Kaleidoscope: Judith Johansson

If landscape impressions were filtered through a kaleidoscope, the rugs of Judith Johansson might be the result.

Johansson was a prolific mid-century designer who with her husband, John, wove flat-weave rugs well into the 1980s. Judith was taught to weave by her mother and maternal grandmother.  When she and her husband met and married in 1937, John and his sister had a business marketing rugs, tablecloths and other woven goods at market fairs and in a craft shop.  These were made by a group of weavers they employed in their home town of Hishult . Hishult is located just about 15 miles inland and east of Bastad, where the Märta Måås Fjetterström workshop is located, in the southwestern corner of the country.

In 1938, Judith and  John established their own weaving studio, JJ Vävatelje, in Knäred, in the county of S. Halland, just about 6 or 7 miles north of Hishult. The coming war brought a shortage of materials, but they began with rag rugs made from old uniforms, paper, and even a line of bedside rugs woven of rabbit skins. Their weavers produced Judith’s designs for runners, drapery and home furnishing fabrics as well. The first flatweave rugs were made after the war in 1948. Working together over the years, they produced rugs for churches and individuals, embassies and shipping companies— a total of some 400-plus designs, and employed some 13 weavers when the studio was at its largest.  A line of rya rugs was introduced in the 1970s. Because many designs were produced in multiple copies–and some were woven as a lines for Sweden’s major department stores, Nordiska Kompaniet among these, with tags affixed identifying weaver and design– these rugs are still relatively findable and affordable. They are signed in the lower left hand corner with the signature of the weave-studio,  “JJ”

From Judith Johansson’s own account, nearly all of the designs were based on watercolor sketches she made from the observation of nature. Her titles bear this out: ” Green Leaves,” “Cliff,” “Delphiniums,” “Primula,” “Summerflowers.” She wrote that the Spice Hall  design grew out of a visit to an old rebel fort.  She said, “the coloring is from a May day as it moves into its blue phase at leafing time, from a view over Lagadalen south of Knäred.”

But these abstract designs are hardly recognizable as nature studies. Nor do they show the kind of cheerful and now-familiar Scandinavian exaggeration of natural forms. Instead, they are marked by a kaleidoscopic kind of shape and shadow play. Shapes repeat, shifting layers. Shapes  warp, or asymmetry fractures designs, giving them a kind of optical motion. It is as if Johansson tried to capture in weaving, through her color juxtapositions, a visual shifting between foreground and background or a shift between things lit and things in shade. Her daughter reported that this shading was meant to capture the uneven shade on the ground in nature.

The following several rug designs are representative of her work:

JJ 67.5x 97
Detail, Title Unknown, flat weave rug (rölakan) 67.5 x 90″, design date unknown, signed JJ. Offered at Wright auction, 5/8/2014.
JJ Spice hall 244x170 Bukowskis
“Spice Hall,” flat weave rug (rölakan), 244x 170 cm, designed 1961 signed JJ and A, woven by Anna Johansson. Sold at Bukowskis Moderna auction 578, 2014, object #909. The rug was produced in different sizes to customers’ requests.
SpiceHall detail
Detail of “Spice Hall”, showing distinctive JJ signature, always located in lower left corner.
Vallmogang, 340 x 195 Frendberg c
“Vallmogang” (Poppy Walk), flat weave rug (rölakan), 340x 195 cm, designed 19 , signed JJ. Sold at Galleri Frendberg, Stockholm, 2015.
JJriddersporer Metropol auct0
Detail, “Riddarsporrar” (Delphiniums), flat weave rug (rölakan), 183 x 242 cm. (72 x 95.3 in.) Sold by Metropol Auktioner, Sweden, date unknown.

As the coloration and pattern of decorative arts got bolder during the 1960s and 70s, Johansson’s rugs also responded to the times.  Here is an especially vivid example:

JJ Kamelbak wioven by birgitta helgesson
“Kavelbäck”, flat weave rug (rölakan), designed 1960-70, woven by Birgitta Helgesson, signerad JJ and B in right hand corner, 262 x 200 cm. One of only two known examples. Sold Stockholms Auktionsverk Modern Art and Design auction 10/20/15, object #173.

Judith Johansson herself, and the weaving studio she and John founded, were honored and awarded various cultural prizes in the 1980s. The company continued to be a family affair in more ways than one: in 1986 it was handed down to Judith and John’s youngest daughter Britt-Mari (Johansson) Glyssbo, who ran it until 2000. At least as late as 2012, Britt-Mari continued to weave and design in flat-weave rolakan rugs particularly for churches, as well as other church textiles and robes, particularly in collaboration with Birgitta Helgesson, another weaver whom she had met in her parent’s studio.  These rugs are signed “JJ  J,” as the mark of the third Johansson to participate in the work of this studio (or perhaps because Britt-Mari’s given first name was in fact, Judit). An article by Monnica Soderberg in Väv magazine illustrates work of the Glyssbo-Helgesson partnership, which drew on and extended that of the original Judith Johansson studio.

JJ så värdes ett livsverk Varberg, 2006 .

Soderberg, Monnica, “Tribute to the Work of a Lifetime,”Väv magazine, nr 1, 2007, pp. 42.

Soderberg, Monnica, “Creative Partners working with rölakan technique,”  Väv magazine, nr 2, 2015, pp. 28-31.

Bukowskis Auction House, Stockholm. Title image is “Gentiana” Rölakan (flat weave), 246,5 x 191 cm. Signed JJ (Judith Johansson). A label from NK (Nordiska Kompaniet) at the back. Sold at Bukowskis spring modern auction 560 2011 item 939.

Please reference as follows:

Whidden, Anne, “Kaleidoscope ” theswedishrugblog (June 19, 2016); http:// theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; Accessed (month/day/year)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s