Disegno #19

A Folder of Sketches


23 October 2018

“Sketches ETH (seminar table + chairs)”. This is scribbled in red ink across a brown archival folder lying on my desk at ArkDes, Sweden’s National Centre for Architecture and Design. It takes me a moment to grasp what I have in front of me.

These are sketches pertaining to the designer Thea Leonhard’s final project, a thoroughly researched furniture solution for the auditoria at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), developed over the course of the late 1960s. Born in Finland in 1924, but active primarily in Sweden and Switzerland in the postwar period, Leonhard was an exceptionally talented designer who was greatly admired in her day. Since her tragic suicide in Zurich in 1972, however, she has been almost entirely forgotten. The folder on my desk, which has found its way to ArkDes by chance, is some of the only archival material to have surfaced following her premature death.

I am not the only person to have taken an interest in Leonhard. In a 2014 edition of the Swedish journal Arkitektur, the design journalist Ingrid Sommar wrote that “the puzzle about Thea Leonhard’s life and work is becoming more and more difficult to piece together. Time is running out.” And she was right: most of the people who knew Leonhard are no longer alive, making it difficult to pin down any information about her, let alone the whereabouts of her archives. Reportedly, Leonhard amassed a much more complete archive of sketches throughout her career. It ended up with her family after her death, and later, according to Sommar, at “a German institution”. It has yet to be located.

Let us consider what we do know. Leonhard came to Sweden from Finland in the 1940s. She was educated at the University of Arts, Crafts and Design (Konstfack) in Stockholm, where she stood out as one of the most talented students. “She was a bit peculiar but always participated in the many parties held at the school,” says Hans Kempe, a contemporary of Leonhard at Konstfack. Both Kempe and Leonhard became part of the design collective HI-Gruppen (the HI Group), which advocated quality and craftsmanship over standardisation and mass production.

The student gender balance was relatively even at Konstfack during this time, but few of its female graduates ended up making a career in the design industry. A notable exception was one of Leonhard’s tutors, the interior designer Lena Larsson, whose ideas about practical and child-friendly home environments had a great impact on the ways in which Swedish families furnished their homes in the postwar years. Larsson recognised Leonhard’s considerable potential and recommended her for several commissions after she completed her degree.

Shortly after graduating from Konstfack in 1949, Leonhard met Léonie Geisendorf, one of the few prominent female architects in Sweden at the time, and who was, like Leonhard, an immigrant who had come to Sweden during the Second World War. Geisendorf had just established a practice with her partner, Charles-Edouard Geisendorf, and a villa in Stockholm’s Ranängen neighbourhood was one of their first projects. The couple hired the young Leonhard as the interior designer on the brief. The encounter with the Geisendorfs was to be a fateful one for Leonhard’s career, eventually taking her to Switzerland.

Following Villa Ranängen, Leonhard acquired a new project through her former Konstfack teacher, Larsson. In 1953, the entrepreneur Erik Elinder required an interior designer for his Renhornet mountain lodge in northern Sweden, and Larsson recommended that he commission Leonhard for the project. Elinder’s idea was that Renhornet would serve as a recreational centre for businesses, their employees and their employees’ families. Elinder’s son Björn Elinder, who runs the lodge today, remembers Leonhard as being shy and withdrawn – just as so many others do. But at the same time, she was quick, firm and skilful in her execution of the project. Björn Elinder was deeply impressed by the highly resolved “total interior” produced by Leonhard, who was still a relatively inexperienced practitioner at that point.

The degree of flexibility exhibited by much of the furniture at Renhornet was a characteristic that would go on to reappear in much of Leonhard’s later work. The shelving system in the living-room area, for instance, has folding tables attached, which were used by visitors’ children for games. The sofa in the same room is adjustable depending on how many people wish to sit on it. The constellations of lamps hung at different levels would also recur in many of Leonhard’s later interiors. Furthermore, elegantly executed and occasionally humorous symbols hint at what is behind each door. A little cockerel is found on the toilet door, for instance – the Finnish word for cockerel is slang for “loo”. Elinder still diligently cares for this environment, preserving it as it was left by Leonhard. He says that the interior has hardly aged, with very few elements having needed to be replaced. Elinder’s father was so pleased with Leonhard’s work on Renhornet’s interior that he later commissioned her to create furniture for the family home in Stockholm.

During her time in Sweden, Leonhard worked with a number of leading architects. In the middle of the 1950s, she collaborated with AOS (Magnus Ahlgren, Torbjörn Olsson and Sven Silow), one of Sweden’s most prolific architectural practices in the second half of the 20th century. The practice is known for designing the Sparbank house in Stockholm (1962-3) and was behind the acclaimed extension of the Swedish parliament in 1983. Leonhard worked with AOS on an exclusive showroom for the Gustavsberg porcelain factory in 1955, one of Sweden’s most distinguished porcelain manufacturers. In AOS’s collections, I have previously found a folder of sketches signed by Leonhard which detail the showroom’s simple but elegant furnishings, with numerous perspectival pencil drawings showing different parts of the room. There are also drawings with technical specifications that would have served as instructions for the builders.

In the summer of 1955, the southern Swedish town of Helsingborg hosted an international architecture and design exposition. In Sweden, the show became known as H55, and Leonhard participated with her Flamingo chair. This was a trim, Windsor-style piece, which was critically lauded and eventually bought by Sweden’s National Museum. The chair was produced by Nässjö Stolfabrik and seems to have been taken on by a US manufacturer too, where it went by the name of “American”.

In 1960, the Vocational School for Domestic Education and Sewing (Yrkesskolan) was inaugurated in Stockholm. The building was designed by Léonie and Charles-Edouard Geisendorf, who had created a brutalist structure which has since been loathed and revered in approximately equal measure by locals. Leonhard was responsible for the building’s interior and populated the rooms with furniture by some of Scandinavia’s finest designers, with Alvar Aalto, Carl Malmsten, Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner among those represented. Leonhard also designed some of the furniture herself. Her work was praised in a 1965 edition of the US magazine Interiors where, under the headline ‘Trade school with jubilant interiors’, the building and its furnishings were lauded in the following terms: “Marvellously handled wood trim and furniture contribute warmth and an appropriate, reassuring sense of quality”. The journalist and author Gunilla Lundahl, who worked for the Swedish design magazine Form for many years, remembers her first contact with Leonhard. “I was fascinated by her,” says Lundahl. “She had something matter-of-fact about her, a form of knowledge that seemed located in her hands.” During the 1960s, Leonhard would become the only female member of Sweden’s HI Group. “Leonhard was in a vulnerable position in the HI Group,” Lundahl says. “She had to fight hard to retain her place.” At this time, she was also spending a lot of her time in Switzerland, and so only designed a few select pieces for the group. Among these was a children’s chair that can be stood upside down once the child grows out of it (such that it becomes a larger variant of the same chair), a revolving book shelf and a collapsible double bed.

At some point in the mid-1960s, Leonhard moved to Zurich. According to some of the people I have been able to speak to about Leonhard’s life, she was in love with Charles-Elouard Geisendorf, but whether this was the reason for her move is uncertain. At any rate, Leonhard worked with the Geisendorfs on the interior for Geneva’s Unesco building, as well as on a residential project outside of Zurich. Meanwhile, Charles-Edouard was a a professor at ETH in Zurich and worked there on the renovation of the school’s auditoria. In connection with this renovation project, Leonhard was invited to develop a seminar table and accompanying chair for ETH. She was one in a research group of five, which included ergonomics professors Etienne Grandjean and Ulrich Burandt, as well as Günter Wotzka and Horst Kretzschmar from ETH’s ergonomics institute.

Like many others, I’ve attempted to find more information about Leonhard’s time in Zurich and the project which was to become her last. Ingrid Sommar was fortunate: at the time she wrote her article, many of the key people in Leonhard’s life were still alive. One of the people Sommar spoke to was Elina Morales, an interior architect and close friend of Leonhard. Morales told Sommar about a telephone conversation between her and Leonhard only a week before she killed herself. Leonhard said that she felt despondent about being unable to patent the design solution she had developed for the ETH chair. Her colleagues had excluded her from the project, Morales reported her as saying, and taken credit for her idea. “I have the sense that Leonhard was very isolated in Zurich,” Sommar explains. “She did not seem to socialise and at ETH there was no-one who seemed to know her name, even though she had been there for many years and worked with Grandjean and Geisendorf – teachers with whom the students were familiar.”

In a 1969 edition of the German journal Das Werk, several pages are devoted to the ETH auditoria project. Leonhard is name-checked as the interior designer behind the project and seen working on a prototype in an accompanying photograph. The starting point of the project had been a symposium about ergonomic sitting, organised by Grandjean in 1968 which brought together experts from all over the world. Leonhard’s task was to replace ETH’s uncomfortable chairs with a more functional, flexible and ergonomic seminar chair. She began by testing the existing seating systems available on the market, but did not find anything she felt was satisfactory for ETH. She proceeded to conduct painstaking studies of students’ patterns of movement while they attended lectures and, in parallel with this work, collaborated closely with Grandjean. From this thorough groundwork, she began developing a number of prototypes where durability, function and materials were tested in the lecture theatres themselves. In a 1969 article published in Schweizerische Bauzeitung, the newly renovated auditoria at ETH are mentioned. Charles-Edouard Geisendorf provides an account of the project and mentions Leonhard, who he describes as having worked “according to professor Etienne Grandjean’s guidelines”.

The newly discovered sketches feel like they may be an important piece in the puzzle of Leonhard’s life. They are concrete and living proof of her painstaking working process. Beyond the sketches, however, little further information exists about Leonhard’s final years. ETH’s architecture department has confirmed that the project was completed and that the school still has the chairs. But nobody there has heard of Leonhard. What happened in those final weeks in 1972 before Leonhard took her life? Here, there is to date a gap in my research. What happened between the completion of the project in 1969 and in 1972, when she expressed her despair to her friend Elina Morales? Leonhard only lived to the age of 48. Why she took her own life is ultimately a matter of speculation, but the drawings taken on by ArkDes bear witness to a designer of great technical prowess. Sommar, who studied the newly uncovered sketches with me, is struck by how clearly Leonhard’s expertise comes to light in them. “Construction-wise, they are so interesting,” says Sommar. “She had great technical expertise but at the same time she had a confident eye for form.”

It is fair to assume that Leonhard had to work harder than her male colleagues to forge her career. Throughout her professional life, she was usually the only woman in male-dominated groups and contexts, from the HI Group to her final project at ETH. Sadly, her rational approach, technical adroitness and strong sense of form may have stood out and provoked her colleagues, Sommar suggests, rather than prompted their admiration. Many of my questions surrounding Leonhard and the seminar chairs remain unanswered. But the folder of sketches that has found its way to ArkDes can hopefully provide Leonhard with just a little more of the recognition she deserves.