A few months ago, I came across a photo on Ebay— an old press photo from the newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet. It showed a rug, which I thought I recognized, and three women.
I was hopeful that a caption to this photograph might provide the name of the rug designer. No such luck. The brief newspaper article attached to the back of the photo established that the three women (left to right) were a visiting American, Mrs. Bernice Hall, Mrs. Britta Johansson representing seven countryside districts, and Mrs. Gulli Lilliecrona, at that time Director of the Swedish Hemslöjdsförbundet, or Home Crafts Association —all at the opening of a Stockholm exhibition of hemslöjd-made furnishings.
No designer’s name, but the photo does provide an amusing little slice-of-life view of Sweden’s Home Crafts Association activity at the time.
Of the three women, Mrs. Lilliecrona is easiest to trace. She had a prominent role as a proponent for all things crafts: opening exhibits, greeting dignitaries, publicizing craft production at the hemsöjd stores. The magazine cover shown below typifies her activities as a tireless promotor:
Despite her prominent role, I love the fact that—like most people at that time—she did not have, or feel the need to have, many many changes of clothing, but wears the same good suit for both photographs (and in several others I have found).
The American visitor, Mrs. Bernice Hall, was an energetic and artistic 35-year old who had studied painting in Paris and design in Uppsala before the war. I mention her for two reasons— because I would like be able to find out more about her work promoting Scandinavian design in the United States, and also because she and her husband had a summer home in a town in Maine, and—purely by happenstance—were friends of my own parents-in-law. At the time of this photo she would have had four young children, and was probably in Sweden because her husband, an acoustical engineer, had occasion to be there. But she was smart and ambitious and seems to have maintained her own connections with the Swedish design community. She continued to study art (including ceramics during the year she and her family lived in Denmark in 1957) and back in the States, became an influential high school art teacher, and later served as a consultant on Scandinavian design to the American Scandinavian Foundation in New York.
The setting for this meeting and for the display of hemslöjd-made rugs and furniture was Bonde palace in Stockholm, once a royal residence, but since 1948, the home of the country’s Supreme Court. The architect Ivar Tengbom, who had designed, among other things, the Swedish Institute in Rome (see previous post on this) and a new atelier building for the studio of Märta Måås-Fjetterström in Bastad in 1948, undertook the renovation of this building to fit it for its new purpose. Carl Malmsten, the furniture designer, designed the interiors. So it was in this newly appointed space, which still had traces of its past grandeur, that the Craft Association furniture and rugs were displayed to the public in March,1950.
The article says that the display of these rugs was done with great “honor.” Both the environment itself and the displayed items provoked interest. The author of the brief article notes that visitors “nodded at Märta Måås-Fjetterstrom carpets, admired the red and golden canopy in the grand Session Hall and worshiped [the 17th-century court painter] David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl’s dreamy white lilies, tried out the palace’s small writing cabinet, and talked about home crafts.”
The modern designs of rugs and furniture also excited comment. The article’s author repeated an overheard comment, “One feels almost crushed by so many fine patterns and new techniques,” whispered a younger homemaker who was thinking of her little workshop at home.”
But what of the rug in the photograph? When I came across the photo, I thought that I knew the rug. I had seen two rugs which seemed to have the same pattern as that shown.
One was a red and pink pattern, and another a green and blue-colored one, both with 5 strands of pattern on a neutral ground. These are shown below:
But on closer examination, the design of these two rugs, though very similar, had extraneous elements not in the rug shown in the photograph, namely, the little looped or crenelated figures at each end. Neither of these rugs, although clearly the same basic pattern, were the rug shown in the photograph. So the photograph went back in my files. Recently, however, looking through the rug collection of a friend, I noticed a familiar rug in two grey tones And, yes! It had the same pattern, and had striped ends without the looped border. A rug made to this design seems to be the one shown in the photograph.
This rug, though not very dissimilar in size from the two above, has 7 “chains” of pattern, and much narrower borders, where the others have only 5, and wider borders. It also has a more complex mottled background. What we don’t know is which was woven first, and which followed. The designer clearly modified her original design at some point, either before or after this photo. My guess is that the colored rugs followed the grey one, but I have no evidence for this, other than noting that, in general, colors seem to get brighter approaching the 1960s, and that the two colored rugs would have been easier to weave with their simplified pattern and larger neutral-toned areas.
This newspaper photograph is a tantalizing little window into this exhibition. Aside from this photograph, I don’t have other visual documentation of the rugs which were shown here. The newspaper article makes clear that these were some of the best rugs produced by hemslöjd designers during the recent year, but which County Craft Associations from around Sweden sent which rugs by which designers are all things I don’t know. Even this particular rug which was presented in this newspaper photograph to captivate potential visitors, is uninitialed, nor were the name of its designer and the particular County Craft Association for which it was designed, noted in the press review. Given the presence of Bernice Hall, and her Uppsala connection, it is intriguing to think that this may have been made by the Uppsala County Craft Association. On the other hand, perhaps it was simply selected by the photographer for its clear graphic legibility!
What is clear is that the exhibition was well hung and exciting to the public at the time. We now know at least the date, if not the designer, of this one rug. And it is a rug worth celebrating for its color combinations and lively graphic quality. It is these kind of anonymous but high-quality rugs which continue to be affordable and exciting to discover. This intriguing photograph and little group of rugs also provides a remainder that unfortunately, this research into rugs and designers of this period sometimes proceeds not with tidy and complete stories, but just with these felicitous little snippets!
Update: see post of Sept 27, 2018 for identification of the rug’s designer!
Bix, B.U. Biederbeck, rug collection
Bukowskis Auction house, Stockholm
The Bulletin, Wilton, Conn.; April 1, 1992, obituary of Bernice Dobkin Hall.
Ellsworth American, obituary of David Hall, April 12, 2012, https://www.ellsworthamerican.com/obituary/david-hall/
Svenska Dagbladet, Bild Arkiv
tradera.com for HusModern image
Wikipedia for information on Bonde Palace, David Klöcker Ehrenstral, David Hall, and Maurice Gromaire (Bernice Hall’s painting teacher)