Sylvia Stave was a silversmith who also worked in metals and an illustrator. She was active during the 1930s. Nearly 50 years later her work enjoyed a renaissance and her austere modernist designs received international acclaim.
Sylvia Stave was born out of wedlock as Sylvia Gadd in Växjö in 1908. She was initially raised by foster parents and she then went to live with her mother and half-sister in Falkenberg. According to her own accounts she also lived with her father in Kristianstad. In 1929 Sylvia Stave moved to Stockholm.
A long time after Sylvia Stave’s death it was noted in an exhibition catalogue from Stockholm National museum that: “Sylvia Stave is one of the great mysteries in the history of design in the twentieth century”. Her childhood and early education remain unknown quantities as does the reason for her sudden withdrawal from artistic life following nine successful years as artistic leader at the goldsmiths C G Hallbergs Guldsmedsaktiebolag. In 1940 Sylvia Stave married for the second time and moved to France. After that no more was heard of her and she was temporarily forgotten by the world of design, despite the extremely favourable press coverage she had received throughout the 1930s.
Sylvia Stave first appears in the newspaper archives as an athlete from Falkenberg. It was her highly artistic ambitions and interests that led her to make her way to Stockholm and Tekniska skolan (later Konstfack, college of arts, crafts, and design). She appears to have suspended her studies there, however, because in 1929 she became a student at C G Hallbergs Guldsmedsaktiebolag. She made her public debut as a designer one year later at the 1930 Stockholm exhibition.
At the age of 23 Sylvia Stave was appointed artistic leader at C G Hallbergs Guldsmedsaktiebolag. This company was one of the biggest jewellery companies of the era, numbering over 600 employees. The company was famous for its high-quality products and for employing the leading designers of the era. The company’s production was based in Stockholm and Sylvia Stave lived in a small apartment above the factory.
Her contribution to the Stockholm exhibition garnered favourable reviews. Stockholm National museum purchased one of her enamelled silver boxes. Gotthard Johansson, perhaps the most influential critic of the day, published a review of the exhibition in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper. He wrote: “Electroplated nickel silver, long neglected in terms of design, has recently become a more highly-valued material. Guldsmedsaktiebolaget […] along with other smaller companies have devoted themselves to this material. Personally I was most drawn to a few simple and stylistically sober coffee serving sets produced by Hallberg and designed by Sylvia Stahre” (note that her surname was misspelled). An image of this coffee serving set – a coffeepot, a cream jug, and a sugar bowl with details in blackened-wood – was included with the review and stood out as an early example of stylistically pure mass-produced functionalist items.
Sylvia Stave enjoyed success over the ensuing years, displaying her items at one exhibitions after another, and her contributions were almost always written up. In 1933 she, along with other trendy designers such as Rolf Engströmer and Folke Arström, displayed items produced in silver, tin, bronze, and nickel silver in the enclosed courtyard of the major department store Nordiska Kompaniet (NK).
She participated in several exhibitions held at NK as well as in the Standard exhibit held at Liljevalchs in 1934. She accompanied the various C G Hallberg touring displays mounted at fairs held across the globe, including in New York, London, and Leipzig in 1934. Ahead of her visit to the latter director Otto Decker stated: “Amongst the newest items on display prime space has been given to works produced by our lead artist, miss Sylvia Stave”. The illustrations which accompanied the article showed a smooth, orb-shaped coffee serving set with wooden handles. This austere orb-shaped design was a consistent theme throughout Sylvia Stave’s many designs, and it is, for example, reflected in the much-noted cocktail shaker with a nozzle which the Italian design company Alessi included in its new output in 1989. It was initially erroneously attributed to the Bauhaus designer Marianne Brandt, but upon the realisation of the error Sylvia Stave’s work was rediscovered and repopularised.
In 1936 Sylvia Stave was 26 years old. She discussed her love of silver and her dislike of flashy and stylistically unimaginative ware in an interview given to the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper. “Imagine how much could be achieved if more people came to grips with the meaning of quality with regard to silver and tin. That a simple item can be just as beautiful – even more beautiful from an artistic standpoint – than an expensive and overdone item” she exclaimed whilst commending designs using smooth surfaces and pure, straight lines.
Sylvia Stave’s designs from Hallbergs were created in accordance with this sober, austere and functionalist style. Her output encompassed everyday items for mass consumption – plates, bowls, casseroles, boxes, jugs, serving sets, pots – as well as exclusive individual pieces in silver and tin. One of her more unusual items was a 25 kilo commemorative silver plaque, produced on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Norwegian shipping company, Wilh. Wilhelmsens, in 1936.
In 1937 Sylvia Stave participated in the Nyttokonst exhibition held at Stockholm National museum. That same year she was involved in C G Hallberg’s contribution to the World’s Fair held in Paris. The critics lauded her work but the Paris exhibition became a turning-point in her meteoric career. She successfully applied to attend École des Beaux-Arts in the French capital. C G Hallberg’s company presumably did not form part of her future plans and, following her return to Sweden in 1939 in order to produce that year’s collection, the work she delivered became almost her final contribution to the company. In 1940 she married a physician named René Agid and moved to France. After that time, apart from a few commissioned illustrations, she no longer produced any new designs.
Sylvia Stave died in Paris in 1994. The Stockholm National museum collections include more than 40 items created by her, the majority of which were purchased in 2013 from the German-Swedish collector Rolf Walter. Several of these items were displayed as part of the museum’s Kvinnliga pionjärer – Svensk form under mellankrigstiden exhibition held at Läckö castle in 2015. Examples of Sylvia Stave’s work is also held at Röhsska museet.