I ♥ Swedish Design

Sue Slick, Collection Information Specialist

What does Sweden bring to mind for you? Racecar drivers? Swedish meatballs? A certain big box store? Perhaps a young heroine with a dragon tattoo comes to mind, or a sweet little Dala horse.  If you’ve recently wandered amongst the glass sculpture exhibits at FWMoA, you might also think of sparkling Swedish glass. Glass, however, is not the only art in our collection with Swedish connections! 

Not only do we boast a bounty of fantastic Swedish glass sculpture, our collection also holds remarkable works on paper with Swedish origins and a very familiar and important sculpture that is not made of glass. In the two-dimensional realm are three whimsical works by the master of the visual pun, Claes Oldenburg, who recently passed at 93. He is remembered on our Day of the Dead ofrenda (altar/offering) which honors all of the artists from our collection who died in the past year. Oldenburg was born in Stockholm, raised in Chicago, and moved to New York in 1956. It was there that he practiced painting, for a couple of years anyway, eventually giving in to the allure of the tactile and focusing on sculpture. His oversized objects populate public spaces worldwide in the form of smile-inducing silliness like giant baseball bats, electrical plugs, ice cream bars, and clothespins. Oldenburg’s wit often appears in exquisite architectural renderings of proposed sculptures that were never meant to be actualized, like the giant scissors facetiously proposed to replace the Washington Monument in D.C.  

Our collection also includes two etchings by Anders Zorn, born in Mora, Sweden, in 1860. Zorn studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Art in Stockholm and enjoyed international success as a painter, sculptor, and printmaker. Known for portraits, scenes depicting rustic life, nudes, and his realistic depictions of water, FWMoA’s etching combines all four: 

An etching of a nude woman and her dog sitting on the bank of a river. They look off to the left of the composition, as if startled by a noise.
Anders Zorn, Swedish, 1860-1920. Sappo. Etching on paper, 1917. Gift of the Franklin B. Mead Memorial Collection, 1951.22. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

Our recent Terry R. Myers’ gift of a colorful, fantastical drawing by Peter Köhler, born in Stockholm in 1971, is our most contemporary Swedish work on paper. Köhler is also an alumnus of the Royal Swedish Academy of Art and is “interested in perception and in combining the real and the imaginative, the rational and the intuitive. I get inspiration from daily life. Peripheral brain ghosts, deviant distractions, and the healing love of the Universe”. 

An ink and watercolor drawing of abstracted people and an upside-down world.
Peter Köhler, Swedish, b. 1971.  Untitled. Ink and watercolor on paper, 2014. Gift of Terry R. Myers in honor of James Alan Myers and Mary Jane Myers, 2020.80. Image courtesy of FWMoA.  

I’m sure you have seen the sculpture referenced above (and pictured below!) out in FWMoA’s front yard. Right by our Main Street door, you will find the cast bronze Man and Unicorn by Carl Milles. (Charles Shepard wrote a wonderful blog post about it in 2020.) Milles, alumnus of the Stockholm Tekniska skolan and a faculty member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Art, was one of Sweden’s most important modern artists who influenced American art as the head of the sculpture department at the esteemed Cranbrook Academy of Art from 1931 to 1951.  Milles’ influence via Cranbrook reached far and wide, including into our own history as some of the faculty members of the Fort Wayne Art School studied at Cranbrook. 

A cast bronze sculpture of a man sitting on a unicorn.
Carl Milles, American, b. Sweden, 1875-1955. The Man and the Unicorn. Cast bronze with patina. Gift of an Anonymous Donor, 2006.05. Image courtesy of Suzanne Slick. 

The Swedish tradition of formal, academic art studies is a long one. Our modern glass artists join the artists above in their academic art education experiences. Several, like Bertil Vallien and his late wife Ulrica Hydman-Vallien, studied at the Tekniska skolan, now known as Konstfack, in Stockholm. Others are alumni of the Royal Swedish Academy of Art, like Edvin Öhrström who was a student of Carl Milles in the late 1920s.  

Sweden’s tradition of collaboration between formally trained artists and manufacturers of beautiful goods is a more recent story, and includes the saga of modern Swedish glass, which was not always the envy of the world. A revolution in the Scandinavian design world erupted in the early 20th century and continued to transform art and industry for decades. The trends and events that led up to this were many: two world wars, labor and economic challenges, and nuances of culture and lifestyle – it was complicated. We do know that in Sweden, much can be traced to writer, activist, and reformer Ellen Key’s essays on esthetics, Skönhet for Alla (Beauty for All), written between 1870 and 1897. For the sake of brevity and oversimplifying her long, influential career, Key proclaimed the power of beautiful objects and surroundings to improve the health of individuals and society. She believed that folk handicraft traditions could be united successfully and beautifully with industry; and, that this union would allow every Swedish home to be brighter, healthier, and prettier. Two decades later art historian Gregor Paulsson underscored Key’s message in his Vackrare vardagsvara (More Beautiful Everyday Goods), in 1919, a manifesto –even he called it propaganda–for the Svenska Slöjdföreningen (Swedish Society of Industrial Design). Today the organization, formed in 1845, is called Svensk Form and is the oldest design organization dedicated to better living through good design.   

Svensk Form is the source of much of the history of Swedish art and design, including the evolution of Swedish glass! In 1914, when still known as Svenska Slöjdföreningen, it established an artist placement program managed by textile artist Elsa Gullberg. The program was inspired by the 1907-founded German Werkbund program, which had set out to elevate the quality of affordable home goods for German consumers of all means. Gullberg was a key connector in the collaboration between Swedish industry and artists, placing creative talent where it was most needed. These matches proved to be quite fortuitous!   

This effort to improve Swedish decorative arts products followed several embarrassingly poor showings of Swedish goods at the most prestigious expos and exhibitions of the 1910s – the worst being the Baltic Exhibition of 1914 in Malmö, Sweden. The disappointment and blame that resulted set off a firestorm in the Swedish decorative arts world. As a result, Swedish homeware companies were strongly encouraged to recruit artists to enter their manufacturing realms to contribute creatively to product development as more sophisticated wares continued to appear at exhibitions across Europe. Swedish glass was just not as glamorous and impressive as, for example, the Art Nouveau show-stoppers made by Parisian Émile Gallé. The fine French wares had put the Swedes to shame at the 1897 International Exhibition in Stockholm! But, in a few years, with the freshly charged visions of staff artists and designers, Orrefors, Kosta, and other glassworks would develop their own prize-winners and show the world what Swedish ingenuity and artistry could create together. Eventually, consumers and artists benefitted along with the reputation of Sweden in the creating of a wealth of everyday objects of beauty and functionality. This collaborative culture also enabled artists to create stunning unique works of art in industrial settings. 

Orrefors is just one example of how a company was influenced by this great transformation in the product design process. Orrefors’ humble beginnings were in an old iron foundry in 1898 in the province of Småland. Its early products included simple ink wells, utilitarian tableware, and window glass. In 1913, the facility was purchased by Johan Ekman, wealthy cellulose manufacturer, for the acres of woodland around the plant. Thankfully, Ekman’s plant manager, Albert Ahlin, who knew the cellulose business but nothing about glass, hired experts from Kosta and other Swedish glass production businesses to run the operation. Ahlin also brought in Bohemian glass-maker Heinrich Wollman. This crew was not very successful at imitating Gallé’s elegant glass techniques, but did develop their own innovative, beautiful, and lucrative methods over time.  

Orrefors’ ventures into art glass really took off in 1914 — just as Elsa Gullberg was launching the artist placement program — with the hiring of master glassblower Knut Berqvist.  In 1916, Berqvist was teamed with newly recruited artist Simon Gate. Gate, a painter and illustrator, was also a product of the Tekniska skolan and the Royal Academy, Stockholm. In 1917, Gullberg placed painter, illustrator, and designer Edvard Hald, a student of Henri Matisse, at Orrefors. This dream-team of Berqvist, Gate, and Hald resulted in transformational changes at Orrefors, including the development of the distinctive “graal” technique which continues to influence the glass art world today. Others who would have an equally important impact on Orrefors followed – Vicke Lindstrand in 1928 and in 1936 Edvin Öhrmström, Carl Milles’ former student. 

Orrefors’ leadership was wise to recruit artists like Gate and Hald, and in teaming them with master glass technicians in blowing, casting, molding, engraving, and cutting they applied the know-how of the glasswork experts to develop and push the limits of glass to perfect their proprietary techniques: graal, ariel, ravenna, mykene, and kraka. The awards, prizes, praises, and sales that followed proved that the collaborative model not only worked – it changed everything! 

Similar advances were made at companies like Kosta, Gullaskruf Glasbruk, and Pukeberg. We know that Pukeberg employed some of the artists in our glass collection like Göran Wärff (also honored on our Day of the Dead altar), Eva Englund, and Erik Höglund, for example. While these glassworks produced plenty of wonderful functional and affordable tableware for Swedish homes, satisfying the 1919 call for “more beautiful everyday goods”, they also provided the practical means for the creation of fantastic presentation pieces and brilliant, unique works of art. 

And here’s a little surprise – not all of our Swedish glass is comprised of dazzling sculpture. It’s also found in the humble form of knife rests!  Our tiny “Skonhet for Alla” (Beauty for All) pieces were made by Pukeberg, Gullaskruf, and Lindshammer. You can see some of them in our Karl S. and Ella L. Bolander Gallery in the display of Knife Rests of Yesterday and Today

If you have not yet seen our newest glass exhibits, Heating Up: New Glass Acquisitions and Broad Spectrum, Clear Vision: The Collection of Carl and Stephanie Beling, they are up through the end of the week (Oct. 16th)!

Our new 3-gallery glass wing is full of knock-out glass sculpture, much of which has not yet been exhibited at FWMoA until now.  Design genius and great technical skill merge in the sculptures of Edvin Örhström, Anna Örnberg, Göran Wärff, Ann Wolff, Anne Nilsson, Ingeborg Lundin, Matts Jonasson, Erik Höglund, Lars Hellsten, Edward Hald, Kjell Engman, and Sven Palmquist — superstars of Swedish glassmaking! 

Edvard Hald, Swedish, 1883-1980. Fiskgraal vase. Blown and engraved glass, ca. 1960s. Gift from the Collection of Carl and Stephanie Beling, 2021.138. From the exhibit, Broad Spectrum, Clear Vision: The Collection of Carl and Stephanie Beling, July 16, 2022 – October 16, 2022. Image courtesy of Suzanne Slick. 

References:

Arts and Crafts at the Swedish Chicago Exposition 1933, Bengt Lundberg, Centraltryckeriet, Stockholm. 1933. 

Design In Scandinavia, an Exhibition of Objects for the Home, American Federation of Art, 1954. 

Norsk Kunsthåndverk, Redakter Liv Schjødt, Forlaget Bonytt A/S Oslo, 1968. 

Scandinavian Design, Ulf Härd af Segerstad, Lyle Stuart, 1961. 

The Brilliance of Swedish Glass, 1918-1939, An Alliance of Art and Industry, Derek E. Ostergard and Nina Stritzler-Levine, editors, Yale University Press, 1996 

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