While designing the Johannebergs Church, Gothenburg architect Sigfrid Ericson sought the collaboration of the lead professor of textile composition and needlework at the Slöjdförenigens Skola, Karna Asker. This blog post will look at Asker’s career and her work for two of the churches which Ericson designed, and the professional and personal collaboration between Ericson and Asker.
Karna Asker, born in Denmark, but raised in Gothenburg from age 11, was one of the generation of Swedish textile designers born at the very end of the 19th-century, who include Marta Afzelius, Hildegard Dinclau, Greta Gahn, Märtha Gahn, Elsa Gullberg, Alf Munthe Alice Lund, Agda Österberg, and Barbro Nilsson. Their pioneering work— both in technical mastery and in taking steps away from more traditional Swedish weaving patterns and toward more modern rug and tapestry design— paved the way for many of the designers born ten to twenty years later whose work is the primary subject of this blog. In fact many of Asker’s generation were teachers of later talented students whose work I have looked at more closely. (I should note that Märta Måås-Fjetterström, Maja Andersson Wirde, Annie Frykholm, and Maja Sjöström were from the generation of designers preceeding Asker and the others mentioned above).
Asker herself, born in 1897, was the daughter of a carpenter. She was educated from 1913-18 at Gothenburg’s school which focused on various kinds of applied design or craft. This was then called Slöjdföreningens Skola, or School of the Crafts Association, and later became the school now called HDK, Högskolan för design och konsthantverk— or in English, the University of Design and Arts and Crafts. One article mentions that she may have studied also at Handarbetets Vänner in Stockholm, but I have not confirmed this.
Asker returned for a long period of teaching at this school, from 1920 to 1957, becoming the teacher of pattern design in 1922, after her own teacher retired, and later teacher of textile composition, artistic needlework and later, batik, which became something of a specialty of this school’s textile department. Asker wrote several books on textiles —The Decorated Seam (“Pryndadssöm”) in 1939, and Textile pattern Composition at the School of the Crafts Association (“Textilmönsterkomposition at Slöjdföreningens skola” in1944). Her teaching influenced several generations of textile design students. Barbro Nilsson at Konstfack and Edna Martin at Handarbetets Vänner schools in Stockholm had similar influence on successive waves of students, although both of these had shorter tenures than Asker’s thirty-seven year teaching career.
Teaching was only part of Asker’s work in the early years of her career. Like many other aspiring young designers, she showed her work as often as she could. She showed in the 1920 exhibition at Liljevalchs in Stockholm with many of the designers of the earlier generation mentioned above, and also in the 1923 Gothenburg Jubilee Exhibition, where a black and white design (typical to the Gothenburg – Bohuslän area) received considerable attention. And at the 1925 Paris World Exhibition, Asker took a silver prize for her entry of an embroidered shawl.
By 1925 Asker was also involved with a quasi-educational, quasi-commercial rug weaving venture called Axevalla-Könstslöjd, run out of the Akevalla Vocational School (Folkshogskola) located about an hour and a half north-east of Gothenburg between Skara and Skövde. Asker seems to have connected with the organization as a teacher, designing the majority of their rugs which would then be woven by students at the school. The pile rugs she designed and Axevalla Könstslöjd wove, received both commercial and artistic appreciation. Gustaf Munthe, then head of the Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg expressed his appreciation for her bold simple forms and deep colors.
Axevalla-Könstslöjd carpets were shown by Skaraborgs läns hemslöjdföreningen at the Liljievalchs 1927 Building and Bo exhibition, and were described as “the most beautiful and most dignified” in west Sweden.
And on the strength of Asker’s designs, the school/company won a prestigious commission to weave rugs for the the Swedish-American Lines’ MS Kungsholm, a luxury liner designed primarily to entice wealthy Americans to travel back to Sweden and spend their money in their ancestral land. The ship’s furnishings used a Swedish version of Art Deco styling often called “Swedish Grace”, and employed an exquisite level of finish on all materials —including some wonderful rugs— but also lamps, furniture and carved screens. This ship, which had its maiden voyage in 1928, will hopefully be the subject of a future blog post.
Because she designed textiles as well as carpets, Asker was also working at this time with modernist furniture designers. For the designer Nils Enström, for example, Asker designed appropriate upholstery textiles in a mix of wool and silk for steel chairs he had designed. Asker also was involved with another commercial enterprise in Gothenburg itself called “Konstfliten” (or “Art Industry”). Here she worked with Inga Wedel (later Wedel-Hansson), and possibly Evald Hedberg and Kerstin Thorn, two other Konstfliten designers.
In 1929 the director of Axevalla’s Vocational Arts School, George Arninge, developed a new weaving technique called ava-flossa or reform flossa. Flossa means pile rug in Swedish. Before this time, hand-made pile rugs in Sweden were tied knot by knot, and were quite expensive. Many in the design world at this time in Sweden, particularly architects, designers and craftspeople associated with Svenska Slöjdföreningen, the Swedish Association of Crafts and Design, were seeking ways to make well-designed products and furniture less expensively, and make them appealing and available to a greater number of people. These ideas were popularized by the Swedish radical reformer and feminist writer Ellen Key in the early 20th-century. The motto, “More beautiful things for everyday use,” based on a number of Keys’ pronouncements, captured in a few words the theoretical and political background for the functional modernism driving the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition. (See previous posts on this exhibition and on Elsa Gullberg as textile designer and organizer.)
In any case, Arninge’s invention was a modified hand loom which had not one but two warp systems, and a series of weaving elements such that knots could be “tied” by the manipulation of the loom itself. He now had a loom still making hand-made rugs, yet one which could form knots more quickly than human hands could. The material costs were higher for rugs woven on this loom, however, since knots could not be tied as tightly or as strongly as they could by hand, and thus the process required more material to compensate for the somewhat floppier knots. Nevertheless, Arninge was confidant he could cut the cost of a hand-knotted pile rug by half with his invention.
There was a positive side effect to the required increase in density of material with regard to the appearance of the machine-made pile rugs. This had to do with the natural sheen of wool: increased amounts of yarn increased the amount of shine or gloss to the rug. Ava-Flossa carpets were considered particularly velvety and glossy, particularly when woven with Persian wools. In fact, a number of contemporary critics of interior decorating emphasized the fact that the gloss or sheen of pile carpets was a way to offset the more sterile aspects of modern architecture. With white walls replacing wallpaper and fewer decorative moldings at the base and top of walls, well-designed carpets in calm harmonious tones were described as essential. In reporting on the interior design trends evident at the 1923 Jubilee Exhibition in an article entitled, “Modern textile art at the Gothenburg Exhibition” (”Modern textil konst på Göteborgsutställningen”) in the 1924 Svenska Slöjdföreningens journal, the journalist Célie Brunius noted that it was the tactile qualities of the rug which contributed to the sensual experience and serenity of a modern room, rather than its pattern.
There was also, not surprisingly, an interest in making original Swedish pile rugs, rather than those with more derivative “Oriental” designs available to the public. Arninge had invented the technique, but Karna Asker, her sister Betty (nine years younger and also a graduate of Slöjdföreningens Skola), and Inga Wedel were the designers who became proficient in manipulating patterns within the constraints of this new technology.
A handsome example of Asker’s designs in this new technology was exhibited in Gothenburg’s Röhsska museum in 1929. It is in very simplified red, blue, black and tan stripes and it looks like Asker had absorbed some influence from the German Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was at that point challenging notions of teaching craft and design, and was founded with the goal of forming designers for industry. So those ideas might well have been interesting to her.
But as far as we know, Asker didn’t visit the Bauhaus, though she was probably aware of some of the new ideas in weaving and teaching coming out of that school. In fact, an exhibition of Bauhaus textiles was held at the NK department store in Stockholm in 1929, and Marta Edling notes that correspondence in the Slöjdförenigen archives indicates that another exhibit of work by Bauhaus teacher Otti Berger was also held there (date unknown). Berger also published an article in the Svenska Slöjdförenigen’s journal, a year later, in 1930, not on weaving, but on the ways fabrics function in rooms. But in her article on Nils Wedel (brother to Inga and) teacher at the Slöjdförenigens Skola, Edling also notes that “The first, and for a long time only, Swedish report on Bauhaus pedagogy was Sune Lindström’s article “Bauhaus” in Byggmästaren in 1929, and a systematic introduction of Bauhaus pedagogy did not take place until the 1960s.” It thus seems unlikely that there was any definite Bauhaus connection in Asker’s design of this particular rug. Its simple and rather elemental graphic probably has more to do with the new Ava-flossa technique than with color theory.
And in fact, Asker’s own textile training at the Slöjdförenigens Skola was not on fine arts and theoretical design but on preparing students for careers in graphic design, advertising, textile work etc— a vocational and commercial education. Little surprise that Asker took on the challenge of designing rugs within the parameters of Arninge’s modified loom. Her teacher of textile pattern composition, Dagmar Gundersen, emphasized the study of nature, not impressionistically nor with extreme specificity, but for inspiration in organizing colors and shapes in a way which reinterpreted nature. This was far from the Bauhaus rigorously analytical approach which studied different elements of composition: light, shade, color texture or principles of movement or perception. Students at the Slöjförenings Skola were taught to transform patterns found in nature —leave, shells, insects, feathers— into decorative non-representational patterns for textile work. Gundersen was also concerned that textile arts meet the needs of its own time, and find appropriate expression. Gundersen’s course was in fact considered so important by the school, that later, in 1944, Asker and her sister Betty (Asker) Kylberg worked with Sigfrid Ericson to turn the Gundersen method into a teaching manual, published with the three of them as joint-authors.
The Gothenburg art scene during the 1930s also favored less abstraction, colorful and figurative work, as well as work with more emotional expression, and in some cases, political engagement. Students of Matisse who made up the “Gothenburg Colorists,” a movement which began in the 1920s—including Tor Bjurström, Mollie Faustman, and Ragnar Sandberg— were producing work which was quite different than their contemporaries in Stockholm, or in the Halland surrealist group. In the works below, representative of the Gothenburg artists, Bjurström captures the feel of the west coast; Faustman responds to the momentary stillness, and apparent pyschological isolation, of a child in bright light; Sandberg dramatizes the news of the Spanish Civil War in 1937. While one can hardly argue that Asker was engaged in this movement, it was part of her artistic milieu, and it seems evident that her own textile work which was both figurative and colorful, was to some degree shaped by the presence of this kind of approach.
Meanwhile, in 1930, Karna and Betty showed several of the Axevalla Konstslöjd Ava Flossa rugs at the very important Stockholm Exhibition. It was this fair which made Swedish consumers aware of modernism for the first time (see earlier blog posts on this exhibition— listed under Elsa Gullberg). Their work was reviewed, perhaps less for its design quality (colors described as “clear and cohesive” but also as usefully plain-colored) and more for its potential for lowered costs. Architects clearly were taking note of the new product as well. There seem to have been about seven or eight display apartments furnished by architects who chose the Ava-flossa product as backdrop for their own modernist designs and furnishings. To some degree, these new rugs supported the argument put forth by the organizers of the fair, that by matching artists up with industry, the nature of the products could be made both beautifully and inexpensively.
In 1931, the company kept its workshop at the school, but opened an exhibition and showroom in Varnhem, a town very close to Skövde which is also the site of one of Sweden’s oldest stone churches, Varnhem Abbey. There was some sense that this would be a good location, convenient for American tourists who might want to purchase rugs. Carpets from the company, now called Axevalla Varnhemsslöjd, were marketed in Chicago, at that time the largest “Swedish-speaking” city in the world. They were also handled the same year by Nordiska Kompaniet (NK), Sweden’s largest department store and a general purveyor and arbiter of popular taste. NK apparently even sold Axevalla Varnhemsslöjd rugs to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City! But despite the recognized high quality of design, by 1935, the company was approaching bankruptcy, apparently due to poor pricing strategies and/or financial mismanagement. But in the end, the firm was sold to another talented textile artist, Agda Österberg, who had recently relocated to Varnhem. She renamed the firm and took it again in the direction of handwoven rugs and door hangings, and away from the Ava-flossa product. At this point, Karna Asker was no longer associated with the company.
In 1939, the well-known Gothenburg architect, Sigfrid Ericson, asked Asker to collaborate on a textile for a new church he was designing. Asker had known Ericson for a long time. When when she arrived at Slöjdsföreningen Skola in 1920, Ericson was already Director (“rektor”) of the school, and 20 years her senior. Throughout his years at the school, he was becoming a major local architect. As discussed in the last blog post, he had designed both the Gothenburg Art Museum with a “Swedish Grace” facade, and he had helped organize and design the 1923 Gothenburg Jubilee Exhibition. When he began to design the Johannebergs Church in Gothenburg, he had also already designed many churches, of which the earliest, in the National Romantic style, were the most interesting and true to their own time. His later churches in a historical mode certainly did not reflect the new spirit of modernism, but perhaps these were the kinds of designs his clients wanted. In any case, the Johannebergs Church allowed Ericson to bring together the more classical stripped-down style he had used on the Gothenburg Art Museum and his experience and talent in designing churches in order to move in a new architectural direction.
I don’t know to what degree Ericson was involved in choosing either the kind of textile piece which would suit the church or the particular biblical stories it illustrated. Presumably, he decided there should be a piece hanging on the wall rather than lying on the floor. And the rest of the decisions were probably Asker’s with the church vestry. What is particularly interesting about the piece which she designed, presumably with Ericson’s active approval, is that it was designed to be made with and by a group of students from the Slöjdförenigens Skola. All ten of their names are stitched onto the piece.
Starting in 1939, Asker and her group designed and made the large piece—called in Swedish an “application,” that is, a textile collage with pieces of fabric applied and stitched on in the form of an oversized embroidery. Asker had had a long-standing interest in embroidery as well as in rug design. She had won an award in Paris for her work, and in 1939, was publishing a book called “The Decorated Seam,” so she was the right person for this particular job. Meanwhile, Ericson designed and supervised construction of the church itself.
I will discuss Asker’s textile design after we can see the church Ericsson designed. Photographs of the church are below.
Ericson’s palette of colors and materials on both exterior and interior is restrained and calm — basically the yellow Gothenburg brick and the green copper awning to the front door, and on the interior this warm red brick color, the grey blue of the ceiling, and then a deeper polished grey green marble for secondary architectural elements— altar rail, pulpit, and enclosure of Asker’s textile collage. To a great extent. the colors and textures of the materials themselves become all the decoration required.
As he had done in earlier churches, Ericson here sets a visually complex altarpiece against a starkly simple architectural apse, letting the drama of the altarpiece itself be heightened by the vertical space surrounding it. The architect has also taken a very traditional altarpiece form, the folding triptych, and transformed it into a kind of 5-part book form, permanently open and in its form, almost “winging” upward.
Focused on Christ himself, the altar illustrates the progress of ordinary people struggling to move on and upward, to approach the Christly model who looks down and holds out his hands to them. The biblical passages quoted on the left side is “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” (Matthew 11: 28-30). The passage on the right is translated, “All things whatsoever you would that men would do unto you, do you even so to them…” (Mark 7:12 in American King James Bible translation). Prophets on each side seem to admonish or judge, Moses, carrying the weight of the Commandments on one side, and John, the author of the New Testament book of Revelations and —apparently, though I am not sure— the John after whom this church is named. The traditional liturgical inscription IHS on the altar cloth seems to have been originally a monogram for the name of Jesus as written in Greek with I and H the first two letters and S being the last letters of his name (although throughout Christian history the IHS inscription has taken on other meanings such as the phrase, Jesu, Hominum Salvator, Jesus the savior of men).
It is interesting to compare Ericson’s decorative treatment of the organ loft rail here with that of his Masthuggets church organ loft which we looked at in the last blog post. Times have changed: there the angel musicians were sculpted and painted; here they are flatter and more stylized, and while still individualized, become part of a simple decorative band of alternating colors.
Karna Asker’s large wall textile not only illustrates three Bible stories, but it brings warmth and tactility and a certain degree of visual detail to an elegant but otherwise quite severe architectural environment. The colors Asker uses repeat those of the church itself, but also tease out related tones of lavender, grey, light yellow and light green. The “application” technique itself, combines different fabrics and different embroidery stitches, to create scenes with shading and varied perspectives, resulting in a series of framed panels which function almost like a series of windows looking out on landscapes with rolling forms, water and bands of light. In fact, Asker’s textile collage creates a welcome sense of visual depth, particularly since the embroidered images in the foreground at the bottom of each panel, have greater detail and are in tighter focus than the looser, more generalized details in the background.
The first panel takes as its theme the parable of the Sower who went out to sow his seed, from the gospel of Luke (Chapter 8:1-5.). According to the parable, the seed (the Word of God) is spread randomly (here by a cheerful blond farmer). Some of the seed falls on good ground and yields fruit while other seed is choked by thorns and other is consumed by birds.
The second panel illustrates Jesus’ command to his disciples also from Luke (Chapter 5) “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a draught,” a command both metaphysical and practical.
Asker’s treatment of the water here is particularly interesting. It illustrates Dagmar Gundersen’s method of studying nature in order to make patterns which
imitate nature rather than copy it, and answers her requirement that students’ work should speak to their own time period. Asker’s designs for needlework which captures the motion of the water does in fact reflect the stylization of the 1930s and 40s, Asker’s own time. This particular textile expression of water is emphatically not that of the early 20th-century, for example: it is unlike the watery reflections captured in the 1906 tapestry by Gustaf Fjaested at Gothenburg’s Röhsska Museum, which Asker certainly would have known.
The third of Asker’s textile collage panels interprets a passage from Psalms 42 that “As the hart pants after the water brooks, so longs my soul after Thee, oh Lord.” The descending beam of light highlights the stillness of the hart (deer) surrounded by the glories of nature. This particular panel is less a kind of spiritual instruction and more a visual catalog of praise.
As dividers in between the the three panels are images representing phrases from another of Jesus’ teachings about God’s provision for mankind, “Behold the fowl of the air…” and “Consider the lilies of the field…” (Mark 6). Interestingly, these both appear to overlap the two adjacent panels.
In the bottom right corner of the three panels is Asker’s signature and the 1939 date of composition, and the list of the students from the Slöjdföreningens Skola who helped with this large project. I have not been able to discover the first names of all of these students but do know a few. The list then includes these names: Marianne Eklund, J. Malmborg, M.Wallgren, Maud Fredin, S.Junggren, L. Andersson, G. Brodin, B. Gröransson, H.J. Jönsson, G. Simonsson. Both Eklund and Fredin’s names figure in Gothenburg’s textile world in the 1950s and 60s.
After the conclusion of this project, Asker’s primary work seems to have been her teaching, and the writing of the teaching manual about Dagmar Gundersen’s method of pattern composition with her sister Betty and with Sigfrid Ericson in 1944. That she was a very well respected teacher is clear. Her career is described as “characterized by great technical know-how and a fastidious textile perception” (Monica Ståhlbrand). On her fiftieth birthday in 1947, colleagues and students contributed to a fund in her honor, a “stipendium,” or scholarship, to be given to a student in the textile field each year. That is an award which continues today. And when Karna Asker stopped working at Slöjdföreningens Skola in 1957, she received a plaque of the school, and in 1958, she was awarded a grant from the City of Gothenburg.
This more serious photograph of Karna Asker was taken in 1948;
In 1953, Sigfrid Ericson’s wife Ruth died. In 1954, he and Karna Asker were married. Unfortunately, they had only four years together before he died at 75. She was 61. Oddly, both Masthuggetskyrka (discussed in the previous blog post) and the Johannebergs Church, both designed by Sigfrid Ericson, are described as the site of their marriage. Both partners had invested a great deal of thought and love into designing the Johanneburgs Church, so this seems like it would have been a logical location for their marriage. On the other hand, in 1954, Asker designed a choir rug for Masthuggets church with a design of interlocked circles which has been described, perhaps fancifully, as representing their wedding rings. Perhaps this was her way of adding something of herself to her new husband’s past, and also of making her own contribution to this much-loved Gothenburg church. The photographs below show the wonderfully colorful rug which she designed, full of the deep rich reds and browns of her early work. The rug fits beautifully with the aesthetic of the Masthuggets church despite being designed some 40 years afterwards. Whether or not Karna and Sigfrid were married in this church, it is certainly a rug of celebration.
Masthuggetskyrka, Gothenburg, designed by Sigfrid Ericson, 1914.
—Ealing, Marta, Online paper, “Teaching abstraction? Art historical and sociological perspectives on Nils Wedel and the basic form course at Slöjdskolan in Gothenburg, Sweden 1946–1957″ in Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History, vol. 84, 2015, Issue 4
—https://jubileumblog.wordpress.com/ and email correspondence with Martin Rudolfson
—Larson, Lisbeth, (ed) and Berit Backlund, Inger Eriksson, Birgitta Flensburg, Louise Lönnroth,and Maria Sjöberg , Hundrade och ett Göteborgkvinnor (One Hundred and One Gothenburg Women), published in Gothenburg, 2018.
—https://jubileumblog.wordpress.com/ and email correspondence with Martin Rudolfson
—@originalist Instagram account, email correspondance
—Ståhlbrand, Monica, “Ava-flossa 1929, Studier av en matta komponerad av Karna Asker,” thesis in Textile Science from Uppsala University, 1915, available online via Academia
—visits by the author to Masthuggetskyrka and Johannebergs Kyrka in April 2019. Photographs are my own unless otherwise acknowledged.
—Wikipedia and Wikimedia commons
Please reference as follows:
Whidden, Anne, “Textiles to Complement Churches: Karna Asker,” theswedishrugblog (5/30/19); theswedishrugblog.wordpress.com; accessed (day/month/year)