The Rise of Swedish Modernism

The Rise of Swedish Modernism

by Peter Wade

Throughout the history of glassmaking, certain common designs and patterns have emerged. The glass we collect today often originated from an individual artist’s vision. The idea was then transformed into a finished product created to draw the eye and to fulfill the needs of the marketplace. As an artist gained a following, companies were built around them. Of course timing (or luck) was also important, but the world’s glassmaking centers were built around designers. Sweden was no exception to this process. The difference was how quickly it took hold and the successful impact it had on the world-wide glassmaking community.

The Birth of Modern Swedish Glass

Prior to WWI, Sweden was in the backwater of Europe, where glassmaking was basic in nature and was made primarily for utilitarian purposes. The market was divided by Kosta, the biggest glass company, and smaller firms, such as Orrefors.

This glass followed the classic, traditionalist style popular throughout Europe at the time. Swedish glass was not particularly noteworthy and was unknown in the international marketplace.

By the end of the war, a surge of creativity burst forth from the Swedish designers and took the world glass market by surprise. From this point, Swedish Modernism emerged over a relatively short period of time, from 1919 to 1939. By the early 1950s, Sweden was at the cutting edge of design with the worldwide recognition that goes along with it.

Manufacturing started to follow the new industrialized production trends; but in glassmaking, a unique bond was formed between manufacturing techniques and the artists employing them. During the 1920s, glass production became more industrialized, affecting how glassblowers, cutters, and decorators worked with dynamic artists. Mass production was aligning itself with design.

Orrefors Makes Its Move

Orrefors glass made an important shift during this time period. Two new designers—Simon Gates and Edward Hald—led the transition at Orrefors from playing second fiddle to Kosta to become the preeminent Swedish Glass House.

Gates, along with master glassblowers Knut and Gustav Bergqkvist, developed the “Graal” glassblowing technique in 1916, perfecting it over the next decade. The Graal technique occurs when the glass is created by blowing a clear bubble of glass and overlaying it with hot colored glass. At this point the glass is cooled for a few days and may be etched to reveal the interior clear glass below the outer colored glass. Then it is reheated and attached to a blowpipe where up to five layers of glass can be added, trapping air bubbles within it, and the vessel is then blown to its final size.

Glass vases made in this fashion were visually stunning. They took the market by storm with rave reviews and brought international attention and prestige to Orrefors. To the inexperienced eye, the final form didn’t look very complicated, but one vase could take two to three days to make. From 1916 to 1931, Orrefors produced only 1,396 pieces using the Graal technique. It’s no wonder that if you are lucky enough to find one of these early pieces today, your treasure could be worth up to $50,000 or more.

Award-Winning

The playful and creative designs of Edward Hald and Simon Gates generated a series of awards for Orrefors leading up to the famous Paris Exposition of 1925. They also revived the tradition of engraving glass at Orrefors, that had been allowed to disappear from the Swedish glass industry. They brought the technique back with new artistic expressions, making Orrefors engraved glass the company’s most successful product line to this day. Artistic glass was not the main product line at Orrefors, but it was the one that created and sustained their reputation for excellence. And, it’s the glass which collectors want today.

While Orrefors greatly benefited from the creative work of Hald and Gates, demand for their art glass diminished by the end of the 1920s. The Great Depression reached Sweden. Markets were in turmoil. New design trends were emerging with the arrival of art deco, art moderne and the newer Swedish modern.

New Influences

Outside designers were hired for the first time at Orrefors – the first one being Vicki Lindstrand. This was significant for Orrefors since Lindstrand was an artistic modernist. Previously, art glass production was more concerned about the decoration placed on the surface of the glass. The emerging new trends changed this emphasis to a more functional, austere design approach. Beauty was now sought within the glass—its optical and reflective qualities—not just from what appeared on its surface.

From a glass production viewpoint, the glass engravers who were at the top of the glassmaking hierarchy, just under the designers, changed places with the glass blowers, who were now raised to the higher level. Glass was now looked at differently; its clarity and refractive qualities were now being emphasized. The change toward a focus on functionality corresponded ideally to changes starting to occur in the international markets. This was also a perfect fit for the modernist Vicki Lindstrand, who many consider to be the “father” of the Swedish modern movement in glass.

In 1933, with declining sales and the impact of the depression being fully felt, Orrefors switched Hald from his job position of designer to manager. Gates continued to design until his death in 1945, but it was Lindstrand who was left to carry on the modernist banner in the design department.

Vicki Lindstrand’s Career

Lindstrand created a completely new approach that heralded the beginning of the Swedish modern era of creativity at Orrefors, and was fully established by the time of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. His now classic Shark Killer and Pearl Fisher series of vase designs were major new artistic achievements for Orrefors. Lindstrand created a thick-walled, horizontally rippled (or undulating) glass that gave the optical appearance of motion to his underwater scenes. Engraving was still used, but it was different from the earlier styles. Free flowing fluid figures were deeply cut into the thick walled glass. Added definition was given only to the primary figure to emphasize its visual importance and aesthetic impact. The background was de-emphasized. This was in keeping with the then current austere mood. It presented a nice balance of visual design with the optics of the glass. The engravings were also scaled to the size of the piece of glass. Prior to this, engraved drawings were often overly done with intricate detail.

New approaches to the Graal glass were also explored along with the development of the “Ariel” art glass technique. This was accomplished with Edvin Ohrstrom (who went on to perfect the art form further in the 1940s). It was during the 1930s, that Lindstrand accomplished some of his most creative glass designs. This was the high point of his artistic career. It led to a reinvigorated Orrefors. For Lindstrand, he now had free reign to create works of artistic achievement, which he did.

It should be noted that, from a collector’s viewpoint, glass from the 1930s era is highly sought after. Orrefors took an elitist approach to its creation for its buyers. Its Graal art glass, Ariel art glass, and Mykene art glass were without parallel in the international market at that time. It was very expensive to produce and had a very high failure rate, resulting in a very limited production run. It was primarily sold to the highest retail marketplace. For today’s collector, it offers rarity and desirability. And, because it was so expensive to make generally, it wasn’t copied.

Vicki Lindstrand’s career was not over when he left Orrefors in 1940. War conditions had forced Orrefors to cut back to survival mode during the war years. He moved on to Upsala-Ekeby for the next ten years.

His next major move was to Kosta as head of design in 1950. In reflection, Vicki Lindstrand owned the 1930s decade at Orrefors and the 1950s decade at Kosta glass.

Lindstrand was at his mid-career point when he arrived at Kosta, and stayed there until his passing in 1973. Initially, he re-invigorated Kosta, bringing it out from under the shadows of Orrefors. Elis Bergh, his predecessor, had begun making that move during the 1940s. For the first decade of his tenure at Kosta, Lindstrand continued to experiment and develop new approaches to glass design. He focused on new solutions to engraved glass, furnace-worked glass, and worked very closely with his glass blowers. His Trees in the Mist vase is a good example of these new endeavors.

Glass engraving was expanded to cover the entire circumference of the vase to tell a story. Other vases used an image on the front of the vase with a separate image on the back to give visual depth to the design. He developed the use of prism glass to create very modernistic glass sculptures, very much in keeping with today’s minimalist movement. Ice block paperweights were another of his popular designs. Many of his cut, engraved designs became “tour de force” artistic wonders. A good example of this was his Fishing Net engraved vase.

What to Collect? Who & Why…

At the end of WWI, Orrefors glass was clearly the junior company to the much larger, formidable Kosta glass. Orrefors was smart. They used their line of artistic glass to build a solid reputation, first in Sweden and then internationally. They invested in their designers and gave them an extraordinary amount of creative freedom. And, like other historically famous glass designers, Hald and Gates created wondrous artistic masterpieces with two highly accomplished glass blowers: Knut and Gustav Bergqkvist. This was, literally, a studio craft workshop within the context of a larger organization, giving them the freedom to do their job their way. You won’t find this scenario in many other companies. Orrefors also hired and developed a significant separate group of glass cutters and engravers. From 1919 to 1929, this team built the Orrefors reputation up until it was number one.

Meanwhile, Kosta wasn’t sitting still. During the 1920s, it suffered from mismanagement by using an operating style that couldn’t hold onto its artistic designers. Kosta didn’t start to take off in the up-and-coming artistic glass marketplace until Elis Bergh took over the creative reigns in 1929. On a side note, the master glass blowing team of the Bergqkvist brothers originally worked for Kosta and left them over a dispute, costing Kosta a great deal.

The Signature Styles Collectors Should Notice

Generally speaking, the glassmaking process followed this pattern:

  1. the designer would design the piece to be made.
  2. the glass blower would make the piece.
  3. the surface decoration would be done by the cutters and engravers.

The glass would be marked with the glass designer’s name. With Orrefrors Graal, Ariel, and Mykene glass, this was a back and forth team effort due to the way the glass was made.

Sometimes the glass blower’s or engraver’s name was added to the piece. For normal production, you would have the designer’s name and the initials of the engraver’s name at the end. Orrefors often produced its most popular designs for a decade or more (e.g. Vicki Lindstrand’s designs were produced well into the 1940s after he left the firm).

Always look for the engraver’s signature or initials because in the later pieces, much of the value is from the quality of the engraving. Check the quality and look to see that there is no damage. Shelf wear on the bottom is to be expected. Chips hurt value, but if it’s one of the scarce engraving designs, the impact on value is minor, especially if they are on a side panel or the back of the glass from where the engraving is.* Look to see if the size of the engraving is proportional to the entire piece of glass. This was an important feature to Lindstrand’s design, added in the 1930s. Mass produced items with small engravings, while nice, are aesthetically less collectible.

With their earlier pieces, Hald, Gates, and Lindstrand would also produce and sign each other’s designs. I suggest you look for full signatures on pieces, rather than just initials. Special commissions usually had full signatures. Exposition pieces are highly prized and often have “Ex,” “Expo,” or multiple signatures added to the markings. Lindstrand’s work at Kosta usually used just initials.

Styles to Seek

The work of Hald and Gates is very collectible. Gates’s designs were more meticulous and precise; Hald’s were more artistic and playful. Their Graal vases can be quite expensive. Remember, when these were made, they were designed for the top tier of the retail market. These were prestigious, statement pieces of art glass, then and now! Hald’s Fish Graal pieces were entered into a larger production run over a longer period of time, hence, they’re more affordable (but still costly).

Vicki Lindstrand’s work is highly prized and very popular today. His Shark Killer and Pearl Diver series of vases is quite desirable and very costly. The 1930s was his prime artistic period. His Graal, Ariel, and Mykene pieces are highly sought after, with values to match. There aren’t many around, they quickly disappear into art collections.

Vicki Lindstrand’s work during the 1950s was characterized by some very beautiful and intricate engraving. The fish net and Shakespeare themed vases, furnace-worked tree vases, and his optical sculptures all command very good prices in today’s market and will continue to do so.

Mid-century glass design was in large part the result of Swedish modernism’s influence. Even today, the evolving minimalist and studio craft movements owe a great deal to this design aesthetic of Swedish design.

*Note: For example, a recent Leslie Hindman’s auction result on a Simon Gates vase with intact engraving (lot #196, 07 Feb. 2019) just sold for $400 (including the buyers’ premium) with a 1/2” chip near the foot of the vase, including some scratches.

Photos Courtesy of: Auction Network Sweden; Bukowskis; Corning Museum of Glass; jacksons.se

The Rise of Swedish Modernism