Making Rya Modern: Age Faith-Ell

At mid-century, Age Faith-Ell was one of Sweden’s more internationally-oriented designers. She had studied and lived abroad for a number of years, and when she returned, worked largely for the Swedish textile industry. She taught at a number of schools and was well-respected as one of Sweden’s most capable modern designers. Faith-Ell’s original training was in hand-weaving and she did a number of designs for Southern Kalmar County Craft Association (Södra Kalmar läns hemslöjd) in 1942. It is interesting to look at work from this phase of her career and to have a sense of her approach to her work.

Born in 1912, Age Faith-Ell was grew up in Växjö in south-central Skåne. Her father, Gunnar, came from a large and creative family. Ell was the family name, to which the name of Faith, that of an unmarried older relative was added by his own parents. Gunnar himself studied at the Higher Industrial Arts School in Stockholm, which later became Konstfack. Moving to Växjö, he became a drawing teacher well-known in Sweden for his pedagogical studies and innovative ideas in vocational education.

In 1906, Gunnar designed his own home in a leafy section of Växjö in a picturesque national romantic, or Jugend style, inspired by the home of painter Carl Larsson and his wife Karin. The house was complete with bay windows, interesting ironwork, and built-in furniture, including that feature beloved of the arts-and-crafts movement, the”inglenook,” the fireplace with adjacent benches. Gunnar also served as architect on homes for several other house in Växjö, and took on a number of interior-decorating murals and commissions. His second daughter, Anna Margareta, known as Age, grew up in a home where architecture, interior design and education through handicraft were part of the family culture. She and her older sister Anna Stina were, as one of Age’s former students recalls, her father’s “guinea-pigs,” that is, those on whom he tried out his teaching theories.

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“Lilla Gunnarbo,” home of the Faith-Ell family near Växjö, built 1906 by Gunnar Faith-Ell, father of Age Faith Ell. Photo of entry side by David van Buskirk.
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“Lilla Gunnarbo,” home of the Faith-Ell family near Växjö, built 1906 by Gunnar Faith-Ell, father of Age Faith Ell. Photo by Magdelena Jonsson.

 

1b from photo on the wall of Lilla Gunnarbo , photo by magdelena Jonsson a Screen Shot 2020-06-13 at 3.57.20 PM
Photo of photo of original “inglenook” feature of Lilla Gunnarbo, in which benches flank the fireplace. Original photo hangs on wall in this house, now in private ownership. Photo by Magdelena Jonsson.

 

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Photo of Age Faith-Ell in the inglenook fireplace area, ca 1979-80. Photo by David van Buskirk.

In the early 1930s, Age went to Stockholm to study embroidery and dressmaking for a year, then enrolled to become a teacher of weaving at Brunsson’s Weaving School. At Brunssons, Barbro Nilsson was, by Age’s account, her most important teacher. While a student, she designed a rug which was selected to be shown at an exhibition of the Stockholm Stads Handsföreningen. In 1934, having completed her training at Brunsson’s Weaving School she applied both to Konstfack, Stockholm’s design school, and to Kunstgewerbschule, the school for applied arts in Vienna. Age was accepted to both schools and chose to go to Vienna, where her older sister was already studying music.

In Vienna, Faith-Ell found a more creative and demanding educational program than the program at Brunsson’s, which while technically strong, had been largely based on the copying of earlier woven textile models. As were many young European designers, Faith-Ell was inspired by the rigorous and radical model of the Bauhaus weaving curriculum, but the Bauhaus, operating from 1919-1933, first in Weimar and then especially in Dessau and finally in Berlin, had just recently been closed down. Many weaving students who had studied at the Bauhaus, including Annie Albers had previously attended a Kunstgewerbschule (these academies were in most major German-speaking cities), so this felt to Age like valuable training.

The advent of Nazism gave Age a few years in Vienna, but finally curtailed her status as a “guest-student,” and by 1937 she was back in Sweden. Faith-Ell moved back to her family home in Växjö, and seems to have done work for several of the local county craft associations. While apparently she did not work full time for the Southern Kalmar County Craft Association, (Södra Kalmar läns hemslöjd) in Kalmar, the Kalmar archives include several rug designs by Faith-Ell — apparently designed free-lance—during this interim period of her career. One of these designs carries a printed label with her name, the initials of professional associations to which she belonged, and an address in Växjö at Kungsvägen 54, the address of her family home.

In the SKLH archives there are sketches for two rugs designed by Age Faith-Ell dated 1942. Both are designs for combining rya rug making with other weaving techniques. And there is another larger undated collaged mock-up for a flat-weave rug. It is likely this was done later, and suggests she maintained her ties to this craft association until after the war.

But also in 1942, in the middle of the war, Age was offered a job back in Vienna, as a weaving-textile instructor at the Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst. She returned to a war-torn city where in her absence, friends had already been called up to serve in the military, had been killed or even been sent to concentration camps. The cultural city she had loved before the war was now governed by shortages in materials and supplies, rationing and was subject to frequent Allied bombings.

Faith-Ell stayed through the end of the war and returned to Sweden in 1945. She moved back to Växjö and continued to live in the house her father designed until her death. She worked free-lance as as an award-winning textile designer for several of Sweden’s large textile companies. She also continued to have international exposure of her work, representing Sweden in a number of international exhibitions, including several Milan Triennials. Like her father, Age taught drawing in a Växjö school, and she also worked with an art therapy program.

The archival sketches from the Southern Kalmar County Craft Association are for hand-woven rugs, and represent just one phase of Faith-Ell’s career. Nevertheless, these sketches illustrate many of the qualities Faith-Ell brought to her designs. I think it’s fair to say that Faith-Ell’s work is more modernist than many of her Swedish contemporaries in several ways. She was apparently interested in combining or using traditional weaving techniques in untraditional ways. and like many of her German contemporaries, finding ways to incorporate new man-made materials into her weaving. Her designs tend to be economical and reductive rather than lushly-colored or overly decorative. Her approach to weaving was strongly influenced by her exposure to the ideas coming from the German Bauhaus weaving department, which fostered collaboration between crafts and industry. She was particularly interested in the aesthetic possibilities of unusual weave structures.

The first sketch from SKLH represents the best-known of Faith-Ell’s designs for hand-woven rugs. This design combined flat-weave and rya techniques to produce a colorful graphic pattern with a distinctively textured pattern. Other designers were designing “halv-flossa”  or halv-rya rugs at this time (see previous post on this rug technique, October 2017). Their rugs had an appearance more like designs carved into pile but Faith-Ell’s 1942 design anticipates half-pile rugs designed in the late 1960s-1970s in which areas of deep-piled rya weaving stood in dramatic contrast to large sections of flat-weave (rölakan).

2.IMG_9131
Age Faith-Ell, Watercolor sketch for rug called Summer (Sommar) in rölakan and rya techniques, mounted on card, signed and dated 1942. Yarn samples attached to card. Archive identification number KLH 473: 149
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Age Faith-Ell,  Detail of working drawing for rug called Summer (Sommar), on graph paper, bound with cellophane tape. Intended size seems to be 80 x 130 cm. Archive identification number KLH 472: 508
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4 Age Faith-Ell,  Detail of working drawing for rug called Summer (Sommar), on graph paper. Archive identification number KLH 472: 508
5.IMG_9135
Age Faith-Ell, Photo of completed rug called Summer (Sommar) in rölakan and rya techniques. The rug in this photo corresponds to the original sketch in its 9x 5 element pattern.
6.AGE FAITH-ELL, matta, Södra Kalmar Läns hemslöjd 1959, rölakan, formigven 1942, signerad half flossa SKLH 1959, 196 x 165 cm 380516246
Age Faith-Ell, Sommar rug in rölakan and rya techniques. Designed 1942; this example woven in 19597, signed SKLH and 1957. Size 196 x 165 cm, but the proportions are different from the original sketch in that the pattern is 7 x 5 elements rather than 9 x 5. Sold Stockholms Auktionsverket, 1/2/2018.
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Age Faith-Ell, Detail of Sommar rug in rölakan and rya techniques. Designed 1942; this example woven in 1957, signed SKLH and 1957. Sold Stockholms Auktionsverket, 1/2/2018

Age Faith-Ell, Sommar rug in rölakan and rya techniques. Designed 1942; this example woven in 1957, showing SKLH and 1957 signatures. Sold Stockholms Auktionsverket, 1/2/2018.

The only documentation we have on another rug Faith-Ell designed for the Southern Kalmar County Craft Association is a watercolor sketch, annotated with some perplexing notes. The design is a curious blend of folk-like appearance and unusual and perhaps even experimental use of technique and materials. Like the previous design, this one also combined techniques, in this case, a simple rag rug called a “trasmatta” with “trasrya”, essentially a rya rug made of rags. I have been trying to figure out how this kind of rug would have been made with the fabric she intended for it. The rug specifically calls for the use of “charmeuse” fabric, a fabric with a satin weave which gives it a sheen and soft drape, often used for lingerie or for blouses. Charmeuse can be woven in either silk or in polyester. The first polyester fabric seems to have been woven in 1941 but not commonly produced until the late 50s. Which begs the question here: did Faith-Ell really intend for silk fabric to be used for a “rag” rug designed for the floor?

10 IMG_9128
Age Faith-Ell, Watercolor sketch for a rug called Patchwork Quilt (Lappstäcket), using trasmata and trasrya techniques, signed A.Faith-Ell 42. Size 170 x 210 cm. Archive identification number KLH 473; 148.
10a IMG_9134
Age Faith-Ell, Detail of notes on watercolor sketch for a rug in trasmatta and trasrya techniques, made with “charmeuse” fabric. Archive identification number KLH 473; 148.
11. IMG_9129
Age Faith-Ell, Watercolor sketch for a rug called Lappträcket using trasmata and trasrya techniques, showing “Komp” (composed by), her signature and date of composition. Archive identification number KLH 473; 148.

Titled “Lappstäcket,” or patchwork quilt, the rug presents a traditional quilt appearance. But this design is significantly more complex than it looks, since making it would have required alternating areas of rag infill with strips of fabric attached by knot in each row to form the deep rya pile. As I understand her sketch, the checked sections of the rugs were to be in colored rag infill, or trasmatta while the white sections, shown as swirling and full of texture, were the areas where the strips of white shiny charmeuse fabric were to be attached. The contrast between the two kinds of weaving structures would have been almost shocking, yet it is all presented in this cheerful package, the image of traditional comfort in the patchwork quilt. It would be very interesting to know if this rug was ever produced, and to see it, or at least a photograph of it.

It may be useful to compare Faith-Ell’s design for her trasrya rug to trasrya rugs by two other major Swedish designers. Both made “rag rya”, or “trasrya” rugs using not just the more conventional rya technique with strips of yarn knotted to a porous backing, but — perhaps exploring more archaic rya models— using instead fairly large swatches of rag fabric. In each case, the combination of shaggy texture and careful, almost exquisite composition is arresting.

In 1934, after years of designing fine flat-weave and gobelin textiles which made her famous in Sweden, Märta Måås-Fjetterström designed her Blå Trasrya, made of strips of carefully graded blue rag fabrics. In the early years of her career Måås-Fjetterstöm worked in southern Sweden with famous Swedish textile archeologist and folklorist, Lilli Zickermann, where she observed traditional Skånian weaving and folk-textiles firsthand. With this interesting blue rug she seems to be revisiting that earlier period of learning and refining and redefining what a rya made of rag material could be.

13 MMF blå trasmatta Stock Auk item 183 2014
Märta Måås-Fjetterström, Blå Trasrya rug, 1934, 119 x 199 cm, signed MMF, from 192 . Sold by Stokholms Auktionsverk Modern Art and Design Auction 4/28/14, item 183

14 NMA.0035899

Märta Måås-Fjetterström, Detail of Blå Trasrya rug, signed MMF, from 1934, from Nordiska Museet, via digitaltmuseum.se , item identification number NMA.0035899.

During the 1960s, Edna Martin and other international textile designers promoted the idea that textile craft should be regarded as art— that it should be able to get up off the floor and hang on the wall. The Swedish designer, Viveka Nygren was one of those who adopted this idea wholeheartedly. Composed probably in the 1960s-70s, well after Faith-Ell’s design, Nygren subverted the lowly origins of the rya with her extraordinary wall composition made of large floating strips of white silk. I don’t have a date for this piece but it may be one of the ones she wove for the Swedish EU office in Brussels. This is quite different than Faith-Ell’s design for Southern Kalmar County Craft Association, but perhaps its luscious texture gives us some sense of how Faith-Ell imagined the charmeuse rya sections of her own rag rya rug.

15 viveka-nygren-2 Rya in silk from textil inslag
Viveka Nygren, Trasrya of white silk rags , titled “Whipped Egg White and Cream” (Vispad äggvita och grädde), size not given. Shown at “Väva fläta fästa,” 2019 exhibition at Västerås Konstmuseum. Photo from textilinslag blog post.
16 viveka-nygren-1 Whipped egg white and cream, from textilinslag
Viveka Nygren, Detail of trasrya in white silk, titled “Whipped Egg White and Cream” (Vispad äggvita och grädde. ), size not given. Shown at “Väva fläta fästa,“ 2019 exhibition at Västerås Konstmuseum. Photo from textilinslag blog post.

Here is a close-up detail of Faith-Ell’s sketch for her own trasmatta for comparison:

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Age Faith-Ell, Detail of watercolor sketch for a rug using trasmatta and trasrya techniques. Archive identification number KLH 473; 148.

The last of Faith-Ell’s sketches from the archives of the Southern Kalmar County Craft Association is a different kind of sketch. Actually it is not even a sketch at all, but rather a large presentation collage, made with colored paper pasted together to present an image of a flat-weave rug. The collage is undated, but has much in common with several of Faith-Ells collaged presentations from a later period. The online Designarkivet holds several such presentation panels which are similar both in the size and collage technique used and in the simple severity of their designs. Here is a link to some of those images:
http://databas.designarkivet.com/index.php/Detail/Entity/Show/entity_id/136

Several of the collage panels in designarkivet are written in German, and several in Swedish, as though for different clients. The resolution on the images is not great, but it looks like one of these is labeled 1954 or 1957 (with a bar across the 7). This suggests that the sketch in the SKLH archives would have been done for SKLH also on a free-lance basis, later than the watercolor sketches dated 1942 and shown above.

Faith-Ell’s collaged study is for a flat-weave rug in three color options: black with white, grey with white and brown with white. And yet, the corresponding working drawings, with yarn samples attached, show the rug intended to be made in white with black. The working drawings also provide the title of the rug, Palissade (Palisade, in English).

17 IMG_9146
Age Faith-Ell, Paper collage study for design of flat weave rug. Undated and no size given but signed and affixed with label of her own design atelier in Växjö. Archive identification number KLH 472; 509.
18 IMG_9147
Age Faith-Ell, Detail of paper collage study for design of flat weave rug. Note in upper corner suggests that this project was one of several she did for SKLH at this time. Archive identification number KLH 472; 509.
19 IMG_9148
Age Faith-Ell, Detail of paper collage study for design of flat weave rug. This captures the three original colors proposed for the ground: black, grey and brown. Label in lower left corner gives the address of her atelier in Växjö, confirming her part-time status at this time. Archive identification number KLH 472; 509.
20 IMG_9149
Age Faith-Ell, Detail of paper collage study for design of flat weave rug showing Faith-Ell’s signature in lower right corner. Archive identification number KLH 472; 509.
22 IMG_9152 2
Age Faith-Ell. Large graph paper working drawing for Palissade flat-weave rug, 170 x 260 cm with yarn samples attached. Archive identification number KLH 472: 510.
23 IMG_9154
Age Faith-Ell. Detail of large graph paper working drawing, of Palissade flat-weave rug, showing rug title. Archive identification number KLH 472: 510.
24 IMG_9153
Age Faith-Ell. Detail of large graph paper working drawing for Palissade flat-weave rug, 170 x 260 cm, showing yarn samples attached. Archive identification number KLH 472: 510.

 

21 IMG_9150
Age Faith-Ell, Weaving sample (vävprov) of Palissade flat-weave rug. Archive identification number uncertain, perhaps KLH 472: 511?

The two rya rugs above are modern reinvestigations of and challenges to the traditional rya technique, as the flat-weave shown above is a modernist simplification of the traditional rölakan.

Age was a self-described “hyper-aesthete.” What she meant was that she wanted everything she touched to give aesthetic pleasure, or evoke aesthetic awareness. To illustrate this self-description, a former assistant, David van Buskirk recalls that “she would not shovel the snow off her paths, but brush the snow up to create bowl-like sides on both sides of the swept path.  This was her father’s practice so the path to the home was uniform and didn’t have ugly piles of snow plopped down willy-nilly.”

Van Buskirk also recalled Faith-Ell’s compositional method when designing modern curtain material. He says, “ She would hang her swatches in the window to see how the light filtered though the fabric.  She would want a specific effect to happen and she would adjust the weave and yarn to get just the right texture and filtering effect that a drapery would have when hanging in a window.” What he himself learned from her was this fundamental lesson: “The material dictates the structure and endless variations are explored until the right solution reveals itself. “

The SKLH hold only three rug designs by Age Faith-Ell, but these are enough to give us a sense of her design approach. This was both inventive and playful and involved serious explorations which let her reinvigorate traditional weaving structures.
Sources

designarkivet.com

digitaltmuseum.se

Gefors, Agneta, Hemslöjdkonsultent for Kalmar läns hemslöjd. Email correspondence.

Jonsson, Magdelena, “Lilla Gunnarbo, byggnadsminne i Kronobergs län,” Länsstyrelsen i Kronbergs län 2016 by Kalmar Museum

Kalmar läns hemslöjd archives, now located in designarkivet building in Pukeberg, Sweden. Permission granted to use photos taken of the Kalmar County Craft Association collection (Kalmar läns hemslöjdsföreningen). Kalmar läns hemslöjdsföreningen shall be named as the owner of the collection. These photographs may not be reproduced without permission. The individual artifacts depicted are protected by copyright, and the names of the creators behind the photographed objects will follow the photos at publication.

With thanks to Agneta Gefors, Hemslöjdskonsultent for arranging my September 2018 visit to these archives.  Photos of sketches and weaving proofs not otherwise identified are from this collection, photographed by Anne Whidden, September, 2018.

Nordiska museet, Stockholm, online catalog.

http://www.bkm.uni-paderborn.de/php/textildesigner.php

Stockholms Auktionsverk, Stockholm

https://textilainslag.wordpress.com/2019/09/06/vava-flata-fasta/

https://textilochtips.wordpress.com/2019/07/01/trasrya/

van Buskirk, David, student of and assistant to Age Faith-Ell 1977-80, and principal of dvbart-design.com. Email correspondence, and loan of personal photos.

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