Wings and Strings: Brita Grahn

Rugs designed by Brita Grahn are recognizable for their crisp graphic repeating designs—and for her unusual practice of using her whole name— or at least her whole last name— as a signature. On earlier rugs she may have signed Brita Grahn, with capital letters, but later adopted brita grahn as more modern.

typical brita grahn signature. This is a screen shot of the corner of a rug sold at Bukowskis Modern Autumn Sale 557, item #938.Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 8.48.51 PM copyTypical brita grahn signature. This is a screen shot of the corner of a rug sold at Bukowskis Modern Autumn Sale 557, item #938.

Grahn grew up in a small town north of Gothenburg as the only child of the stationmaster of the local train station. I don’t know much about her education and weaving background, and although —at least compared to other designers— she had a slow start, she seems to have compensated  by taking considerable initative. She continued to set herself new educational challenges well into her 30s. She is not reported as studying weaving while in her teens, but her father died when she was 21, and for the next 14 years, she seems to have studied at four different programs and to have run her own textile studio as well.

At 22, Grahn took herself to study at Amalia Fjaestad’s tapestry weaving school in Arvika, about four hours north of her home by train. This was an interesting choice. She could have gone to a weaving school in Gothenburg, much closer at hand, but she must have had some weaving ability to jump right into a tapestry program. And it was not only a tapestry course, but a whole arts colony, living in an area near Lake Racken and called the Rackstads group, in which she found herself. This was at first a group of painters— and eventually ceramicists, blacksmiths, furniture makers and textile designers— centered around a painter named Gustaf Fjaestad. The group shared romantic ideas about nature and a cooperative community of artists. Fjaestad seems to have been a natural leader, but also a man who expected that others would want to implement his ideas— a man with no shortage of ego.

At the time Brita Grahn entered the program in Arvika, in 1929, Gustaf Fjaestad had for some 10-15 years been regarded as one of Sweden’s foremost painters. His subject was the rural winter landscape, with its streams and ponds— sometimes frozen, and sometimes bubbling or tumbling with ice— pine branches draped with snow, and cold northern light. Wintry rural Sweden offered him plenty of subject matter. His wife, Maja, had been a serious textile designer when they met, and Gustaf quickly recognized that at least some of his own paintings would be interesting translated into tapestry form. Luckily for him, he had two unmarried sisters who were also accomplished weavers, and in 1905, Gustaf, Maja, Amalia and Anna formed a textile studio to produce tapestries to Gustaf’s sketches. Thus, for the next 15-20 years, while Maja raised their 4 children, and presumably did some weaving, Amalia and Anna faithfully wove Gustaf’s tapestries while he continued to paint similar scenes. They signed these, not A&A, but simply F.

Gustav Fjaestad tapestry, Winter Night (“Vinternatt”), 1915 138.5x 198.5 cm (54.5” x 78”), signed F and 1915 in border. From leicestergalleries.com.

Gustav Fjaestad tapestry, Winter Night (“Vinternatt”), 1915 138.5x 198.5 cm (54.5” x 78”), signed F and 1915 in border. From leicestergalleries.com.

By 1922, Maja’s children were largely grown. With Gustaf’s sister, Anna, she founded the Arvika Crafts Association, which had its own shop, to market the wares of the Rackstad group of artists. Amalia opened a related weaving school. In 1929 when Brita Grahn attended the weaving school, Amalia would have been 67, and her sister 64. Gustaf’s style was still frozen, his wintery landscapes unvarying in their romantic realism. But even if what they were weaving had not changed, the sisters seem to have been looking outward. That summer, Anna took some textiles she and her sister had designed to sell— some pile rugs, as well as tablecloths in stylized Jugendstil patterns (one of Amalia’s specialties) and in other traditional patterns— to an exhibition from the Värmland region to be held at the new Liljevalchs Exhibition Hall in Stockholm. Below are several images of Jugendstill textiles, though neither by the Fjaested sisters themselves:

Wool embroidered panels (drapery?or for hanging in an interior doorway for warmth?), 285 x80 cm or 112x 31.5, ca 1910, for sale at Jackson’s, Stockholm. Ref #4990.

Wool embroidered panels (drapery?or for hanging in an interior doorway for warmth?), 285 x80 cm or 112x 31.5, ca 1910, for sale at Jackson’s, Stockholm. Ref #4990.

Karin-Larsson-1859-1928 from theswedishfurniture.com_carl-larsson
Karin Larsson, Jugendstil doorway drapery at Sundborn, home of Karin and Carl Larsson, ca 1890s. Image downloaded from http://theswedishfurniture.com/carl-larsson

Of course Gustaf Fjaested had been showing his work, including “his” tapestries to great acclaim for many years. But it is interesting to think that Anna’s weaving students —Brita Grahn, among them— would have seen in Amalia a model of a woman in late middle age preparing to head off to show and market her own work. I wish I knew if and how the work shown at Liljevalchs was signed. And I also wish I knew if this was when Brita Grahn decided to sign her whole name to her own designs.

After a year at Arvika, Grahn moved to Stockholm to take a two-year-long course in teaching weaving at Johanna Brunsson’s weaving school (for more about this school, see previous blog post of November, 2016). But upon completion of this course, Grahn did not teach, but instead — with a certain gutsiness—opened her own textile weaving studio in Uppsala, which she ran for 8 years, until she was 33, that is, from 1932-1940. At that point, she moved herself back to Stockholm to study graphic design and illustration for a year, and then to Norrköping, south of Stockholm, to do a year of study in a industrially-oriented textile institute.

It is as though, at each point of her career, Grahn saw more skills ahead she wanted to acquire, and set about to do so. After all of this study, in 1942 or ’43, she became artistic director with one of Sweden’s major interior design firms, Robert Ditzinger, in Sundbyberg, just north of Stockholm. She also continued to design and show her own work at international exhibitions into the 1970s. I assume the rugs with her name are those she designed and sold herself, other than for Robert Dizinger.

Grahn’s rugs exhibit a lively abstractly-patterned quality, several generations removed from the Jugenstil style of the Fjaested sisters. In many cases her palette consists of yellow/brown/grey/mahogany tones.

Four flat-weave rugs, probably all from the mid 1960s, offer four different versions of a designs, and a different group of colors. I don’t know the order these were designed or made in, but each of the three has slightly different qualities.

The one of these for which I have the most information, is called “Blue Wings” (“Blåvinge”). This is an overall compositions of chevron, triangle and square shapes in several tones of grey green, brown, blue and white. The design has an interesting sense of movement: the arrow and triangle shapes point from side to side and overlap with the squares,sometimes seeming to become houses, sometime roofs, sometime just abstract color patches. At the sides of the rug the colored triangles poke into the rug’s neutral colored border. Through the middle ripple a series of blue shapes: are these the “blue wings” over a town?

Rölakan.
Brita Grahn, “Blue Wings” (Blåvinge) flat-weave rug, 280 x 200 cm, signed brita grahn, sold Bukowskis Stockholm 6/25/15. (Bukowskis noted that this rug was sold with documentation about its order from Grahn, and relevant letters from her).

Another version of the same rug was sold without a name, but if it had one, it might have been “Orange Wings” since it has a similar structure. But the rugs are also very different. The second is smaller than the first although they have similar proportions. Both are composed of rows (of shapes) 15 high and 12 rows wide. But with the darker palette of purples, rusts, mustards, oranges and mauves in this second rug, there are also pattern variations. The shapes that were the same color in the first rug, are not always a single color in the second one. In this rug there seem to be more fragmented shapes, more bits of color. And the sense of the blue-winged shadow from the first rug doesn’t seem to have a counterpart here. The lovely central orange, or orangey-coral shapes don’t seem like a wing, but maybe instead, a lively colored bunch of roofs or houses.

Brita Grahn 200x141 11:16:13 Skanes Auktionsverk
Brita Grahn, flatweave rug, 200 x 141 cm, signed brita grahn. sold 11/16/13 at Skanes Aurktionsverk in Landskrona, Sweden

A third rug, almost the same size as the previous one, more or less 4’x 6,’ uses similar elements but now there are no borders on the two sides. The squares are larger, and the rug has a proportion of 8 squares x 12 squares. Graphically, the design has gotten simpler and less ambiguous. In an element not used in the previous two rugs, here triangles are placed back to back to become diamond shapes. The movement in this pattern becomes a series of vertical chains of a dusty pink, olive green, and grey blue, set against a quiet background of grays and ivory. And yet the basic format of squares, triangles, and chevrons has not changed.

brita-grahn-rug artnet 214x142.5 (84.3x56
Brita Grahn, flatweave rug, 214 x 142.5 cm, signed brita grahn. Date and place of sale unknown; image from Artnet.

The fourth rug, is similar in pattern to the third one, with no borders on the sides. Like the last rug, this has continuous vertical strings of diamond and triangle shapes which offset and balance the horizontal bands of squares and chevrons. This is a much larger rug than any of the others, nearly 5’ x 10’, and here the saturated colors are a much more important design factor, with the wine-colored strings of diamonds and triangles much more emphatic. and the variations in blues more dynamic than the previous grey and ivories.

Britta Grahn
Brita Grahn, rug in flatware and “gobelangteknik”, 302 x 156.4, signed brita grahn, sold at Bukowskis Modern + Contemporary & Design Auction 553, October 2009. item # 845.

Seeing these four rugs together, makes one understand that just as painters often work in series of images, Grahn was working similarly, exploring in a textile format, possible variations on a pattern. Perhaps it was from her exposure both to the Fjaestad ateliers and from her graphic design training that she took the idea that forms could continue to be worked and reworked, elements tweaked and tightened, and colors altered to produce a series of related patterns, each one different, but each of interest.
Sources

Artnet

Stockholms Auktionsverket

Bukowskis Auction house, Stockholm

digitaltmuseum images of Lennings Textileteckniska Institute

Jacksons, Stockholm.

http://www.leicestergalleries.com/19th-20th-century-paintings/d/gustaf-edoff-fjaestad/10600

http://www.leicestergalleries.com/19th-20th-century-paintings/d/gustaf-edoff-fjaestad/10601

http://www.leicestergalleries.com/19th-20th-century-paintings/d/gustaf-edoff-fjaestad/149733

lexikonetteamanda.se

http://www.nationalmuseum.se/sv/English-startpage/Collections/New-Acquisitions/Rug-designed-by-Gustaf-Fjaestad-/ article from May, 2015; read online 2/10/17

Skanes Auktionswerk, Landskrona, Sweden

https://www.slaktdata.org/getExcel-2007.php/?…F3…YTTERBY…Ytterby… This is a pdf. download of list of births in Ytterby from 1895-1920.

http://theswedishfurniture.com/carl-larsson

Werner, Jeff, “Hang ‘em High” Sciaskope 1: Hängda och utställda/Permanent hangings – temporary exhibitions, Göteborgs konstmuseum, 2009 published in http://www.academia.edu/

Wikipedia articles about the Fjaestad family members and Leon Welamson, teacher of the illustration school Grahn attended.

Wikiwand

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