Woman whose designs influenced Ikea is focus of American Swedish Institute exhibition

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Behind every great man, there is an even greater woman. Such is the story behind “Karin Larsson: Let the Hand Be Seen” at the American Swedish Institute. Karin was married to Carl Larsson, one of Sweden’s most beloved artists, who often portrayed small-town life and people working and playing. Together, they are known as Sweden’s most important artist couple.

Everything that he painted came from her, including their home, furniture design, clothing and eight children. This exhibition travels to Minneapolis from the Carl Larsson-gården in Sundborn, Sweden. In 2025, it heads to the Swedish American Museum in Chicago.

“Carl’s paintings are these iconic watercolor portraits, but what he more or less captured was everything that Karin was creating,” ASI Exhibitions Manager Erin Stromgren said. “We joke that she made the kids and all the furnishings, floral arrangements, so when you look at a Carl Larsson painting, what she’s done is what you see.”

The exhibition spans the ground-floor Osher Gallery and the second floor of the museum, with a third-floor show of Minnesota textile artist Christine Novotny. Karin’s work includes her textiles, embroidered works, dresses, furniture designs and weavings. Like Carl, she was originally trained as a painter.

IKEA influencer

Although Karin and Carl Larsson are known in Swedish and Scandinavian communities, everyone else will notice the quiet simple design of her works at one of the biggest home furnishing retailers in the world: Ikea.

Karin’s colorful textiles, the way the couple changed notions of home and play, and the idea of an “all-purpose room” where kids and adults can share space continue to influence Ikea today. So does Karin’s interest in being resourceful about storage space and having “play-friendly” furniture, some of the origins of Ikea’s concepts. (The Ikea Museum put together a show of Karin’s design work in 2018-2019.)

On the second floor of the exhibition at ASI, Carl’s early 20th-century painting “Peek-a-boo/Hide and seek,” which has one of Karin’s red-and-white runners in it, comes to life with an actual table and that runner on it. Other touches run throughout the exhibition, like a replica of the loom she used on the third floor. It gives people an idea of how she worked, and replicas of her embroidered pillow made in the 1970s and 1980s also offer a sense of her style, which was minimal yet stylish, like Ikea.

The show itself is named after something that Karin would say, if one of the weavers who worked for them made a “mistake” and the piece turned out not exactly “perfect.” Although Carl grew up very poor, the couple did well financially as his art career developed.

“They were wealthy, you could say, so there were people that helped them do things in the home, but she would design and pick out the colors,” Stromgren said. “She had weavers that worked with her, and that’s where the title actually comes from: ‘Let the hand be seen.’ When someone was working on a piece with her and they made a mistake, she would say: ‘Let it be seen.'”

Although the show focuses on Karin, the ASI owns a couple of original Carl Larsson paintings. He was known for his paintings of their children, domestic life, idyllic moments in the garden, dreamy winter days and other fleeting moments in life. A stunning painting of his son Esbjörn, sitting at the end of a long table in the backyard, was acquired by the ASI in 2020.

“You could say that her work was forever captured in his paintings and also captured in their home,” she said, “so their home acts as a living museum.”

‘Karin Larsson: Let the Hand Be Seen’

When: Ends Oct. 27.

Where: American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Av. S., Mpls.

Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue., Wed., Fri.-Sun., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thu.

Cost: $6-$13, free for ages 5 and younger.

Info: 612-871-4907 or asimn.org.

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