Lena Larsson was an interior designer who decisively contributed to both the debate surrounding and also the practical development of Swedish homes from the 1950s onwards. During the 1960s she was one of the most vocal supporters of the so-called “slit och släng” (wear and tear) fashion.
Lena Larsson was born in 1919 in Tranås, where her father was intermittently hospitalised for treatment of tuberculosis at Romanäs sanatorium. Her parents were the lawyer and composer Nils Rabenius and Elsa Rabenius. Lena Larsson was brought up in Stockholm along with her brother. Her father died when she was only 5 years old. Lena Larsson went on to gain her education at the Carl Malmsten Verkstad (furniture design) school in Stockholm. In 1940 she married the architect Mårten Larsson. The couple had four children together: Kristina, Anna Clara, Johannes and Lisen. Their daughter Kristina (married as Torsson) became a fashion designer and is one of the founders of the textile company Mah-Jong.
Lena Larsson participated in studies on people’s living habits in the 1940s, asking questions such as how they used their homes, where they ate and slept, and whether there was space for children. Despite widespread cramped living standards it became apparent that people were unwilling to deviate from the norm. This included leaving the so-called reception room in homes largely unused while the family squeezed itself into the one remaining room. In other words, cramped living conditions were not just down to necessity but also due to conscious choice – in the eyes of the study’s commissioners this was seen as ignorance. Subsequently several courses, exhibitions and newspaper advice columns targeted these ill-thought-out living habits. Inelegant interiors comprising dark and muted furniture were to be replaced by lighter, brighter and more practical versions.
The results of the studies left a strong impression on Lena Larsson which could be seen in the development of “NK-bo” (NK living), where she worked as chief designer from 1947 to 1956 and where she ran courses on interior design. NK’s significance lay in it being the first Swedish “atmosphere store”, that is a furniture shop which presented its wares in inspiring set-ups. This later became IKEA’s trademark.
At the H55 exhibition in Helsingborg Lena Larsson continued to display radical ideas through her interior design of the “Skal och kärna” (peel and core) house, which her husband, Mårten Larsson, and Anders William-Olsson designed. In the house – one of the most discussed items in the exhibition – the reception room had been replaced by a more open and child-friendly general use room: it served both as a lounge and dining room, allowing for both playtime and leisure. Along one of the walls there was a long bench with a loose foam rubber mattress and in the middle of the room there was a climbing tree.
Lena Larsson’s interior design philosophy shares elements with the ideas of author and social polemicist Ellen Key. Ellen Key had already emphatically claimed by the turn of the twentieth century that the shape of the home had an impact on people’s well-being and she disapproved of ornate and stuffy bourgeois drawing rooms. Ellen Key also advocated that children should have the time and the opportunity to explore free playtime, their imaginations and emotions. Instead of controlling, limiting and curbing their children adults should focus on the needs and activities of children. After the Second World War numerous reforming educationalists conveyed the same ideas.
From the 1950s onwards Lena Larsson became a fearless and free-speaking commentator in the press, on the radio and on TV. She reacted negatively to the scientifically-orientated consumer studies and its spirit of rationalism. Instead of focusing on experiments and proof of quality Lena Larsson was a proponent of playfulness, curiosity and individualism.
What became a well-known debate on modern consumption arose in the journal Forum in 1960. Entitled “Köp, slit och slang” (buy, use and throw away) Lena Larsson directly contradicted the consumer expert and journalist Willy Maria Lundberg who in 1960 defended durable wares in her newly released book Ting och Tycken. According to Lena Larsson quality was defined by much more than just durability. She did not believe that everything needed to be repairable, and that sometimes it was simply better to buy a replacement. In 1961 a TV-debate was organised on the subject at peak viewing time. The national economist Jan Wallander was also present along with Arthur Hald, a design historian. Lena Larsson argued that there was meaning beyond manufacturing and high quality goods. Variety, comfort and aesthetics were also important. These ideas would emerge in the cultural research of the 1980s – and in research by many others afterwards – namely, the view of consumption as a transaction that was active, meaningful and significant to identity-formation.
Lena Larsson died in 2000.