A Swedish “Oriental”

Rölakan, titled “Röda porten” (Red Door), by Märta Måås-Fjetterstöm, 1936,

In 1897, a 24-year old Märta Måås-Fjetterstöm, a recent graduate of Stockholm’s School of Industrial Arts, made a life-changing visit to one of the more exciting cultural events of the year: the General Art and Industrial Exhibition of Stockholm, located on the island of Djurgården in the Stockholm harbor.

At the fair she encountered the oriental rug collection of Fredrik Robert Martin.  Martin, a Swede then just 29, was studying for a doctoral degree in ethnography in Vienna. He had for the past several years undertaken trips to Siberia, through the Caucasus and Central Asia (1894-5) and Egypt and Turkey (1895-96) collecting as he went. He would go on in the next 30 years to collect all manner of exotic ethnographic material: Egyptian ceramics, bookbindings, Middle-eastern metal work, and Persian miniatures.  Self- promotional and egotistical, Martin had assembled an impressive collection of kilim and pile rugs and managed to obtain a pavilion specially dedicated to a display of these rugs. These rugs were a revelation to the young designer. She never travelled to Turkey or the middle-east herself, yet citing her influences, she said later, “For me it has mostly been Swedish and Norwegian rustic art; modern art; van Gogh; the Middle Ages, and first and foremost, the Orient.” (quoted in Stensman, p.9 of English translation ; see sources below).

In 1936, MMF designed the flat weave rug, Red Door, shown in full below. This example of the design was woven after 1941.

Auktionverket Roda Porta MMF 1936 copy 2
It is clear, in designing this, that she was looking at traditional “prayer-niche”   Anatolian rugs, like kilim from Obruk, Ersurum, and elsewhere, and pile ones like Melas and Ladik, all of which reference a mihrab in a mosque. The Melas rugs, like the one below, generally have a more yellow-orange-red palette, but this particular rug illustrates well the central niche image and its several borders.

Nazmiyal turkish-melas-prayer-rug-48722-detail
Melas prayer rug, 19th c, sold by Nazmiyal, NY, object #48722.

In her Red Door rug, MMF has taken the mihrab form and simplified it, eliminating the typical multiple borders of these rugs, instead giving the niche itself several layers. And in eliminating other traditional features- lamps, columns, flowers- the niche becomes even more architectural and iconic— almost an abstracted house, though it stretches out like a niche. Other elements seen in some prayer-niche kilims, like the Obruk, such as the tree of life imagery, here seems located, in a very abstracted form, in the rug’s upper and lower border.

border detail MMF roda porta copy
Border detail with tree-of-life image. Back of rug is shown, with AB MMF signature shown in reverse. Also evident is MMF’s usual fringe, mixed brown and white threads.

Her color choices, while not vivid, are also lighter and less intense than the traditional Anatolian kilims. Instead of a center with several borders, each with its own pattern, she gives the rug a more modern feel with an overall pattern of simple black and white figures. Nevertheless, there are nods to traditional ethnic rug making: the apparent center “seam,” and the use in the red band (here intentional) of varying tones or dye lots of wool, called “abrash” in traditional carpets.

seam detail roda porta MMF copy
Seam detail, “Röda porten” rug
Auktionverk detail MMF Roda Porta copy
Detail of intentional abrash, “Röda porten” rug.

Märta Måås Fjetterström looked, and looked hard, at original “oriental” sources. Yet throughout her career, like all real artists, she did not just copy but completely remade her sources. She took traditional elements and played with them, changing and remaking original forms and patterns and blending them with her own colors and local imagery. This may be one of the most “Turkish” of her rugs, but it is also completely and happily, a Swedish rölakan.


Göteborgs Auktionverk, sale of Märta Måås Fjetterström rug, Röda Porten, 11/23/14, images from auction house via Auctionet.com.

Hull, Alastair and Wyhowska, Jose Luczyc, Kilim the Complete Guide, Thames and Hudson, London, 1993.

Fredrick Robert Martin entries in Sweden’s riksarkivet, id #9129, and in wikipdia

Nazmiyal Carpets, New York, Melas prayer rug, object #48722.

Stensman, Mailis. “Stars, Cows, Deer, Flowers,” essay in Märta Måås Fjetterström, catalog of exhibition, Märta flyger igen! 90 år med Märta Måås Fjetterström 3.10 2009 – 6.1 2010, Lilivalchs Konsthall, 2009.

Thompson, Jon, Oriental Carpets From the Tents, Cottages and Workshops of Asia, EP Dutton, New York, 1988.

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