Ecclesiastical Geometries: Agda Österberg

The idea that I  had of Swedish churches–whitewashed and centuries old– didn’t lead me to expect the startling color combinations and shifting geometries found in the church rugs designed by Agda Österberg.  Österberg occupies a unique place among Swedish mid-century weavers. Although she was of the same generation as Barbro Nilsson, born at the very end of the 19th century, she lived to be nearly 100 years old and continued to produce work over a period of some 50+ years.

Once she found her own direction, she stayed with it. Her designs seem to draw almost equally on repetative patterns, mannerist architecture and primitive motifs. It is fascinating that this fearlessly colorful, and constantly inventive artist found her career designing rugs and woven textiles for churches. Her work could hardly be called decorous.

At times she seems to express a fascination with art deco stepped pyramids and ziggurat shapes.  Despite their rigid geometry, these images wobble and shift as though seen through the cubist  multi-perspective lens. At other times, like a baroque artist, she seems to take the architecture of a given church and use shading and forms that echo architectural elements to create a monumental design for the floor. But always working with basic shapes and strong colors, she manipulates and reflects forms in an alluringly individualistic way. Once you have seen several of her rugs, her style is unmistakable. Here are two of her rugs that are somewhat figurative:

AO Buk 166 337x182 matta 365
Agda Österberg Flat weave (Rölakan), “Carpet number 365,” woven 2965. 337 x 182 cm. Woven signature AÖ as well as AGDA ÖSTERBERG embroidered. Sold at Bukowskis Contemporary and Design Auction 585, object #166, for 95,625 SEK or about $11,723.
AO Buk 663 693x270
Agda Österberg Flat weave and tapestry weave (Rölakan and gobelängteknik),603 x 270 cm. Signed AÖ woven as well as AGDA ÖSTERBERG 1964 embroidered at the back. Sold at Bukowskis Modern Autumn Sale Stockholm 569, 2012, Object # 663, for 159, 375 SEK or about $19,538.
AO Buk 663 detil signature
Agda Österberg detail of Flat weave above, showing typical A Ö signature

From Stockholm originally, Agda grew up in a family of six. Her father died when she was twelve, and she went to work as a housemaid. Noticing her talent in drawing, her employer helped her to attend art school. Ada then went on to the Higher School of Art and Design, the precursor of Konstfack, long the premier school for Swedish designers. Out of school she worked for an organization called the Friends of Handcraft, and in 1922 won a travel scholarship for study in Italy and Germany. She apparently visited the Bauhaus in its very early years— not long enough to learn much, but long enough to take away an indelible impression.

Österberg worked for Libraria, one of the textile firms which focused on church-related work during the 1920s, and in 1933 she moved from Stockholm to Skarborg, an area northeast of Gothenburg between two very large lakes. She set up her own studio called Three Brooks in the town of Varnhem which wove rugs and did fine embroidery work on church linens and vestments. In 1936, Agda was married to Gunnar Lindstorm, who had been a stuntman in Hollywood before returning home. The marriage was turbulent, and the couple divorced in 1951. After this, Österberg was extremely productive, designing rugs in the1960s and ‘70s for churches throughout the Skarborg area. In many cases still serving in the churches for which they were designed, these rugs continue to attract a great deal of popular pride.
Here are rugs found in two local churches:

1955-Faereds-kyrka-size
from Färed’s Church, photo by Barbro Thörn
AO 508-stora-lundby
from Stora -Lundby Church, photo by Barbro Thörn. Note the way the rug motif echoes the balusters of the altar rail.

Sources:

Title image: Agda Österberg, Flat weave rug, (Rölakan), 215 x 150,5 cm. Signed A ÖSTERBERG
Sold at Bukowskis Modern Autumn Sale Stockholm 569, 2012, Object #167.

There seem to be several active web and blog sites with information about Agda Österberg including the following:

http://www.agdaosterberg.com/

https://blogg.svenskakyrkan.se/tavelsjo/2015/12/03/agda-osterberg/

https://agdaosterberg.wordpress.com/category/textila-verk-kyrkor/

http://www.ljungstorpshistoria.se/ljungstorps-alla-skiften/a.-ljungstorpsv%C3%A4gen-knivaledet-stenberget-v%C3%A4gens-historia/a.-9-tre-b%C3%A4ckar-*-16173837

Also this design archive: http://www.lexikonettamanda.se/show.php?aid=13701

Bukowskis Auction House, Stockholm, online catalogs

Current church photos by Barbro Thörn from http://www.kyrkokarten.se

Please reference as follows:

Whidden, Anne, “Ecclesiastical Geometries,” theswedishrugblog (April 10, 2016);
http:// theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (month/day/year)

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