In the past several years at auctions around Sweden, there have been occasional appearances of mid-century flat-weave rugs attributed to a “Svea Norén.” But tracking this designer has not been easy. I don’t even have a birth date for her. One of the sources of confusion is that there was a well-known Swedish figure skater with the same name in the early 20th-century. This particular woman, born 1895, took a silver medal at the 1920 Olympics. By 1950, she would have been 55 years old— certainly capable of designing any of the rugs we are looking at. But she would have had to do some training in textiles before or after her skating career, and I haven’t found any record of that.
As it turns out, Svea Norén is not an uncommon Swedish name, and I have identified several other women with this name as well, most with no weaving connection at all. Who the woman was who designed a number of interesting flat-woven rugs, and who signed her rugs “SN,” needs further research. Meanwhile it seems useful to suggest that there may be rugs which we can already attribute to her.
There are several rugs of the same pattern in slightly different colors and sizes which when sold were signed SN and attributed to a Svea Norén by Swedish auction houses. These are shown below. Given the kinds of borders and traditional octagonal shapes, I would guess that these date from the late 1940s or early 1950s. Note that one of the principal figures of this rug is a kind of comb-shaped element. Many of the rugs which I think were designed by Norén, share this design element.
The next piece of documentary evidence about who the designer Svea Norén was, is two small rya rugs, both attributed to her at auction. Only her name was given when the first rug was sold. But the second rya rug carried a label identifying the rug as designed by Svea Wahlqvist Norén, designing for the major Swedish department store, Nordiska Kompaniet, or NK. This tag gives us two further pieces of information: the suggestion that Wahlqvist was her birth name and Norén her married name, and that she worked at some point for NK. At midcentury Astrid Sampe, the design chief of NK’s “Textilkammare” or textile bureau, was a reigning powerhouse in the design and commission of printed textiles. But Sampe also employed young women to design rugs—mainly rya, but apparently flat-weave rugs as well— under the NK label. Primary among these was Viola Gråsten, a Finnish-Swedish designer. But there were others— Mai (or Maj) Wellner, apparently Svea Norén, and perhaps others as well. But if Norén designed for Sampe, it seems more likely that she was a young woman, since Sampe enjoyed spotting young talent. Which would mean that our designer, Svea Norén was not the ice skater.
Over the past few years, I have noticed six flat weave rugs signed SN which seem to me to have consistent signatures and consistent design elements. I think these are all likely to have been designed by Svea Wahlqvist Norén as well. Unfortunately I don’t have dates for any of these rugs, but stylistically, they seem to me to date from the 1950s and early 60s. We should also note that the way this designer forms her S is distinctive and a little confusing, squashing it a bit so that it can look like a B rather than an S.
I have seen the first of these rugs in two examples. Interestingly, one of the two is signed NKT, the signature for the Nordiska Textilkammare, and without a designer’s initials. But another example of this rug seems to carry a SN or BN initials. This has been attributed to Barbro Nilsson, but this seems to me an erroneous attribution, given that Barbro Nilsson never designed for NK, and because the rug uses both of the shapes which seem typical to the work of Svea Norén— both the comb shape and the zig-zag-sided form, here used as a flower. The centers of the flowers are made up of short lines of “tveskott”, the simple pattern of tiny vertically-woven stripes. (Traditionally this pattern was used to terminate the ends of flat-woven rugs). The fact that these two rugs are different sizes seems also consistent with their purchase from the department store.
Compare these two rugs:
My conclusion here is that Svea Norén did design both rya and flat weave rugs for NK but at some point set up her own studio, and took at least one of her own designs with her— this charming abstractly blue- flowered rug—which she wove again under her own initials. I would be thrilled to hear of any information which would either confirm or disprove this conclusion, and will continue to keep an eye out on flat-weave rugs from NK to see if they are ever signed by their designers, or perhaps have a label similar to those on the NK rya rugs. [NOTE added later: based on April 2018 discussion with Peter Willborg, Swedish rug dealer in Stockholm, I conclude that it is unlikely that Nóren went out on her own, and more likely that she was promoted within NK to the point of having her own signed line of rugs.]
I have found four other flat-weave rugs which also use these comb and zigzag shapes and carry a very similar SN signature with a slightly squashed S. I think that these are likely to be by Norén as well, and if so, this would considerably enlarge the work which we attribute to her. But because I have so little biographical or work-related information about her, it is difficult to confirm these attributions. Again, if others have such information and are willing to share it, I would love to publish an addendum to this blog post with your information.
Before showing these other four rugs, I should add that I had found another tantalizing nugget of biographical information, that in 1973, a Svea Norén was employed by the Märta Måås-Fjetterström workshop to weave (at least one example of) an MMF classic called Blå Heden. When I found this, I wanted to believe that Norén had her own atelier at that date, and that her atelier’s weaving was recognized by MMF to be of a high enough quality that they might “subcontract” a rug to her. But not so. This is an entirely different Svea Norén! According to the MMF studio, the Blå Heden pattern is complex and would only have been woven at the MMF atelier under supervision of someone who knew that pattern. So the Svea Noren at MMF was a highly-capable weaver who continued to weave for Märta Måås-Fjetterström, and was not the independent designer whom I am tracking here.
The following small rug has a color palette similar to the first rug shown in this blog-post above, and uses similar golden comb shapes
The next, larger rug has quite a different palette but also explores the use of the shape which is like a block with zigzag edges, and also uses horizontal lines of tveskott, narrow woven stripes, as pattern. Vari-colored triangles feel like stings of bunting. Like the previous rug, this rölakan weave is dense and tight, and the woven initials are virtually identical.
The next, a large and sophisticated blue rug, explores further these zigzag shapes, which are constructed much as they were in the earlier NK-designed rug (the third group of rugs shown above). But here those shapes are presented here more abstractly, and less specifically as flowers. The construction of the flowers in both the earlier rug and this one is the same: with that same center of tveskott weaving and the serated edges— but with the additional element here of a second layer of color and serating. The lively geometric borders top and bottom with the pin-wheeling patterns at the ends and the locked triangles on the sides add a further element of finish and elegance.
The final rug is an equally complex design, in almost exactly the same size as the last one, and despite confusion with the signature, I assume that it is by Norén as well. It has so many of the elements of all of the rugs examined above. It uses as background a spring green color we have seen her use before, and then employs the golden comb-shaped element— now in a triangle shape— in a lively and ingenious way in the center of the rug working with the same pinwheel movement and form as she used in the bottom border of the previous rug. And the combs themselves, like those in the small blue rug above, have a kind of depth because they are of two different tones, here, two different golds, where in that one, they were gold and spring green. As in the large dark blue rug, the borders become important elements in the rug itself. And like the colored triangles in the primarily red rug shown above, the tiny triangular elements in white, pink and darker green in this design, add further visual animation.
With regard to the signature, when the rug was offered for sale at auction it was very logically attributed to a NB or NS, with those initials placed in the lower right hand corner. But as we have seen, Norén has consistently signed of her rugs in the lower left corner. However, if this rug were flipped over –since most rölakan or Swedish flat-weave rugs are usable on both sides– so that the initials on this rug were in the lower left hand corner, both initials would read backwards–obviously not helpful in deciphering these initials. It is intriguing that if the (image of the) rug is instead inverted, rather than turned over, the initials would now read SN, with the familiar distinctive S—- although the placement of the initials would now be in the rug’s upper left hand corner, a very unusual spot for a designer to place her signature. But everything about this rug suggests to me that was designed by Norén. Perhaps I am straining too much to see what I want to see here. See what you think—and I’d love to hear your responses.
So we have several layers of mystery: exactly who was Svea Wahlqvist Norén, and where did she work? Are these rugs which seem to be signed SN in a consistent way all attributable to her? And particularly with regard to the last rug, we are left with a tantalizing mystery. Is this splendid rug another by Svea Norén, even though signed in a very odd location, or is it by someone else, an unknown NB who shares a remarkable stylistic affinity with the designer, Svea Norén?
PS as of 3/1/18
I was contacted about an unidentified rug recently, and recognized it as another one of these Svea Noren rugs. The owner had described it as having either an SN or BN signature– perfectly describing the squashed S discussed above. She has allowed me to publish photographs of her rug which has a great combination of the same wonderful blues and greens of other Noren rugs and a sort of rusty orange, and very similar shapes to the red/green/blue rug shown above. These are below:
Bruun-Rasmussen Kunstauktioner, Copenhagen
Bukowskis Auction House, Stockholm, both online and hammer auctions.
Crafoord Auktioners, Lund, Sweden.
First Dibs online auctioneers
Jenny von Platen at Von Platen Modern Form, Malmö
Märta Måås-Fjetterström atelier, Båstad, Sweden
Metropol Auktioner, online, Sweden
Please reference as follows:
Whidden, Anne, “Combs and Zigzags: Svea Norén” theswedishrugblog (1/10/18); theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (day/month/year)