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Early Swedish "Sgraffito" Art Pottery by Gustavsberg

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The front of this Gustafsberg "sgraffito" decorated plate featuring a ringed design of a leafy, thorny vine.

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Written in dark blue, the mark on the back of this plate clearly reads "Gustafsberg - 1914 - EEngestrom."
lighter blue ground.
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Another vase style, signed in 1911. www.auktionskompaniet.com
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Art deco sgrafitto vase designed by Josef Ekberg, signed Gustafsberg Ekberg, 1913. www.trocadero.com.


Most collectors of American art pottery of the late 19th and early 20th century are very familiar with the major American factories (Rookwood, Grueby, Saturday Evening Girls, Newcomb College, etc., etc.), however, England and European art ceramics are, with a few exceptions, not as well known in the States. One important Swedish factory that has produced fine art pottery designs since the late 19th century is Gustavsberg (also spelled "Gustafsberg"). Most familiar to American collectors is probably their "Argenta" line introduced by designer Wilhelm Kage in the 1930s and strongly influenced by Art Deco. The Argenta line (Argent = "Silver") features an array of simple, restrained objects with an overall dark mottled green matte glaze inlaid with stylized designs in sterling silver. The green background is meant to resemble the patina on antique bronze pieces and provides a dramatic backdrop to the silver inlaid motifs. The Argenta line was popular from the 1930s to the 1960s and so a wide variety of pieces can still be found on the American market.

There was, however, some very artistic Gustavsberg pottery designs that predate the Wilhelm Kage era at the factory. Much less well known than Kage is his mentor at the factory, Josef Ekberg, the leading pottery designer there in the early decades of the 20th century. The Ekberg pottery designs, generally in the Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts style, were worked in the "sgraffito" technique. Some pottery collectors may be familiar with this terms where it relates to early American Pennsylvania redware pottery. Used here in the late 18th and early 19th century, this "sgraffito" ware featured brightly glazed redware objects where, before firing, various designs were scratched into the surface of the slip[-glazed clay. At the Gustavsberg factory the "sgrafitto" wares are somewhat different in that they feature a mottled single-color background glaze (quite often a powder blue color) that is then applied and etched with a contrasting color of slip glaze (usually in a darker shade of blue). When fired and finished these objects have the applied over-designs slightly raised against the background color.

I have a plate in my collection that features this style of Gustavsberg art pottery. About 8 1/2" in diameter, this piece features the mottled blue ground with a dark blue vine design. The palmately divided leaves on the vine resemble those of the Virginia Creeper, however, each leaf features seven lobes, whereas Virginia Creeper has five-lobed leaves. Also, the vine on my plate is clearly covered with thorns whereas Virginia Creeper is thornless. Perhaps this vine is a European native not that familiar in the U.S. or it could possibly have been done with "artistic license."

This plate is also clearly marked on the back in blue slip "Gustafsberg 1914 - EEngestrom." I have found that Elsa Engestrom worked at Gustafsberg and used this style marking between 1913 and 1916. Note the spelling "Gustafsberg" in this mark. Apparently the factory or city changed the spelling during the 1920s when it switched to "Gustavsberg."

Other examples of "sgrafitto" were also made and signed by the lead designer of that era, Josef Ekberg. In addition to the "sgrafitto" technique Ekberg also developed a number of dark streaked or mottled iridescent metallic glazes in dark colors that were produced throughout the 1920s. I don't have any additional background on Elsa Engestrom, but Mr. Ekberg continued to work at Gustavsberg until his death in 1945.
The Gustavsberg factory has continued to produce a wide range of artistic wares since the 1930s and during the 1940s switched to streamlined vases and bowls that helped launch the "Mid-Century Modern" look of the 1950s and 1960s and, of course, tied in perfectly with "Swedish Modern" furniture designs that were all the rage. Now, in addition to the "Argenta" wares and dramatic "Modernist" pottery you can also keep your eyes peeled for the "sgraffito" wares of the early 20th century.


Bibliography
Scandinavian Ceramics and Glass - 1940s to 1980s. George Fischler & Garrett Gould; Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., Atlgen, PA, 2000
Scandinavian Art Pottery - Denmark and Sweden. Robin Hecht; Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., Atglen, Pa, 2000
Marks and Monograms of the Modern Movement - 1875-1930. Malcolm Haslam; Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, New York, 1977












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