United Nations Curtain: Marianne Richter

During the late 1940s, Marianne Richter had her own studio in Stockholm and worked on design commissions from MMF for rugs and tapestries. She also continued with free-lance design for several companies, designing prints for clothing fabric and jacquard textiles, as well as teaching at Konsfack, Sweden’s prestigious design school. In 1949, Richter had a daughter,Sara.  Sara remembers her mother designing at home, and being taken as a child to various studios and to Bastad where her mother had consultations with the MMF weavers.

By 1950, Richter was at work on the largest project of her career, the design of an enormous curtain for the Economic and Social Council Chamber (ECOSC) designed by Swedish architect Sven Markelius at the new UN building in New York City. In planning the United Nations building itself there was considerable politic-ing. The question was which architects of which countries were to be awarded the commissions to design which spaces. Once the architects had been decided upon, they themselves turned to other artists from their countries for their assistance.

The MMF Studio was commissioned to design and weave the curtain for the ECOSC, and Marianne Richter was given the job. Once Richter had designed it, using a weaving technique developed by Barbro Nilsson, the curtain took ten MMF weavers two full years to weave it. The curtain was 220 square meters and, approximately 7 meters high and 22 long. It was woven in four pieces- a bottom border piece and an upper section for each of the two sides of the curtain. As designed, the warp threads would run horizontally. This was not a tapestry, but it borrowed the method from tapestry weaving where running the warp horizontally created less droop, once hung.  The curtain was installed at the UN in 1952 as a gift from the Swedish government. The bright red and orange design with its “angel wing” pattern was much admired both in Sweden and in the United States, although there was some confusion as to what the huge woven shapes were. Interiors magazine, reviewing the building attributed a sense of humor to Markelius, crediting him with creating a curtain, “sprinkled with huge multicolored butterflies” and using pin-striped carpeting reminiscent of a diplomat’s attire. But it was not his own design, although Markelius himself commented that it was this curtain which gave the room its character.

cropped pc UNIMG_2583 copy

Tragically, by 1968, a combination of humidity, exposure to sunlight, and an untested flame-retardant treatment had destroyed the weave of this magnificent heavy curtain. Richter asked that a piece of the curtain be returned to her. She later commented to a former student “Here are the sad remains of my curtain. Can you imagine, a whole year, ten weavers were engaged in weaving [this] curtain weighing 350 kg. They fire-treated there and then hung it up in the big sunny windows. The yarn could not stand it – now it is a little pile of rags here in the drawer, that’s all that’s left. “

Marianne Richter, Fragment from UN Curtain, 1951-52, 35.9 x 27.5 cm (14 1/8 x 10 7/8 in.) Art Institute of Chicago collection. Linen and plain wool weaves with supplementary brocading wefts.

At some point, that former student Helena Hernmarck, herself a well-known contemporary textile artist, donated both an original sketch for the curtain and some of Richter’s sad little pile to the Art Institute of Chicago, shown above. It not labeled as the UN curtain, but is almost certainly a piece of the remains. Margareta Bergstrand, Conservator for the Swedish National Heritage Board, studied the factors which led to the destruction of this extraordinary textile work. She commented, “It is one of the great lost works of Swedish Modernism.”

“Arneberg, Juhl and Markelius: unodious comparisons at the UN”, Interiors Magazine, Vol.CXI, number 12, July 1952, p. 46.

Bergstrand, Margareta, “United Nations – uniting professions? Restoring the UN Building,” address to ICOM-CC Rome 2010.

Bergstrand, Margareta and Kathrin Hinrichs Degerblad, Kaj Thuresson and Thea Winter, “Fire! A Twofold Risk for Textile Art. An Investigation into the Consequences of Flame Retardant Treatments,” Swedish National Heritage Board, 2013.

Chicago Art Institute, Richter, Marianne, Sketch for Curtain, 1951, gift of Helena Hernmarck, accession #1989.223.2

Chicago Art Institute, Richter, Marianne, Fragment (from a Curtain) 1951-52, gift of Helena Hernmarck, accession #1989.223. 1b

Glambeck, Ingeborg, “The Council Chambers in the UN Building in New York “ in Scandinavian Journal of Design History, vol. 15, 2005, pp. 8-39.

Gustafen-Seife, Inger, “Interpreting the artistic intention” in Vavmagisinet 4/09 p.14-15.

Kontur magazine, “Monumental Textile for UN Headquarters,” Swedish Society of Industrial Design, #3, p.11.

Lindvall-Nordin, Christina, Obituary of Marianne Richter, Heslingborgs Dagsblad, January 17, 2011.

UN Postcard purchased on eBay by author (title image)

Please Reference as follows

Whidden, Anne, “United Nations Curtain,” theswedishrugblog (October 8, 2015);
http:// theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (month/day/year)

2 thoughts

  1. This is a wonderful article! I had seen the drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago and wondered about its history. I recently checked out a book of midcentury designs called Swedish Embroidery by Eivor Fisher, 1952. I was looking for more information on the artist who created a large ship design, and found your article. Thank you for the wonderful background on this artist.


  2. Hi Floresita,
    So glad you made that connection with the Art Institute little swatch and my blog post! Eivor Fisher worked with Gertrude Ingers and the Malmö county Craft association, mostly a bit earlier than most of my posts, so you may be interested in
    other posts about Malmö designers or other posts on Marianne Richter.
    Best, Anne


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