the center of the “snail room” exhibited by Italian furniture designer Carlo Bugatti (father of the carmaker) there reside three “cobra” chairs. There is an  example of one in Chicago; I’ll have to look for it the next time I pass through.


This piece is completely covered in parchment, a technique which hid all joints. Decorations are made of hammered copper, pencil and paint, and it is covered with parchment and leather.

The snail room was meant for games and conversation. The chair was shaped like a cobra, inscribed with floral and geometric motifs reminiscent of Islamic art. The chair’s open design served a practical purpose, allowing men’s coattails and women’s trains to hang down behind the seat.

It’s not really Arts and Crafts, but rather Art Nouveau, emphasizing ornament over the more self-consciously “honest” styles of the north.

Though they are sometimes lumped together, there seem to be some very important distinctions between the complex emergent styles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

I opened my eyes, and now the head of the snake was close to me, facing me. How magnificent it was! The colors, glittering in the most wondrous shades, were blinding me. The most elegant ornaments were forming in front of my eyes. They curled downward to more rigidly geometrical planes, and on the lower parts of its body, where the colors turned more vulgar, the patterns became coarser and more abhorrent.

But the evil little head with the shield around the neck, which is so peculiar to the cobra, offered overwhelming richness of lines and color.

I had to look at it with an admiration close to rapture. The small eyes of the snake were glittering maliciously. They peered almost laughingly into mine. The head was rocking from time to time, sometimes shooting forward and then pulling back, and then I felt its repugnant spongy body pressing itself closer and closer to mine!

I knew that my life was not worth much by now. However, I seemed to myself triumphantly proud, felt that now I would be able to show those present what kind of man I really was.

Or was I?

Oh no, it was so thoroughly terrible, the tension was horrifying! If only the loathsome garishness would disappear! But if all turned out well, what a hero I would turn out to be! (ibid. 1-2)

It is extremely unlikely, I think, that Carl Larsson and Carlo Bugatti were familiar with each other. Nonetheless, it seems almost as if Larsson’s downright weird introduction to his autobiography might be productively be read as a critique of Art Nouveau. There’s a curious love/hate relationship with ornament across all these different threads of design.

Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, writing in Houses and Gardens (1906) discusses two popular modes of decoration: heraldry and organic motifs. Heraldry, with its deep ties to the English manor house traditions, was old; natural motifs (decorating around some sort of common organic shape, like lotus flowers) were emerging (thanks to the pre-Raphaelites) as a plausible choice to those setting up a home.

Carl Larsson embraced Gustavian design (a situated Swedish variant of rococo), which is perhaps close to an embrace of the sort of traditional heraldic motifs gestured at by Baillie Scott. At the same time, there was a rustic naturalism to his designs. What the English and Swedish outlooks both share is a desire to ornament in such a way that connects with their national identities.

But the cobra did not release me. Now it approached my face, I felt its tongue as if it were fluttering against my lips, but I smiled and remained courageous.

Ah, but I was petrified, and so was my wide smile. Now, now, it stole its narrow, thin, thin, tongue between my lips. I felt it against my tongue. Now I could take it no longer.

I…woke up.

Fortunately it was only a dream, a nightmare.

I immediately realized it was an allegory of my life, as good as any.

You must try to decipher it yourself after reading the memories I have determined to write down.

My steadily smiling face. My hidden horror of life. I certainly was not a snake charmer. It was the snake—life—that charmed me. (ibid. 2)

Not many artists open their autobiography by spinning a tale about french-kissing a snake. I would be curious why Carl Larsson chose this dream, or why Carlo Bugatti chose the cobra as his totem, or the snail. But some things are certain.

The snail room was exhibited at Prima Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Decorativa Moderna  in Turin in 1902.  It’s primary dictate:  “Only original products that show a decisive tendency toward aesthetic renewal of form will be admitted. Neither mere imitations of past styles nor industrial products not inspired by an artistic sense will be accepted.”

Both Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts stress connections, through ornament, to the lands that birthed them. Larsson had his folk styles and Gustavian ornament, Baillie Scott had heraldry and pagan naturalism, while Bugatti was more connected with Moorish traditions. All are situated in ways both intellectual and geographic.

Carlo Bugatti Throne

The Impressionist Home

A web piece from Smithsonian Magazine, “Step Into Van Gogh’s Brilliant Bedroom” lead me down an interesting cul-de-sac this morning. I’ve been wondering about rooms as jigs that shape behavior for a while, and I’m really interested in the Art Institute of Chicago’s airbnb project that allows you to stay in a replica of this famous interior. Would a person start to think like Van Gogh if they slept there?

It reminded me of a song by David Byrne, “Social Studies”, which I used a long time ago to teach extended possibilities for rhetorical analysis. It was never the hit with students that I hoped it would be.


The basic premise is that in order to understand people, you might become them if you consume what they consume. It’s not that outlandish, really. Marketing companies depend on getting us to buy products that allow us to be like the model or spokes-celebrity who shills for them. My longstanding interest in shopping malls stems from the belief that understanding what people choose to buy and how they buy it is important to the understanding society as a whole.

However, lately I’ve taken a deeper turn. I think that lived environments are important not because of what we buy to put in them, but because of the historical reasons why we need/choose these objects to begin with.

Sometime soon, I want to start writing about Wendy Hitchmough’s The Arts and Crafts Lifestyle and DesignI really like the organization of the book as well as the content—it moves from room to room to discuss not only the decoration and furnishing of the rooms, but the social rituals that furnished reasons for the rooms and their contents. It’s focus on the British strain of Arts and Crafts has really filled a gap in my education in that regard.

In reading about Carl and Karin Larsson recently, I cited a passage from an essay by Gillian Naylor that cites Herman Muthesius proclamation that the real innovation of the English was the creation of “the artistic house.” Wendy Hitchmough begins by invoking Muthesius as well, but from a different angle:

Hermann Muthesius concluded that the English derived their confidence and easy assurance from a tyrannical system of rules and customs which dictated what people must wear and how they must behave, and this determined the furnishing and arrangement of their surroundings. It was never necessary to worry about formalities—about where to put the display cabinet, for example, or which room would be auspicious for a proposal of marriage—because the matters were ruled by strict social conventions. “The most striking characteristic that the foreigner notices about the English is that their patterns of life are immutable and fixed for all time. . .Not only  is the domestic routine in the individual and as punctual as clockwork throughout the year but all households of similar economic standing are as like one another as peas in a pod.” (8, 10)

The only way to break free from this regimentation, Hitchmough argues, was “the artistic home.” In the last few decades of the 19th century, it seems that the artistic home was an often repeated trope. It’s there in Van Gogh’s letters as well. His thoughts about home are amazingly profound. From Letter 674:

How I’d like to set myself up so that I could have a home of my own! I never stop telling myself that if at the start we’d spent even 500 francs on furnishing, we would already have recouped all of it, and I would have furniture and I would be free of lodging-house keepers by now. I’m not pressing the point, but what we’re doing now isn’t wise. There will always be artists passing through here, wishing to escape the harshness of the north. And I feel myself that I’ll always be among that number. True that it would probably be better to go a bit further down, where you’d be more sheltered. True that it won’t be entirely easy to find, but all the more reason; if we set ourselves up here, the costs of moving shouldn’t be enormous. From here to Bordighera, for example, or somewhere near Nice. Once we’d settled, we’d stay there for the rest of our lives. Waiting until you’re very rich is a sorry system, and that’s what I don’t like about the De Goncourts, although it’s the truth — they end up paying a hundred thousand francs for their home and their peace of mind. Now we’d have it for less than a thousand, in that we’d have a studio in the south where we could put someone up.

But if we have to make a fortune first……… we’ll be totally neurotic by the time we reach that sort of tranquillity, and that’s worse than our present state, in which we can still stand all sorts of noises. But let’s be wise enough to know that we’re getting dull-witted all the same.

It’s better to lodge others than not to be lodged ourselves here, especially lodging with an innkeeper, which even when you pay doesn’t provide you with a lodging where you feel at home.

The reference to the De Goncourts is a matter of some discussion among Van Gogh scholars, apparently, as to how much or little Van Gogh had read of their work. In describing Van Gogh’s strategies and rhetoric as a letter writer, the suggestion has been made that Vincent might have viewed Edmond and Jules De Goncourt as a sort of crusading role model for the Van Gogh brothers, and they had written about “the artistic house.”

Félix Nadar, Portrait of Edmond et Jules Goncourt
Félix Nadar, Portrait of Edmond et Jules Goncourt

References tothe De Goncourt brothers occur in several of Van Gogh’s letters. I found the Wikipedia entry on  them interesting. French naturalism has had a lot of impact on many visual artists. The 1911 Britannica describes their specific flavor in this way:

“To the Goncourts humanity is as pictorial a thing as the world it moves in; they do not search further than ‘the physical basis of life,’ and they find everything that can be known of that unknown force written visibly upon the sudden faces of little incidents, little expressive moments.”

This aligns closely with Richard Sennett’s assertion that character, for the Victorians, is something that can be “read” from the external appearance of things.  It’s a shift to the visual coupled with an embrace of the emotional and contingent:

“The soul, to them, is a series of moods, which succeed one another, certainly without any of the too arbitrary logic of the novelist who has conceived of character as a solid or consistent thing. Their novels are hardly stories at all, but picture-galleries, hung with pictures of the momentary aspects of the world.”

This returns full circle to the “situated” versus “planned” worldview in the AI articles I was exploring yesterday in remarkable ways. Recall that Muthesius spoke of an English “planned” lifestyle that Hitchmough counterpoised with an Arts and Crafts “artistic house” alternative. Life, for an artist, is contingent and arbitrary. Nonetheless, Van Gogh had big plans:

It’s not the least little bit urgent, but I have my idea. I really want to make of it — an artists’ house but not precious, on the contrary, nothing precious, but everything from the chair to the painting having character.

So for the beds I bought local beds, two wide double beds, instead of iron beds. It gives a look of solidity, durability, calm, and if it takes a bit more bed-linen, that’s too bad, but it must have character.

Most fortunately I have a charwoman who’s very loyal; without that I wouldn’t dare begin the business of living in my own place. She’s quite old and has a mixed bunch of kids, and she keeps my tiles nice and red and clean.

I wouldn’t be able to explain to you how pleased I am to find a big, serious job this way. Because I hope it’ll be a true decoration that I’m going to undertake there.

So, as I’ve already told you, I’m going to paint my own bed, there’ll be 3 subjects. Perhaps a naked woman, I haven’t decided, perhaps a cradle with a child; I don’t know, but I’ll take my time.

I now no longer feel any hesitation about staying here, because ideas for work are coming to me in abundance. I now plan to buy some article for the house every month. And with patience, the house will be worth something for the furniture and the decorations. (Letter 677)

The plan, ultimately, was to exhibit both studies for the decoration of the house, and then the house itself. Van Gogh’s emphasis on physical decoration is supported by a definite amount of reading on the subject:

I read in the literary supplement of Saturday’s Figaro (15 Sept.) the description of an Impressionist house. This house was built, as would be the bottoms of bottles, of bricks of rounded glass — purple glass. With the sun glancing off it, the yellow glints flashing from it, it produced an extraordinary effect.

To support these walls of glass bricks in the shape of purple eggs, they had devised a support in black and gilded iron, representing strange shoots of vines and other climbing plants. This purple house was right in the middle of a garden, all of whose paths were made of a very yellow sand. The beds of ornamental flowers were naturally most extraordinary in their coloration. This house, if I remember well, must be in Auteuil. Without changing anything at the house, either now or later, I’d nevertheless like to make it, through the decoration, an artist’s house. That will come. I shake your hand firmly. (Letter 681)

Scholarly notes trace this reference to “an Impressionist house” back to the De Goncourts, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s correct or not; the article Van Gogh refers to actually describes “a modernist house,” so suffice it to say that the house is beginning to develop into an extension of beliefs, attitudes, and predilections of the designers and inhabitants. Van Gogh, like many others at the time, was concerned with putting together a well considered lived space.

At present I’ve also bought a dressing-table with all the necessaries, and my own little bedroom is furnished.

Gauguin’s or another lodger’s — we’ll still need a dressing-table and a chest of drawers, and downstairs I’ll need a large stove and a cupboard.

None of that’s at all urgent, and as a result I can already see the goal, to have the means of having a roof over my head for a good long time.

You wouldn’t believe how much that calms me; I have such a passion to make — an artist’s house — but a practical one and not the usual studio full of curios.

I’m also thinking of planting two oleanders outside the door, in tubs.

Anyway, on this studio we’re probably spending several hundred francs less than Russell, for example, who spends thousands.  And actually, even if I had the choice between the two, for my part I’d prefer the few-hundred-francs method, as long as each piece of furniture was four-square and substantial. But still, the room in which I’ll put up those who pass through here will be like a boudoir, and when it’s finished you’ll see that it’s not a haphazard creation, but a job done that way deliberately. (Letter 685)

The sense of hope in these letters is almost palpable. Like any good frugal house-husband, Van Gogh is striving to shape his surroundings by careful selection and decoration, to make everyone know he meant to do that. This is nearly contemporary with Carl and Karin Larsson and most of the British Arts and Crafts designers.

There was something in the air internationally regarding intelligent domestic design and everyone wanted in on it.

Not loaded

1895c Father's Room (from 'a Home' series) watercolour National Museun, Stockhom
1895c Father’s Room (from ‘a Home’ series) watercolour National Museun, Stockhom

I can’t seem to stop looking at Carl Larsson’s bedroom arrangement. The sitting bench on the corner of the bed must be attached to the bed itself, and there is a small cabinet doubles as a step. The door into the waiting room must have been removed at a later date, because photographs of the room show a small cabinet next to the door and a sliding curtain in its place. Another interesting detail—the pistol hanging on the wall. The inscription above it reads “not loaded.” Click to enlarge, it’s worth it.

Scan 1

Another interesting feature of his bedroom is the little window behind a small door, so that he can peek into his workshop:



Carl Larsson's upcycled kitchen cabinet
Carl Larsson’s upcycled kitchen cabinet

Carl Larsson could make a work of art out of even the simplest piece of furniture. The very plain cupboard, which was painted in China red, and the door panels were black-lacquered and decorated with growing flowers, in a clearly Japanese-inspired, asymmetrical composition. This piece of furniture expresses much of the young Carl Larsson’s freedom and inspiration.

Carl and Karin Larsson filled their house with old furniture, bought or given at different times. Nearly every room has a piece of furniture radiating a Baroque exuberance and a feeling for constructional clarity characteristic of peasant master craftsmen. Many of the heavier pieces of furniture probably belonged to mine shareholders, well-off land-owning farmers with a share in the local mine and arable land. Several corner cupboards and mouldings on the doors came from farmer’s homes in Dalarna. Such furniture was inexpensive at that time, and Larsson sometimes bought furniture in such bad condition that it had to be restored by his handyman. On the other hand, most of the old furniture bought for his home was well-made, of solid materials and good craftsmanship, stable and intended for practical purposes. These items are a reflection of Larsson’s nationalism, an expression of his pride in Sweden’s period as a great power in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. (Elizabeth Stavenow-Hidemark,  “The Larsson Approach to Old Furniture,” Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style 187)

It’s very weird to me how the books I read tend to overlap. Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Design Book is filled with a celebration of the sort of workaday vernacular furniture gestured at (with some more ornate examples as well) in the book on Larsson I’m trying to save some snips from. I’ve never liked the word “upcycling” (apparently this term was coined circa 1994) but the practice has been commonplace for a very long time.

In fact, it’s a centerpiece of Mackay Hugh Baillie Scot’s strategy as well. In House and Garden (1906) He repeats exactly the same strategy:

The best way to secure a satisfactory result in furnishing is to have the furniture made specially for its position—a few things soundly and simply constructed which shall seem a part of the whole scheme. In many parts of the country old furniture of a simple type—gate tables, rush-bottomed chairs, bureaus, &c.—may be obtained at a very reasonable cost; and such things, with a few special made furnishings which cannot be obtained in this way, will always be at home in a house such as I have described. This old furniture has a sort of human character about it; and the varied planes of its surfaces, with its strong construction and evidences of careful leisurely work, make it inviting and homely. The modern ” Art” furniture bears testimony, on the contrary, that it is the work of a drilled automaton. Its pretence to finish is a mere superficial deceptive smartness. No human being ever loved or lingered over its completion, and its Art is the bait held out to the purchaser as a substitute for real excellence of design or manufacture. (40)

Schwarz’s “movement” towards home made furniture is not really all that new, and neither is his ranting against Ikea. It seems to me to be Arts and Crafts, through and through. What I wasn’t really expecting was to find that  a bit further on, Baillie Scot comes out in full support of what Schwarz labels as “boarded furniture.” For those who haven’t been following the woodworking magazines, translates to furniture built with nails:

In the making of furniture there are two principal methods of construction in the joining of its woodwork. The simplest is that now used in making packing-cases, the wood being joined by means of nails. The more complicated is that in which the wood is joined by letting one piece into another by the use of what are called mortices and tenons.

It is a foregone conclusion nowadays that the simplest way of doing a thing is necessarily the worst way, and the nail in modern woodwork has been considered a thing to be hidden. While in all other details of construction a virtue has been made of frankness, and while the pegs of the tenon are displayed to view, the nail is sedulously concealed by all kinds of artifices. In the making of the simple kinds of furniture in which the wood is joined by nails of the kind known as clout-headed, made by a blacksmith, these might be shown without shame, and form a feature in the design, and nothing could be reasonably urged against this simple and direct “packing-case” construction for a chest or cabinet. (41)

So there you have it. Not only does he suggest boarded furniture, he also suggests traditional blacksmith-made nails over machine made wire nails. The old cliché about the more things change comes immediately to mind. But, it’s just as certain to say that craftsmanship never goes out of fashion.

Carpenter Hans Arnbom, 1915
Carl Larsson, Carpenter Hans Arnbom, 1915. The paneling is inscribed ‘my friend and builder H. Arnbom’

Postscript: In the final essay in Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style, “The Larsson Design Legacy: A Personal View” by Lena Larsson, she tells this anecdote:

When I went into the business in 1940s [interior design], I was often asked where one could buy ‘Carl Larsson furniture.’ ; the answer was that you had to make it yourself. In 1944 Carl Malmsten published a whole set of drawings for general use. (225).

The designer/craftsman Carl Malmsten, who first encountered Carl Larsson’s books in 1907, was apparently very taken by the interior scenes created by the Larssons. James Krenov, a saint to many contemporary builders, was a pupil of Malmsten. The connections are really fascinating to me.


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.

Carl and Karin LarssonI 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.

Scan 1
Carl Larsson in his workshop at Lilla Hyttnäs

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.

Larsson Workshop

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.