The three texts that comprise Modern Swedish Design make the case for modernism in the home, for domestic products, and for architecture. While Gregor Paulsson's Better Things for Everyday Life and the jointly authored acceptera (always written with lower-case letters) have been available in facsimile reprints (1995, 1980 respectively), they have never before been translated into English. From time to time passages from acceptera have been cited by Anglophone scholars or filtered through Swedish authors——usually in reference to the work of the best known of the book's architect-writers, Gunnar Asplund. Modern Swedish Design helps fill that gap by presenting these three important writings, originally published in the first three decades of the twentieth century.
The short introductory essays by Barbara Miller Lane (on Ellen Key), Helena Kååberg (on Gregor Paulsson) and Lucy Creagh (on the acceptera team) adequately sketch out the context in which the publications first appeared and the audiences to which they were addressed. The translations by Anne-Charlotte Harvey (Key) and David Jones (Paulsson and acceptera) read well, and only in a few places have words or terms been translated too directly from the Swedish. While the broad theme of emerging modernity and its consequences couples the three texts, there is a certain apples-and-oranges aspect to the book, given that Ellen Key addresses the home, room, and déécor more broadly, Paulsson centers on objects and industrial production, and acceptera discusses the social linkage between architecture and contemporary life. On the other hand, as a group the three texts sketch out a vision for a modern Swedish design environment that extends from the small object to the city.
Ellen Key (1849––1926) was a highly influential social reformer and widely read author whose interests spanned suffrage and the recasting of government (she actively argued for what became Sweden's social democratic welfare state), as well as design. It is a surprise, although no wonder, that one of her principal translators (into German) was Mamah Bouton Borthwick, and that Key was greatly appreciated by Borthwick's paramour, Frank Lloyd Wright. Key's railing against clutter and accumulation finds an echo in Wright's own lectures and essays and more distantly in Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture. Her appreciation for the simplicity and "honesty" of the folk environment also found parallels as far away as Japan, in the writings of Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of the Mingei (folk art) movement that attempted to resist the flood of foreign ideas and products.
Key's Beauty in the Home (1899) contends that society should seek a domestic environment furnished with taste and simplicity, creating a manner in greater accord with modern Swedish life. Her targeted audience included both city and country folk, the educated as well as the working population. She notes that while urban citizens are offered greater opportunities to engage with art on a regular basis, their rural cousins are less apt to be tainted by fashion and imports of low quality. Her tone crosses between the pronouncements of Elizabeth Gordon, House Beautiful's midcentury editor, and the practical taste of today's Martha Stewart. Key's is no theoretical tract removed from practical applications; in fact, most of the essay instructs in explicit detail what and what not to do. Martha would be pleased.
Of course the shadow of the Arts and Crafts lurks behind much of what Key writes. Her hero is the artist Carl Larsson, who with his wife Karen created a Gesamtkunstwerk of folk material culture in their rural compound in Sundborn, in north central Sweden. Larsson recorded the house in Ett Hem (A Home, first published in 1896), which was essentially an album of meticulously drawn and rendered ink-and-watercolor images filled with light, soft color, and more than a tinge of summer nostalgia (only two of the twenty-four plates depict winter scenes). Key's preferred color palette——and much of her text concerns color and tints——acknowledges the months of darkness that plague her motherland at the close of each year and start of every new one. Light colors, light-colored woods, and simple forms with small-scale decoration are what she proffers. Animal and even plant motifs are to be shunned on dinnerware and textiles. Who wants to eat a potato from an image of a bear and her cubs, or even one of a leek or strawberry for that matter? While repetitive in her dicta, her dicta are sensible in a northern land with rural simplicity at the roots of its rural culture. Despite the century since its publication, Key's influence is still felt today: it is evident on the covers of numerous women's and home magazines where a sort of rural Gustavian romanticism endures, not to mention its distant echoes in the mass product market of IKEA.
Within foreign design circles Gregor Paulsson (1889––1977) is slightly better known, if for no other reason than his having served as the "client" for Gunnar Asplund in his role as the chief architect for the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition——probably the largest concentration, albeit short-lived, of pure modernism ever constructed. Paulsson studied art history but he seems to have had a special gift for organization and running organizations. In 1920 he became head of the Swedish Society of Arts and Crafts, and in that role he exerted considerable influence in the shaping of Swedish living environments through a program of exhibitions and publications. As often as not he was the face of Swedish architecture abroad. Vackrare Vardagsvara——whose 1919 publication accompanied the Swedish Exhibition in Gothenburg——has been translated here as Better Things for Everyday Life, a title the editors claim better reflects the intentions behind what Paulsson himself termed a "propaganda publication." A more literal translation would be "More Beautiful Everyday Things," however either translation loses the Swedish title's powerful alliteration that led to its being used almost as a mantra. This is a short and straightforward text, a mild polemic or what in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture Robert Venturi termed a "gentle manifesto." Unlike Key's essay, which targeted the homemaker, Paulsson's text aims at the producer, especially the industrialist and the marketer. A well-written and well-structured text, its ideas closely parallel those of the Deutsche Werkbund, to which frequent reference is made. More particularly, there is more than a hint of the ideas and arguments of Hermann Muthesius garnered from his fact-finding stay in England some decades before.
Better Things for Everyday Life ran only fifty-three pages in its original edition, with an added signature of advertisements by those sponsoring Paulsson's project——and presumably the makers of products that Paulsson endorsed. At first glance the works illustrated in the book are mystifying, appearing to belong more to the nineteenth century than the "modern" era. Like Key's ideal they are simple only in relation to more eclectic works still touched by handcraft and folk traditions and still commonly the stuff of bourgeois Swedish interiors.
Paulsson relates issues of beauty and quality to those of industrial production and economy, themes that would echo a decade later in the publication of acceptera. And given the social democratic ethos evolving in Sweden since the end of the prior century, the theme of society infuses several of the topics. To today's reader the primary interest of Better Things for Everyday Life will not be for innovative ideas——almost all of these had been formulated in Germany decades earlier——but their injection into Swedish design production by the end of the Great War.
The twelve years that separated the publication of the Paulsson text and acceptera were cataclysmic for architecture and design in Sweden. If a wisp of nostalgia still hung over Paulsson's 1919 publication, that nostalgia had evaporated by the time acceptera appeared in 1931 in the wake of the Stockholm Exhibition mounted the year before. During the intervening period the economy had grown, as had industrial and agricultural production, and the exhibition introduced——and sought to seduce——the Swedish and international public to the benefits of standardization, optimized production, and functionalism——or funkis, as the International Style was known in the north.
The word acceptera has alternate translations as either the imperative "accept" or the infinitive "to accept," and one can look at the book in light of both formulations. To begin, it was a joint publication that teamed the architects Gunnar Asplund, Wolter Gahn, Uno ÅÅhréén, Eskil Sundahl, and Sven Markelius under an organizational umbrella provided by Paulsson, who as head of the Swedish Society of Arts and Crafts was the nominal client for the exposition. Given its radical reformation of both architectural and social norms, reaction to the architecture of the fair——quite predictably——had been mixed, and acceptera attempted to solidify and propagate its message.
Less assertive than the architecture it advanced, the book demonstrates that its modernist-leaning authors accepted aspects of traditional material culture while requesting their readers to accept radical departures from tradition. They accept, for example, that within this new world of maximized space and economical construction one could retain furnishings made dear by sentimental attachment rather than stylistic appropriateness. The home should reflect personality, values, and even material display. But these are not reasons to reject the benefits brought by standardization and industrialized production, ideas already tested and proven in the manufacture of household goods and automobiles——ideas especially necessary for the underclasses for whom housing was a desperate need. The embrace of what modern production can offer, they argue, will bring more material benefits than any hopeless attachment to the past or to the production of items that resemble the past, even though they may be produced by industrial means.
In many ways acceptera is more a social than an architectural document. Without a consistent tone it begins with a discussion of marriage as if it were, and must be, the basic building block for all that will follow. Curiously——and without warning——there follows a discussion of the countries of Europe as marked by two stages of development: "A-Europe" and "B-Europe." B-Europe clings to handcraft and the horse, small farms and animal labor. A-Europe, to which Sweden belongs, has industrialized and benefited from the shift to factory production and away from the workshop. In the triad of modernity, modernization, and modernism, acceptera is focused primarily on the first two, and modernism——the expression in built form of modernization and modernity——enters into the discussion only in the later pages.
The layout of the book, with its bold Ultra Bodoni subheads and freely imposed photographs and plans, recalls L'Esprit nouveau and experiments in the New Typography in Germany. The images are eclectic, mixing old and new, vernacular and high style, bad and good. Anders ÅÅman, who wrote the afterword and identified the illustrations in the 1980 facsimile, should also be credited here as a contributor, as he provided the basis for many of the captions and notes. The end of acceptera does not pose the question "Architecture or Revolution"——as did Le Corbusier; it calls to accept: "Anyone who cannot accept is withdrawing from participation in the development of culture. He will fade away in a meaningless pose of embittered heroism or worldly-wise skepticism." The book's closing image, a line of biplanes seen from below and silhouetted against the sky, is left uncaptioned. Is it only a coincidence that the photo resembles similar images of aircraft in Kasimir Malevich's The Non-Objective World——there captioned "The reality which stimulates the Suprematist?" Or the modernist.
As a collection, the translation of the three texts in Modern Swedish Design is most welcome, although perhaps more for acceptera than the two short publications that precede it in the volume. The writings by Key and Paulsson trace an evolution of Swedish design thinking from the start of the century, but acceptera is a far more consequential work whose ideas and values are bolstered by a substantial argument, examples, and supportive data. Through its translation acceptera will stand with Towards a New Architecture as a key modernist document——with the possible proviso that its value may be as much social as architectural, if not even more so.