A song titled “The green, green grass of home” is obviously not a Swedish song. But there is undoubtedly some Swedish song with a similar sentiment. For many artists, their home place is a powerful source of inspiration.
The rugs of Ingrid Hellman-Knafve seem, like her husband’s paintings, very much shaped by the colors and landscape forms she saw around her in rural Sweden. And because winter is long in Sweden, it doesn’t seem surprising that green is a color that a weaver might enjoy laying underfoot. What is surprising is how many of this one designer’s rugs and carpets, made in varied techniques, are in varied shades of green.
Ingrid grew up near the important textile city of Kinna, inland and south-east of Gothenburg. She studied to be a crafts teacher at the Maria Nordenfelt Seminary for Handcrafts in Gothenburg, graduating in 1933, but seems to have fairly rapidly outgrown the teaching profession. Within 5 years, she had started a weaving studio on her family’s property called Stenhall in the town of Örby. It grew to be a prosperous operation with Ingrid in varied roles: teaching local students, employing many women from the area as weavers, and contracting with various commercial enterprises to produce rugs. She seems to have particularly liked designing large pile rugs, although she also designed the occasional flat-weave.
During the late 1930s her studio wove rugs for an entrepreneurial Gothenburg interior decorator, Otto Schultz. Ingrid may have designed the rugs her atelier wove, or perhaps Schultz himself designed them. Schultz was not only a talented designer but he also created an early version of the home-design store empire. He had an attractive corner store, called Boet, with a first floor set up to provide what one writer calls “inspirational” decorating ideas. He founded and edited a magazine, also called Boet, marketing contemporary design, and he founded a his own “school” offering seminars (presumably to adults) in home furnishings.
Schultz’s furniture was elegant and has many of the qualities now associated with the Swedish Grace movement. In fact, it is not dissimilar to some of Josef Frank’s designs and shows similar experimentation with materials. Schultz seems to have been an innovative designer, patenting several furniture finishing techniques.
As more modest and more functional furniture —the beginnings of “Swedish modern”— began to appeal to middle-class Swedes, Schultz’s business waned. But Ingrid Hellman had discovered an important new outlet for her work, Svenskt Tenn in Stockholm, the interior design store curated by Estrid Erikson. In 1944, at age 39, Ingrid Hellman began to show a number of her rugs at this Strandvägen emporium. This was the start of a nearly 20-year association producing rugs for Svenskt Tenn. At least some of these were designs by Josef Frank which her firm wove. Others were likely her own designs, but I have found no record of these. One source claims that Hellman sold her rugs for a number of years though Svenskt Tenn exclusively, but as she was working in Malmö the following year, this seems unlikely. In any case, given Erikson’s own design credo, rugs Hellman designed were likely to have been relatively small, portable and colorful. Erikson, believed in — and showed in her store displays— lightweight furniture in colorful fabrics (many by Josef Frank, her long-time design collaborator) with a profusion of small rugs on the floor, simple lighting and a variety of charming decorative ornaments.
For the next three years, starting in 1945, Ingrid Hellman had another job, this one in Malmö. This was much further away from Örby than Gothenburg—not a commute—so it is unclear if Hellman lived in Malmö and kept her business going from a distance, or if she only went occasionally to Malmö. She now worked for an architect turned furniture designer, Sven Staaf. Unlike Schultz, Staaf was turned firmly towards the functionalist future, and in fact would later exhibit furniture ten years later at H55, the next major modernist fair in Helsingborg in 1955. It is tantalizing to wonder what Hellman designed for Staaf, but there seems no record of this association. It is also not clear if she designed both carpets and upholstery materials, or only carpets.
In 1948, Hellman married another artist, Nils Folke Knafve, and together they created a summer house on property owned by his family in Nyhamnsläge on the Kullen peninsula, on Sweden’s southwest coast. This was an area populated by artists—potters, painters, and weavers.Two paintings by Nils Knafve are shown below.
On left, Nils Folke Knafve, Landscape in oil, size unknown. On sale at Auctionsverket Engleholm. 9/26/17. On right, Nils Folke Knafve, Landscape in oil, 10x 13” (25 x33 cm). Sold Bukowskis, 12/11/13.
Ingrid began to show her work more widely. For a museum exhibition in Zurich in 1949, Ingrid was in good company. The list of other other textile participants includes a number of important and highly regarded rug designers, both older and contemporary —Marta Afzelius, Hildegard Dinclau, Estrid Ericson, Josef Frank, Greta Gahn, Gefle Aangefarveri AB, Gavle SE, Brita Grahn, Ann-Mari Lindbom [later Forsberg], Alice Lund, Tyra Lundgren, Edna Martin, Alf Munthe, Marianne Richter, and Sofia Widen.
After a study year in Paris in 1951-2, likely with her husband, Hellman-Knafe came back to Stenhall and embarked on a career of extensive rug design and production which continued into the 1980s.The last phase of her design career seems to have been designing rugs on commission for Swedish official residences.
Nearly all of the rugs I have seen are signed IHK (frequently embroidered on, rather than woven in), and thus date from after her marriage in1948. Several rugs have dates stitched into the reverse side or appended to her signature on the front, but these dating elements are rare.
The following short catalog of (surprise! mostly green!) rugs provides a good summary of her rug production between approximately 1950 and 1970. It is interesting to see how varied was her production of pile rugs, flat-woven rölaken, and half-pile rugs (in Swedish called halv-flossa or relief-flossa). The latter are a combination of flat-weaved areas combined with other areas with raised pile. This technique, pioneered early in the 20th century, proved remarkably durable as a kind of fashion in Sweden, lasting well into the 1970s. Only three of the rugs below are definitely datable, but I have arranged this group of thirteen rugs into what seems to me a likely order of composition, given general stylistic and color trends of the period— which is to say, rugs with borders earlier, and more abstract patterning later, and more quietly colored during the 1950s, moving into bolder brighter colors during the 60s.
The above rug has a gentle spring-like palette and deceptively simple repeat of small squares, a shape Hellman-Knafve used frequently, though in different compositions.
The first of three half-flossa rugs, the one shown above, is traditionally composed, with borders all around, and like the flat-weave rug shown above, uses small colored squares, with colors randomly arranged, Note imprinted repeating shapes.
The second of these half-pile rugs , shown above, also has a more traditional format of multiple borders—6 of them—though these borders do not use traditional motifs. The interior of this rug, though, is much more of a patchwork. It looks like farmers’ fields, seen from above, and does not seem to have any pattern repeat at all. The last rug, shown below, is the most truly relief-flossa, with the flat-weave areas clearly visible between the white squares.
Hellman-Knafe had a number of designs in a 1959 book entitled Ny Mattor, (New Rugs) written by the then-Director of the Malmö County Crafts Association. The book provided patterns for rölaken, plain weave rugs and rugs, called trasmatta. The rug shown above seems to have been woven to her pattern called “Early Spring” (“Vårvinter”). The following design, not from the book, seems to have grown out of her exploration of woven strips of color.
Since a weaving shuttle moves from side to side, weaving vertical stripes of a color in a flat-weave rug is a good deal more complex than weaving horizontal stripes—so I am assuming the design of this one thus followed the previous one in time. Weaving vertical stripes becomes much more like tapestry weaving, with only short runs of color, before another color is inserted. The tones of this particular rug have a watercolor feel, animated by the use of small squares similar to those used in the very first flat-weave rug shown above.
This is also one of a series of abstractly patterned flat-weave rugs that Hellman-Knafe designed which further explored a kind of patch-work aesthetic. The rag rug that follows carries this exploration farther, using actual rag material rather than yarn.
This particular rug, with its ragged material and shaggy disparate threads, reflects Hellman-Knafe’s interest in the work of Finnish rug designers. After the Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, when there were dramatic shortages of material for weaving, these weavers tore up and used rags as thread. This is Hellman-Knavfe’s version of their technique.
Like the preceding rug, which with its watery center, looks to be all about a coastal summer, this one employs a strip of triangulated weaving. This one moves away from the greens of spring and blue of summer to explore colors of autumn. The next small rug, this one made in pile, shares this color palette as well.
With the 1960s, colors in textiles became more pronounced, but Hellman-Knafe’s palette still skewed to colors of nature, particularly greens. She continued to make pile rugs, some of which were close to being rya rugs by both design and the depth of their pile. The rug below is one of these, and has a kind of abstract naturalistic pattern like the best of contemporary Finnish rya.
But the 1960s also saw a explosion of jewel-toned geometric patterns. Both of the following rug designs reflect this tendency, although made in different techniques. And the second of these carries a date of 1969.
Perhaps it is farfetched to think that Hellman-Knafe’s use of color was shaped so directly by her surroundings. But consider one last story…
A blog posting by one of Sweden’s most senior Chinese scholars, Goran Malmqvist, captures a memorable evening in Nyhamnsläge in 1938, ten years before Hellman and Knafe married. At the time Malmquist was only 14, and Ingrid Hellman 32, but she created a memorable and highly romantic impression that he recalled years later. He recalls in his blog,
“One evening, when we were with Nils Folke [Knafve] and some other friends drinking coffee in the garden, a group of fairly loud and strange young people passed by on the way outside. Nils Folke frowned, looked down his nose, and if the word had existed, he would surely have referred to them as hippies. The fact that Ingrid was part of that group, I know with certainty: one who looked at Ingrid even one time will never forget her. She was a revelation: she seemed like a charm, just picked up from the Great Western Forest, like the “noble rose” of the folk song.” (The folk song refers to the singer’s beloved as “a noble rose and treasure chest of gold.”)
Was his impression of this forest nymph simply one young man’s imagination? Or did it have some reality, and did Ingrid have a sort of “flower child” quality? I don’t know, but the prevalence of greens, blues and browns in her work may say something about her life-long affinity with the colors of her rural world.
Boman, Monica. Estrid Erikson, Founder of Svenskt Tenn, Carlsson Bokförlag 1989.
Bukowskis Auction House, Stockholm particularly note for Lot#897 in Catalog 537.
FJ Hakimian, New York
Goran Malmqvist, 2015 blog, http://goranmalmqvist.blogspot.com/2015/06/nils-folke-knafve.html
Ingers, Gertrude. Ny Mattor, ICA Forlaget, Västernås, 1959.
JP Willborg, Stockholm
Museum fur Gestaltung, exhibition titled “Svedisches Schaffer Heute” (“Swedish Textiles Today)
exhibition June 9- August 21, 1949.
Öhman, Maria, biographical note about Otto Schulz in Göteborgs Auktionsverk (online)catalog, May 17,2015
Uppsala Auktions Kammare, Uppsala Sweden
Wright Auction House, Chicago
Please reference as follows:
Whidden, Anne, “The green, green grass of home” theswedishrugblog (9/28/17); theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (day/month/year)