Anna Åkerdahl Balsamo-Stella

Anna Åkerdahl, large Mosaico vase for Ferro Toso, 1920, in the Weisman collection.

The life and work of Anna Åkerdahl has been obscured to such an extent that she probably will not get the praise and recognition she deserves. Why any important artist falls into oblivion, or even never in his or her lifetime stepped into the limelight, is a field of study that has been researched extensively by art historians. The pattern is clear: unless the artist's oeuvre was not to according contemporary taste (i.e. usually either too groundbreaking, too traditional, or deemed too foreign) and was ignored/misunderstood for this reason, explanations are normally to be found in variables related to the identity of the artist such as gender, ethnicity and social background.

Considering that art and design history was written from 1) a national point of view until the late 20th century and 2) mostly by men (often about their male friends) it does not take much to explain why Åkerdahl never was relevant enough for Swedish design critics and historians. The consequences of this silent dismissal, which was harsh reality for many women artists, especially those living abroad, hampered their careers as the market wanted famous designer names to their products. It is also partly why so little until recently had been written about a prominent designer/artist such as Tyra Lundgren. This is certainly the case with Anna Åkerdahl too, but there are other explanations that I think are more important.

First of all she was a Swedish woman working in Italy. It is probably no coincidence that several Swedish women designers worked in Venice in the first half of the 20th century: besides Åkerdahl there were Tyra Lundgren for Venini and famous textile designer Maja Sjöström. (Sjöström visited Venice for the first time in 1918 to oversee the production of her textile commission for Stadshuset in Stockholm. Being a true glass aficionado, Sjöström wrote about Murano glass in Swedish magazines and imported Italian faience, glass and textiles for her luxury shop specialised in Italian crafts, Blå boden, which was run by her sisters in Southern Sweden.).

Gender equality in Swedish art education had simply come a lot farther in Sweden than in Italy and all over Europe the art industry needed women in the workforce after the first world war which, with its millions of killed and wounded young men, had left behind an unprecedented shortage of able men . A rather exceptional portion of the successful Swedish women designers, such as already mentioned Lundgren and Sjöström, never married – and a dozen of other women designers can be added to that list. It was clearly a career strategy to avoid becoming someone's housewife. Åkerdahl however did marry and while she never became a typical housewife she was quickly overshadowed by her younger man: Guido Balsamo Stella.

Anna and Guido married in 1908. They seem to have lived together in Munich for some time until, at the outbreak of war, they decide to move to Stockholm. Besides some minor graphic works for Guido the years in Sweden were decisive for his budding career as a glass designer. It was at Orrefors that he studied their masterful glass engraving techniques which eventually were to put Simon Gate and Edward Hald at the world stage in Paris 1925. Guido and Edward Hald became good friends and Guido was later, with the help of Bohemian artist Franz Pelzel, to transplant his understanding of glass engraving to Italy with his engraved designs at Ferro Toso and later S.A.L.I.R. 

When Guido and Anna moved back to Italy in 1919 they both worked briefly for Artisti Barovier/Vetreraria Artistica Barovier. In late 1920 (often erroneously noted as opening 1921) Guido Balsamo Stella and Anna Åkerdhal were put in charge of the commercial Italienska utställningen at Liljevalchs in Stockholm. The rare catalogue, which unfortunately lacks illustrations, reveals that Andre Rioda (who died the year after) showcased a number of works for Arte Decorativa Vetraria. Fratelli Toso was also represented as was Vetreria Artistica Barovier and SAIAR Ferro Toso. Besides art glass by Wolf-Ferrari the only designers representing Vetraria Artistica Barovier were Anna and Guido Balsamo Stella. In addition the couple also showed recent pieces made at Ferro Toso which altogether must have been a rather impressive body of work. It is important to note that their works are not mentioned as collaborations.

Anna Åkerdahl, Chalice mosaico, 28cm, 1920 for Ferro Toso. Torino private collection.

Anna Åkerdahl, Chalice mosaico, 28cm, 1920 for Ferro Toso. Torino private collection.

Exactly what they showed has been almost impossible to know since there are no photos from the exhibition in the Liljevalchs archives. A lidded red urn said to be by Guido was however acquired by the National Museum in Stockholm and a similar urn attributed to Guido surfaced on the Swedish auction market a few years ago. They both carry the “comet” signature that Guido previously had used in his printmaking. If understood correctly it was not until Rosa Barovier-Mentasti catalogued a private collection that surfaced the art market as Important glass 1910-1960 (Sotheby's, Geneva 1990) that a spectacular vase in the mosaico technique - often seen as a pinnacle in early modern Murano glassmaking - was attributed to Anna Åkerdahl rather than, as had been previously thought, the arguably best designer of mosaico glass: Vittorio Zecchin. Barover-Mentasi had found that the murrine in the mosaico vase matched similar triangular murrine illustrated in a contemporary magazine Architettura e Arti Decorative (1921) showing glass by Anna that was exhibited in Stockholm. Interestingly this vase was signed with a comet, meaning that Anna and Guido, at least occasionally, were using the same signature. This vase is now in the Wiesman collection and illustrated in Venetian Art Glass - An American collection (Barovier, 2004).

When you then compare other simpler works by Åkerdahl illustrated in the same magazine they bear a a rather close resemblance to the already mentioned lidded urns by Guido. In the magazine there are altogether five pieces of mosaico glass by Åkerdahl: two plates, two chalices and one vase. One of the chalices is today in a Torinese private collection and is illustrated in Il vetro a Venezia (1999).

In the National Museum in Stockholm I recently noticed that Swedish architect Ferdinand Boberg, a friend of Anna Åkerdahl, had donated a vase by Anna to the museum. The gourd-shaped vase has never been illustrated in any Swedish or Italian publication on glass, and unfortunately never even been on display either. The strong resemblance in form and colour to the vase in the middle of the magazine illustration and the fact that it belonged to a Swedish architect make a very strong case for it having been a part of the Liljevalchs exhibition of Italian design in 1920-1921. What we don't know yet, however, is what  designs she made for Barovier - though the catalogue mentions both art glass and more utilitarian pieces of glass. (The catalogue does specify that Guido's art glass designs for Barovier used the zanfirico technique).

It is a shame that glass of this extraordinary quality and importance by Anna has not received much recognition while, on the other hand, the early career of her husband Guido has. I think however there is enough evidence that the most spectacular pieces, the mosaicos, by Ferro Toso (and hypothethically Barovier) were designed by Anna rather than Guido. We have to bear in mind that the best mosaico vases today are far more valuable than any piece of Scandinavian glass ever made, including the early ariels by Orrefors, and sought after by private collectors and museum all over the world. This raises questions as to why and how Anna Åkerdahl has received no recognition still in this age when there have been several state sponsored exhibitions about 20th century women designers in the name of equality. I don't think it has to do so much with her not really being a part of the Swedish design concept aesthetically, or excluded for geographical reasons, so much that nobody knows about her anymore. Which is unfortunate.

What her contribution was to the SALIR company is not something I have looked much into – if it even is possible to know. It is rather telling of the time that Guido's growing reputation as a designer made it important to downplay their collaborative relationship. There are a important works by Guido from the late 1920's and early 1930's that bear resemblance to earlier designs known to be by his wife. 

During this time Anna worked mainly as an exhibition curator and a teacher in weaving and textile design. She did introduce modern Swedish weaving techniques to Italy but there is nothing in her background that I am aware of to suggest her shifting focus from glass to textiles. Rather I think it had to do with her husband being an easier name to brand and also with the increasing limitations and fewer opportunities for women in Italy. In Made in Italy: rethinking Italian design (2013) we find this interesting passage by Elena Dellapiana:

Anna Åkerdahl, Gourd shaped vase, Ferro Toso 1920, National Museum Stockholm.

Anna Åkerdahl, Gourd shaped vase, Ferro Toso 1920, National Museum Stockholm.

New professors, particularly foreign hires, brought northern European educational models to Italy. Among them [...] Anna Åkerdahl, the Swedish wife of Balsamo Stella and also his assistant director, coordinated the newly established weaving workshop. The weaving workshop was restricted to women only, who were excluded from boarding at the school and from other workshop due to Fascist regulations demanding seperate classes for men and women, while shared accommodations were considered improper.

Åkerdahl's contribution to Italian design did not stop there however. She wrote articles on design for Domus that were full of insight. The lengthy piece she wrote on the Stockholm Exhibiton in 1930 is one of many examples where she introduced contemporary Swedish design to Italian readers. The biggest surprise I got was however when I found an article written by Emilio Lancia in the same magazine. The young Italian critic and architect - friend of both Venini and Buzzi - was praising Anna Åkerdahl's newly built house that she had designed herself planned as an ancient Tuscan villa in a modern style. (Emilio Lancia, Villa Orsetta in Firenze disegnata da Anna Balsamo-Stella, Domus 10, 1929). 

As a final anecdote showing the complete disregard for this incredible woman and her achievements this very same Florentine house with an inventory of design treasures was donated to the Swedish Academy to be used by young Swedish writers. They turned her generous offer down in a dry public statement. Who the hell was she anyway?