Ikea and its Muses

By Margaret M. Thorell

IKEA, the ubiquitous worldwide retailer, is Mecca for students decorating dorms and homemakers making décor decisions. This furniture and design behemoth has an annual revenue that exceeds $40 billion globally and publishes approximately 211 million copies of its iconic catalogue.

Scandinavian design first became popular in the fifties and sixties. Today—more in demand than ever with collectors, designers, and home decorators—innovative Scandinavian style is synonymous with functionality, minimalism, use of light and nature, natural woods, and an appreciation of the northern European landscape. You might say that two marriages brought help to bring about the emergence of Scandinavian design. One was the coupling of two Swedish artists, Karin Bergöö and Carl Larsson and the other was between the Larssons and IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad. While the Larssons and Kamprad never met—Kamprad was born two years before Karin died—they had a powerful impact on his design theories. IKEA’s website gives credit to them.

In the late 1800s, the artists Carl and Karin Larsson combined classical influences with warmer Swedish folk styles. They created a model of Swedish home furnishing design that today enjoys worldwide renown. In the 1950s the styles of modernism and functionalism were developing at the same time as Sweden was establishing a society founded on social equality. The IKEA product range—modern but not trendy, functional yet attractive, people-focused and child-friendly—carries on these Swedish home furnishing traditions.

The relationship between Karin Bergöö and Carl Larsson began, inauspiciously, on a cold snowy night in December 1877. Two people, one a student, the other a former student from the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, trudged different routes through the dark and dismal Stockholm streets to attend a ball at the home of Johan Jolin, the famous actor, playwright, songwriter, and translator. Carl older than Karin by some six years, stout and effusive, born in a Stockholm ghetto, a womanizer and man about town. Karin, a 17-year-old from a wealthy family.

“I was sitting down with her between two dances and suppressed a yawn as I was making conversation, without feeling a single fiber inside me vibrating,” Carl would later write in his autobiography, Jag (Me). Even though he felt no sexual or emotional twinge, he was curious about young Miss Bergöö. Known as a silent girl with a great drive to succeed, she could go weeks without speaking and then open her mouth and say something that was utterly profound and witty.

This meeting between the schoolgirl and the roué would eventually result in one of the great artistic partnerships of the twentieth century. It would challenge the design status quo and result in Carl becoming one of Europe’s, and certainly Sweden’s, most famous and cherished artists. Karin’s artistry would be shown in her restoration and decoration of a rundown shack in Dalarna province, which, under her sure design hand, would become a domestic showplace. Her flair and décor was copied all over Europe. Yet Carl and Karin could not possibly have come from more different backgrounds.

Karin Bergöö grew up in a forward-thinking and unusual family. Her parents, Adolf and Hilda Sahlqvist, actively refused to raise their three children by the Victorian standards of the day. As their eldest child, Karin was encouraged to roam the countryside, play in mud puddles, jump over hedges, and engage in arts and crafts, rather than study in a formal educational setting. For the first thirteen years of her life she was home-schooled by her mother and her governess, Anna Morien. She was also influenced by her Aunt Elise Sahlqvist, a hat maker, who would eventually own three straw hat factories in Sweden, creating bonnets not only for stylish Swedes but for Parisians as well.

Karin’s father, an enlightened entrepreneur, and her well-educated mother regaled Karin and her brother, Per, and sister, Stina, with tales of Swedish fairies, the creation and design of the famous Dala horses, and the literature of Sweden, such as the beloved Lykttandaren (The Lamplighter), an extremely popular book by Maria Cummings.  

Not all was serene, however. When Karin was about four years old, the family suffered the loss of Karin’s two-year-old sister. Following this trying time, Adolf decided to move his family from Örebro, where he had been involved in his wife’s father’s business, to Hallsberg. This centrally located town was becoming a railroad hub on the route between two major Swedish cities—Göteborg and Stockholm. It was considered “an optimistic chaos of spontaneous settlements,” and Adolf was in the center of what would become a prosperous tumult. The Dagens Nyheter wrote that the Bergöö-Sahlqvist home as a place of “culture with joy in the walls,” with its music stands in the dining room, small cozy rooms for reading and knitting, and a large drawing room for parties and pleasant living. This type of home would be recreated by Karin in her own household.

As she got older, Karin spent more time drawing and accompanying her Aunt Elise to the hat factory. Aunt Elise might have influenced Karin to create the pair of ornate red shoes she made as a child of eight. Constructed of red leather, the shoes were elaborately stitched in a dark thread around the edges with a design stitched on the tops. This is perhaps the first example of Karin’s needlework, which after many years would lead her to work as a textile artist. At eight, however, she exchanged needle and thread for paint and brush.

But domestic arts were not of importance to Hilda so when Karin was thirteen, she sent her to the Franska Skola in central Stockholm. The French School, she assumed, would turn Karin from a tomboy into a lady of culture. This is not exactly what happened, however. Almost as soon as she settled in her new school, with a satchel jammed with paint brushes, parchment, colored pencils, chalk, charcoal, and bits and pieces of fabric, Karin decided she didn’t like the school and began almost immediately to angle her way out of it.

As a first step, Karin left the care of the good French ladies and moved into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Draghi, an Italian acting family. It was there she attended lavish buffets; enjoyed such new delicacies as lasagna, biscotti, gelato, and Chianti; and mingled with other actors and artists.

Living in such a large and populated city was a big change for Karin. It was the first time she was on her own and as such she was solely responsible for organizing her daily life, managing her schooling, and caring for her clothing. She was also expected to serve the Draghi family: she had to mind the younger children, run errands, and engage in various other domestic chores. Amidst all this, she was trying to get used to the French School even as she attempted to stray from it. She was meeting artists and spending time at the Slöjdskolan (translated as the Handicraft School, an arts and crafts institution). Her parents gave in to her pleas and allowed Karin to take one class there. 

Eventually Karin switched entirely to the Slöjdskolan, taking classes in textiles, decorative arts, sculpture, and painting. At some point Karin began working on watercolors, leading her to make the decision that art would be, as she wrote to her mother, “her life direction.”   Karin was considered a promising student at the Slöjdskolan and was eventually accepted into the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts (Konstakademien I Stockholm). A preeminent art institution in Northern Europe, she began her formal training there as a painter.

Carl Larsson was born in Stockholm on May 28, 1853, on a street he would later describe as one of “ill repute”—in other words, a slum. His father was abusive, absent, and alcoholic, and his mother was a hard-working but bitter laundress. His younger brother, Johan, was his only sibling—an invalid who died at the age of fourteen from tuberculosis. Carl was descended from peasant stock on his father’s side and from city craftsmen on his mother’s. Of his parents, he wrote:

…my newlywed parents had used the small savings of my mother to set up a business that was certainly unique for that period—an inn where no alcohol was served. The kind and simple heart of my mother moved her to extend unlimited credit to the numerous young men who generally forgot to pay, and my father bought himself a fine fur coat and moved ostentatiously among the innkeepers of the city, who taught the previously abstinent man how to get drunk.

Carl’s maternal grandmother was a great solace to the young child. She told him fairy tales, which ignited his imagination. Her father had been a burgher from Örebro and was known to Carl’s future mother-in-law, Hilda, who claimed that the Larsson family was a respected one. It is not known how or why the family made its way to Stockholm. But it was here that Carl’s grandmother married a professional painter employed at the castle in Stockholm. When her husband died, Carl’s grandmother received a small pension from the Treasurer to the King. This prevented Carl’s family from sinking deeper into the morass of the ghetto.

Trouble dogged the family. At thirteen, Carl was virtually the family breadwinner—working as an illustrator for newspapers and journals. He was a boy-man who took his responsibilities seriously. It was at this time that Johan, Carl’s younger brother, died. Two years after his brother’s death, Carl was the one who had finally made enough money to purchase his brother’s gravestone.

Carl obtained his early education at the school for poor children, where his artistic and leadership talents were recognized by a teacher who urged him to apply to the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. At first Carl felt inept and socially inferior but at the age of sixteen, he became a central figure in student life and won his first medal for nude drawing.

Carl continued to work for Kasper, a humor magazine, and as a graphic artist for the newspaper Ny Illustrerad Tidning. His annual wages were sufficient to allow him to help support his parents financially. He eventually tired of this type of art-making, however, and in 1877 made his way to Paris for the first time, hoping that his art would be more appreciated in Paris—he hoped that his work would be accepted by the Académie Française that held an annual, juried art show—the Salon de Paris. Mostly unsuccessful, he went back to Stockholm where he shortly moved in with Wilhelmina Holmgren who was also an artist and older than him by several years. They had two children, both of whom died in infancy. Wilhelmina herself died following the birth of their second child. Despondent after these personal blows and half crazed with anxiety and depression, he went again to Paris in an attempt to salvage his career.

It was a warm day in September 1882 when Carl’s friend, Karl Nordström, another painter, climbed the stairs to Carl Larsson’s dank fifth-floor studio and living quarters in Paris, fearful of what he might find—Carl had once again been rejected by the Paris Salon for his fine oil painting called Chez le Peintre du Roi. Would his friend be sleeping face down on his cot, too depressed and despondent to work? Would he be roiling at the injustices of the world? Would he be drafting insulting letters to his friends? Or would he be painting finally? Carl was the only Scandinavian artist to receive a rejection letter from the Paris Salon and this rejection finally broke him. He had been seriously ill since receiving the letter and was living on bread and cheese and tart red wine, provided by his model and mistress, Gabrielle. Nordström, had to hold his nose because of the stench from the room and his friend, who it seemed had not bathed in weeks.

Nordström arrived armed with a grand, but seemingly preposterous, idea: “You have to get out to the country, out to the birds! Come along to Grez-par-Nemours.” “You must be crazy,” Carl told him. “I have not a bloody sou.” Ever the optimist, Nordström told him that he didn’t need money. “Something is bound to turn up in a couple of months.”

Strangely enough, and sick though he was, Carl packed his bag, put on his formal gentlemanly detachable collar, fastened by studs, in preparation for the train ride to the countryside. The two of them made their way to the Pension Laurent in Grez, outside of Versailles, south of Paris. It was here, where old Monsieur and Madame Laurent served him plenty of food, that Carl felt the first glimmer of hope—and where soon he would he would become reacquainted with that little Miss Bergöö from that dance in Stockholm.

After graduating from the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts with high honors and the respect of her teachers and peers, Karin had traveled to Paris to study at the famous Académie Colarossi with her American friend, Julia Beck. The Académie Colarossi encouraged and even supported female artists such as Camille Claudel, the tragic French sculptor and mistress of Auguste Rodin.

Not long after arriving in Paris, Karin, like many other Scandinavian artists, made her way to the artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing. In a letter to her mother, she wrote that every day there seemed like a Sunday, “…the sounds in my heart are of peace, thankfulness and joy.” It is here that Karin and Carl met again and, after a whirlwind courtship, married in 1883.

Karin, a young woman who in all probability had no idea of what life was like for someone with Carl’s past, found him to be exciting, charismatic, and difficult. He was also often depressed about his lack of success as an artist in spite of his extraordinary talent. He suffered from migraines and was often paranoid, controlling, and insecure—and fought with friend and foe alike.

While privately unstable, Carl was publically jovial, dynamic, and friendly. At the Academy of Fine Arts he was a student leader and, later in Paris and at Grez, he rallied the other painters around him, led groups on picnics and other social activities, and seemed to draw others to him—both men and women—like a magnet.

Carl did not think it seemly for women to be painters and, although there were other painting couples in both France and Sweden at the time, Carl would not consider allowing his wife to continue painting. So Karin put aside her paint brushes and concentrated on learning how to cook and produce babies—eight in total! She seemed at peace with her decision to give up art and wrote to Carl saying, “My dear idiot! Thank goodness I had the idea of getting engaged to you. It’s the best way I could think of to get away from that confounded painting.”

Karin spent the early years of her marriage traveling with her husband all over Europe as Carl went from one commission to another. Eventually they inherited from Karin’s father a small, somewhat ugly cottage in the tiny village of Sundborn. Lilla Hyttnäs, or little cottage on a slag heap, became Karin’s studio. Here she again picked up her art, choosing thread, needle, and weaving over brushes, canvas, and painting. Over the years, the little cottage expanded to become a large country estate with rooms filled with light from undraped windows, plants, used unpainted furniture, and rag rugs on the floors. Children were allowed in her drawing room, which was in direct contrast to the prevailing style of the early 1900s—somber Victorian furnishings, overstuffed couches and chairs, heavily curtained windows, antimacassars, and rooms where children were verboten.

Karin refinished furniture and painted it white; she reupholstered in colorful fabrics and painted her walls in bright colors. Children played and even napped in the public rooms; they ran in and out of their father’s studio and rummaged through their mother’s many sewing baskets to look for materials to fashion costumes for the many holiday and festival plays the Larsson children put on in their home.

Karin’s textiles—wall hangings, bed coverings, tablecloths, pillow covers—also filled the home. Her motifs were inspired by the blue lakes, green pines, yellow and red wildflowers, and the bright summer skies of the province of Dalarna. Both Carl and Karin were enchanted by this area of Sweden, which, while bucolic and provincial—very different from the European capitals they had visited and lived in over the years—created a space for both artists to engage in a special kind of work.

By this time, Carl had become recognized as a muralist and was contracted to create huge oil paintings for museums, hotels, post offices, and other public buildings, taking his themes from the Bible and classical literature and mythology. He obtained a benefactor who provided Carl with funds for his art so he did not need as much financial support from his father-in-law who was helping out the couple. Finally, he was making a name for himself in Sweden as a great artist.  

Karin encouraged her husband to try watercolors, which were then being used by impressionists in France. She wanted him to create watercolor paintings of their cottage with the children and their many guests. He took her suggestion and soon published these paintings in books. Each successive publication—Et Hem (A Home) and Das Haus in der Sonne (The House in the Sun) depicted Karin’s development as a textile artist. The colors of her tapestries and needlework were vibrant—illustrating earth, water, air, and fire—all shown in abstract patterns. Karin’s “Sunflower,” which dates from 1905, is seen in many design magazines and is frequently copied.  

Karin took her inspiration from the English Arts and Crafts Movement, which emanated from John Ruskin and Kate Greenway, the English writer and children’s book illustrator, respectively. This movement advocated social and economic reform; it argued against contemporary machine production, urging for a return to a more individualistic artistry that merged design and social criticism, insisting that artists be crafts persons and designers working by hand—not a machine. This philosophy spread to the rest of Europe but was especially taken up by the Swedes for whom the idea of beauty in the home particularly resonated.  

For all their acclaim and success, Carl was still unhappy. For one, he was catapulted into a major funk during the last years of his life because of the death of their eighteen-year-old son, Ulf, from appendicitis. He also experienced the rejection of what he thought of as his masterpiece, Midvinterlot, a classic mural rejected after many iterations by the National Museum in Stockholm. Unlike Karin who when faced with challenges or tragedies dealt with them and moved on, Carl was doomed to unremitting sadness, anger, and melancholy. When Carl died in 1919, he was considered Sweden’s most famous artist, and he was celebrated all over Europe. Karin lived a quiet life until her death in 1928.  But soon thereafter, the Larssons were all but forgotten.  

Carl’s style of painting was considered irrelevant. Those bucolic scenes of his home life no longer moved audiences. Following the publication of his autobiography, after Karin’s death, where he chronicled an ugly childhood, mental incapacitation, unmarried liaisons, and the deaths of the two illegitimate children born to his mistress, Sweden was shocked. In it, he also openly talked about his depressions and paranoia, all in contrast to the idyllic life that was portrayed in his watercolors.

Then in 1930, the Stockholm Exhibition, organized by Svenska Slöjdföreningen (Swedish Society of Crafts and Design), mounted a show for international audiences with the goal of displaying works of Swedish artists in glass, furniture, fabric, and industrial and interior design. This created a second Swedish design awakening, which, while not showcasing the Larsson’s specifically, did highlight some of Karin’s ideas: large undraped windows, clean surfaces, fabrics and textiles inspired by folklore, and Spartan décor.

In 1955, the Home Exhibition, H55, in Helsingborg, Sweden, cemented the foundations of contemporary Swedish design. One of the delights of this exhibition was the everyday sitting room for daily socializing, which brought to mind Karin Larsson’s drawing room.

The first major exhibition of the work of Carl and Karin Larsson, held outside Sweden, took place at the Victoria and Albert Museum on October 23, 1997. Entitled Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style, a major event, was sponsored by IKEA and was a huge hit, seen by thousands.

The centerpiece of the exhibition was that parlor at Lilla Hyttnäs, illustrated many times in Carl’s work. Decorated in the traditional blue and cream Gustavian style, the room was neither formal nor stuffy, but light and airy with plain floors and a raised dais that created a room within a room. Karin set chairs along the walls, rather than push them into tables. A chess set, checkerboard, and playing cards were left at-the-ready on tables, and knitting projects rested upon a chair. The little sofa by the window depicted an ideal place for a snooze. Above all, it was a room for families, not for entertaining or for show. It was comfortable and livable, yet beautiful and well-designed. The lovely textiles with their Japanese influence, the fittings, and the furniture became the prototype for global interior decoration. Four other rooms from the Larsson cottage were also in the exhibit.

While this style was heralded at H55, it was not until 1997 that Karin came to be formally recognized in design circles. Following this exhibition, a star was born. Karin Larsson was viewed as an innovator and design maven. Decorators in the United States following her design principles. Magazines showed off rooms reminiscent of her Sundborn parlor. IKEA gave her credit for their design ethos. Karin herself stood in the shadows, all but ignored by the general public. Today, Karin remains an unknown luminary in the history of Swedish design.