the how-to of “House Beautiful”

Question: What influential American woman during the 1950s also collected Swedish textiles?  Answer:  Elizabeth Gordon, editor of the American magazine, “House Beautiful.”

Gordon’s remarkable 23-year tenure at House Beautiful popularized what she called “organic modern” architecture, and she did much to put the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in the public eye. In the post-war years she helped popularize  both Scandinavian and Japanese design ideas in the United States. Gordon was also an avid collector of textiles and she had a good eye for design quality.

During the 1950s, Gordon bought three hand-woven Swedish tapestries, each designed by a member of the powerful design trio in the Märta Måås-Fjetterström studio: Barbro Nilsson, Ann-Mari Forsberg and Marianne Richter. Gordon’s interest in these particular textiles proved to be both personal and professional; for six years, from 1953-1969, these elegant tapestries functioned essentially as beautiful props, providing inspiration for various House Beautiful magazine articles.

Sometime between 1951 and 1954, Gordon saw a photograph of “Red Crocus,” (Röd Crocus), a tapestry by Ann-Mari Forsberg, in a book entitled Contemporary Swedish Design, written by by Arthur Hald and Swen Erik Skawonius. She says of the tapestry that she “ordered it by mail”, probably from an American stockist.

Cooperhewitt AMF tapestry
Ann-Mari Forsberg, tapestry, “Röd Crocus,” 1945. Image from collection of the Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York, object #18451437

Red Crocus was designed in 1945 by Forsberg, and woven at the MMF workshop in Bastad, Sweden. Forsberg’s work is marked by interlocking repetitive elements enlivened by the careful placement of several vibrant colors. Gordon used this tapestry as inspiration and focal point for an article in the January 1955 issue of House Beautiful magazine, on furnishing a living room with thrift and style.

Titled, “How inexpensively – and nicely- can you furnish a living room in 1955?”, the article showed step by step how a contemporary living room had been assembled by the House Beautiful staff. The room as shown had a neutral palette of off-white sofas and drapes, a sisal area rug, wood-paneled wall with modern architectural detail (including a light cove) and crisp modern furniture, much of it with ebonized wood or black wire frames. The lively red tapestry has pride of place on one wall, and its color is echoed by red pillows on the sofa, and by the photographic props—a bowl of red apples, a flagon of red-colored liquid, and a stack of red books.

HB redcrocus
photo illustrating article in January 1955 House Beautiful magazine

Both the accounting on the project- titled, “Here’s How We Spent Our Money” – and Gordon’s commentary are fascinating.

HB accounting

The total budget to furnish the room was $2,035.97.  Most of the furnishing were under $100, with a few accessories even under $10. The tapestry was by far the most expensive item in the list of purchases at $323.00.  The editorial discussion of expenses acknowledges the high cost of the tapestry but points out that “if you left out the tapestry, the room would have no decorative character.”  Gordon’s voice with her particular combination of enthusiasm and practicality comes through in the “Guide to stretching your money” which looks at how editorial decisions were made in furnishing this mocked-up living room. She says,

“The less you have to spend, the more you need one glorious thing— so beautiful that you don’t notice the lack of quality in other things. That means you will splurge on something. But make sure your splurge repays you well, for it should set the character of your room and provide you with the springboard for your color scheme. You will have to shop long and hard for this one wonderful object which is to ‘grade up’ the whole room. … What type of object can give a room such an important lift? A unique object like a painting, a tapestry, a fine antique piece of furniture, a Chinese or Japanese screen, perhaps a rug done to your order or an old rug with unique beauty and lovely faded colors.”

In discussing the Red Crocus tapestry she says further, “We liked its flowing lines and rich colors…We saw that it was beautiful enough so it would be the most vivid and dynamic thing in the room. … It was fresh and charming enough to glorify, and its quality was good enough to warrant its dominating everything else in the room. In short, we felt that the tapestry would do so much for the room that it warranted spending 25% of the total budget for such an art object.”

The Red Crocus tapestry does exactly what Gordon claims: it “dominates” and enlivens everything else in the room. And the article itself also accomplishes what Gordon wants her magazine to do: to show her readers how to make tasteful decisions, without dictating them. What more wonderful object to use for her case study than this lively contemporary piece of “Scandinavian” design?

Gordon’s three Märta Måås-Fjetterström tapestries provided inspiration and content for a variety of topics she developed in the magazine: on Scandinavinan design; on the use of textiles to furnish her favorite “Organic Modern” architecture; on DIY textile projects; and -in this article -on the way a piece of art or great design could set the tone for a modern interior. Gordon clearly had favorite objects, as she did favorite architects, and she expressed her appreciation by giving her favorites frequent appearances in the pages of House Beautiful. No other textiles in her collection were as actively used, played with, or appreciated as those of these three weavers of the Märta Måås-Fjetterström studio.

Sources:

House Beautiful magazine, January 1955

Cooper Hewitt Museum collection, item #18451437
<ref name=CH>{{cite web |url=https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/18451437/ |title=Hanging.   In 1964, prior to an exhibition at the museum of the Cooper Union  School, Gordon donated her collection to the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York (these are two different institutions).

The Wonders of Thread, A Gift of Textiles from Elizabeth Gordon, Cooper Union Museum catalog of show, December 12, 1964 – February 23, 1965


Please reference as follows
:

Whidden, Anne, “the ‘how to’ of ‘House Beautiful’,” theswedishrugblog (February 15, 2016); http:// theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (month/day/year)

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