A Wider World

While attending Konstfack, the design school in Stockholm, Ingrid Peterson met her first husband, a sophisticated Dane, who throughout his life had an interest in causes and grand ideas. Kai Dessau had an enormous hand in exposing Ingrid to a larger world and in launching her career. In many ways he was her mentor as much as her husband.

Portrait of Kaj Dessau painted as a student in 1916. It was painted by a well-known Danish artist, Kristian Zhartman the year before he died. Zhartman also did a self portrait of himself painting this portrait of Dessau. Image from Bruun-Rasmussen

Dessau was 26 years older than Ingrid, born in 1897. He trained first as a painter, but found that he had a talent for promoting good modern design, founding a home-furnishings store called BO based on a completely novel idea about marketing. This store, which operated in Copenhagen from 1925-41, (and still continues today as Illums Bolighus), was among the first anywhere to show well-designed twentieth-century furniture, textiles, lighting and art in room-like settings. As one writer noted later about the store, “it is arranged in displays you could practically move into.” Dessau’s partner in this enterprise was a textile designer named Brita Drewson who had been born in Sweden and trained at the Stockholm lans hemslojd.

However, with the advent of World War II,  Germany invaded Denmark in 1940. In 1941 Dessau, who was Jewish, managed to move to New York where he became manager of the George Jensen store there. After the war, Dessau returned to Denmark and Sweden, scouting new product lines for Jensen, and was impressed with the quality of new craft work. This may be when he met Ingrid Peterson. One of the first to look for different ways of marketing Scandinavian designs in the United States, Dessau also suggested to the owner of the George Jensen store, Frederik Lunning, that he sponsor a prize for young Scandinavian designers, with the prize to be awarded, and the winner’s designs to be shown in New York. Lunning agreed, and in 1951, the Lunning Prize was established, with Hans Wegner and Tapio Wirkkala the first winners.

In 1949 Ingrid Peterson and Kaj Dessau married, and moved to the United States with Kaj in a new role. A committed vegetarian, Dessau had been named General Secretary of the International Vegetarian Union, The Dessaus’ life was based in New York City but involved considerable travel in the US, Canada and Mexico. Ingrid found the travel stimulating, generating new ideas for rug designs, but she had no way to weave or to have her designs produced. After several years, she decided she needed to return to Sweden and make her career there. Kaj respected Ingrid’s decision and while they decided to seperate, he wanted to help to establish Ingrid’s career back in Sweden.

Kai contacted the owner of the Galleri Moderne, a well-respected art venue in Stockholm, and persuaded him that a show of craft work would represent a brave new direction for the gallery. While Ingrid worked with weavers from her former employer, Kristiansted lans hemslojd, to produce her designs inspired by her time in the US and Mexico, Kaj took on the organization and planning for the exhibition. A potter, Signe Persson-Melin, was invited to show her work together with Ingrid’s rugs of various kinds.

The show opened in Stockholm in November 1953, and then traveled to four other Swedish cities. It was a huge critical success, with enthusiastic newspaper reviews. All fifteen pieces Ingrid showed were sold, and she received orders for another ten. Ingrid Dessau’s career was launched. The designs were unlike anything else on the market at the time: crisp, geometric and very modern, yet rich and powerful, and beautifully woven. All this was Ingrid’s doing, and it was the fruitage of her time spent abroad. But for exposing Ingrid to modernity outside of Sweden, and creating the opportunity for her to show at a prestigious gallery in Stockholm, Kaj Dessau deserves credit.

Buko ID Michocan
Ingrid Dessau, flatweave rug (rölakan), “Michoacán,”, designed and woven 1953-4 at Kristianstad Lans Hemslojd 252,5 x 170,5 cm. Signed KLH MN SC ID. – Bukowskis Modern Sale 578, 2014 object # 898 .

The  flat-weave rug, called “Michoacán,” shown above, was among the pieces shown at the Galleri Moderne. It was named after a town in Mexico,and Dessau said that it was inspired by a view out from a cathedral spire over the town’s gridded streets and varied roof forms. The colors she described as rich deep Mexican colors. When compared with her work from before her time in the US and Mexico, it also has a kind of syncopation that it is tempting to associate with American jazz, which she also cited as an influence.

B ID Micho detail 1 KLHBuk ID MIcho detail ID

The rug has the expected initials: KLH in the left hand corner, and ID in the right. Unusually, the rug also contains the initials of the rug’s two weavers: MN and SC, centered in the base of the rug. When she wove with craft association weavers, Dessau seemed to want them to share the credit for the rugs as well. I have not been able to identify these weavers further.

Buk ID Micho weavers init

The result of Dessau’s success with her first show catapulted her into an entirely new sphere: that of weaving for industry. Kasthalls, one of the major Swedish industrial weavers asked her to design rugs for them. This was a new challenge, which Dessau accepted, and although she continued to design occasionally for various craft associations, from then on, she worked primarily for several of the major industrial carpet manufacturers.

In 1955 Ingrid Dessau shared the Lunning Prize which her ex-husband had helped to establish with Kaj Frank from Finland. The statement about that prize was that it was awarded to “support talented and original Nordic craftsmen and industrial designers – preferably young persons – for whom a carefully planned and lengthy period of study abroad stands to be of great or decisive importance for their artistic development and practical performance.” It would be interesting to know more about any study abroad which Ingrid made with her prize money, and which of her designs was shown at the George Jensen store in New York when this prize was awarded.

Bukowskis Auction house,

Gustafsson-Seiffe, Inger, Ingrid Dessau, Textildesigner, Textilmuseet i Boras, 2008.

ibid, Ingrid Dessau, “Virtuoso Colorist,” Väv magazine, issue 2/08, p.6-9


About Kai Dessau’s efforts to o promote the idea of an international architects’ and designers’ institute in a building which Alvar Aalto agreed to design.Funds were not forthcoming and the idea was ultimately abandoned.

About Britta Drewsen in Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon


Bruun-Rasmussen online auction, object #1233/49, sold August 13, 2012.
Kristian Zhartman’s portrait of “Kaj Dessau, Art Student, born 1897” painted 1916, was from Dessau’s father’s collection.

Please Reference as follows:

Whidden, Anne, “A Wider World,” theswedishrugblog (October 1, 2015);
http:// theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (month/day/year)

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