Today the phrase “Swedish style” is universally recognized and attributed to Karin Bergöö Larsson, the unassuming designer wife of Carl Larsson, one of Sweden’s most famous and beloved artists. The term conjures up spare, unfinished, and unadorned birch furniture, candles, bright cheerful colours, and a use of white that is both elegant and relaxed.
Swedish style is seen in the flowing gauze of curtains fluttering in the summer breeze, in bare, uncovered pine floors, blue and white striped upholstery on sofas and side chairs. Swedish style is also housefuls of children romping through the rooms—no overheated, overstuffed parlours here!
Swedish style today also consists of beautifully embroidered fabrics—like the smocking on the tunics of little yellow-haired schoolgirls—and beautiful glass products from Kosta Boda or Orrefors, shimmering on needle-worked tablecloths. Yet in the early 1900s, Sweden (and the rest of Europe, for that matter) had seen nothing like this type of happy, light-filled style.
At that time, front rooms were Victorian and decorously stuffy. Unused front rooms, darkly upholstered and draped, were verboten for children and other living things; they were used only for guests or funerals. At the home of Carl and Karin Larsson, however, called Lilla Hyttnäs, all the rooms of the cottage were livable and used by all members of the household—even the family dog.
The rooms of their lovely home had come to the attention of Swedes and Germans through various publications of Carl Larsson’s watercolours of the various rooms and surroundings of his home in Sundborn. At the time, Carl was viewed as a muralist, producing works for public buildings. Yet it was his watercolours depicting his charming and idyllic cottage that brought him the most acclaim. And unbeknownst to most, his wife Karin, an uncelebrated textile artist, was the creator of those beautiful interior designs.
Today, Karin is recognized as not only Carl’s muse and the mother of his seven children, but as an innovative artist. Her works, along with other contemporary decorative artists, are currently on display at Gothenburg’s Röhsska Museum of Fashion, Design and Decorative Arts, Sweden’s only museum of applied art.
The new Larsson exhibition, “Sundborn Goes Extreme Again”, runs from November 26th, 2008 until April 5th, 2009, and presents unconventional and somewhat eccentric interior designs created by Karin, that influence not only interior designers but IKEA, Sweden’s global furnishings department store.
In the late nineteenth century, Karin refused to accept the conventions of the day and created a uniquely individual environment that is highly popular today. This show illustrates issues of cultural heritage, gender roles, values in contemporary Swedish design and includes contemporary artists, such as the Front design quartet, glass artist Åsa Jungnelius, designer Alexander Lervik, and artist duo Peter Johansson and Barbro Westling, as well as some of the furniture and objects that are on loan from Karin’s, for which Karin designed not only wall hangings, tablecloths, curtains, bed coverings, but furniture as well.
In 1997, nearly 70 years after her death, Karin stepped out of the large shadow cast by the self-proclaimed neurotic and demanding husband and became an icon in her own right. That year in London, IKEA mounted a display at the Victoria and Albert Museum highlighting Karin’s work as never before in an exhibition titled “Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style.” That exhibition showcased Karin as one whose artistry was based on the native crafts and folklore of Dalarna, the province where she lived and worked.
Today Karin is considered by many designers and scholars, both in Sweden and the United States, as a leader in design. The interiors she designed, on display in their home and now at the Röhsska, capture in a personal way the eighteenth-century countrified Gustavian atmosphere, which Karin updated in the nineteenth century, evolving an ambiance that is the epitome of Swedish design, most captured in Karin’s so-called Swedish room.
In her “front room,” Karin placed chairs along walls and constructed a raised dais, creating a room within a room; she removed curtains, and let the entire family spend a great deal of time in the parlour, as can be seen in paintings by Carl in which a chess set and checkerboard are left out, playing cards are on a table, and knitting projects rest on a chair. The little sofa by the window was a place for a snooze—the part of the room that Carl depicted in a watercolour, Lathörnet (Lazy Nook), a room he called his “ temple of idleness."
And so now in Gothenburg, another exhibition will showcase Karin, as is befitting, since 2009 is her “Jubilee Year”, the 150th anniversary of her birth. Her clean and iconic designs can now be seen everywhere from IKEA to Target, before making their way into many homes across the United States. These objects came from humble beginnings, brought about by a little-known yet vastly influential Swedish textile artist who is finally getting her due.
Marge Thorell is a Philadelphia-based writer who is currently writing a book about the "Mother of Modern Swedish Design"