Gunilla Lagerbielke was a textile artist. She worked for Lekmiljörådet for the welfare board Socialstyrelsen and then served as principal at Konstfack (college of arts, crafts, and design) before returning to her life as an artist.
Gunilla Lagerbielke was born in Stockholm in 1926. Her father was Baron Gösta Lagerbielke and her mother’s name was Margareta (usually called Gutti), née Hamilton. She had an older sister called Birgitta and a younger sister named Margareta. Due to her father’s fideicommission Gunilla Lagerbielke was born into the aristocracy. Her father then suffered a tumour of the brain and, despite surviving an operation, he died in 1932. As there were no sons in the family the fideicommissary transferred to Gösta Lagerbielke’s younger brother, leaving Gunilla Lagerbielke’s newly widowed mother alone with three young daughters to provide for. Her mother was in receipt of a small maintenance fee but their living conditions altered drastically and they moved into smaller and cheaper accommodation, that is an apartment in Stockholm. Despite this, the family maintained much of what was taken for granted within the aristocracy and Gunilla Lagerbielke’s first year of education was provided by a governess. She also made her formal debut at the Swedish royal court in 1946 and curtsied before Queen Louise.
Once she had completed her schooling at the private Anna school and then gained her school-leaving certificate in 1945 from Lyceum för flickor, Gunilla Lagerbielke enrolled in the textiles department at Tekniska skolan (now Konstfack). She had become interested in textiles through her paternal grandmother’s petit point embroidery. Further, her best friend Margareta Stavenow’s father, Åke, ran Svenska Slöjdföreningen (now Svensk Form), and at their house there were prime examples of contemporary design and handicrafts.
Gunilla Lagerbielke’s weaving instructor at Konstfack was Barbro Nilsson whilst Eivor Fisher taught her how to draw and applied sewing. The training she got was thorough and one of the many mottos the school used was “better to fail than to produce the banal”. Gunilla Lagerbielke spent an additional year at Konstfack during which she was tasked with producing textile panels for the newly-built Hotell Malmen in Stockholm. She worked on these with a group of contemporary major artists such as Viola Gråsten, Tyra Lundgren, Josef Frank, and Elsa Gullberg.
Gunilla Lagerbielke then spent a year serving as an apprentice at Hemslöjden in Borås before moving to Malmö. She was employed as a teacher at Kunsthåndværkskolen in Copenhagen, but she also continued working freelance. Her commissions originated from industrial sources and from the public domain. Just one of her creations was the textiles for the Mariestad residence, the new hotel in Kalix, Öjebyn folk high school (now Framnäs folk high school), and a large rug for a library in Lund. During this period she began to work with Svängsta Mattväveri in Blekinge where one of her creations was called TV-rutan.
In 1956 Gunilla Lagerbielke ended her period of teaching design in Denmark and that same year she married fellow designer Lars Johanson. They spent their initial time together on a nine-month long study tour to the USA, financed by stipends awarded by the Sweden-America foundation and Kungafonden. On their return the couple moved to Stockholm. Gunilla Lagerbielke worked freelance producing textile designs and other artwork. In 1959 her daughter Maria was born, followed the next year by a second daughter, Erika, and the next year by a son. Sadly the latter died unbaptised just two days old.
The couple collaborated on artistic commissions and all their combined works were signed Gunilla och Lars Johanson. In 1964 an important exhibition was held at Liljevalchs art gallery, named Form Fantasi. The couple created a two-sided embroidered textile, Transparent, which was described as “truly successful”. They also supplied a rug which Gunilla Lagerbielke had woven during a leave of absence from the hospital after giving birth to their son Pontus in 1964.
The discussion surrounding the difference between art and handicrafts gained traction and one of the outcomes was an exhibition called Varför pensel? The couple’s submission was used as the illustration for many of the articles published in the daily press, which favourably described them as “the multifaceted, excellent artists Gunilla and Lars Johanson who created the wonderfully celebratory Littorinahavet”. In 1969 the couple held a solo exhibition, Tyg, designed and sewed by the couple who also engaged with discussions regarding adequate compensation for artists.
A succession of exhibitions followed, at Röhsska museet in Gothenburg, in Västerås, Visby, Helsinki, and in Lyngby on the outskirts of Copenhagen. The couple were involved in a project on the consequences of environmental destruction on behalf of Riksutställningar (Swedish Exhibition Agency), which then toured several of Sweden’s major parks. They were a creative and versatile artistic couple, producing images for Hemmets kokbok cook book, creating patterns for handicrafts which were displayed in weeklies, running a to-order collection with materials they kept at home, and writing handbooks for various past-times.
During the 1970s Gunilla Lagerbielke applied to Lekmiljörådet and became that agency’s first administrative secretary. This entailed a fixed monthly salary, her own income at last. By that time the collaborative efforts with her husband had taken on a forced element and Gunilla Lagerbielke faced major fights with him whenever she took on a commission on her own. After 18 years of marriage she filed for divorce in 1975 and resumed the use of her maiden name of Lagerbielke.
Whilst working for Lekmiljörådet the agency organised exhibitions and produced literature on the subject of providing children’s environments that were as beneficial to children as possible. The 1974 government enquiry into culture enraged Gunilla Lagerbielke. She realised that children had been excluded from the enquiry and so went through each item herself. This led to her 1978 book Med indianpärlor från vaggan till graven: om barns rätt till kulturutbudet. The book generated a lot of attention and became a course book used at teacher-training schools.
Gunilla Lagerbielke then applied to become the principal at Konstfack. She was the first woman to hold the post and remained in position for twelve years. She was also chair of Sveriges Konsthantverkare och Industriformgivare (KIF, Swedish handicrafters and industrial designers). Whilst principal of Konstfack Gunilla Lagerbielke tackled a wide variety of tasks. She actively sought to introduce joy and self-confidence amongst both students and teachers following the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s, she managed the Konstfack chancellery, she had extensive contact with Kungliga Byggnadsstyrelsen (royal construction board) regarding successive issues in refurbishing and modernising the facilities, and she also provided support to the alcoholics at the school. Although Konstfack had become a college in 1978 the first professor was not appointed until 1984. Three years later, on the principal’s suggestion, a ceremonial installation was held for five professors at the school. These were Signe Persson-Melin, in ceramics and glass, Janne Ahlin, interior design, Lars Lallerstedt, industrial design, Vassil Simittchiev, sculpture, and Leif Andersson, painting. Another couple of years later Astrid Sampe, textile designer, was made professor. Gunilla Lagerbielke herself was appointed professor in 1987 and in 1989 she was named honorary doctor at Umeå university.
In 1990 Gunilla Lagerbielke resigned from her position as principal. Nevertheless, she gained further commissions by the current minister of education and culture, Bengt Göransson. She was made sole commissioned investigator on the enquiry into Sweden’s art colleges. She also served as chair of Bildkonstnärsfonden, a position she held for eight years. Following the review of the colleges she was then tasked with highlighting artistic development efforts, and the related research, within the same colleges. This enquiry was subsequently filed away and forgotten. Her final task was to discover how government funding intended to purchase art and artistic designs in public spaces was put to use. Towards the end of the 1990s Gunilla Lagerbielke was also recruited as an expert for Universitets- och högskoleämbetet (UHÄ, now Universitetskanslersämbetet, Swedish Higher Education Authority).
On finishing all her enquiry work Gunilla Lagerbielke was finally able to return to her own artwork. She created embroideries using thin silken thread and fine double-threaded flax, applying these to inherited damask napkins and linen towels. Her motifs included angels, Gabriel, and the angel of Death. One of her creations was a towel which had monogram at each end and on which she had sewn Lejonporten - the towel had belonged to her mother and was so worn that there were as many mended sections as embroidered ones.
Lejonporten led to an exhibition called Änglarnas återkomst, held at Galleri IngerMolin in Stockholm in 2004. She moved on from embroidered angels to fabled basilisks which she considered to be evil incarnate. She created 64 examples of this evil creature which she then exhibited at the same gallery in the autumn two years later. Most of them were also displayed at a gallery in Gotland. Her next embroidery project involved her own family and relatives, with faces merging in and out of each other. Gunilla Lagerbielke published a book entitled Klockan slog hundra slag in 2009 in which she planned another exhibition for November that year. Three years later she held the collage-based exhibition called I skuggan av lönn och silverpoppel. Although she planned yet another exhibit which was to be a tribute to Homer’s Odyssey and Sappho from Lesbos, her strength failed her before she could complete it.
Gunilla Lagerbielke died in 2013 aged 87. Her remains lie at Brännkyrka cemetery.