What started as a brick mill in 17th century Sweden would transform itself in the following centuries into an exciting and inventive producer of porcelain that came to define Swedish design, producing traditional styles, inventive glazes, eccentric geometric designs, and cuddly, warm-hearted pottery. Who? It can only be Gustavsberg porcelain.
Gustavsberg porcelain might be recognised as one of the premier producers of 20th century European porcelain, but it began in humble surroundings as a producer of household bricks. Gustaf Gabrielsson Oxenstierna is the man who started it all when he founded a mill in the 1640s in Farsta bay, but after his death it was his 21-year-old widow, Maria Sofia de la Gardie that would rename the company (and the area) in his honor and aim it in a new direction.
As a noted industrialist and Court Mistress to Queen Christina of Sweden, de la Gardie was an influential figure of the era, but her attempts to recruit ceramic masters from Holland to build a porcelain factory in Gustavsberg wouldn’t be realised until 1826, when the wholesaler Herman Öhman tore down the old brick mill and started a porcelain factory on the site.
Influenced by German and English shapes and decorations, the company laid the groundwork for Samuel Godenius and his son-in-law Wilhelm Odelberg to take over Gustavsberg pottery production in the mid-19th century and would begin to outline their creative approach with a variety of bathroom and pottery art ware with the help of Swedish sculptor, Carl Gustaf Qvarnström. These were the beginning stages of mass production, so the ability for Parian and Majolica pieces to imitate carved marble at a fraction of the cost was highly prized by producers and customers alike.
Creativity blossoms – Josef Ekberg and Wilhelm Kåge
This creative approach blossomed and would come to define Gustavsberg porcelain. Josef Ekberg (1877 – 1945) was a leading creative light as he developed the famed Sgraffito technique, where a pattern is carved on a glazed surface. Having started work at Gustavsberg at the age of 12, Ekberg would propel himself and the company from a regional producer onto the world stage after receiving a warm welcome at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900.
As a key proponent of the Swedish Grace era in the first decades of the 20th century, Ekberg’s approach was reflective of the Swedish take on Art Deco, which championed unadorned designs with bold colors and strong contrast. Ekberg brought geometric shapes, matte blue-green glaze and gold details to Gustavsberg, while his luster glaze pieces are beautiful examples of the era.
Gustavsberg continued to evolve in the early to mid-part of the 20th century with the help of Wilhelm Kåge (1889 – 1960). Originally known for his colorful poster designs, Kåge added an artistic touch to the factory’s functional items and created the Liljeblå (Lily Blue) tableware series, which proved popular at a 1917 Liljevalchs (a legendary Swedish art gallery dating back over more than 100 years) exhibition in Stockholm.
This move towards functionality reflected the increasing international mass market appeal of Gustavsberg porcelain as the company married functionality with artistic style. This wasn’t at the expense of creativity though, as Kåge proved when he presented his Farsta and Argenta series at the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930. Bold, bright and beautiful, the set included vases and urns, sculptures, ashtrays, and half-meter high pieces that were highly regarded in the world of Swedish pottery.
Thrown organically – Berndt Friberg
Berndt Friberg began as a thrower for Kåge, but soon became the master thrower at Gustavsberg. Friberg is known for creating voluptuous, curvaceous, organic, shapes, finished off with exquisite glazing.
A geometric splash – Stig Lindberg
It was the arrival of Stig Lindberg though that would make the biggest and most colorful, geometric splash. Ushering in an uncomplicated approach to decoration that would come to define Swedish design for years to come, it seems inevitable in retrospect that he would be a success, after the 21-year old walked into the factory looking for a job and proclaimed: “If you hire me, I will ensure that there will be jobs in the factory”.
One of his most famous and enduring designs is the Berså from 1961. The famous stem of green leaves became his calling card for modern and colorful designs, which have proved so popular that it’s been imitated on ceramics and linen over the years, but perhaps the best indicator of its longevity is that the series is still produced in the same way according to Gustavsberg’s long-standing pottery tradition.
You can learn more about Lindberg in our article Stig Lindberg: Defining Swedish Design.
Lisa Larson – a new design language
Lisa Larson was hired by Lindberg in 1954, at a time of great commercial success for Gustavsberg. Both Lindberg and Larson shared a creative approach, but Larson’s style was distinctly her own and she certainly wasn’t there to parrot the design language that had helped Lindberg to propel himself, Gustavsberg and Swedish design as a whole onto the world stage.
Instead, Larson had more of a playful approach. Bright colors on plain backgrounds remained, but there was a more lighthearted approach, typified by her smiling and shapely figurines that seemingly celebrate their form with a gentle curiosity. Larson’s work had a visual style, as well as a technical distinction as she mixed stoneware clay with chamotte, a finely crushed oven-proof ceramic to give the pieces the large grained rustic look that became characteristic of her pottery.
Gustavsberg in decline
Despite their work by leading potters, by the 1980s Gustavsberg was in trouble. The factory found it harder to compete with mass-produced pottery production. In 1987 it was sold to foreign interests and closed soon after.
However, Larson wasn’t finished with pottery in Gustavsberg and in 1991 she started Ceramic Studio Gustavsberg with the help of a handful of former colleagues. Then in 1996, the Gustavsberg factory was restarted as a worker cooperative, with small-scale production of some of Lindberg’s tableware. Today, the Gustavsberg Porcelain Museum remains as a monument to the people and place that defined Swedish design for so many years.