• May, 2022

    Gunilla Lagerhem Ullberg - textile artist & force of nature

    For almost three decades, Gunilla Lagerhem Ullberg worked as head designer at Kasthall. With her strong passion for textiles combined with solid knowledge and creative power, she was instrumental in taking the brand to a whole new level. Although Gunilla passed away in 2015, she is still very much alive through her timeless rugs and patterns that adorn countless homes, public buildings, embassies and even the Royal Palace. Her warm personality, curiosity, creativity, sense of nature and craft traditions are brought to life by her three daughters Anja, Tone and Tilde. They honour the memory of their beloved mother by launching the Herbarium series - where Gunilla's blooming, kaleidoscopic patterns have encapsulated the beauty of plants and flowers forever. At Norrgavel, three of Gunilla's Herbarium patterns have been given new life on cushion covers and tablecloths in 100% linen. A heartfelt tribute to nature and one of Sweden's most prominent textile artists.

    In Södermalm, midway between Högalidsparken and Skinnarviksparken, we meet in Gunilla's old studio on Lundagatan. An address that offers a lush small-town ambience even though we are in the centre of Stockholm. Her daughters Anja and Tone are in the busy studio, while Tilde, who had to cancel due to a severe cold, is at home in the apartment in the stairwell next door. This is truly home turf for all three. When eldest daughter Anja was one year old, the family moved to the apartment on Lundagatan and the premises in the same building became Gunilla's workplace and studio. Now her youngest daughter Tilde lives in the flat with her family, while her older sister Anja lives in the flat next door. Her middle sister Tone has moved to an apartment in Old Town, where she lives with her boyfriend and children. But the bond between the three siblings is unusually strong and they socialise at least 2-3 times a week.

    Childhood memories of the three sisters' upbringing are evident in every detail of the neighbourhood closest to the bright yellow funki-style apartment building. But nowadays it is Gunilla's old friend Sven Westerlund who lives in the studio, with his artistic activities in image production. The room is cluttered with several metres long printing machines and countless photographs instead of the textiles, sketches, yarns and samples that filled the space when Gunilla was active here.

    “She was very present in everything she did.”

    – Mum worked a lot from her studio here in Söder, but was often on site at Kasthall's production facilities in Kinna as well. Throughout our childhood, we could run down and be with mum in her studio when she was working. And when we were little, Kasthall had its shop premises here in the neighbourhood in Söder too. Even though mum worked so much, it always felt like she had time for her family and all her friends. She was very present in everything she did, says Tone.

    For Gunilla, carpets were something that was fundamentally based on solid craftsmanship traditions, but which could always be renewed. In her designs, she often took an old tradition as a starting point, added a large dose of experimentation and some innovative approaches, and thus created something completely new. Gunilla was motivated by finding completely new possibilities beyond the traditional uses of weaving machines by testing new ways of creating patterns and developing weaving techniques with different materials or combinations. Always with the attitude of leaving room for chance as well, to make "the perfect mistake". When asked why their daughters think their mum became so successful, Anja and Tone answer in unison.

    “The way she could produce colour schemes was unique.”

    – For my mum it was a matter of course to constantly create. Wherever we were, she could take out her pad and sketch a new idea. She really cared about craftsmanship, and she was adamant that Kasthall's production should remain in Sweden. When she was in Kinna, she always went around and talked to all the tufters and weavers - everyone felt seen by her. She also had the attitude that nothing was impossible. This combined with the fact that she had an incredible talent for colour and pattern. The way she could produce colour schemes was unique.

    The many awards that Gunilla has received over the years confirm the image of a highly appreciated and unique designer. Some of the honours Gunilla has received over the years are the diploma for Excellent Swedish Design in 1991 and Excellent Swedish Design in 1997. When Kasthall celebrated that Gunilla had been with them for 25 years, they commissioned the Herbarium rug in her honour. It was this carpet that she then won the ELLE Interior Design Award for 2012.

    “She was genuinely interested in the people around her and brought out the best in each individual.”

    – She was particularly pleased with the award from ELLE Interiör because a carpet was recognised. Furniture had been in the spotlight for several years and she saw the award as confirmation that textiles were finally getting a well-deserved and prominent role. "Mum was very humble, but she really enjoyed attending such events. She was a social genius, the most socially competent person on earth. Even our childhood friends confided in Mum. There was a constantly busy phone line at home growing up. But she wasn't fleetingly social, she was genuinely interested in the people around her and she brought out the best in each individual, says Anja. 

    “With a kaleidoscopic pattern and a three-dimensional textile experience, Herbarium is a poetic poem in the form of a carpet. A pattern that, like a pressed flower or classic haute couture, survives season after season.”
    Jury statement - ELLE Interior Design Prize awarded to Gunilla Lagerhem Ullberg in 2012.

    The Herbarium pattern collection is made up of delicate flower petals and lush leaves, with each leaf vein showing its own unique pattern. The leaves form new patterns and fantasy flowers in a kaleidoscopic, playful way. Herbarium visualises Gunilla's great interest in gardening and flowers. An interest that only grew after she met Nicke, the man who eventually became the father of her three sisters. Nicke's family had a farm 50 minutes from town, near Rimbo.

    – Our parents had a lot of crops in the countryside in Näs and my father had also trained as a gardener. They were almost self-sufficient and grew tomatoes, cucumbers, sugar peas, broad beans and lots of flowers together with their neighbours. Throughout our childhood we went to Näs on weekends and holidays. We spent all our summer holidays there and it was easy for mum to move the studio to the summer house. It became a gathering place, there was a feeling of an open house, a place where loved ones were always welcome. Now we are the sisters who still have the lake house in common. Many of the flowers and plants that Mum used for the Herbarium series were picked in Näs, or in friends' gardens, says Anja.

    “Three of these patterns have now been selected and highlighted in connection with the Norrgavel launch of Herbarium - Gunilla's fragile yet powerful patterns printed on 100% linen.”

    The Herbarium series was exhibited at Rosendal Gardens in the summer of 2014, a well-attended collective exhibition together with the glass and textile artist Gunnel Sahlin, who was also a close friend of Gunilla's. It was not the original works that were exhibited, but scanned and printed graphic sheets of the Herbarium series. In total there are about 55 unique Herbarium patterns in the series. Three of these patterns have now been selected and highlighted in connection with the Norrgavel launch of Herbarium - Gunilla's fragile yet powerful patterns printed on 100% linen fabric. Herbarium is available as pillowcases and tablecloths.

    – Mum would have loved this collaboration with Norrgavel, says Anja.

    Work on the Herbarium began around 2011 and her daughter Tone describes the process behind the series.

    – She collected flowers and leaves which she pressed first and foremost. Then each new pattern emerged and formed completely new fantasy flowers. Patterns that were often more beautiful than the original flower. Even today, we still get a little greeting from mum from time to time in the form of a pressed flower found in one of her old magazines or books.

    “Even today, we still get a little greeting from mum from time to time in the form of a pressed flower found in one of her old magazines or books.”

    Even after a short conversation with the Ullberg sisters, the image of Gunilla as an incredibly warm, humble, social and exuberantly creative person emerges. A picture that is only reinforced the more you dig into the daughters' memories of growing up and everything they got from Gunilla's professional life. Both Tone, Tilde and Anja have chosen creative professions, but they have all found their own ways to express their creative spirit. Anja works as a film photographer, Tone has switched from hairdressing to focus on her acting career, while little sister Tilde recently graduated from Beckman's design programme and is now working on a ceramic series.

    – Mum encouraged us to try what we were interested in to find out if it would work. She mixed friendly nudges with encouragement and was able to question in a constructive way. In this way, she gave us a secure base from which we gained the skills to handle constructive feedback and criticism in a favourable way. Mum really mastered the art of encouraging us while asking good questions that helped us develop. And despite her eventful and demanding work, she was always present, says Tone.

    And the high level of activity continued throughout Gunilla's illness, from the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 until the disease spread and she passed away, far too early, in 2015.

    “She did not want to become her disease. It was important for her to live life to the full as long as possible.”

    – Mum was not a person who sat down and felt sorry for herself. She didn't want to become her disease and instead worked through the tough journey of cancer treatments and hospital visits. It was important for her to live life to the fullest as long as possible. The beautiful Kasthall rug Archipelago was completed just before she died, says Anja.

    “The Herbarium series encapsulates time and Gunilla's thriving personality forever.”

    The Herbarium series encapsulates time and Gunilla's thriving personality forever. It is a tender tribute to the beauty of life. A reminder and wisdom from Gunilla to live life to the fullest and make her surroundings flourish. The three daughters manage their mother's extensive creative work with a love that is almost palpable. And it is with enormous pride and reverence that Norrgavel is now launching Gunilla's beautiful Herbarium patterns in a series of 100% linen fabrics. By nature, with nature. ♥

    "The Herbarium collection is an expression of my passion for flowers, colours and patterns. In a crafts process that spans over a year, I collect flower petals and leaves, press them, and then arrange them by hand in multiple layers on a painted canvas, to create a uniquely crafted pattern. Originally, the images were made into limited edition art prints, where every leaf detail and every brush stroke is clearly visible."

    Gunilla Lagerhem Ullberg (1955–2015)

    ”The Herbarium carpet was developed by Gunilla in connection with her 25th anniversary at Kasthall in 2012. She based it on her numerous flower pressings. Herbarium. The complex design of this pattern did not fit into our production techniques, so we chose to print the pattern on our quality "Rita" in all white. "Rita" was a quality designed by Gunilla a few years earlier and was a carpet consisting of twisted wool yarn together with Bouclé yarn of wool and linen and Sniljegarn in wool.

    Peter Eriksson, business and product development manager at Kasthall.