The rya rugs of Impi Sotavalta as an inspiration for Henri Tervapuro
Impi Sotavalta (1885-1943, until 1905 Richter) was one of the many in-house designers of the Friends of Finnish Handicraft, working for the company in the years 1917-1939. Before taking up her position as draughtsperson with The Friends of Finnish Handicraft she worked as art teacher in craft schools in Hämeenlinna and Tampere in 1910-1916. As many textile artists of her time, she took training both in design and in art. She studied at the The Central School of Applied Arts (in Finnish: Taideteollisuuskeskuskoulu) in Helsinki in 1905-1910 and took drawing classes at the University of Helsinki Drawing School in 1906-1910. In 1913 she studied at the Lehr-und Versucht Ateliers für Angewandte und Freie Kunst in Munich.
Sotavalta was well aware of international currents in art and a soul mate to the Finnish modernist artist group Tulenkantajat (in English: Torch Bearers) of the 1920s. In 1930 she visited the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930, which is considered a key event of Functionalism and International Style in architecture and design. Sotavalta took part in many exhibitions and was also successful in
design competitions. Her textiles are represented in many museums and in official institutions, not only in Finland but also abroad.
Impi Sotavalta was an ardent traveler and during the 1920s and 30s she visited Central Europe every summer. She took the ferry from Helsinki to Germany and continued by train to Austria, France and Italy. She also visited Egypt, Turkey, Morocco and the Canary Islands, and her trips to North Africa compare to those of Paul Klee and other contemporary artists. In addition to the two
official languages in Finland, Finnish and Swedish, she spoke fluent Italian, Spanish and German. All 244 textile patterns by Impi Sotavalta for The Friends of Finnish Handicraft can be found in the archive of Design Museum Helsinki. Sotavalta was the real pioneer of the modern Finnish rya rug and one of best-known designers of this special Finnish textile type during the 1920s and 30s.
In the early 1920s she designed modern rya rugs that are inspired by old vernacular rya rugs. These modern versions of the tradition usually have a decorative border and a square centre motif and they were woven with less dense pile compared to the classical Mid-Century art rya rugs. Sotavalta used similar geometrical patterns as in vernacular textiles, but using her own motives and colours. Typical for her were branches, animals, birds and pictorial motives from the national epic Kalevala, which can be seen in rya rugs ”Helkatyttö” and ”Runolaulaja” (in English: Minnesinger).
She designed mainly rya rugs for the wall, but also rugs and also other products for the modern home using this technique: small rya rugs, cushions and mats for rocking chairs. She often used broken colours and a lot of brown, with accents in green and blue. These harmonious and well balanced colours suited the interior design of that time very well.
Sotavalta was among the first rya rug artists in Finland to create her own style, having also a distinct effect on the taste of her time. Following the Modernist call, she moved away from the traditional Finnish rya rugs in the 1920s and designed abstract geometrical compostitions. She picked up influences during her travels, from Arabian carpets but also from European art currents, Cubism and Functionalism. The popular “funkis” rya rugs (functionalistic or modernist) were composed of square colored areas, often with small branchlike elements or playing with square motifs of many sizes. The colors grew lighter, she started to use light red hues as well as small amounts of black.
In her Modernist rya rug designs, which popularly was called the block style (in Finnish ”palikkatyyli”) Sotavalta was ahead her time compared to the conservative art world in Finland. Modernism entered fine art slowly, but abstract art could flourish in textiles. In the beginning of the 30s two parallel developments were visible in her rya rugs: she made both figurative compositions like the Valkoiset hevoset (in English: The White Horses), which was very popular as DIY-kit, and more abstract and artistic ones like the Tulenkantajat (in English: The Torch Bearers). She was criticized for her stiff geometric designs, and that led her to soften the impression by mixing different tones of colors in the yarns. During the 1930s her rug designs became more and more “moderne” and towards the end of the decade she anticipated the development of the classical colorist art rya rug.
Many of Sotavalta ́s designs have been taken up for new production, and the strong compositions proved to allow for a more technical variation compared to what was used during her own time.
Annikki Toikka-Karvonen 1971. Ryijy. Helsinki: Otava.
Päikki Priha (Ed.) 1999. Rakkaat Ystävät. Suomen Käsityön Ystävät 120 vuotta. Helsinki: Ajatus.