Viola Gråsten is celebrated in Sweden as a designer of mid-century printed textiles. But her first work in Sweden was as a rug designer. A 1945 emigrant from Finland, the Swedish-speaking Gråsten arrived with impressive credentials. Although she had gone to art school relatively late, she taught herself to weave rya rugs after she graduated, and in 1939, she took both first and second prizes in a design competition sponsored by the Finnish Friends of Handicraft.
When Gråsten arrived in Sweden in 1945, she managed to step into one of the most progressive interiors firms of the time. She was hired by Elsa Gullberg, the forward-thinking interior designer, to design rya rugs for her company. But Gråsten’s work quickly caught the eye of Astrid Sampe, the head of the Textilkammare, or Textile Department of the Nordiska Kompaniet Department store, popularly known as NK. Sampe recognized Gråsten’s talent, hired her, and gave her considerable latitude. For NK, Gråsten designed both rya rugs and began to work on textile designs as well. She stayed at NK until 1956. A number of examples of the rugs she designed between 1945- 1956 surface at auction and often carry the cloth NKT, or NK Textilkammare, label.
Several such examples follow:
One particular rug which is attributed to Gråsten with the date of 1949 is interesting to look at, because it seems in someways to prefigure her breakout textile design of 1952. This is a rug, unusually large for a rya, called “Blue Moon,” in a spiral design with amazing depths of color. Superficially it is composed of several shades of blue but lurking underneath is a deep crimson color, visible in the parting of the spiral pattern. The author Gisela Eronn notes that the pile on Gråsten’s rugs were unusually deep, to intentionally increase the shadowed intensity of the colors. The following photographs illustrate that depth.
One of the questions for Gråsten seems to have been how to capture the same kind of intensity and depth of color in a printed textile that she knew how to produce in a rya rug. And at this time, she seems to have been the only one asking this question. Her solution came in the form of her design of the pattern called “Oomph,” in 1952. The fabric was a cultural sensation.
It is fun to read about the kind of jolt this pattern brought to the world of Swedish textiles. A Swedish author, Inez Svensson, then a student, recalls her encounter with Gråsten’s pattern:
“In 1951 something happened that made an impression on all of us. One day, a companion rushed from NK with a patterned piece of cloth in his hand. We had never seen such an interesting textile. The pattern consisted of triangles that wound in circles over the fabric. The colors were subdued purple and blue-green with occasional bright pink spots between them. Even in the print technique, the pattern was far beyond what we had seen before. It almost seemed to be painted directly on the fabric. For several weeks we all lived hand to mouth and spent money that would have been enough for food and [drawing] paper for several weeks. Everybody wanted a little piece of the new fabric, at least just enough for a toreador scarf or an handsome shoulder strap, which were the modern accessories just then. That fabrics could work for both interiors and for clothes surprised us. Previously, all fabrics had had a single intended use. This was the first all-purpose fabric.” …Quoted in Gisela Eronn, Tidlösa Mönster (my translation).
It is hard to know exactly which of the colors Svensson is describing here; the fabric was produced in multiple versions of blue as well as purple, grey-yellow, and red. Photos of the fabric in several color ways follow:
Within several years of her start at NK, Gråsten had designed many fabrics whose vivid colors and striking designs banished earlier sweet flowered pastels and soft “feminine” patterns. In the same way, her rya were more abstract and “modern”- perhaps more challenging – than most Swedish rya of the period. To many Swedes, her work felt bracing and vigorous, a new direction for the post-war world. The colors – and the blacks and greys -evident here, are typical of her work. The phrase “a Gråsten color” was familiar to a great many Swedes. Gisela Eronn recalls (in my somewhat imperfect translation), “It was said about ten-year-old girls that their eyes were so full of Gråsten that they had a purple glove on one hand and a green one on the other.” It is not hyperbole to say that Gråsten revolutionized Swedish textile design. To me, it seems that her method of designing and constructing rya rugs with the kind of layering and juxtapositions of intense color, was what prepared her to generate her explosively colorful textile patterns.
The severe difficulty and deprivation of Gråsten’s childhood and young adulthood may also be relevant. Viola grew up in a family where her mother died at her birth, an older sister died of diphtheria, and despite the fact that her father became alcoholic, Viola lived with him alone in her late teen-age years, prior to his death. She seems to have had a lonely childhood, with drawing, nature, and beauty what kept her going. It is not surprising that she kept the name of her adopted father—Gråsten, a cultured and cosmopolitan writer —who was the oldest brother of her stepmother— for her life. It was only after she left her own father and was adopted by Gråsten at age 20, that she attended art school in Helsinki. And she left Finland for Sweden only after his death. It is a testament to her own hardy spirit that she made her name as a designer of intensely colorful textiles. It seems that perhaps herself she needed these colors as much as she gave them to the public.
In 2012, the Swedish Postal Service decided to honor major figures of contemporary Swedish Textile art. A small weaving by Marta Måås-Fjetterström was chosen to represent rug and tapestry weaving. And it is no surprise that, Viola Gråsten’s textile, Oomph, in a yellow/grey color-way, was the fabric chosen to represent Sweden’s modern printed textiles.
- Bukowskis Auction House, Stockholm
- Eronn, Gisela. Tidlösa Mönster, Textilkonst frän 1950-talet, Norstedts, 2009, including quoted passages from Inez Svensson’s book, Tryckta tyger från 30-tal till 80-tal.
- Lindqvist, Anna. via instagram.
- Svenska Literaturesällskapet i Finland, p.293 Ernst Gråsten’s Fund (English translation)