Viola Gråsten was a textile artist who contributed to the development of Swedish textile art through her innovative design creations and audacious colour combinations and ultimately brought Swedish textile art into international renown.
Viola Gråsten was born in Keuruu in Finland in 1910. Her mother, Hilda Kainlauri, died in childbirth. Her father, Sigismund Forsberg, who was a telegrapher, then got remarried to Anna Gråsten. The family, which now consisted of Sigismund, Anna, Viola and big sister Vivan, moved to Sordvala where Sigismund was employed by the railway. Around the year 1920 the couple moved again, this time to Rantasalmi, where Sigismund began to study law, but it was not long until he became an alcoholic. In 1923 Sigismund and Anna got divorced. Anna moved in with her brother Ernst Gråsten, who was a lawyer (and later Minister of Finance), in Helsinki. Viola Gråsten spent a few years living with her father in dire circumstances (Vivan had died earlier from the effects of diphtheria) until around 1926 when she moved in with Anna and Ernst. A few years later Viola was adopted by Ernst and took the name Gråsten.
During the period of 1932-1936 Viola Gråsten studied at Centralskolan för Konstflit (nowadays Aalto university college of art, design, and architecture) in Helsinki. She was then headhunted by the Finska handarbetets vänner (friends of Finnish handicrafts) where she worked as a design creator. She was skilled and innovative and by 1937 she had already won a gold medal at the World’s Fair in Paris where she exhibited a damask drapery.
During the Second World War there was a wool shortage in Finland, making it difficult for Finska handarbetets vänner to produce rya wool rugs and other textiles. Thus Viola Gråsten made her way to Sweden. In 1944 she began to work at AB Elsa Gullberg Textilier och Inredning where she created designs for rya rugs which were knotted from remaindered wool. In September 1945 about 20 of Viola Gråsten’s rya rugs were shown at Elsa Gullberg’s shop on Hamngatan in Stockholm. The rugs were formed from wool in unusual colour combinations, such as red and pink, or blue and green. Some of these rugs bore geometrical patterns, others portrayed people and buildings. They were different and made an impression. Astrid Sampe recruited Viola Gråsten for Nordiska Kompaniet (NK)’s Vävkammare (weaving room) that same year and in 1949 for NK’s Textilkammare (textile room).
During her time at NK Viola Gråsten continued her vibrantly coloured and spirited expressionism in her rya wool work. The fiery images reverberated with colours, sometimes red and black, sometimes using various shades of blues, purples and greens. Viola Gråsten and Astrid Sampe both exhibited at the Röhsska Konstslöjdmuseum in Gothenburg in 1949 under the heading of ‘Skyttel och färg’. This exhibition served as Viola Gråsten’s public breakthrough.
Viola Gråsten was not only a master of rya rug designs. She became best known for her textile designs. Her first design for NK’s Textilkammare was the 1950 geometrical Woodoo and the more expressive Tulipuu (Brinnande träd), from the same year. The vibrantly coloured material Raff was launched in 1951 and that same year Viola Gråsten won gold medals for both Tulipuu and Raff at the Triennale in Milan. In 1953 Raff was given the Good Design award in the USA.
Viola Gråsten released Oomph, which became her most famous fabric, in 1952. In it she combined the colours of blue, purple, green and cerise – colours which had previously been considered impossible to combine. Young women would travel to NK in order to buy a piece of the fabric to sew a skirt or a dress. The fabric became a symbol of young people’s freedom from old-fashioned clothing and conventions. Oomph was one of the first multi-use fabrics which was produced in a range of qualities so that it could be used for curtains, upholstery, or clothing. Some of Viola Gråsten’s other vibrantly coloured fabrics were her 1954 Casa and Festivo, from circa 1952-1954.
In 1954 Viola Gråsten submitted a couple of powerful designs to the NK exhibition ‘Signerad textil’ which focused on textiles for public spaces. Architects and artists were invited to submit designs and the show became one of the most discussed exhibitions held in the 1900s in the textile sphere. Viola Gråsten displayed her design called Scirocco which comprised thick black stripes which appear to be drawn freehand-style using a thick crayon or pencil, on a white background. The following year, 1955, Viola Gråsten held a solo exhibition of printed materials in NK’s atrium. During her time at NK Viola Gråsten also created designs for rugs which were produced at Kasthall.
During the 1956-1957 period Viola Gråsten left NK’s Textilkammare in order to take up the post of artistic head of fashion textiles at Mölnlycke Väfveri AB. The designs she produced there were not as graphic as her previous work and her themes now came to include flowers, fruit, butterflies, and birds in greater varieties than before, and still in vibrant colours. She retained her enthusiasm for bright colours and bold colour combinations. Viola Gråsten worked at Mölnlycke Väfveri AB until 1973. During her time there she created more than 100 designs for home- and fashion-use. She also designed blankets for Tidstrand woollen factory, including Snark from 1957 which became extremely popular and can be found in many Swedish homes. She also created a curtain for the Röhsska Konstslöjdmuseum new auditorium which was opened in January 1964.
Viola Gråsten died in Stockholm in 1994.