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.

A crafty spatial aide de mémoire

To explain my work for you, I have to build a room for you. A creative room with four walls which represents my boundaries, and actually my greatest freedom. Freedom of expression is not working without limits. Those limits are tools and material but within them I have incredible variety and diversity, and there I can be who I want to be, surolle, the craftsman. My aesthetic expression is formed by these four walls, and now I will describe those four walls. First we have the material wall.

. . .  so, as the beat poet Jack Kerouac said, you’ve got to have the right beat to get life, right. Life has to sway and swing and rock and roll and I’m fine with that. It’s a process, you’ve got to have a dialog with the material. When I choose the material for my work wall number two comes in, and that’s tools and tool skills. I just love this surface coming from the cutting tool, a tool inherited for generations, a technique refined for thousands of years, a kind of assembled aesthetic form which is intimately associated with tools and technology.

. . .The third wall is behind me, and that’s tradition. The word sloyd  refers to know how to, smart, or do it yourself, DIY and it’s still in our dialect in Västerbotten. It’s the viking age word slög, and it means crafty. But we never say that we are crafty, practical. We always say that we are not unpractical, not uncrafty. . . .And every day I work I am connected with my family’s ten generations of work with wood, furniture and household items and I have a deep respect for their tradition and skills because they knew that they had to live with what they had made for the rest of their lives. This is a sort of responsibility for themselves that they have embedded in the objects they have made., which is about love, about caring to pass on to the next generation.

. . .the three dimensional design was about people. And people, that’s the fourth wall, the folk-art wall. A story about all of you, about the longing, love, desire, incantations, spells and magic which is embedded in the handmade object. . . .So the fourth wall in the creative room is about communication between people, and  art and design in traditional crafts is talking directly to the users: Use me, love me, take care of me. Because when I made it, I took care.

Not Uncrafty: A Craftsman’s Definition of Art Jögge Sundqvist, Ted Talk.