Design Foremother: Elsa Gullberg

Elsa Gullberg was a woman with one eye on the loom, and the other on society changing around her. Born in the late 19th century, much of her work preceded the period covered by this blog, but the work she did was foundational for the next generation of Swedish textile designers. She was a textile designer, yes, but even more, a brilliant manager and organizer. The english language uses the word “forefather” for one whose work prepares the way for others.  In looking at 20th century Swedish textiles, for Elsa Gullberg, as for Märta Måås Fjetterström, we need to coin the word, “foremother.”

This blog post will look at Gullberg’s work with the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, Svenska Slöjdföreningen. The next post will examine her career as the founder of Sweden’s first interior design firm, and the way she worked with the textile industry at an early date to encourage production of high-quality machine-made rugs. And the third post in this group will look at the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition which she helped to organize.

Elsa learned to weave at home, in the last years of the 19th century. Like many of her upper-class generation, her vantage point was European rather than strictly Swedish. Her ambitions and understanding of her own world were informed by travel, study and contacts abroad. By the time she graduated in textiles from the School for Advanced Industrial Design ,the Högre Konstindustriella skolan, called HKS, in Stockholm about 1907, she had studied at, or at least had made a study tour of, both the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna, and the newly-established Deutcher Werkbund in Germany, and she had absorbed their aesthetic radicalism. Gullberg and many other young forward-thinkers accepted the production of well-designed but mass-produced goods as their generation’s challenge.

The end of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries in Europe and the United States were marked by various aesthetic and social reform movements. The Arts and Crafts movement in Britain was based on ideas by John Ruskin and William Morris.These thinkers compared the impersonal, mindless labor which produced what they saw as ugly industrially-made products with an older kind of artisanal production that they argued was not only more satisfying and engaging, but gave more beautiful results as well. Morris looked to both the Middle Ages and to contemporary Japan for models for this kind of artistic craft production. In the United States, the Arts and Crafts Movement also became aligned with social reform to the extent that Jane Adams and her Hull House in Chicago, and various societies offered courses in pottery, weaving, bookbinding, and metal-smithing. The goal was to provide both aesthetic education and marketable skills by teaching the production of handicrafts.

American Arts and Crafts vase by Harriet Joor from Smithsonian Museum traveling show of Newcomb Pottery 2014-16, “Women, Art and Social Change.”

Sweden’s answer to these movements was a feminist social critic and reformer named Ellen Key who saw the ability to create a beautiful simple home as the fundamental means for societal improvement. Concerned with the squalor she saw in Sweden’s turn-of-the- century cities, she deeply believed in the morally uplifting and aesthetically satisfying qualities of good design, arguing that every worker could transform their life by understanding how to create a beautiful home. Key lectured widely and published a book,”Beauty in the Home,” in 1899 which went on to multiple editions, with the 1904 edition praising the home designed by the Swedish painter Carl Larson and his wife, Karin, a weaver, as a perfect model of her ideas. Despite the fact that this house reflected the collaborative vision of two artists, and that its fundamental character was a farmhouse furnished with Gustavian antiques, paintings and textiles—a model unlikely to be easily imitated by the working class—Key’s ideas about making well-designed homes more widely accessible were hugely influential.

Ellen Key geocaching website of Strand
Ellen Key
in-the-corner-1894Carl Larsson
Carl Larson painting of his own home, “In the Corner,” 1884, showing Gustavian chairs, sconces, traditional tiled stove, and door decorated by Larson himself.

These ideas of craft and social reform were in the air when Elsa Gullberg graduated from school. While the Carl Larson model of a home decorated with handicraft and art seemed too sentimental and too rural to be useful to those families living in one or two rooms in Sweden’s cities, other of Key’s ideas became part of the platform of the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design.

Key had recognized the need for affordable products to allow everyone the possibility to furnishing a home well. As she famously said, “Only when nothing ugly can be found to be purchased; when the beautiful is just a affordable as the ugly is now, can beauty for all become a certainty.” In Gullberg’s own generation, there were other ideas percolating, mainly the idea that machine-made products could better address the needs of the age, and express a new kind of beauty and utility.

Most of Gullberg’s closest peers were members of the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, among them Erik Wettergren and Gregor Paulsson, both art historians. In her first years out of design school, Gullberg became involved with the work of this organization, and its efforts to “introduce good form to industry”— which in practical terms meant finding ways to induce industry to hire artists.

In 1917, at age 31, Gullberg was hired by the Society of Crafts and Design to run a kind of brokerage or “contract bureau” intended to match artists with appropriate industries to their mutual benefit. Taking as its model, the German Employment Agency for Applied Arts in Munich, this idea had been broached several years earlier by Erik Wettergren, then secretary and editor of the Society’s journal. But Gullberg really brought the idea to life. She diligently paired some 22 companies with artists who had trained as painters, architects and sculptors. Many of these went on to have brilliant careers designing for industry, and in fact made their names designing sophisticated  and beautiful goods whose designs challenged  material properties of glass, ceramic glazes etc. Among others, she brought Wilhelm Kåge to the Gustavsberg porcelain company; Edvin Ollers to the Kosta glassworks; Edward Hald to both Rorstrand porcelain company and Orrefors glassworks and Simon Gate to Orrefors as well. A few years later, Gullberg connected Arthur Percy, a Paris-trained painter with the Gefle porcelain factory, where in 1923 he became its artistic director.

Gullberg joined Wettergren and Paulsson, and several others on the organizing committee for the 1917 Home Exhibition at the newly-built Liljevalchs Art Gallery on the island of Djurgården, in the Stockholm harbor. Wettergren served as chair of the committee; an industrialist, August Nathanson,  as society treasurer; Gregor Paulsson served as press secretary, and Yngve Larsson , urban planner and city commissioner as secretary of the society. David Blomberg a furniture designer,  Gullberg herself, and Carl Bergsen, architect of the Liljevalchs Art Gallery, were the other committee members.  The exhibition they planned was designed to be a corrective to the 1914 Malmö exhibition which had shown a display of luxury products, unaffordable to most. In post-war Sweden, three years later, housing shortages and poverty were severe and many manufacturers had been hurt by Sweden’s wartime neutrality.

The intention behind this 1917 exhibition was to encourage construction of new smaller apartments and to persuade manufacturers to draw on the skills of the artists they had hired in order to offer the working class well-designed products that they could afford. Architects Gunnar Asplund and Uno Åhren, and furniture designer Carl Malmsten designed apartments for their installations in the exhibit in a more traditional vernacular style—a style they felt the working class would be more comfortable with. (Ellen Keys would have agreed).

photo organizing Hemutst_1917_utskott
Photo of some of the working committee of the 1917 Liljevalchs Home Furnishing Exhibition: Erik Wettergren,, August Nathanson , Elsa Gullberg,  and David Blomberg. Absent from the photo are Gregor Paulsson, Carl Bergsen and Yngve Larsson. Ceramics by Wilhelm Kåge and textiles whose manufacture was coordinated by Elsa Gullberg are on the table. Photo in public domain, id File:Hemutst 1917 utskott.jpg, on Wikipedia entry for Hemutställningen 1917, accessed 6/23/16

The full title of the exhibition, “Furnishings for Small Apartments,” was reflected in the goods shown: simpler wallpapers, china patterns, checked and stripe curtain and upholstery fabrics, and tile stoves designed by architects or designers sympathetic to the cause of the Society of Crafts and Design. Blue and white seems to have been the preferred color choice for many of these products. They were designed to be less expensive to manufacture and could thus be offered at a more affordable price. Unfortunately, there was not quite enough time allowed to get all of the products into industrial production before they were to be shown. Nevertheless, even if what were displayed were in some cases still just prototypes, this exhibition established the idea of affordable design in Sweden.

Ironically, Elsa Gullberg seems to have been largely unsuccessful in her attempts to pair textile designers, other than herself, directly with industry. The only all-textile concern which is described as participating in the 1917 Home Exhibition is a company rather vaguely described as “Gothenburg’s new carpet and furnishing- fabric store.” Nordiska Kompaniet, Sweden’s largest department store, also agreed to make textiles and rugs to Gullberg’s designs but which manufacturing company wove those for NK and for the Gothenburg store is unknown. Agda Österberg was the only other textile artist who participated in the 1917 show, but it is not clear who she was designing for.

The following images capture the aesthetic of some of the products shown:

Cover of catalog for 1917 Swedish Society of Crafts and Design Exhibition of Furnishings for Small Apartments
Kage Liljebla 7_29_15 Bukow
Wilhelm Kåge for Gustavsberg, Blue Lily china service, designed and produced for 1917 Liljevalchs Exhibition, sold at Bukowskis Auction House Stockholm, 7/29/15
Bukowsk 6 cupsHalda Rorstrand 22.4.12
Edward Hald for Rorstrand, Halda china service produced in 1919 in response to Liljevalchs Exhibition, and illustrated by Gregor Paulsson in Vackrare Vardagsvara. High-fired earthenware with transfer-printed decoration. Sold by Bukowskis Auction House, Stockholm 4/22/12
Wallpaper by Duro Sweden AB, manufacturer, pattern Elsagården. Designed by architect Uno Ågren, 1917. Photographer Ulf Berger, Nordiska museet, Digitalt Museum NM.328153a

The Liljevalchs Exhibition attracted some 40,000 visitors (five times the expected number). But those for whom the exhibition was ostensibly designed, the working poor, were largely uninterested. It was the middle classes to whom these new ideas of simpler beautiful everyday wares that this exhibition made more appealing.

Gregor Paulsson, later became director of the Society of Craft and Design, and editor of its journal. Influenced by Keys’ ideas and the model of the German Werkbund, Paulsson published his own influential book, Beautiful Things for Everyday Use, (Vackrare Vardagsvara) in 1919, two years after the 1917 Liljevalchs Exhibition. This book was essentially a review of the goals of the 1917 exhibition, as well a his analysis of the benefits of collaboration between artists and industry. But the title of his book also became a useful slogan to define the goal of those working to promote the collaboration of designers with industry. This idea —the design of beautiful goods for daily use made affordable by industry— succinctly expressed of the philosophy behind what has become known as “Swedish Modern” design.

Bukowskis Auction house, Stockholm

Creagh, Lucy, Helena Kåberg, and Barbara Miller Lane. Modern Swedish Design -Three Founding Texts, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008.


Geocaching website of Ellen Key’s home, Strand, located on east side of lake Vattern

Ostergard, Derek E. and Nina Stritzler-Levine, eds., The Brilliance of Swedish Glass, 1918-1939, An Alliance of Art and Industry. Yale University Press for The Bard Graduate Center, New York, 1996. Quotation by Ellen Keys is from Skönhet för alla, p 5. quoted by Clarence Burton Sheffield, “Social Needs and Aesthetic Demands: Ellen Key, Gregor Paulsson and Swedish Design 1899-1939” in this book.


Zetterlund, Christina, “Just Decoration?  Ideology and Design in Early-Twentieth-Century Sweden,”  in Scandinavian Design -Alternative Histories, Kjetil Fallan, ed, Berg, London and New York , 2012.

Please reference as follows:

Whidden, Anne, “Design Foremother ” theswedishrugblog (June 30, 2016); http://; Accessed (month/day/year)



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