If one turns to an internet browser for information on Ingegerd Silow, it quickly becomes clear that at mid-century, she was someone important in the field of Swedish rugs. There are few Swedish textile designers who generate 40 pages of internet references (including those in German, French and Japanese), or on Swedish auction sites, and at one major Swedish auction house, 15 pages of previously auctioned works. And yet, who was she? There seems to be little information about someone who was so prolific. The mini-biographies on various websites about Ingegerd Silow, born in 1916, repeat nearly the same phrases describing her career, but they don’t provide anything more. Unanswered questions are: where was she born? to whom? and is Silow her own or a married name? Where did she live as an adult? Was she exposed to textiles as a young woman? Travel to Mexico and the United States is mentioned, but when and where, and under what circumstances? Judging just from style and color of rugs she did, based perhaps on native American motifs, it seems likely that such travel was during the 1960s.
The short answer to the question, is that she was a designer who was both canny and ambitious enough to take what had been a traditional form of Swedish textile, the flat-weave rölakan rug, and give it enough modernity and style to appeal to the thousands of Swedes who were moving into new Swedish housing in the 1960s and 70s. Working with commercial home-furnishing companies, rather than local craft associations, she popularized this kind of rug, making it affordable as well as recognizably contemporary. Because her rugs sold so widely at the time, there are many available today second-hand at reasonable prices.
Silow was a well-trained designer, who trained at Stockholm’s excellent Technical Arts School (later known, after 1945 as Konstfack). She also attended the School of Arts and Crafts (Kunsthåndværkerskolen) in Copenhagen and studied at The School of the Association of Friends of Textile Art (Handarbetets Vänners Vävskola) in Stockholm— but in what order she went to these schools, I don’t know. But the fact that she did attend all of these schools, and possibly travelled or lived abroad, suggests that she came from a family of some means.
Silow had practical training at one of the textile firms in Boras, in Västra Götaland, east of Gothenburg, although we don’t know which one, or for how long. Centered on the river Viskan which powered its cotton and woolen mills, as well as related dye and weaving industries Boras had been since the 17th-century, Sweden’s most important textile center. Silow’s exposure to the now-industrialized textile industry—however briefly— undoubtedly gave her a perspective different than many of her peers who continued to work in the area of hand-woven textiles. While she worked subsequently as a pattern designer for the Swedish Handicraft Association, Svensk Hemslöjd (for how long a periodic is unknown), she is principally known for the rugs she designed to be handwoven by Eric Ewers AB and for Axeco AB, and for a Finnish company, Alestalon Mattokutomo, during the 1960s and 70s. Axeco still sells eight of her flatweave patterns, in multiple sizes, priced from about $590-$2000. (Second-hand or vintage versions of these and others go for between about $50 and $500 on Swedish auction websites, and get stiffly marked up abroad). In the 1960s and 70s these rugs were all marketed as “hand-woven” rugs but I don’t know if that is still true today.
Silow was presumably still pursuing her schooling in textiles at about the time there were rumblings of war from the south, with Germany’s invasion of the Sudetenland, invasion of Czechoslovakia, and annexation of Austria. Then in 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, which was very close to home. Many Finns were of Swedish background; Finland had been part of Sweden for some 600 years, until 1809. I have found no information about how the war years affected Silow’s career. Sweden was neutral, but fuel, materials and food were in short supply and there was a constant awareness of war. At the very least, the war is likely to have shaped her own choices of direction.
Other personal details— whether she married or helped support a family—are also not readily available.
While Silow did occasionally design rugs which were woven by hemslöjd organizations (primarily for churches), it’s clear that she made a name for herself as a designer of rugs not just for wealthy individuals or woven on commission, but rugs which could be purchased in varying sizes and an increasingly dizzying number of patterns and colors from several newly-established rug companies. The website of the Axeco Company credits Silow with designing their line of flat-weave rugs beginning in the 1960s, and asserts that soon these rugs could be found in nearly every Swedish home. While this is undoubtedly an exaggeration, it helps to explain why so many many of Silow’s designs can be found on the market for vintage Swedish rugs today. As a free-lance artist, Silow also did a range of commercial textile work, designing designed several lines of blankets, curtains, and other textiles.
Silow also designed rya rugs, probably sold as kits. The cover of the Swedish HusModern magazine from 1949 features the 33-year-old designer on its cover with rya rugs she had designed for its new “Rya Club”, handling the yarns needed for making one of them. Looking on approvingly, and apparently bringing the upper-class stamp of approval to this activity. is Baroness Asta Wrede, wife of an important Finnish/Swedish industrialist. (Perhaps the magazine was also meant to appeal to to Swedish-speaking Finns in Finland where the rya rug was already a national art form.)
Although she did design rya rugs, Silow’s principal format of choice was the rölakan, Sweden’s traditional flat-woven rug. Silow was an amazingly prolific designer with some 40 or 50 lines of rugs, each with 4-6 color variations, to her credit. She designed rugs in multiple styles and moods. Part 1 of this post will look at early rugs Silow designed which use motifs characteristic of the “Swedish Grace” movement of the 1930s-40s as well as rugs she designed based on Sweden’s folkloric textile figures like 8-pointed stars, hourglass and small cross shapes. Part 2 of the post will look at later rugs, many of which are bolder in color and seem to have different sources of inspiration; others whose shapes reflect the inflated graphics of the late 1960s and 70s; and others which are almost kaleidoscopic.
Silow was a talented colorist, and even in making rugs of which thousands of copies might be made, specified interesting mixes of yarn colors. Looking at these rugs closely, one can see that each of her colors, even in background areas, seems to incorporate other colors in the rug, so that each rug has a kind of specific “cloud” of color, an overall harmonious color blend. Her textile signature is a bold IS.
Let’s look at some of Ingegerd Silow’s flat-weave rugs. I don’t have dates for any of these rugs, so will be instead looking at rugs for which I can approximate dates based on their use of a number details typical to the period, and at lines she did for various companies. In each case, I’ll try to show several colors of each pattern so you can appreciate the way color frequently seems to pronounce different readings of the basic pattern. Titles of the rugs I have found are given as well as names of the companies for which she wove the rugs. In many cases, I have found neither the title of the rug nor the company she designed for, even though there are so many examples of these rugs.
The rugs which seem to me to be her earliest designs, use multiple borders and Greek fret motifs, although some of the colors she uses are already (ca 1940s) shockingly bright, pushing the sedate Swedish Grace forms toward bold expression. And in one case, Silow seems to draw inspiration from an art-deco rug designed in 1931 by one of Sweden’s most well-known designers, Märta Måås-Fjetterström.
Silow clearly also utilized familiar elements of traditional Swedish weaving, divorcing these elements from their traditional red-yellow-black-green palette, and giving them new coloration and a fresh updated application. Some of her designs using hourglasses, eight-sided stars and small crosses were quite simple; others incorporated these elements into more complex over-all patterns. See below two carriage cushions as examples of folkloric 19th-century weaving from Skåne, Sweden’s southern-most county to understand the kind of sources Silow would have drawn from.
In another Axeco line, called “Sofiero,” Silow modified the traditional eight-sided elements, and created rugs dominated by a single color, with other colors accent or subsidiary.
The same eight-sided figure is the basis for a series of rugs in quiet tones. I do not know the title of this rug or who Silow designed the patten for.
Silow designed another series of gridded rugs, but in more saturated colors. These were for Axeco AB and called “Samsjön.”
Silow designed a number of other visually quiet rugs, for which I again do not have titles nor know manufacturers. The first of the patterns below came in many colors; for the second, these are the only colors I have found, but it is clear what a difference the choice of colors makes in the appearance of this rug— at first glance they seem to be different patterns.
Another pair of rugs, named “Siljan” (maker unknown) perhaps done slightly later, apparently builds on the previous pattern, but again, the very different color palette differentiates the two rugs.
And another identifying label identifies the rug by name, but also does not identify the manufacture. This rug is called Viken— I have seen it in green as well.
Another series of rugs Silow did for Axeco again shows how the change in colors makes the pattern look like an entirely different design. The first is in autumnal colors with little color variation so that the rug reads as quite uniform in tone while the second has a range of colors which are very much like those used in upholstery by Carl Malmsten, the major maker of Swedish furniture during the 1940s.
The rugs shown here (and in the second part of the post) are only part of Silow’s artistic output. There are at least as many designs I have not shown as those which are shown. This post has let me take a closer look at these rugs, and be able to appreciate the fact that at mid-century, Silow gave the average Swedish family access to an extraordinary number of well-designed rugs. We can look just at the list of auction houses selling these rugs to see their wide distribution, and can also begin to appreciate the extent to which Silow reinvigorated an existing textile tradition. She was able to give Sweden’s traditional textile designs a new popularity right at the moment when Swedes moving into new housing wanted both something new and something familiar in the way of furnishings, and with Silow’s rugs, they were able to have both.
Auktionhuset Kolonn, Stockholm, via auctionet,com
Auktionhuset Thelin & Johansson, Oskarshamn, via auctionet,com
Auktionsverket Engelholm, via auctionet.com
Gomér & Andersson, Norrköping via auctionet,com
Göteburgs Auktionsverk via auctionet,com
Halmstads Auktionskammare via auctionet,com
Helsingbergs via auctionet,com
Kalmar Auktionsverk via auctionet,com
Nazmiyal Antique Rugs, New York
Nyköpings Auktionsverk via auctionet,com
RA Auktionsverket Norrköping
Stadsauktion Sundsvall via auctionet,com
Växjö Auktionskammare via auctionet,com