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Bibliographical reference: Jan Michl. "[Book review of] Widengren, Gunilla, ed. Tanken och handen: Konstfack 150 r [The Idea and the Hand: University College of Arts, Crafts, Design and Art Education in Stockholm is 150 years]. Stockholm: Page One Publishing 1994." Scandinavian Journal of Design History, vol. 7 : 149-154, 1997

Review of the Swedish publication

Tanken och handen: Konstfack 150 r
[The Idea and the Hand: University College of Arts, Crafts, Design and Art Education in Stockholm is 150 years].
Edited by G. Widengren. Stockholm: Page One Publishing, 1994, 400 pp.


This large pleasant-looking book was published to mark the 1994 anniversary of the Swedish art and design school named Konstfack, whose prehistory goes back to 1844, when a Sunday Drawing School for Craftsmen was started in Stockholm. Here we have an elegant, large tome of 400 pages in an expanded A4-format, hardbound and printed on 130 g quality paper with careful, well-arranged layout in large easily readable typeface, and with some 800 illustrations most of them in colour. It was obviously an expensive project judging not only from the price tag (approx. $100) but also from the fact that almost eighty businesses and foundations were in the colophon given credit for their support.

It is important that art and design schools publish such information about themselves from time to time. Such publications can be seen as long term investments able to invigorate both the individual identity of the school and its public image. From this point of view it was a wise and commendable decision on the part of Konstfack to invest so much into a publication of this scale. It is very important, though, that the information between covers is all the way organized with the eye on communication and ease of retrieval. It is on this point, however, that the Konstfack publication does not score as high as it could, and should have.


Let us first look at the makeup of the book. It opens with a preface written by Inez Svensson, at the time the dean of the school and the woman who brought up the book idea. After her exposition there follows an introductory overview of the prehistory and history of the Konstfack, succeeded by articles tracing the historical development of its eleven present-day institutes. At the end the book gives a bibliography for each of the twelve articles, a ten page exhaustive list of all Konstfack students since 1945, an index of names that appear in the book, a list of picture credits and a colophon with among other things detailed print-technical informations. The abundant illustration material is mostly placed in the broad outer margins while the inner parts of pages are reserved for the text columns. Illustrations are in most cases linked to the texts but they function at the same time also independently due to the fact that almost all of them have an appended text of their own. Some of the writers use also loose text blocks in the margins which together with illustrations make the book less linear and allows a kind of pleasant browsing. This is the most public-friendly feature of the book.

As a physical carrier of information, and as an aesthetic object, the book well designed. It shows the high standard which one also expects from a trade school like Konstfack. Here there is very little to put finger on. But the school has been for quite some years more than a trade school - it has been a university college. And for the past decade or so the word research has been the buzz-word in all Scandinavian art schools elevated to the university college status. It was therefore reasonable to expect, already at the editorial level, a consciousness of possible research value of a project of this sort.

Seen from the point of research, however, the publication is a disappointment. Editorially speaking, the book is too self-centered; it can be characterized as a trade anniversary celebration with little regard for those who do not belong to the insiders, and with even less regard for the future users of such a publication. Editorially at least, it is almost free for signs of interest in research, even if many articles presented in the book succeed in countering this impression. I will come back to this criticism in the second part of the review, after an outline of the book's content. Here I will only remark that it remains unclear who was really in charge of the book: on its second page four people are mentioned in such possible capacity: one person is given as the author of the book idea, two persons as responsible for the project management, and one person as editor-in-chief. To make things simple for myself I will refer to them all, collectively, as the editors.


Konstfack or University College of Arts, Crafts, Design and Art Education, to use its present official English name, is a prime school in its category in Sweden. It is marked for its wide spectrum of arts and orientations from entirely free to fully applied. Its story is told in a historical overview written by Svante Hedin.

The school began as a one-man private initiative in 1844 when the 31 year old artist N.M. Mandelgren opened in Stockholm his Sunday Drawing School for Craftsmen. His explicit aim was to counteract the expected decline of crafts after the abolition of the guild system. Within a year or so the school found itself in financial problems and an association, Svenska Sl�jdf�reningen (The Swedish Handicraft Association) was established in order to take economic responsibility for running of the school. It was now called The Swedish Handicraft Association School and after 1866 The Handicraft School in Stockholm. Since the 1840s and until 1860 when the Association handed the school over to the state, the Association received support from both the City of Stockholm and from the Swedish state. It became a full state school, however, only some 100 years later, in 1945.

The school opened early its doors to women: in the 1850s the school had two female teachers and soon also female pupils. The interest on the part of young men and women grew all the time; by 1867-68 there were almost 1600 pupils, of which some 1000 were males and 600 females. At that time the co-education was still a controversial enterprise so that when the new building was designed for the school in 1868, it provided a special entrance reserved for female students only. A common teaching was introduced first in 1879 in conjunction with a larger reorganization. At this time the Handicraft School was made into a Higher School for Industrial Arts, with a Seminar for Teachers of Drawing, and both, together with several technical schools, became a part of the new Stockholm Technical School. Although the Higher School for Industrial Arts gave instruction in areas such as textile patterns, decorative painting, model-making, ornament carving, and furniture design there were no separation into individual lines.

The division into lines came only with the 1945 reorganization when the school was wholly taken over by the state, and named Konstfackskolan (the English equivalent then was The Swedish State School of Arts, Crafts, and Design). Internally, the school was divided into three main departments: The Lower Industrial Art School offering a two-year day course or a three-year evening courses, and the two year Advanced Industrial Art School; the third department, offering a three-year course, was the Institute for Art Teachers. The Industrial Art School departments were divided into seven institutes, that of Textiles, Ceramics, Metalwork, Furniture and Interior Design, Commercial Art and Book Illustration, plus institutes of Decorative Painting and of Sculpture. In 1978 the division between lower and higher section was abolished, Konstfackskolan was made a University College, and its principal teachers could seek professor titles. In 1993 the school's official Swedish name was contracted to Konstfack.

The historical introduction does not go as far as 1993, however; it ends with the year 1978 jumping over the last 15 years of the school history. Also the changes in educational and administrative structure of the school between 1945-1978 and the structure of its institutes is only hastily touched upon. The author excuses in his text this cursory treatment by reference to the immediately following articles which cover the history of the individual institutes. The problem is, however, that the treatment of the history of individual institutes in the following texts is very uneven; while some authors do pay close attention to it (�ke Livstedt) many others do not. This absence of a reliable, extensive historical overview of the past 50 years of the school is surprising: the 100-years of Konstfackskolan's prehistory, which the introduction presents at some nine pages, is covered by a previous scholarly work written by Nils G. Wollin and published in 1951, while nothing similar has been done for the 50 years of the Konstfack history proper. It is therefore difficult to understand why this period is given as little as three pages of text here.


After the historical introduction the book features articles presenting the school's eleven institutes the ten of which teach profession education: Institutes of Painting, Interior Architecture and Furniture Design, Graphic Design and Illustration, Photography (since 1963) Ceramics and Glass, Sculpture, Metalwork, Industrial Design (since approx. 1980), Textile Art and Design, and Art Teacher Training. Since 1983 there is also the eleventh Institute of Color and Form, which provides a common instruction for students of all the remaining institutes, offering variety of courses from colour theory and perspective, to art and design history.

The articles provide a great amount of information on circumstances, personalities and works of both teachers and students, though not all of them are written well or in an interesting manner. One of the best and to me most absorbing was Ulf Beckman's presentation of the Institute for graphic design and illustration. His text, written with great gusto, combines a journey through the recent history of the trade with serious reflections about wider trade-related problems � while he addresses the public outside rather than inside the profession. One of many captivating issues touched upon is the present status of handwriting in Sweden (and apparently elsewhere i Scandinavia): Beckman points out that already in the 1840s calligraphy was made a part of the school's curriculum, and adds, caustically, that at that time "it was as unusual for grownups to be able to write in hand, and read handwriting, as it is today." He claims that only few of the present day 20-years-olds have a personal handwriting style, since most of them write in capital letters; as a consequence the young are almost unable to read handwritten texts. He suggests, without elaborating, that the present situation is a result of the 1968 all too successful revolt against the traditional ways of teaching. Another interesting issue is Beckmans warm defense of illustrated children books, an area where, as he stresses, the school has been a leader. He claims, surprisingly, that illustrating children books has had low status in Sweden despite the traditionally high international reputation of Swedish illustrators.

Also Gert Z. Nordstr�m's article on the history of Art Teacher Training Institute aims at addressing the lay reader rather the insider. He gives an illuminating introduction into the making of art teacher education and its theoretical roots since the establishment of the Seminar for Teachers of Drawing back in 1879. Nordstr�m chronicles and comments extensively also on the institute's new focus since 1968 on the pictorial language, a change which he himself was for years the main agent of as the head of the institute. Nordstr�m is incidentally the only writer who provides the reader with a table survey of changes in the institute's name over the years. He gives also the impressive list of some 25 books which the institute members and others have published on the theme of pictorial analysis, art pedagogy and related subjects between 1970 and 1993. Among these is also the widely used Picture Analysis Lexicon (Uppslagsbok i bildanalys) from 1985. Hans Hedberg's balanced article on the Institute of Photography combines deliberations about larger issues (for example, the historical relation between photography and painting, or the notion of expanded idea of reality including since the 1960s also the reality produced by various mass-media) with stimulating discussions of both teacher and former student projects. It has, however, a surprisingly sparse bibliography just as Kerstin Wickman's wide-ranging article on Industrial Design. Wickman reminds the reader, among many other interesting things, that the now internationally employed sign for the handicapped, the wheel- chaired figure, was developed at the 1968 summer seminar at the Konstfack organized by the Scandinavian design student organization, where one of the catalysts was Victor Papanek, the American enfant terrible of industrial design profession. Also the personal reminiscence written by the first prefect of the institute for Colour and Form Ernst Nordin makes a good reading. What characterizes these articles is that in addition to chronicling the development of the institutes the authors bring up and reflect about intriguing issues related to their own fields.

Some other articles suffer from a person-fixed kind of histories; they turns easily into somewhat monotonous stream of teacher and student figures presented one after another, with dutiful characteristics of each of them. The perceived need to speak of living persons only nicely, combined with absence of any discussion of wider problems of the profession makes at times for a somewhat lackluster reading. (When a more lively person description suddenly appears, the reader can be fairly sure that the person discussed is no longer among the living. But quite sure one cannot be since the authors, with only one exception, provide neither birth nor death dates of the persons discussed.)

Another problem is that practically all factual information contained in the articles, including the best ones, tends to remain buried there. The authors provide no schematic overviews over the facts they present: no lists of teachers, no tables of changing names of the institutions (with one exception), no overviews of key events in the history of the institute, no statistics. If one wants to acquire any such overview, one has to start digging. But the success is not guaranteed because the information is too often ambiguous, and sometimes missing. There is simply no place in the book where factual information is authoritatively and unequivocally stated.


This brings us back to the mentioned parochial impression the book creates: was it perhaps conceived with only Konstfack insiders in mind? Now, if the book was meant for internal circulation only, there would, of course, be no point in being agitated about its shortcomings - and no point in reviewing it either. It is no business of a reviewer to air opinions about how a "private" celebration of an anniversary should be conducted. But the book was sent into public circulation, it is sold for a price, and in many bookshops and libraries all over Scandinavia it is available for those who neither are nor ever were students nor teachers at the Konstfack. It is as a participant in this public dimension that the book merits our attention. And it is as such public book addressed to the outsiders, not as the school's internal celebration publication, that the book is disappointing. It seems that the editors simply blinked away from taking the fact of its public existence seriously. Consider the following seemingly unimportant instances.

The book is published in Swedish only, i.e. with no summaries either in English or any other language, and with no bilingual illustration-texts either. True, both Norwegians and Danes, and many Finns as well, read Swedish with practically no problems. But does the world end with Scandinavia? The editorial decision to bet on Swedish only is difficult to understand especially in view of the statements the dean herself came with in her preface to the book. The school is in the middle of internationalization, she stressed, and she described several foreign exchange programs the school has for some time been part of; not only the Scandinavian Nordplus but also the EUs Erasmus and the East-Europe oriented Tempus, which all bring quite a number of foreign exchange students for a term or two.

Another tell-tale sign of self-centeredness is that the book largely fails to mention other Swedish institutions of art education, past or present. As a consequence, the readers who do not belong to the celebrating community, are given no picture of the design school landscape in which the Konstfack and its institutes are situated. Sometimes the similar G�teborg school is mentioned, sometimes the Ume� Design College, but these are mostly insider references for those who already know, rather than a straightforward information for the outsiders who don't. (To remedy this we supply the two schools' current Internet addresses: please consult and

Still another example: Although many of the articles employ abbreviations, neither the articles themselves nor the book provide a list of the abbreviations used. Even if the meaning of most (though not all) of them is explained when they first appear, it is awkward to keep searching back for that place. Of course, insiders do not need such lists; we all know the meaning of abbreviations we use in our own professional circles. But if the book is to function in the public dimension, it should be a matter of courtesy to include such explanation list, not only with decoded abbreviations but with a few explanatory words if necessary.

There is only one section in the book designed to provide a clear-cut information aimed at a wider public: it is the already mentioned list of all students between 1945/46 and 1993/94. Here the students are grouped for each school-year into line/institute groups, with nationalities indicated in case of foreign students. In this section we catch a glimpse of a service- minded attitude which the book mostly lacks. But when the editors decided to include a list of all students, why is there no list of all the teachers employed in the same period, with their personal dates and years of their activity at the school? (Both Wollin's book of 1951 and Hallberg's book on the old Konstfack from 1959 provide such lists.) And why not a list of principal teachers, professors, prefects, deans and chairmen of the board over the years?

The book does provide an index of persons mentioned in the texts. But why does the index not distinguish between page numbers referring to persons and those referring to illustrations? And further: Why is there no index of places, exhibitions, institutions, organizations, businesses, firms, offices, key terms, notions and concepts mentioned in the book?

All this critique may sound like a case of obsessive faultfinding. But is it? A book is after all a product like any other product, and we have all learned to expect our products to be functional and handy. And our standards of functional effectiveness keep growing - just think of the fabulously rich functionality of today's computer software which many of us use daily and take for granted. Is there any reason to accept a substandard level of functionality in this book because it is a book about an art school and because it is aesthetically satisfactory?


The jeremiad is not over yet; there is one more disappointment to be aired. It has to do with the book's bibliography, and therefore, even more than the previous comments, with the research consciousness conveyed by this publication. Again, on the face of it the bibliography section appears to be all right: each of the twelve writers give here a list of the sources which provided information presented in the articles, the quotation style is uniform, the sections are well-arranged. But on closer look, the editorial absence seems palpable here as well. Some bibliographies give impression of being last minute affairs. One includes what looks like tips for further reading, while another one takes in a list of curriculum titles. While some bibliographies present as much as 25 book titles, others deliver no more than four. It is a great pity that sources were mostly treated in a summary manner. The authors could have been given, at the very beginning of their work, an editorial instruction to give high priority to detailed listing of their sources of the informations. The precious familiarity of the writers with their sources at the time of writing would have made it easy to provide much more complete references with minimal extra costs to the authors. Although footnote- or endnote-references have been seen as somewhat boring academic practice fitting only for research papers the situation seems to have changed with the growing popularity of the hypertext-based Internet since the mid-1990s. After all, one can see the traditional references, as well as the cross-references in handbooks, as the hypertext links of the Gutenberg era. With hypertext has the notion of references and cross-referencing become something which the young generation is quickly taking for granted: both the hypertext link and the academic reference are tools which open closed texts and link them with outside sources. It should therefore be received as a good news in the academia that the notion of reference has become a key building block of the Internet; as a result we can from now on perhaps be less afraid to use such very academic features as footnotes or endnotes even in books like the present one. It is true that a student cannot just click on a reference in order to get to the source. But he or she still has the second best option: to go to the library and find the article. The condition is, of course, that the reference is part of the article in the first place.

There is more good news. Now, with the CD-ROM technology readily accessible and with Konstfack's own Internet homepage ( the school has a brilliant chance to make up for the deficiencies of this very useful book. Why not use the articles with new English summaries for an information-rich homepage presentation of the school? As a series of projects for students such enterprise could be doubly useful. And why not republish the material collected in the book in a second, improved edition on a CD-ROM?

* * *

Your comments to the above review, or to the book itself, are welcome: michl.nor[at]
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Other books reviewed by Jan Michl (online):

S. V�kev�, ed. (1990) Product Semantics '89
S. Vihma, ed. (1990) Semantic Visions in Design
P. Lloyd Jones, (1991) Taste Today: The Role of Appreciation in Consumerism and Design
M. Aav and N. Stritzler-Levine, eds. (1998) Finnish Modern Design

Other online articles IN ENGLISH by Jan Michl
To all of Jan Michl's online articles
Links to other websites with design related online texts
The author's workplace 2017: NTNU / Norwegian University of Science and Technology / Gjvik, Norway
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