Like many other of the talented designers we have looked at, Kerstin Butler studied both at the Friends of Handicraft School (Handarbetets Vänner) and at the premier Swedish design school in Stockholm known as Konstfack. And like many others, while at Konstfack, she studied with Barbro Nilsson who was by then, the new head of the Märta Måås-Fjetterstöm studio. Butler’s first job out of school, in the late 1940s, was working with Irma Kronlund at Kronobergs County Crafts Association (Kronobergs lans hemslöjd) in Växjö.
After this initial training with a strong designer, Butler worked for two othercounty craft associations over the next 20 years Sundsvall and Southern Kalmar before opening her own studio. In her time at Kalmar, from 1961-69, she became particularly proficient at flat-weave rugs, designing rugs both for area churches and to individual commissions, which were then woven by employed weavers. Her work for the county’s public buildings was much-appreciated and she was awarded the Kalmar Municipal Culture prize in 1969. The award was not insignificant: 3000 Swedish Kronor in 1969 today would be worth approximately $20,400 or 167,000 SEK.
A series of three rugs designed for the Southern Kalmar County Craft Association shows how an relatively modest initial design by Butler was refined several times to become more complex and attractive. The designarkivet in Kalmar, Sweden, holds quite a few of Butler’s sketches, and a number of her rug designs are similar to these three, but none of her sketches available online are for any of these rugs.
The first design, dated 1962 on the rug itself, is an extremely quiet, neutral-colored rug with narrow striped borders at both ends, and side borders composed of narrow alternating stripes and small triangles. In fact, the triangle borders are the most exciting part of the rug.
The second design, this one both unsigned and undated, is again basically neutral colored, but here Butler oomphs up her initial design with some very simple pattern tweaks. She extends a series of parallel lines across the rug from one side to another, and makes the side borders both simpler (one color rather than three) and more complex (by pulling the triangular elements out of the first border into a second border). In addition, the greens and browns here are much richer and more interesting than the rather flat colors of the initial design. Once again, it is interesting to see how she uses some of the border color to give a corresponding tone to the neutral part of the rug.
This second rug is woven in a less finished way than many other Swedish flat-weaves, in that the rug is not easily reversed, and not all of the weft threads are finished and tucked in to the weaving.
The third rug in this series is from 1966, and is the one I think of as “Christmas Tree Lights” —that is, for those of you who are old enough, the sort of large fat kinds of colored bulbs, probably popular about the same time this rug was designed. (I’m sure that this was not its original name). In this rug, Butler has adopted the same double border of the last rug, but varied the colors — and then added two other bands of these borders as vertical stripes which makes the rug that much more exciting, but without becoming too busy. In addition, she has varied the tones of the neutral squares as well, with some being more blue than others.
This particular rug was made, and has been auctioned, in a number of examples, but all seem nearly the same size. Some of the following photos have different qualities of light because the rug shown was resold several times and rephotographed, and I used the images that seemed the clearest and most helpful.
This last rug is one of Butler’s most well-known designs. But I think it’s fun to see how she got to this design via these others. Good design obviously requires lots of refining and rethinking— as these three rugs together make evident.
Bukowskis Auction House, Stockholm, online
Designarkivet, Kalmar, Sweden and online
Stockholms Auktionsverket online
Wright Auctions, Chicago.