A home of color and friends: Agda Österberg’s Tre Bäckar

Agda Österberg’s memories of her early childhood in Stockholm are annotated with color: she mentions a grandmother who made hats with bright flowers, and sprinkled her walls with gold-painted splashes. There was a nearby church yard with thickets and flowers and birds, and paths up and down streets where the sun glinted and glared off the water. There were outings in a boat with her family, and visits to her grandmother’s workroom where there were large colored glass beads, fabulously beautiful to a child captivated by color. Her father worked with a Stockholm goldsmithing company, and her family had a modest but comfortable life.

Agda’s father died in 1903 when she was just twelve years old. Over the next few years, Agda worked to help support her mother and 5 siblings. She learned first-hand what it was to experience a dramatic change of fortune, to be poor, and to struggle to get ahead in the world. She found work as a nanny for a well-to-do couple. The wife recognized that she had some artistic talent, and helped her– first to study painting and then, to find more advanced weaving training at Stockholm’s Higher Industrial Arts School at night. Agda obtained scholarships and continued to work for this family during the day. She also seems to have managed to siphon off some of her scholarship money to help her own family.

Perhaps because of this early tragedy and deprivation, as an adult, Agda Österberg expressed an acute need for color and beauty and for friends.

Her drive and skill impressed teachers and employers and she rose quickly, but she did not find her social situation easy. She found it difficult to befriend the wealthier girls who studied at the Higher Industrial Arts School, and those who became shop girls for Handarbets Vänner, HV, the Friends of Handicraft, where she had her first job. And as a business The Friends of Handicraft was class-stratified: the wealthy board members had a higher social status than the artists themselves, and at least in Stockholm, the circle of the cultural elite seemed tight and exclusive. She mentions her rather pitiful dress which she tried to dress up with scraps of fabric, as well as her impatience with the theoretical discussions about arts and crafts values common in the textile world during the decade of 1910-20 while she was in school and beginning work. She didn’t have much time for either stylish clothing or merely academic pursuits. And yet she had mentors and champions who she remembered all of her life. It meant everything to her to have opportunities to be able to support herself with interesting work and she was always grateful for those who helped her reach for those opportunities.

When she joined HV at the age of 25, her wages, though modest, were shockingly large enough for her to have her own apartment —and telephone! —and still put money aside for her mother. The quality of her work began to attract attention and she was promoted at HV to help other more experienced designers. One of these was Maja Sjöström, who was working at that time on designs for textiles for the Stockholm City Hall. As Österberg began to show her own textile designs at exhibitions, she began to receive greater professional recognition.

Eventually, Agda joined an important firm working exclusively on church textiles. This firm was called Libraria.  Libraria itself, and the work done there by Agda and others, deserves a blog post of its own. But not now.

This post is going to jump well ahead in Agda’s life to the period beginning in 1933 when Agda was 42. At that point, Agda had left Stockholm and made her home in the town of Varnhem in Västergötland, north east of Gothenburg. She lived in a rented house called Villa Nas — a new and slightly pretentious Italian style villa sitting on a low rise. Here Agda was one of about ten textile designers working for Axevalla -Varnhemsslöjd, a modern company headed by a man named George Arninge, which had begun to use large traditional wooden looms with a technique  newly-invented by Arninge, adapting them to weave well-designed pile or rya rugs more quickly and less expensively. This involved using two warps rather than one, and being able to use the loom mechanism to tie the knots on the warp(s) more tightly than they could be tied by hand. (See also my blog post on Karna Asker for a discussion of this). He called his technique “ava-flossa” or “reform flossa” Unfortunately this company was about to go out of business through apparent financial mismanagement.

Osterberg bought the company in 1935 and renamed it Firma Agda Österberg. The work she intended to do for the immediate future was again in church textiles: supplying priest’s capes for masses, altar cloths, church collection bags, all of these richly and creatively embroidered for each individual church, as well as making church rugs. It seems apparent that Österberg continued to use the Arnige technique to make tightly woven pile (called “flossa” in Swedish) and rya rugs (which had deeper pile) on a hand-operated wooden loom. Robert Vikström’s biography of Agda refers to these as either “criterionflossa” or “criterionrya.” So “ava-flossa” and “reformflossa” had been renamed, but were still the same technique. Agda’s relatives remember the 6-meter wide wooden loom operated by several weavers, usually men. It is important to understand that this is the technique used at the firm for weaving their rya and pile rugs, since when sold, a number of these rugs have been described as having been “machine-woven.”  The difference is that at Firma Agda Österberg, the looms were worked by hand, albeit with a labor-saving adaptation.  Her rugs were NOT woven by mechanized looms.

In the photo below,  ca late 1930s- early 40s, Agda is sitting on a garden bench, possibly at Villa Nas, while  embroidering figures on what is almost certainly a piece for a church.  (The photo date derives from the fact that Agda wears the same outfit in a number of photos from this period, including one at Christmas 1940). She herself was a very capable embroiderer, and was part of the team making many many church pieces.

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Photo of Agda Österberg, courtesy of Jan Österberg.

It is at this point that the story of this blog post really begins.

Agda felt socially comfortable in Varnhem, and had a wide range of acquaintances, from the architect of her rented house to various teen-aged textile workers, to the young daughter of the local cobbler. She had a very nice car, and was generous about taking others for rides. The following photo shows Agda strikingly dressed for an outing on a country road with, among others, her mother, to the far left, and the daughter of the local cobbler. This is the sociable Agda whose home we are going to visit via this blog post.

1.Verna Andersson, Ljungstorp foto with AO in center and her mother to left ca 1930s
Agda Österberg in her car, probably in the mid-1930s. Image from Verna Andersson’s collection, courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

One of Agda’s persistent new clients in Varnhem was a man named Gunnar Lindström, a man six years younger than she, who had worked in Hollywood as a stunt double for Douglas Fairbanks, and by his account, he had designed costumes for a number of films such as Zorro, The Thief in Bagdad, The Black Pirate, and Robin Hood as well. After leaving Hollywood, Gunnar had spent time in Paris, thinking about starting some sort of fashion business, but had now come home to Skövde, where he had grown up. He was a stylish man with a certain panache who seems to have swept Agda off her feet.

2. foto Bo Dahlin from article Han dög som Doug Screen Shot 2020-01-21 at 2.02.59 PM
Gunnar Lindström posed in front of one of his paintings. Photo (cropped) by Bo Darlin from article commemorating Gunnar’s 1959 death. Courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

Agda brought Gunnar into the firm, renaming it Textile Moderne — Agda Österberg-Lindström. The couple married in 1936 and lived at Villa Nas. The firm thrived, and by 1937, the firm was employing 17 workers, both male and female. Many of these would stay with Agda for a long time. One man, Gösta Lundblad had started at Axevalla – Varhemslöjd as a 10-year old, and subsequently joined Agda’s firm in 1938 where he stayed for 50 years. Iris Olsson, a young woman in 1940, similarly stayed with Agda into her 90s.

Also in 1937, Agda entered a stunning tapestry in the Paris World’s Fair. Titled “The Revelation of St. John,” it was a tour de force of embroidery in gold and silver thread. Its image was of the lamb of Christ and many legions of angels leading to the throne of God while at the same time damned souls were being driven out and consigned to flames. Agda said of it, “ It gives me visions of glorious splendor while being horrible.” Impressive as a piece of textile art, it also offered an unintended view of the coming apocalypse.

But back in Sweden, Gunnar and Agda decided to construct a new building in Varnhem which would combine a home for themselves with business premises. The site they eventually purchased was the site of a former mill, where three streams came together. The architect of the house was to be Edvin Neuendorf of Sköde, who had designed Villa Nas.

For the design of this house Agda and Gunnar agreed on a style of simple modernism— a white box with horizontal bands of windows and lots of light. Agda had visited the Bauhaus in Germany twice, and had a sense of what she wanted. Functionalism was important. The kitchen and the working rooms for embroidery and weaving were on the ground floor, with rooms for both smaller and larger wood looms. The  double-height second floor room overlooking the garden would double as a living room/showroom. Agda’s own workroom, and bedrooms were arranged on upper floors. The flat roof had a semi enclosed room often described as her “penthouse” — a room with three walls open to the splendid outlook over fields and streams. An open fireplace in this little room was served by the flue of the house chimney. In 1940 when the house was finished, Gunnar proposed naming it Tre Bäckar, or Three Streams. So it became.

3 Tre Backar 1940 from Varnhemsbyggden 1990 --book? Ljungs etc
Tre Bäckar, in 1940 photo taken at completion of the new house. Courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.
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Agda Osterberg, painting of the new house, Tre Bäckar, shown from the garden, with the entry to the right.

The farmer who had sold the couple the land for this house had been persuaded that the new weaving firm would continue to employ a significant number of local people. And it did. The photo below shows four of the first young employees on the site of the newly built house.

4. 1940 young workers sourct Helena Bromér daughter Iris Olsson at right Ljungsetc
Photo of young employees on the Tre Bäckar’s construction site, (from left) Inga Olsson, Märta Persson, Britta Löfgren, Gösta Lundblad and Iris Olsson. Photo from Helena Bromér, daughter of Iris Olsson, courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

After the house was constructed, Gunnar particularly wanted a swimming pool, and he took a hand with the landscaping, turning the area of the original mill foundation into swimming pool and damming one of the streams to make a decorative pond. Agda and Gunnar were both interested in parties, and this area, and that of the room on the roof were places where they happily entertained their guests. The flower garden became Agda’s own special retreat and source of inspiration. It gave her the opportunity to care for and nourish growing things, which she found deeply satisfying.

58 Peter Nassén f1949 ca 1950 cousin 15 years to left TreB swimming pool
Tre Bäckar, View of swimming pool ca 1950. From the collection of Peter Nassén. Image courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.
57 1963 AO in garden, foto Kerstin Persson from Varnhems bygden
Agda Österberg, in the garden in 1963, working near the bridge of the pond. Photo by Kerstin Persson. Image courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

The two previous photos are not contemporary with the building of the house, but rather look ahead a number of years to the use of the pool and garden when the business was much more established. But it is important to understand how significant this garden was to become for Agda. Her assistant Kerstin recalled later that during the 1950s and ’60s at the most intense times of the year for planting or for plants blooming, Agda would simply glance in at the weaving and embroidery studios, shout a “Hello you all!” and as Kerstin put it, “float out” to her waiting flowers. She noted that if textile work had to be completed urgently, Agda would work at night to get it done, but not give up her time in the garden.

But in the 1940s Agda was busy building her business, and she was doing it very successfully. By 1949, it was estimated that the firm had supplied some 1,500 Swedish churches! In this period, nearly all of the firm’s production was in church textiles. This changed during the 1950s-60s when many more rugs, mostly flat-weave (rölakan), were woven for private individuals.

9 AÖ Stig Rehn foto at 3 B Västerg muse S1M16-A165001_6228
Agda Österberg, probably ca 1940s, shown with a church textile. Photo by Stig Rehn from Västergötlands museum collection via digitaltmuseum. Inventory number S1M16-A165001_6228
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Agda Österberg, self-portrait from the collection of her work at Tre Bäckar, probably also from the 1940s.

Today, when visiting this house, one arrives at a building which is larger than it was originally.Just as the house itself went through changes, so did the people who inhabited it.  After 15 years, Agda and Gunnar separated, mainly due to the strain on Agda of supporting Gunnar in his battle with alcoholism. Shortly after Gunnar moved out in 1951, Agra’s sister, Karin moved in, and quickly became “Chief Assistant.” She was a capable embroiderer and was also able to free up Agda from many administrative duties.

 

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Agda Österberg’s portrait of her younger sister Karin Österberg, from the Tre Bäckar collection.

Like Agda, Karin was a woman who liked color— as evidenced by Agda’s portrait of her. Memories passed down to a younger relative give further evidence that Agda’s portrait was not as fanciful as it may seem. One relative recalls his father describing Karin’s arrival. Whether this was her arrival at Tre Bäckar or just an arrival at the house which he witnessed, it was memorable. He said she came walking in, a vision in bright yellow ski pants, red boots and dyed red hair.

The next year, another assistant arrived. Kerstin Persson came as a young woman in 1952 after completing training at the Slöjdföreningen Skola in Gothenburg and then doing a brief stage in Copenhagen. She recounts that she thought it would be interesting to work with church textiles for two or three years— but that she ended up staying some 40 years with Agda! Her skills and interests complemented Agda’s own, and they worked well together. Kerstin lived in a small wooden cottage to the side of Tre Bäcker, and she too became part of the Tre Bäckar family.

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Tre Bäckar, Wood cottage occupied by Kerstin Persson during her tenure at Tre Bäckar, 1952- 2009.

In 1955 another young woman, Monica Bertilsson, who had already had some weaving success running her own firm, joined the newly renamed firm of Agda Österberg, Tre Bäckar, Varhem, as well. She stayed for a number of years.

Agda continued to keep a room for Gunnar if he needed it, hung with his own paintings. He came back in 1959, planning to prepare for an exhibition of these paintings, but died, worn out in his battle.

With a high level of demand and a strong team of embroiderers and weavers, the years during the 1950s and ‘60s were productive ones for the firm. During the years 1955-6 there was a building addition made to the right (facing the front facade). This addition is shown perhaps most clearly in the third photo below, in a view from the garden.

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Tre Bäckar, today’s view from road between Skövde and Varnhem (2019).
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Tre Bäckar. Front facade of house which includes original house to left and the addition of the three right-hand bays.

As one walks through the house today, there are noticeable changes to the rooms. The looms are gone and neither weaving studio functions any longer. The embroidery area has been replaced by a dining table overlooking the garden, but the house still has many many pieces of Agda’s weaving, on walls, floors and windows, as well as many pieces of art by fellow artists whom she befriended during the 1950s and 60s. One can get a feeling for the spirit of the life she created there. It is clear she enjoyed the group of employees she had, and also used her house to gather in friends and relatives as well. Such gatherings were frequent and festive.

7 Tre B'ckar with addition 1960 from Ljtorps etc
Tre Bäckar from the garden-side in 1960, photograph after the 1956 addition. Courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

The photo above shows the large double-height living room on the second floor, kitchen on the lower right corner and windows to the left of the kitchen where the embroidery studio was. The addition starts where the punched-in double height balcony is. And on the roof, it looks like the”penthouse” has been enclosed. The photo also shows a decorative pond that Gunnar kept supplied with rainbow trout.

8.Backside Tre Back from Lungtorps Histor
Tre Bäckar from the garden-side, photograph after the 1956 addition. Courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive. View of the pond showing the bridge over to it.

One can imagine the work in progress in the different ateliers inside the house with the help of period photographs. The photos below that show work at Tre Bäckar are from the 1940s through the 1950s. It is fascinating to see the changes to the spaces, particularly the large living room/showroom over the Agda’s life period.

Today, when one visits the house and comes in from the corner porch and then into the stair hall, and moves toward the back of the house, one comes into an informal living room, formerly divided into several spaces.

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Tre Bäckar, present day ground-floor dining room and sitting area.
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Tre Bäckar, view out to garden from ground floor windows.  Pool is in upper left, pond benind the shrub to right.

.The large back window belongs originally to the embroidery room, and embroiderers sat in the light of this window.

14 from HusModern no 20 1952 Screen Shot 2020-01-21 at 1.49.23 PM
 Embroidery Atelier at Tre Bäckar, from 1952 article on Tre Bäckar in HusModern, No.20, courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive. Agda sits to the right with various priest’s capes or robes displayed (presumably for the magazine photo) behind her.

Another view of the embroidery room shows the new employee, Kerstin Persson in the 1950s

19 Kerstin Persson and Rode Johnsson 1950s see descript from Ljunstorps
Kerstin Persson on the right, consults with Rode Jonsson in the embroidery room at Tre Bäckar, ca 1950s. Photo courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

The weaving room for the smaller loom was near the embroidery room. Another first floor room, which faced the front of the house, held the large 6-meter wide wooden Land loom used for the criterionflossa and criterionrya. Here the floors were brick since the loom was large and heavy  The photos that follow, from different dates, illustrate aspects of the weaving process, and the working environment at Tre Bäckar.

16.Working on a rug Britta Löfgren,Gösta Lundblad and Iris Olsson 1943
Three of the young employees doing rough work on the back side of a rya rug. Britta Löfgren, Gösta Lundblad, and Iris Olsson are shown from left to right. Probably from the early 1940s. Photo courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.
15.TB vavatelje foto Bengt Johnsson 1947-63
Tre Bäckar, Weave atelier for the smaller hand-looms, photo by Bengt Jonsson who worked at Tre Bäckar from 1947 to 1963. From his own photo album, courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.
17. 1950s Bengt Jonsson getting ready to nail rug
Tre Bäckar, Weave atelier. Photo of Bengt Jansson hammering a newly-woven flat weave rug to a frame for washing. Photo taken by Stig Johannesson who was married to Agda’s niece and courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive. .
18. 1950s Bengt Jonsson and Gösta Lundblad sizing rug
Tre Bäckar, Bengt Jonsson and Gösta Lundblad sizing carpets that they have washed. The carpets were sized to hold their shape. Photographer Stig Johannesson, courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

 

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Tre Bäckar, former weaving atelier, now a front ground floor study. The flat weave rug on the floor was designed by Kerstin Persson.

The work that Agda is most known for today are her bold colorful hand-woven flat weave rugs. Many were made for individuals. but thousands more were also designed for Swedish churches. The pattern of the rug shown below is typical, and one of her most popular. It is called Jacob’s Ladder.

2a AO Jacobs Ladder 224 x 123 sold 11-18-17 Bukowskis
Agda Österberg, Flat weave, rölakan, Jacobs Ladder pattern, rug designed 1962. This example 224 x 123 cm, was woven after Agda’s death in the 1990s, and sold at Bukowskis Auction house 11/18/17. Her typical large AÖ signature is visible to the lower right.

Moving through the house, one encounters not only these kind of flat-weave rugs, which are wonderful, but other kinds of rugs as well, mostly the criterionrya and light-weight draperies or wall-hangings. In this blog post, I am going to focus on these varied kinds of weaves: machined ryor, one small pile rug, and several draperies and wall hangings in this blog post, because these were something I had not seen before, and I found them all extraordinary. All of them exhibit Agda’s lively color sense, with which I was familiar, but this group of rugs introduced an new Agda, expressing herself in entirely different weaving techniques. I had not seen rya rugs which are so vibrant yet subtle, or wall hangings in such jewel-like colors and so full of varied surfaces.

Today one of the weaving studios is a bedroom, furnished with one of Agra’s amazing “criterionrya” rugs. These rya which she designed, apparently during the 1960s, were unpatterned other than with stripes, but full of nuance, created by juxtaposed yarn colors.

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Tre Bäckar, another former weaving room, this one for the heavier mechanized looms, built with a brick floor.
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Tre Bäckar. Brick floor of the weaving studios for the mechanized looms.
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Agda Österberg, Brownish  multi-color stripe “criterionrya” rug, at Tre Bäckar, approximately 3 meters x 4 meters.
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Agda Österberg, Detail of brownish multi-color “criterionrya” rug. ca 1960s.
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Agda Österberg, Detail of brown multi-color “criterionrya” rug, ca 1960s.
Back of Brown rya jan O 20200125_111415
Agda Österberg, Reverse side of “criterionrya” showing tightness of the weave.

Upstairs above the weaving rooms was a room which was the yarn store and Agda’s own working studio. At the time, it held Agda’s long desk and her sketches, pinned up on the wall. These have now been archived. As Agda grew older and after she retired, Kerstin Persson designed flat weave rugs of her own, using this desk in a high sunny room, and today her sketches hang on the wall. Kerstin’s rugs were also woven at Tre Bäckar before it closed in 2004. (Agda herself died in 1987).
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Tre Bäckar, The remains of a small yarn storage area in Agda’s work room. The major yarn storage was in the basement.

Here too are there are several other rugs, more examples of Agda’s extraordinary color sense. Both of these, exuberant in pink, capture her pleasure in working with all kinds of textiles.

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Agda Österberg, Small machine-woven. multi-color stripe “criterionrya” rug in pink, orange, and light blue at Tre Bäckar. About 4’ x 2’.
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Agda Österberg, Detail of small multi-color pink “criterionrya” rug at Tre Bäckar.

A jazzy “halv-flossa” or half-pile rug on the floor explores the side-by-side effect of many of the same colors as the rya shown above. The candy-colored textural contrasts of this rug are presented in a very ordered format. The effect is almost a baroque version of Swedish modern — perhaps an Agda-style version of the Venetian style glass mirror we will see in the living room?

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Agda Österberg, small pink half-pile rug at Tre Bäckar, about 4’ x 2-1/2’
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Agda Österberg, detail of small pink half-pile rug at Tre Bäckar.

 

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Agda Österberg, detail of small pink half-pile rug at Tre Bäckar.

In a brief detour from the house, but still on the subject of Österberg’s “criterionrya” rugs, the rug shown below is another of her striped ryas. It was clearly woven during the same period as these others but is not found in the house today. This was described when sold as a “machine-woven” rya, but it is not.  It is one of these “criterionflossa,” woven by hand with an adapted wood loom, but beingmore tightly woven, may appear to have been woven by a mechanized loom.

29 Not in house AGDA ÖSTERBERG, "Three brooks", ryamatta, machine-woven, polycroma stripes, approx. 377,5x232,5 cm SAWerk9-30-17
Agda Österberg, Red multi-color stripe “criterionrya” rug, 377.5 x 232.5. Tre Bäckar tag on the back. Sold at Stockholms Auktionsverk 9/30/17.
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Agda Österberg, Detail of red multi-color stripe, “criterionrya” rug. Sold at Stockholms Auktionsverk 9/30/17.
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Agda Österberg, Detail of red multi-color stripe, “criterionrya” rug, showing yarn. Sold at Stockholms Auktionsverk 9/30/17.
32.Not in house Agda Ostberg machine rya SAW 9-30-17
Agda Österberg, Detail of red multi-color stripe, “criterionrya “rug, showing Tre Bäckar label. Sold at Stockholms Auktionsverk 9/30/17.

From Agda’s studio, you can access the balcony level of the double-height living room. In some ways, this living Room/ showroom has changed little over time. Most of the furniture in place today is Agda’s, particularly the unusually deep sofa visible in the upper left of the following photo. The large baroque mirror mentioned above is between the two windows on the far wall.

What did change frequently in this space, however, was the placement of the furniture. Agda saw this space as an ever-changing gallery for her firm’s new woven textiles. She had a policy of hanging new pieces here for at least two weeks so all could see and evaluate them. She also liked to move the furniture around. In a brief memoir, Kerstin Persson wrote that Agda had once told her that as a young woman she longed to do theater design. Noting that Agda had liked to repaint this room about twice a year to see things in a new way,  Kerstin observed, “From light yellowish it could be painted in dark violet, mirrors would be placed so that the rooms would look bigger, and the furniture was pulled around to new locations.” She reported that Agda was constantly enlisting her employees to help her rearrange the space. It is not hard to read Agda’s frequent redecoration of the Tre Bäckar living room as, in fact, a kind of theatrical stage-setting.

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Tre Bäckar, View from balcony down into the living room/showroom, looking out the large double-height window to the back garden, and showing the stairs coming up from the front hall.
37 AO photo ca 1940s Stig Rehn vor Västergötlands mus1M16-A165001_6227
Tre Bäckar, Photograph of Agda sitting on deep sofa placed against outside wall perpendicular to smaller living room window, probably late 1940s. Note that location of mirror shown in here does not seem to have changed in next several decades. Stig Rehn from Västergötlands museum collection via digitaltmuseum. Inventory number S1M16-A165001_6227.
36 HusModern no 20 1952Screen Shot 2020-01-21 at 1.47.42 PM
Tre Bäckar, View in living Room/ showroom with deep sofa now facing windows. Photo from an article on the house in 1952 issue of HusModern, no. 20, courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.
44. LR from HusModern articleScreen Shot 2020-01-21 at 1.47.00 PM copy
Tre Bäckar, Photograph of baroque mirror located to left of the room’s large window. Note also the dark rya rug shown, which seems to have been one of the earliest ryas made at Tre Bäckar. Photo from an article on the house in 1952 issue of HusModern, no. 20, courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.
39. AO in her living room from AO Society
Tre Bäckar, Photograph of Agda in her living room during the 1950s. (Date based on the fact that the flat-weave rug —rölakan— shown hanging against the wall in rear right was shown at 1960 Skövde Museum exhibition). Photo from the Agda Österberg Society, courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

The large vessel in the corner in photo above may have been a piece by ceramicist Gunnar Nylund, referred to in a family story. Agda’s nephew recalled how Nyland had shown up with a truck one day, unannounced. and unloaded a large urn, placing it in the front stair hall. He considered it briefly, and talking to himself, enthusiastically approved its placement, then drove off. The carved wooden horse head on the table may have been done by Gösta Sjögren, another of Agda’s artist friends.

40. Agda Österberg 1 1960 from Vikstrom
Tre Bäkar. Detail of photo above, showing Agda herself more closely.

 

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Tre Bäckar, Photograph of living Room/ showroom from the 1960s, with large sofa pushed back into the room in a position perpendicular to the large window. The sofa is now accessorized with a modern coffee table, stools and lamps.Small spinet in background suggests parties! Photo by Kerstin Persson, courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

 

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Tre Bäckar, Corner of living room/ showroom today. The rich linen window-drapery is the same one today as it was in the earlier 1950s photo. Because this was woven with yarns of differing sizes, it refracts the late-afternoon sunlight. The the flat-weave rug (rölakan) has been moved closer to the window, but still serves as backdrop to the female sculpture by Britta Nehrman.
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Agda Österberg, at Tre Bäckar, Detail of living room corner drapery.
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Tre Bäckar, Female sculpture by Britta Nehrman.
46.Aga Österberg V1M16-B145048_3546
Tre Bäckar, Agda standing at table in the living room/showroom space, with the baroque mirror now moved to the far wall. and with her 1963 bildväv (a kind of tapestry picture in a thinner weave) honoring Valentina Teresjkova, the first female Soviet Cosmonaut, hung next to it. From the digitaltmuseum archives, inventory number V1M16-B145048_3546.
47 Kerstin Persson at TB Caption, Rugs and wallhangings in strong clear colors dominate the large room of Tre b
Tre Bäcker with Kerstin Persson in an unidentified newspaper photograph probably from the mid 60s, with the Cosmonaut tapestry on the far wall, as well as the familiar flat-weave rug which is still there today. Image courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

From the mid ’60’s to the mid ’70’s, Österberg developed many more tapestry-like pieces. These pieces are called variously vävnad, bildväv (“picture weaves”) or ryssväv. The semi-transparent piece discussed above, probably designed for this window, still functions as a tall window curtain today. The cosmonaut has gone to a private collection. Two other smaller curtains in a similar technique still hang in the showroom and cover door openings. Both are gorgeous. The following photographs are of one of these:

48.IMG_1321
Tre Bäckar, Woven drapery, located under the living room balcony, done in a “bildväv” technique. This piece is unusually pastel for Agda, though she adds a typically energetic color jolt in the use of red against the other softer tones.
49.IMG_1322
Tre Backär, Detail of woven drapery shown above.

Although she designed large pictorial weavings for both churches and secular settings, these are different. Agda’s smaller versions of the bildväv are not in fact woven pictures but either abstract or repetitive patterns which seem more like explorations in weave depth and color juxtaposition. The next blog post will continue to look at several of these in greater detail.

The frequent furniture rearranging in the living room/showroom allowed Agda’s firm to showcase new rugs and tapestries as they came off the looms. And there was clearly an audience for these changing displays. From the point in the mid- fifties when the building addition was made, and when a professional gardener was hired to develop a planting plan for the site, Tre Bäckar became an attractive site for visitors. Agda gave many cultural journalists the full tour from roof deck to showroom, and they themselves wrote about her and the house for their readers.

Agda’s biographer, Robert Vikström mentions that local sewing associations would also arrive by the busload to take the tour of the house, the showroom and the gardens. And his book has a photograph of a group of women queuing up to visit Tre Bäckar. There were even postcards of the house.

21.a Tre Backar postcard via Ljunstorps Hist
Tre Bäckar in a postcard view from above, taken after 1956. Swimming pool is visible behind the house. Courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

Agda also loved to talk to these audiences about her feelings about color. Vickström quotes her at length:

My whole life has been a longing to put together colors and make them shine. Right from the very beginning of my art, I made serious studies on color combinations; you could say that I was striving to systematize the color madness. Yes, it is true, that I am completely crazy about color!
…Often people who want to make an order ask if I can make something more discreet. It’s hard to understand why people want to avoid colors, nothing is sadder than a room where everything is “discreet!” Textiles are also to a much greater extent than paintings, dependent on light and shadows.
…For as long as I can remember, I have had clear colors in my work. I want to have all colors—the full orchestra!”

During the 1950s and 60s particularly, Agda’s living room was also the stage for extravagant parties or feasts, many of them for friends, and many of them for her employees. The lines between the two groups seem to have frequently blurred. Kerstin Persson recalls that Agda and Karin loved to work together to come up with a theme for a party, and decorate the large room. Costumes would be required of one kind or another, and the party goers could troop from roof to garden. Relatives remember a party she arranged for local children in the meadow out behind the house, and a particular pleated dress Agda wore for the event. On other nights, since many of those living at the house had subscription tickets to local theatrical productions, they would set off and return together, ending up in long and earnest conversations about what they had seen. And at a certain point, many of the guests at Tre Bäcker parties had theatrical connections.

The Tre Backer employees were well treated. There was a cook who provided lunch for Agda, Karin and Kerstin, while other employees brought their own lunches, but all ate together. Fridays were their day off to be able to go shopping in nearby Skövde. And they were invited to use the swimming pool. Former employees report being charmed by Agdas generous and inclusive nature.

59Bengt Johnsson foto workers at pool at TB
Tre Bäckar employees enjoying the swimming pool in the 1950s. Photo by Bengt Jonsson, courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

Tre Bäckar was also viewed by her nieces and nephews as a kind of magical place where Agda made them feel loved and welcome. There were places to hide and things to discover, both inside and out. Finding hiding places under the wooden looms and even jumping on the big yellow sofa were not forbidden. Agda’s decorations and enthusiastic party-giving made Tre Bäckar’s living room a particularly festive place to spend Christmas. Karin added to the excitement by taking on the role of Christmas tomten, a Swedish gnome who arrived with presents for the tall living room tree.

The grand living room/showroom also offers evidence of Agda’s delight in making friends with other artists. Arranged around the room are multiple pieces of art bought or given in trade for one of her rugs. In Agda’s case, such exchanges often marked the development of longterm friendships.

She had paintings by Martin Lindström, wood pieces from wood sculptor Gösta Sjöberg, ceramics by Gunnar Nylund, who was the artistic director at Rörstrand Ceramics in Lidköping, (located north in Västergötland on Lake Vättern), and quite a few sculptures from her very good friend , the sculptor Britta Nehrman.

Sjöberg recalled that on one visit he and his wife made to Tre Bäckar, his wife became very interested in a particular rug by Agda. Agda suggested an exchange of the rug for a piece of Sjöberg’s sculpture, and the exchange was made. On their next visit she asked if they could do some further trading! Apparently quite a few of his wooden bowls and sculptures changed hands. Gösta recalled, “Having Agda as a good friend was a boost. She was demanding of herself and I did my best to give back something in this exchange. Her inspiration was a ‘kick’.”

Agda had also earlier given textiles to mark the construction of the house she and Gunnar built. One of these was to the wife of Harald Framt, the builder of both Villa Nas and of her own house, Tre Bäckar.

50.Harald Framst builder TB
Photo of Harald Framt, (on the left), builder of Tre Bäckar. Courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.
51AO rug given Elsa, wife of Harald Framst, private collection Ljungstorps His photo
Agda Österberg, flat-weave rug gifted to Elsa, wife of her builder Harald Främt. Courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

Another weaving, for the architect, Edwin Neuendorf, may have been a gift or may have been given in a partial payment for the house. Because this one is so different from her own usual style (though much more like some of her church textiles), it also suggest that the subject matter may have been his own choice, or perhaps it was a church image that he saw and liked. The curtain took as its motif the Wise and Foolish Virgins from the Bible’s New Testament (The wise virgins have candles lit; the foolish virgins are disappointed, with their empty candlesticks in hand). An unusual aspect of the installation of this piece was that it was apparently pulled open and closed mechanically between the dining room and pantry during large social functions where a serving staff would be coming and going with food.  Perhaps an odd disjunction of sacred and secular?

52. 1943 AO Architect of TB, Neuendorfs1M16-106891
Agda Österberg, curtain for Edwin Neuendorf, the architect of her house, for his own house, Villa Neundorf in Skövde.  Photo from the digitaltmuseum.se, inventory no. 1M16-106891. Now in the collection of the Västergötlands Museum.

When in 1954 the civil engineer and mayor of Skövde, Carl Tesdorpf. hired architect Ralph Erskine to design his house, Tesdorpf also became a friend and very good client to Agda. He is reported to have bought a number of pile rugs and also six rya rugs for his new home. This seems an unlikely number. I suspect that in the reporting there has been confusion between the firm’s “criterionrya” and “criterionflossa” and these were thus double counted. I am assuming that the ryor purchased for the house may well have been similar to the citerionryor shown above, still in place at Tre Bäckar. One such rug sold at Bukowskis, again, described as a “machine-woven” rya, is shown below. The catalog from the Skövde Museum show of 1991 also cites a rya rug entitled Vallmo as belonging to Tesdorpf, but does not picture it. The following photos give a sense of the house Erskine designed for Tesdorpf. Both the massing and facade treatments of the house still seem remarkably contemporary. It is a tribute to Agda that both client and architect felt her rugs suited this handsome modern house, but one can see how her subtly striped rya would have brought a kind of modern vibrancy to these interiors. I couldn’t find a photograph of Tesdorpf, so the following one of Erskine will have to stand in.

62.Ralph Erskine by Sune sundall ARKM.1988-111-SX2735-9
Architect, Ralph Erskine, photo by Sune Sundahl via digitaltmuseum.se, inventory no. ARKM.1988-111-SX2735-9.
63.Villa_Tesdorpf_hist_bild_Egelius, Mats (1988) foto
Ralph Erskine, architect, Villa Tesdorpf, Skövde, front facade. Photo via Wikipedia from 1988 book by Mats Egelius
64Erskin Skövde fasad_s
Ralph Erskine, Villa Tesdorpf, Skövde, detail of rear facade. Photo via random google search.

 

66.Villa_Tesdorpf_hist_bild_3 Mats Egelius foto
Ralph Erskine, architect, Villa Tesdorpf, Skövde, interior shot, via Wikipedia from 1988 book by Mats Egelius. A rya rug is visible in this shot, but the black and white image doesn’t allow clear identification.

 

67 Villa-Tesdorpf-3 from www.ravjagarn.se
Ralph Erskine, architect, Villa Tesdorpf, Skövde, interior shot, via ravjagvarn.se. The same rya rug located at the bottom of the stair and in front of the sofa is visible in this shot, but its distanc location doesn’t allow clear identification.

 

68 Agda Osterberg rya sold bukowskis machiine made pile 374 x 240 cm 2-7-14 identical with mug #483 woven 1968 for Ingenior Tesdorpf for his villa in Skövde designed by Ralph Erskine
Agda Österberg, “criterionrya” rug, 374 x 240 cm. Sold by Bukowskis Auction house, 2/7/14, and labeled by the auction house as a machine-woven rug.

I have a note showing that the rya rug show above was identified as one of Agda’s original rya sold to Carl Tesdorpf for his house, and further, that it was identical to the Agda Österberg archival number 483 identified as woven for him. But in consulting the original Bukowskis listing for the rug in writing this blog post, I don’t see this information on the that listing. The attribution seems likely, but I cannot verify where this information came from.

68aScreen Shot 2020-01-23 at 11.24.25 PM
Agda Österberg, Detail of above “criterionrya.”

I want return to the subject of artists whose work Agda collected, and her practice of trading pieces. One of these brilliantly colored wall hangings ( bildväv) made in the mid-‘60s to mid-‘70s was traded with an unidentified local artist. It is shown below:

71. AO vavnad traded with a local artist for one of their paintings From lungstorps etc
Agda Österberg, Wallhanging of unknown dimension, which Agda traded with a local artist. Image courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

Agda counted Britta Nehrman, who was a sculptor just ten years younger than Agda,  among her closest friends. Nehrman had studied with pre-eminent sculptor, Carl Milles as well as in Paris and Florence. She exhibited frequently, including at the Konsthall in nearby Skövde, in 1952. Like Agda, she was a woman with a successful artistic career, with pieces in public buildings and churches. Nehrman tended to sculpt single figures or intimate groups. Agda had at least three of Nehrman’s figurative sculptures in her living room. One we have seen, the standing nude of a young woman, prominently placed with a strong rölakan hanging behind her. Another of Agdas favorite pieces was a head of herself as a young woman. A photograph taken when she was 89 shows her with that sculpture.

55 IMG_1349
Britta Nehrman, cast bronze head of Agda Österberg as a young woman, date of making unknown.
56 IMG_1306
Photograph of Agda, at age 89, with Nehrman’s head of herself as a young woman. Photograph courtesy of Jan Österberg.
73Britta Nehrman Flickorna in Gothenburg from flickr
Britta Nehrman, Flickorna (Girls), 1954, at main entry to girls’ school in Gothenburg, Kjellbergska flicksola. Image via Wikimedia.

Another piece of Nehrman’s, a young female nude with pigtails, in plaster, bears the date of 1954. It is placed under the balcony in the living room/showroom, against backdrop of Agda Österberg woven drapery in bildväv technique.

74IMG_1347
Britta Nehrman, Nude girl with pigtails, 1954, at Tre Bäckar.
75IMG_1346
Britta Nehrman, inscription of artist’s name and date of fabrication on base of statue above.

The curtain shown as a foil for Nehrman’s statue is an extraordinary piece of work. Not only are the colors daring —who sets pale lavender against deep red, mustard and blue stripes?— but there are several layers of pattern. Raised linked forms (lavender, yellow pale pink, light blue and white) play off against the flat striped background. At the same time, a band of squares with holes at their centers, in almost defiantly bright and childlike colors, skips across the center of the piece.

76IMG_1343
Agda Österberg, Detail of woven curtain in bildväv technique, in living room/showroom at Tre Bäckar.
77 IMG_1345
Agda Österberg, Detail of woven curtain, in living room/showroom at Tre Bäckar.
78IMG_1358
Agda Österberg, Detail of woven curtain, in living room/showroom at Tre Bäckar.
72 IMG_1344
Agda, Österberg, curtain in bildväv technique, in Tre Bäckar living room/showroom.

The photo below provides a perfect conclusion, offering as it does, a view of the Tre Bäckar wonderful high showroom space. On the wall are Agda’s Cosmonaut bildväv of 1963; her baroque mirror; the Britta Nehrman head of Agda herself placed in front of the mirror; and another Nehrman female nude set against the very graphic rölakan. Agda’s large bildväv titled Bäckans Ande 1963 is on the floor. Agda’s fantastic red pants make Agda look as though she dressed to match the zing of her work, and suggest that she arranged the entire scene herself, which she probably did.

79.foto thomas harrison from newspaper article
Photo of Agda Österberg taken in her living room showroom in 1980 . Photo by Thomas Harrison in newspaper article entitled,” Agda Österberg, 89 years–a Colorful Profile” (—en fargstark profile), Image courtesy of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive.

As Agda herself said at one point, she did not care about clothes, but she did care about living with beauty. With great talent and drive, and with zest and energy, she created a life for herself which was abundantly full of color, beauty and friendship. She treated her employees like family and they became her family. The life of artistry which she made at Tre Bäckar was one which she happily and generously shared with others.

 
Sources
Agda Österberg Society, via ljungtorpshistoria.se

Bengt Jonssons collection via archive of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive. (Skarke – Varnhem Home District Association)

Bukowskis Auction house, Stockholm

digtitaltmuseum.se

Egilius, Mats, photos from Ralph Erskine, arkitekt. Stockholm: Byggförl, 1988, via Wikipedia.

https://flickskola.wordpress.com/varpromenad-till-flickskolor/

ljungstorpshistoria.se archive of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive. (Skarke – Varnhem Home District Association)

Österberg, Jan for very helpful email exchanges of information about Agda’s rugs

Persson, Kerstin, “Några minnen från Tre Bäckar” in catalog titled Agda Österberg,  1891-1987 Textila verk från 1910- till 70-tal. Skövde Konsthall 1991

http://precisensan.com/antikforum/showthread.php?30329-Agda-%D6sterberg-S-t-Eriks-Lervarufabriker/page2

Ralph Erskines Villa Tesdorpf, Skövde

Sjögren, Gösta, Ett vänporträtt” in catalog titled Agda Österberg 1891-1987 Textila verk från 1910- till 70-tal. Skövde Konsthall 1991

Stockholms Auktionsverk, Stockholm.

Svensk kinnobiografiskt lexikon, https://skbl.se/en

Vikström, Robert, Agda Österberg, En livsvandring i färg 1891-1987. Happy Minds, Frösön, 2016

Vikström, Robert, https://agdaosterberg.wordpress.com/category/tre-backar/ Various blog postings

Vikström, Robert for assistance visiting Tre Bäckar

Verna Anderssons collection, via archive of Skarke-Varnhem Hembygdsförening Association’s archive. (Skarke – Varnhem Home District Association)

Visit to Tre Bäckar, May 2019, courtesy of Jan Österberg and Nina Andersson. Photographs not otherwise identified were taken by me on the occasion of this visit, and if reproduced, should be credited.

Wikipedia

4 thoughts

  1. Hi Anne!

    What a fantastic work you do on Swedish textile designers. I am so impressed and find the reading so interesting.

    Hope all is fine with you. Have you been to the royal castle in Stockholm yet and seen Märta Måås?

    Take care, Agneta

    Agneta Gefors

    Muraregatan 14

    392 36 Kalmar

    Sweden

    + 46 (0)480-262 37, 0709-262 372

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  2. All fascinating – what a lot of detail you have amassed on this generous-spirited designer! I am most struck by that gorgeous house Tre Bäckar – no wonder she wanted to be in the garden as much as possible. What a fantastic working environment for her employees. And how wonderful to have a living space large and open enough to display your current works. That’s the best (says this amateur designer from her cramped little house)!

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    1. Thank you, Katherine. I usually don’t have such comprehensive source material. In Agda’s case, I had a careful thoughtful biography written by a relative; I got to visit her house myself; and the historical society of the town nearby has compiled a spectacular on-line archive. Mostly left to me to take a point of view and “weave” it all together. There are huge chunks of her work left out here, but still so much to say. But “generous-spirited” is certainly the right word, and yes, that is a fantastic showroom for her work!

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