Carl & Karin Larsson: An Artists' Home in Sweden

Retrospect

Christiane Lemieux's new book Undecorate gives a name to a certain way of creating a home: filling your home with things you love that reflect your personality and experiences, a mix of old and new, some handmade and DIY'd, and, above all, making a home that is lived-in, and not just for show. This fits the current recession/Etsy/upcycling zeitgeist, for sure, but it's a style that's been around for a long time. One of the best early examples of this is the Larsson home, Lilla Hyttnäs, in Sundborn, Sweden, decorated by Carl and Karin Larsson in the 1890s.

Carl and Karin Larsson were both Swedish artists born in the 1850s. They met and fell in love at a Scandinavian artists' colony in Grez, France, in 1882, and quickly married and started their (big) family. In the late 1880s, Karin's father gave them Lilla Hyttnäs, a little cottage next to a stream in the Swedish countryside.

The decoration of the house became a joint project between husband and wife. Karin made the textiles — rag rugs, slipcovers, table cloths, doorway curtains, bedclothes, etc. — and Carl painted mural decoration and arranged, carved and painted the furniture. Their home and family also became one of Carl's favorite subjects for his paintings (Karin stopped her professional painting career when she married; they had 8 children). Thanks to Carl's paintings of Lilla Hyttnäs, the style they created in their home became one of the crucial influences on 20th-century Scandinavian design.

The Larsson home was characterized by lightness, informality and comfort. While the typical Swede was buying expensive suites of revival-style furniture, the Larssons took their hand-me-down Gustavian furniture and mixed and matched it, slipcovering chairs and sofas. They filled their home with houseplants and colorful textiles. Instead of heavy carpets on the floor, they left the wood mostly bare and covered trafficked areas with cotton rag rugs. The motifs they used in their home were colorful, sometimes almost primitive: folk art-inflected flowers and other patterns, gingham, stripes. Some of Karin's textiles also reflect the influence of Japanese graphic arts.

In his watercolors of Lilla Hyttnäs, Carl Larsson often included members of his family, and even the dog, living in the space. This was a home to live in, not for display — although it became an object of study by artists and designers and even social theorists, who saw in it a microcosm of family-centric social democracy.

The Larssons' aesthetic owed a lot to the writings of William Morris, who also espoused a return to simplicity, to handcraft and to natural beauty. These qualities not only helped define the direction of Scandinavian design in the 20th century, but is still deeply influential today. Carl Larsson's design 'prescription' for Swedes could serve as a contemporary rallying cry for the "undecorate" movement: "Become again simple and dignified; be awkward rather than elegant … cover everything in strong colors … let your hand naturally carve or paint on your furnishings the embellishments it can. Then you will be happy in the feeling of being yourself."


All images of Lilla Hyttnäs:
1 Carl Larsson, from Ett Hem (1899), via the Nationalmuseum, Sweden
2 The drawing room, via the official Carl Larsson website
3 The dining room, via Loobylu
4 Carl's bedroom, via the official Larsson website
5 Carl's watercolor of his bedroom, via swedishinteriordesign
6 The nursery, via the official Carl Larsson website
7 Coat hooks on the stairs of Lilla Hyttnäs, via the official Carl Larsson website

Sources: The Larsson quote is from Nationalism and the Nordic Imagination: Swedish Art of the 1890s, by Michelle Facos. There is a wealth of excellent information on the official website of Carl Larsson. I'm also indebted to Maria Perers, a scholar and curator whom I've seen lecture on the Larssons many times.

Related Retrospect posts:
Quick History: IKEA
Arts & Crafts: The Designs of William Morris

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