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Interior architecture: a domestic model for intellectuals

Designers Carl and Karin Larsson were creators of Swedish style, at present much featured in the glossies

The book Carl and Karin Larsson: creators of the Swedish style is published to coincide with the first major exhibition, at the V&A (until 18 January), ever held outside Sweden on their work. The exhibition takes its place as the latest in a series on great nineteenth-century designers, those previously held being Pugin and William Morris. The progression is fascinating and each exhibition resonates with comparisons and contrasts in the aims of these eminent design reformers. Throughout the Larsson show there are reminders of Morris, particularly in the busy household painting decorative friezes and mottoes and embroidering linen and curtains, but these largely serve to point up the fundamental differences in their design philosophy, or, in Morris’s case, politics.

The context is important, since this latest publication follows it predecessors in many respects. It accompanies the exhibition, but is not, in the old-fashioned sense, an exhibition catalogue, any more than the collections of essays that accompanied the Pugin and William Morris exhibitions at the V&A: the list of exhibits (at least there is one) occupies a mere four pages at the end of the book. However, it must be admitted that the advantages of ranging over a far greater spectrum of the Larssons’ lives and work far outweighs the disadvantages of doing without detailed discussion of individual items.

For all Carl Larsson’s reputation as Sweden’s most popular artist, his contribution to history and monumental painting cannot be appreciated outside his native land. The inevitable focus in the exhibition on his famous house, Lilla Hyttnäs, which, through the illustrated books Ett Hem of 1899 (At home), Larssons of 1902, and At solsidan of 1910 (On the sunny side), is the source of his worldwide reputation perpetuates a homely, Arts and Crafts image at the expense of his artistic stature, and the essay on his life and work by Torsten Gunnarsson in the book goes some way to redressing this. Interestingly, Gillian Naylor’s survey of “Domesticity and design reform: the European context”, rather than placing Carl Larsson in a neat pigeon-hole, emphasises his waywardness and originality, though the comparisons, like Larsson’s borrowings from the English Queen Anne Revival, make a point about the rapid exchange of ideas at the time.

This is not to say that the house is unimportant—far from it. Artists’ houses were a significant nineteenth-century decorative and architectural phenomenon which broke the stranglehold of the aristocracy on style in interior decoration and furnishing, and paved the way for a distinctive taste that was accessible to intellectual, artistic and professional home-owners with modest aspirations and small means.

This was the basis of our modern lifestyle and in adapting not only an existing house, but even the furniture and fittings, the Larssons seem more nearly our true exemplars than Morris and Pugin, who both built houses to their own designs. The survey of Lilla Hyttnäs by Michael Snodin, and the numerous illustrations of it, both inside and out, make this an invaluable addition to the history of interior design.

The essay by Lena Rydin on Karin’s individual contribution to the Larsson image, brings her out from behind layers of mythologising and idealisation, mainly her husband. Larsson was plainly a complex personality, and the very superficial intimacy which comes from knowing so much about his domestic arrangements make one hungry for full biographies of Carl and Karin.

The exhibition, itself inspiring, makes you want to rush home and do something—paint the walls, embroider the sheets, weave a wall-hanging—at all events to improve your domestic environment.

The book, on the other hand has a rather different effect: it makes you want to go to the Larssons’ house, and above that, to know much more about them.

Originally appeared in the Art Newspaper as 'A domestic model for intellectuals'