The post-war period in Sweden was one of tremendous expansion in housing and industry. Even though Sweden had been neutral during World War II, the nation had suffered a severe shortage of materials. With peace, there was a national determination to raise the living standard for huge numbers of Swedes living in urban poverty. Architects and urban planners got going with large scale projects. By 1964, the stated goal was for 1 million new units of housing — which also meant that those apartments would need to be furnished. Increasingly the older style of furniture was viewed as not right—too big, too heavy and too dark— for the newer apartments with smaller room sizes. Even by the early 1950s, there was a new market for less-expensive machine-made rugs. Because production on this scale had not been tried before, and the industry wanted this experiment to succeed, industrial manufacturing companies sought out the best rug designers they could find, turning to the best of those trained in designing hand-woven rugs.
Marianne Richter was one of the three most important designers at the Märta Måås-Fjetterström hand-weaving workshop during the late1940s, and the 1950s and 60s. She designed all of the kinds of Swedish rugs: flat-woven rugs (rölakan), pile rugs (flossa), tapestries (gobelang) and the longer pile rugs called rya or ryor in the plural. By 1950, she was also a single mother in need of steady income. It seems almost inevitable that as well as designing for the prestigious MMF, which increasingly served business and governmental offices as well as wealthy individuals, Richter would seek work designing for industry. Apparently though an acquaintance with fashion and textile designer, Göta Tradgårdh, Richter began by designing patterns for Bent Müller at Gävle Ångvaveri the late 1940s and into the 50s (Göta Trägårdh had been artistic advisor and consultant there since 1944). She also took on the design of patterns for printed fabric to be made by Jobs Handtryck in Leksand (where Tradgårdh worked primarily)and also at Tuppen in Norrköping.
Other designers, trained in hand-weaving were making similar choices. Both Ingrid Dessau and Berit Koenig went to work designing for Kasthall, an already-important industrial rug-making company near Borås. Some others, like Viola Gråsten, Mai Wellner, and Svea Norén, who continued to design hand-woven rugs, found work for the textile departments of stores like Nordiska Kompaniet, and Svenskt Tenn.
In 1955, Richter began a 17 year association with AB Wahlbecks Fabriker, a company in Linköping, Sweden, specifically to design rya rugs. Thus from 1955 -1972 —at the same time she was successfully designing many rugs and tapestries for public buildings throughout Sweden and abroad for MMF— Richter designed some thirty-some ryor for Wahlbecks.
Everyone who knew her agreed that Richter loved color and pattern. She was regarded as an excellent and supportive teacher by her students. One writer described her as “exuberantly life-affirming, the one who more than others at this time brought a sense of fun and color to her compositions.” And “[she designed] patterns that make one happy.” (Both quotes by journalist, Inga Wallenquist in 2009). While her work for MMF gave her license to create patterns which could explore complex weaving techniques and craftsmanship, and to use the highest quality of yarn and varied yarn weights, her work for the Wahlbecks company in Linköping made Richter a kind of design popularizer. Her designs for a series of machine-made rya rugs for Wahlbecks made it possible for thousands of Swedes— and indeed, design afficiandos abroad— to afford colorful, happy, well-designed rugs. The company boasted of her rugs that they had been sold to citizens of Hong Kong and Japan as well as Europe and the United States.
AB Wahlbecks Fabriker began as a rope-making concern in the 1870s in Linköping, the largest and one of the oldest cities in the province of Östergötland, with local farmers as its primary customers. On the death of its original founder in 1903, his son returned from the United States bringing new technical knowledge and new ideas. He began to modernize, electrify and expand the company, creating a virtual industrial compound with a 300 foot rope walk where hemp was twisted into rope, factory buildings and company housing. The company was handed down from father to son within the family for four generations. When World War I created a shortage of hemp, Wahlbecks invented paper cording and began to fashion rugs from this material. Jute cord, hemp cord and paper cord became the company’s primary products. The subsequent gearing up for the production of woolen rugs happened after World War II. Wahlbecks sold to another Swedish rug company in 1974 but the entire operation was moved away in the 1980s, and the Wahlbeck company, once so important to the city of Linköping, became a historical footnote. In 2013 the Wahlbeck’s industrial campus was being reimagined as a new industrial park.
By the time she was approached by the Wahlbecks company in 1954 or 1955, Richter had completed her design for, and supervision of. the largest project of her career— the hand-woven curtain for the Economic Council Chamber at the United Nations (see earlier blog post on this). She was also working as a teacher in the textile department Konstfack, the technical arts school, in Stockholm. When Wahlbecks decided to invest in equipment to make machine-made rya rugs, Richter apparently made suggestions as to patterns, and at some point was hired as a designer. This seems to have been an interesting collaboration and example of a highly-successful marketing campaign as well. While Richter did the designs, the company management came up with the idea of “Östergyllan,“ or Eastern Gold, as a theme for these rugs —a reference to the golden heritage of the Östergotland region. Each of the rugs was then given the name of a local manor, historic site, or an important natural feature of the region. The joyful designs came from Richter’s hands; the choices of sites and the mildly poetical descriptions, from the company management. Because the rugs reference the cultural heritage of Östergötland, our look at these rugs will also be a bit of a postcard-sized tour of the region itself.
In 2007, the museums of several Swedish provinces, Västernorrlands and Östergötland, shared a traveling show which consisted of a collection of 21 of these rugs owned by a young Stockholm photographer,Torbjörn Boström. The photo below is from that exhibit:
Of the 30-plus rugs Richter designed for Wahlbecks, at least 23 of these were for the Östergyllan series. I don’t have definite dates for any of these rugs, but in looking at the labels (still) attached to the back of many of these rugs, it is possible to deduce a likely chronology. There are five different label styles. All carry the company name and designer’s signature, but they range from a simple vertical small rectangular label to a much larger and more comprehensive one which notes the rug’s composition and colorfastness (as well as, still, the designer’s signature). Since Richter’s association with the company was for a 17-year period, I am assuming that these labels changed every 3+ years or so. Of course, they may not have changed on a regular basis but simply responded to new labeling rules. But in any case, this gives us a framework for looking at these rugs — and the evolving styles support these conclusions.
One author of a web site dedicated to Marianne Richter recalls asking Richter about her favorite color. This author notes her answer, “ ‘Green is a nice color, red is a lovely color, and yellow I like, in addition, black is a wonderful color,’ she said with a rainbow-like flicker in her eyes.” In fact, her response seems like quite an accurate expression of Richter’s color choices for the Wahlbecks rugs. I don’t know if all rugs were offered in all colors but there is a heavy preponderance of green, red, orange, gold, white and black in her rugs, with somewhat less yellow and even less blue. But in fact, any color in her hands became wonderful, and what was remarkable was her ability to combine many shades of color to create a kind of visual texture. Her rya rugs have a kind of visual density unusual for ryor of the period which generally employed one block of color was placed next to another, blurring slightly by the thickness of the weave. The very different interweaving of color on Richter’s rya designs may have been a technique she adapted from her work with flat weave rugs.
It is also interesting to see her designs for these more modest rugs as an integral part of her mental artistic process. There seem to be points where there is a back and forth between these ryor she designed for Wahlbecks and her more high-style and high-craft production, and I will look at these briefly.
Let’s look at the rugs Richter designed over the years for Wahlbecks. I don’t know the terms of her employment by Wahlbecks, but the number of rugs would suggest that she designed one or two rugs for them each year. It would be interesting to know what she was paid for these, but i don’t have this information. What is apparent is that while they were less expensive rugs, they were not inexpensive. My conversion of the three prices I have found is interesting. The museum show of these rugs had a copy of a Wahlbecks sales catalog and price list. The 1960s catalog priced a rug measuring the standard 200 x 137 cm at 493 SEK. In the conversion of swedish kroner to dollars and using a date of 1965 for that price, today that rug would be $771or 5001 SEK. But another rug in this series, and apparently the largest size of 230 x 165 cm, was priced originally at 445 SEK— $696 in 2018 dollars and 4516 SEK in 2018. Another Wahlbecks rya but not by Marianne Richter, I found listed a price at 295 SEK ca 1972, so that one came out at a 2018 price of $369 or 2115 SEK. There are obviously some discrepancies but this gives us a general sense of price at the time.
The following classification of rugs Marianne-Richter designed for Wahlbecks is entirely unofficial and visual. And within each of the 5 periods of work determined on the basis of style changes to the labels, I do not know the real sequence of the rugs. If I get further confirmation of dates of any of these rugs, I will correct the order shown below.
Wahlbecks Östergyllan rya rugs:
Series 1, Early simple rectangular label. Assumed period, 1955-8
Series 2. Four quadrant label. Assumed period, 1959-62
Series 3. Swedish flag placed high on label. Assumed period, 1963-66
Series 4. Swedish flag placed low on larger label. Assumed period, 1966-69
Series 5. Flag becomes sail of Viking ship. Assumed period, 1970-72,
Catalog of Wahlbecks Östergyllan Rugs designed by Marianne Richter 1955-1972
Series 1, Early simple rectangular label Assumed period, 1955-8
— The Löfstad design was named after a large 17th-century manor house now called Lovstad, which is in bicycling distance from Norrköping. This rug was one of the most favorite of the Wahlbeck patterns, and thus one of the most commonly-seen.
— Stegeborg was named after a ruined castle on an island off Östergötland’s north-east coast, whose tower still stands. Begun in the13th century, this castle was home to some of Vasa kings and until late-17th century it was the seat of local government over the extensive Östergötlands archipelago. The organization of this rug’s design seems to anticipate to some extent Richter’s wonderful Karneval tapestries from 1961 (see earlier blog post on these).
— Adelsnäs was named after a manor house located south-east of LInkoping and famed for its 19th-c “Sun Cannon.” This had an adjustable arm which allowed the rays of midday summer sun to bounce off a mirror so that it would prime a cannon. The design of this rug seems to capture both the idea of a lens focusing in, and the sense of an explosion outwards.
—Ulvåsa takes its name either from a 16th c manor house on Lake Boren, or the site
several kilometers to the west where medieval Ulvåsa, is located. This was the home of Sweden’s patron saint, Birgitta.
This is one of the more unusual of the Wahlbeck’s rya rugs. In terms of pattern, it seems to draw on a rya of nearly identical size, called “Angelica” which Richter designed in 1959 for the Märta Måås-Fjetterström workshop, although for Wahlbecks the grid is both simplified and more regular and the shadings of wool less nuanced. She may have been developing both of these rugs at the same time.
—Klockrike refers to an early wooden church replaced by a stone church damaged in 16th century wars with the Danes. This pattern is distinguished from the later Soderö design, which will be shown in Part 2 of this post, by the amount of white in the weave.
Series 2. Four quadrant label Assumed period, 1959-62
— Kolmården was named after the large forest which is the northern boundary of Östergotland, with Södermanland to the north. The presence of this forest was historically part of an frontier between Svealand to the north and Götaland to south during formation of Sweden in 13th c. The forest’s impassibility was also an incentive to early Baltic maritime travel.
This rug design was far and away the most popular of the Wahlbeck’s line. This is reflected in the fact that so many of them come to local auctions in Sweden, and in multiple colors. A newspaper review of the show of these carpets noted that the original product sheet for this rug stated, “The walk of the day and the seasons in Kolmårdens twiggy woodland is reflected in this pattern.” (“Twiggy wood” is my translation of “skörskog”– you Swedes can tell me if this is acceptable!)
—Stjärnorp takes its name from the ruin of 17th-century Stjärnorp castle, just north of Linkoping, and the pattern of the rug may also be a visual pun on the Swedish word stjärna, star.
—Sturefors is named for Sturefors slott, a handsome 1704 manor house (located just outside Linking and still in private hands) with its a well-ordered garden.
—Alvastra was the home to a 12th-century Cisterian monastery where both Sweden’s first archbishop, Stefan, and the husband of Sweden’s patron saint, Birgitta, were buried. Today picturesque ruins remain.
—Brokind named after a property south of Linköping which has had successive versions of the manor house, with the one from the 16th century said to have been haunted by the ghost of a former female resident. Perhaps she wore many buttons? These two rugs are both made in a slightly larger size. The 200 x137 cm size, about 6’-6” x 4’ -5”, is by far the most common size; this 225 x 165 cm one here is about 7’-2” x 5’-5”. The grey rug is also interesting for having a clearly marked price.
I find one tiny image of a rug, quite similar to both Alvastra and Stängebro (Series 3) in design, so likely from this same time period, but without a label or name. This may be the unidentified pattern called Rosenkälla mentioned above.
These joyful rya rugs by designed by Marianne Richter for AB Wahlbecks Fabriker in Linköping,, cover the period more or less from 1955-62. As discussed above, I have classified these as Series 1 and Series 2, (within the overall Östergyllan series), based on the style of labels they carry.
The second post in this two-part series will look at later Östergyllan rug patterns designed by Marianne Richter for the period of 1963-1972. I am classifying these as Series 3, Series 4 and Series 5, according to their label style. I will also look at several other rugs designed both by her and others for other Wahlbecks lines during this later period.
TEMPORARY NOTE!! I have posted Part 2 of this post, but due to some odd technical glitch (hopefully to be soon corrected), you need to scroll DOWN in the posts to see it– it shows up as having been posted on March 1, 3 weeks before I posted Part 1. But it is there!
auctionet.com for access to Auktionshuset Kolonn, Stockholm; Auktionhuset Linköping; Auktionsverket Norrköping; Garpenhus Auctioner, Malmö; Gobér & Andersson, Linköping; Göteborgs Auktionsverk; Halmstads Auktionskammare; Helsingborgs Auktionskammare; Nyköpings Auktionsverk.
Bukowskis auction house, Stockholm, online archives
Från fiber till tågvirke. En varuhandbok från Wahlbecks; AB Wahlbecks fabriker; Förlag Wahlbecks Linköping,1953
Göta Elisabeth Trägårdh, http://www.skbl.se/sv/artikel/GotaTragardh, Svenskt kvinnobiografiskt lexikon (article by Anna Lindqvist), retrieved 2018-03-24.
Kulturarv Östergötland at Östergötlands museum
Lindvall-Nordin, Christina, “Textilkonstens Nestor,” Sydsvenskan 25 Jan, 2011. Obituary.
Marianne Elisabet Richter, http://www.skbl.se/sv/artikel/MarianneRichter, Svenskt kvinnobiografiskt lexikon (article by Christina Lindvall-Nordin), retrieved 2018-03-22.
Wallenquist, Inga, ““Ryamattans revansch på länsmuseet,” in corren.se, 3/26/2007. Photo shown above from this article was uncredited.