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Danish Modern: Suzanne Swannie Textil

Danish Modern: Suzanne Swannie TextilPurchase the catalogue

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Essay by Rachel Gotlieb

Suzanne Swannie and Danish Modernism in Canada

In older Danish, “form-giver” is the synonym for “designer.” 1 For over forty years, Suzanne Swannie— designer, craftmaker and artist—has given form in the medium of textiles and fibre arts in Canada. She works in the continuum of Scandinavian Modernism, and follows in the footsteps of many immigrants who laid the foundations before her.

Canada has affinities of climate and topography with the Nordic countries, together with the reputation for a restrained national temperament. 2 Perhaps sensing this, Lawren Harris and J.E.H. Macdonald, two members of the Group of Seven, which is famous for pioneering our national school of painting, were inspired in this endeavour when they visited the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo in 1913 and viewed the landscape paintings of their Scandinavian contemporaries, who similarly looked to the north for inspiration. 3 The bond between Canada and Northern Europe strengthened after the Second World War with the arrival of the Scandinavian Modern style. In an effort to cast off British and American influences, what better example could be found than Scandinavian Modern, more commonly known as Danish Modern? Characterized by natural woods and organic forms, this style offered a softer alternative to the industrial steel and glass aesthetic of the International Style. As Michael Prokopow has observed, Danish modern was “never doctrinaire, rarely exclusionary, and ultimately gentle in its presence [.]” 4 Nonetheless, no other design movement influenced Canadian twentieth-century design more profoundly, or for as long, as Scandinavian Modernism.

Importing Scandinavian Design

Scandinavian Modernism initially reached Canada’s elite consumers and style-makers through exhibitions, small retail shops, designer showrooms and decorator magazines. The Royal Ontario Museum hosted Design in Scandinavia in 1954, a major exhibition that displayed seven hundred works and toured twenty-two cities. In Toronto and Montreal, Sheila’s and Pego’s opened respectively to sell Danish modern furniture, organic Finnish glass, and Swedish hand-woven mats and rugs. The famous Danish silversmith, Georg Jensen, established a store in 1957 on Toronto’s fashionable Bloor Street to retail his famous silverware as well as contemporary furnishings. The long-serving editor and writer of Canadian Homes and Gardens, Margit Bennet featured the new style in her magazine. New bungalows and split-level houses populating Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Halifax’s suburban neighbourhoods displayed the hallmark flat roof, curtain-wall window, and open-plan interior design complemented with Hans Wegner furniture and Stig Lindberg pottery. The Scandinavian aesthetic appealed to avant-garde Canadian interior decorators such as Freda James, who displayed furniture by Jens Risom in her Cumberland Street showroom in Toronto. 5 The leading design firm J & J Brook produced furniture that imitated Danish Modern’s low-slung walnut and teak cabinetry. The style became so popular that commercial manufacturers added it to their otherwise conservative repertoire of colonial and faux regency furniture designs. 6

In the 1970s, the taste for organic, biomorphic modernism began to wane around the world (losing ground to Italian design) but the love affair carried on in Canada. The Swedish chain IKEA unveiled its first North American store in 1976, significantly locating it in the Canadian city of Vancouver. In the 1980s, Modernism was increasingly undermined by historicism, whimsy and ornament, but the leading Canadian furniture designers Michael Stewart, Thomas Lamb and Paul Epp held onto many of the tenets of organic Modernism, such as bentwood, birch-ply and lightly-coloured stains.

Scandinavian Designers Come to Canada

More than the local designers, and more than the boutique retailers, it was the influx of Scandinavian émigré designers who popularized the aesthetic in Canada and who shaped the country’s design and craft movement. A large number moved here in the 1920s and 1930s and continued to emigrate after the war. Many came from Denmark. Notable among the Danes, Carl Poul Petersen immigrated to Montreal in 1929, bringing his Georg Jensen training and sensibility to Canadian-made silver, first at Henry Birks & Sons and then at his eponymous silversmithy, which he founded in 1944. The Danish-born Kjeld Deichman and his wife, Erica, operated Dykelands Pottery in the pastoral region of Moss Glenn, New Brunswick, thus advancing the studio pottery movement in Canada. The Deichmanns and their photogenic children were featured in two National Film Board documentaries and the eminent photographer Yousuf Karsh photographed them for Maclean’s magazine. Spearheading the taste for modern furniture at this time was Sigrun Bulow-Hube who graduated from the Royal Danish Academy in 1935 and eventually settled in Montreal, working for Eaton’s department store as an interior designer. She designed contemporary wood furniture for the Canadian firm AKA Works, and became the first woman to join the Association of Canadian Industrial Designers. 7 Her compatriot Lotte Botlund, also a graduate of the Royal Danish Academy, introduced slender earth-toned ceramic lamp designs to Canada when she and her husband, Gunnar, established Bostlund Industries in Oak Ridges, Ontario, in the early 1950s. They ran the cottage industry with their five children, and as with the Deichmanns who also operated their pottery with their children (like the Family Trapp but as craftmakers rather than singers), the family businesses made for colourful editorial copy. Both Erica and Lotte wove textiles for their homes’ furnishings and to clothe their families, including quaint dirndl skirts. 8

In the fledgling field of Canadian textiles, Danish-Canadians Thor Hansen and Karen Bulow played singular roles by nurturing silkscreen printing and hand-woven textiles respectively. If their numerous media profiles are to be believed, both claimed to have been persuaded to immigrate to Canada by the Canadian Pacific tourism posters, which so romantically portrayed Canada’s Rockies and Mounties. Thor Hansen immigrated to Western Canada in 1928, and Bulow settled in Montreal in 1929.

Thor Hansen: Romantic Visionary

After a brief stint as a farm hand, Hansen joined the British American Oil Company. 9 Despite its name, the company was all-Canadian and ran oil refineries and gas stations across the country. Hansen worked his way up from stock room clerk in the Prairies to the art department in downtown Toronto, eventually becoming the company’s first art and public relations director. Largely a self-taught artist, Thor Hansen enjoyed needlepoint, rug hooking and silkscreening. Steeped in the tradition of Danish folklore, Hansen was surprised to discover that there was no national style or movement for craft and design, in contrast to the nationalist painting of the Group of Seven artists, who he much admired. Hansen became a strong advocate of the arts and lectured widely. He despaired of the biases against craft and design that plagued North American industry. Between 1948 and 1968, the company permitted Hansen to execute his designs incorporating Canadian flora and fauna motifs in the public spaces and executive offices of more than a dozen B.A. Oil Company offices across Canada, including Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. Hansen collaborated with leading artisans, such as the renowned rug hooker Georges-Edouard Tremblay Tremblay in Quebec, the skilled artisans in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia, and the talented silkscreen artist Elizabeth Wilkes Hoey in Guelph, Ontario. Hansen’s colourful images of Geese in Flight, Jack-in-the-Pulpit and Leaping Salmon, as well as other wildflowers, plants and animals, were fashioned into drapery, painted murals, linoleum cut panels, even souvenir coasters and ashtrays, which were distributed at B.A. gas stations. He also worked with industry, allowing the mill A.B. Caya in Kitchener to produce his designs in commercially available fabric. Sadly, most of Hansen’s interiors have been dismantled and the wall hangings lost or destroyed, but his legacy of trying to ignite a national school of craft and design endures among current artisans and designers as an important vision for Canada.

Karen Bulow: Revitalizing Hand-Wooven Textiles

If Thor Hansen introduced a more conservative and traditional approach to craft and design, favouring figurative imagery over geometry and abstraction, then Karen Bulow brought to Canada a modern and contemporary sensibility. 10 Bulow arrived in Montreal during the Depression with a portable hand loom and not much else. She had learned the art as young girl as was typical of the time. Having rented space in a flower shop, Bulow initially made a living by weaving neckties, scarves, mats and other accessories. By the 1940s Bulow had founded her own studio, Canadian Homespuns, and soon she trumpeted to the magazines that she had sold fifty thousand ties in a single year. 11 Like Hansen she engaged local artisans to execute her designs, and this collaboration complemented the Quebec government’s strategy to renew crafts in the rural communities. She trained farm girls in her studio for a few weeks or a month at a time, depending on their ability, and when they returned home she paid them by the piece.

Her elegant hand-woven fabrics eventually attracted the notice of the interior decorators Freda James and J & J Brook, who commissioned drapery, rugs and upholstery fabric to complement their Danish modern interiors and furniture. Interior design was Bulow’s true passion. She enjoyed collaborating with designers and, like Hansen, invented colours and patterns (albeit far more abstract) based on the Canadian landscape. She created samples on her portable loom in the countryside and tried to replicate the colours of wildflowers, plants and trees. Bulow designed tapestries for Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, and drapery for the Alcan offices in Montreal, as well as blinds for Trans-Canada Airlines’ 22-passenger jets. In 1960 Bulow sold Canadian Homespuns to one of her employees, Margareta Steeves, who was of Swedish descent, and her husband Edward Steeves. They renamed the studio Karen Bulow Ltd. to take advantage of the now well-known brand. In 1969 Donald Stuart, a Bulow employee, took part in the government program that introduced weaving to the Inuit of Pangnirtung. In 1978, the studio relocated to Toronto and adopted machine-powered looms. The company closed in 1989 due to dwindling markets and lack of skilled weavers, not to mention competition from imports. Bulow herself returned to Denmark to retire but found she had become “too Canadian” and resettled in Caledon, Ontario.12

Suzanne Swannie: Dreaming in Pictures

Interestingly, Suzanne Swannie had originally wanted to be a silversmith and had connections that would have allowed her to apprentice at the renowned Georg Jensen studio. But it was not meant to be. “It was not considered a suitable profession for a woman,” recalled Swannie. Instead she took up textiles because it was acceptable women’s work. In 1960, at the age of eighteen, she joined the respected studio of John and Kirsten Becker near Copenhagen and completed a three-year hand weaving apprenticeship. The Beckers worked on large-scale ecclesiastical projects, employing as many as sixteen weavers, and also handling commissions from such well-known modern designers as Arne Jacobsen. In her own words, Swannie trained in the “classic late modernist Scandinavian tradition,” which emphasized the important and delicate balance between craft, art and design. In 1965 Swannie moved to Sweden for more industrial training, completing a diploma in textile technology and design at the Texitilinstitutet and working as a designer for the upholstery manufacturer, Damgaards Vaeverier. This commercial experience taught her not to shy away from industrial processes and today she seamlessly combines digital technologies like Photoshop with one-of-a-kind techniques, including hand dying her wools to attain the desired effect.

“I was looking for adventure,” said Swannie in a recent telephone interview. 13 This is why in 1967 she accepted a two-year contract to teach hand weaving at a new adult education program in the province of Newfoundland. As in the case of Karen Bulow in Quebec, the training was part of a renewal strategy for the region. However, in contrast with the Scandinavian artists and artisans who preceded her, Swannie arrived at the height of the heady Sixties. Canada was enjoying a new confidence, making an international mark with such luminaries as Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester Pearson, media sage Marshall McLuhan and swinging politician Pierre Trudeau. In celebration of its centenary, Canada hosted the acclaimed Expo 67 in Montreal, exhibiting the country’s skills in grand-scale urban planning and design. Swannie remembers that she was not unaware of these personalities and events; she knew about the architectural wonder Habitat, and she listened to the music of Leonard Cohen. However, what made the strongest impression on Swannie was not the nation’s new-found sophistication. As with Hansen and Bulow before her, it was the dramatic change of landscape. “There was so much land, such enormous distances that it was almost terrifying,” she recalled.

Swannie stayed in Canada. She married, divorced, and raised two daughters on her own. Throughout she pursued her career in woven textiles. Since the setting was Canada, the infrastructure for art and industry were and remain minuscule in scope; professional versatility and entrepreneurialism were and remain the key resources available to a textile artist. She furthered her studies in hand weaving at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine in 1979, and completed her Masters of Fine Arts at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in 1986. She continued to teach: at NSCAD (Halifax) and Cabot College (Newfoundland), as well as in special programs in Nunavut and Malaysia, not to mention many prestigious guest lectures across Canada and around the world. In the early 1980s, she collaborated with industry as a consulting designer for Design Craft Textiles, an industrial weaving manufacturer based in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, which specialized in upholstery. According to Swannie, the mill relied on out-moded cast iron looms and experienced difficulty competing. After a few years they parted ways. Recalling the Karen Bulow studio, Swannie then participated in programs operated by the Department of Indian Affairs. She worked in partnership with the women of the Eskasoni Indian Reserve, Nova Scotia, on two art projects based on traditional Mi’Kmaq textiles.

But most importantly, Swannie continued to make work, often drawing on her domestic life for subject matter. In Household Fabrics (1980) she elevated the functional, everyday hand towel and bath mitt scrubber to finely crafted art pieces. Swannie explored her relationship with her daughters—their passage through childhood and coming of age— in Considering Two Small Forms, for Maja & Marta (1996). She recently completed the tapestry Triptych for Micah (2007) to celebrate her first grandchild.

When asked whether she dreams in English or in Danish, Swannie replied, “I dream in pictures.” That answer, in a nutshell, explains how Swannie successfully blends her Danish heritage with her adopted Canadian identity. Her Danish training is not only manifested in her masterful skill at uniting craft, design, and industry but is also reflected in her embrace of folklore and nature, which are important touchstones in her work. Like Hansen, Swannie’s appreciation of Danish folklore has shaped her oeuvre. Her serial quartet of tiny colourful tapestries, Imaginary Landscapes (1980) express a narrative of transformation drawn from Scandinavian myths.

It is Swannie’s restrained, geometrical interpretations of the Canadian wilderness, in examples such as the expertly executed carpet series Ground Cover (2002) and Shifting Ground (2004), that are so remarkable. The works’ designs are drawn from Swannie’s walks in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and the Canadian Arctic and appropriately she titles them with the evocative names of Bog, Marsh and Tundra. Swannie interprets the colours and textures of the earth in a highly abstract and conceptual manner, eschewing literal representations of horizons and forests. 14 In Shifting Ground, bands and stripes suggest footpaths and trails and recall the mystical abstract paintings of the American Modernists Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland. They are woven as mismatched, irregular modules, deliberately creating a sense of tectonic displacement; hence the appellation “Shifting Ground.” These abstract “ground covers,” though handmade in the same technique used for tapestries, are not intended for the wall but are functional and meant to be walked upon— indeed Swannie selected strong Spelzau wool from Norway to make the carpets useful and durable. 15

Sandra Alfoldy observed, “The history of Canadian textiles is fraught with battles for recognition, admittance to the inner sanctums of fine art and architecture, and access to higher education.” 16 Neither of the pioneers Thor Hansen and Karen Bulow had received formal training, but they made every effort to elevate the craft and design from a hobby to a respected art and profession. Perhaps it is less the balancing of Canadian and Scandinavian heritage, and more the struggle to promote the art itself that links Swannie with her predecessors. She similarly continued the project of raising the profile of hand-woven textiles in Canada, and because of her exceptional ability to synthesize and transcend the disparate elements of function, art, and craft her work is recognized in all of these circles. Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery’s important and timely retrospective exhibition celebrating Swannie’s illustrious career is a testament to her success and contribution.

Yet what would have happened had she not stayed in Canada and returned to her native Denmark? “I would have been safer,” admitted Swannie. Meaning that her career as a weaver would have been more secure, and perhaps even more brilliant because Denmark offers a stronger social structure for artists, which is more supportive than in Canada. What’s more, there is a larger textile industry. Woven textiles as an artistic form and as a design profession continue to struggle in Canada— witness the closures of school programs, such as those at Sheridan College, Oakville, Ontario, and at Cabot College, St. John’s, Newfoundland. This is partly because the age-old biases and hierarchies against craft and design still exist, and partly because hand weaving, dare it be said, is not popular in the current neo-craft movement. 17 The predicament of weaving, by the way, contrasts with the resurgence of surface design —custom-printed fabrics and wallpapers are in fashion thanks to digital technologies and the current vogue for embellishment and decoration in interior design. The wise Swannie, who has seen trends come and go, is not alarmed. For the future, she hopes that, “the love of good useful textiles remains and that the old knowledge doesn’t disappear.” Amen to that.

Rachel Gotlieb


1 Suzanne Swannie, notes from lecture, Design Currency Symposium, DalTech, Halifax, 2000.

2 Michael Prokopow, “Deign to be Modern,” Made in Canada (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005) pp. 93-105.

3 Roald Nasgaard, The Mystic North, Symbolist Landscape in Northern Europe and North America, 1890-1940 (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario/University of Toronto, 1984) pp. 158-231.

4 Michael Prokopow, Op. Cit., p. 105.

5 Pat Harris Interview with Don Ketcheson [formerly with Freda James] January 12, 1993. Royal Ontario Museum files, Textiles Department.

6 Rachel Gotlieb and Cora Golden, Design in Canada, (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2001) pp. 230-1.

7 Rachel Gotlieb, Op. Cit., p. 231, 249.

8 Rachel Gotlieb, “Married to Pottery: A Life of Uncertainty,” Crafting New Traditions (Gatineau, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2008) pp. 15-23.

9 Rachel Gotlieb, “Thor Hansen: Crafting a Canadian Style,” (exhibition catalogue) (Toronto: Textile Museum of Canada, 2005).

10 Gotlieb, Design in Canada, p. 231.

11 Walter Rendell Storey, “Fabrics for Diverse Purposes Come From Karen’s Bulow’s Looms, Handweaver & Craftsmen (Winter 1953-4) pp. 14-17, 53.

12 Pat Harris, Op. Cit.

13 Telephone interview with Suzanne Swannie, May 15, 2008.

14 Chris Tyler, “Suzanne Swannie: Ground Cover,” (exhibition catalogue) Halifax: Exhibition Room, Faculty of Architecture, Dalhousie University, 2000.

15 Sandra Alfoldy, “Shifting Ground,” (exhibition catalogue) Halifax: Mount Saint Vincent Art Gallery, 2004, cited from http://www.suzanneswannie.com/exhibitions2.html

16 Sandra Alfoldy, “Struggles for Recognition: Canada’s Textile Pioneers,” Crafting New Traditions (Gatineau, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2008) p. 77.

17 For instance, the Helen Frances Gregor Scholarship for a Fibre Artist has not been awarded to a weaver in many years, though Gregor herself was a renowned weaver.

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