When Design was in the Hands of Artists
Kristīne Budže`s interview with Džemma Skulme. From the book “Just On Time. Design Stories About Latvia”

Painter Džemma Skulme was born in 1925 into the family of artists Marta and Oto Skulme. Her parents were members of the Riga Artists’ Group and were swept away by the contemporary and the European in their art and their lifestyles. These artists were interested in early 20th century modern directions in both small sculpture as well as in applied art, and their adaptation into Latvian culture. Džemma was born a few years after the competition announced by President Jānis Čakste for the interior design of Riga Castle’s Envoy Accreditation Hall and the announcement of Ansis Cīrulis’ proposal Atdzimšana as the winner. The painter’s first years coincided with the most active years of the Baltars Porcelain Workshop, though her studies at the Art Academy of Latvia began after the war, under the Soviet occupation regime. 

How do you remember Riga in the 1920s and 1930s?

In my view, the atmosphere in Riga had a lot in common with the cities of Northern Europe and the West. Nowadays, when I look at films about this period, Riga comes to life before my eyes and comes to mind again. The movement of the trams, the cabmen, as well as some cars. As girls, we had this game. We counted how many and the types of cars we saw in the city streets. In this way, the names of the brands of these cars remained in my head. The Porsche car, which we simply called the Poršu, has particularly remained in my memory. This means that cars were something that was immediately noticeable and particularly refined in the Riga of that time. They stood out in the city landscape.


At that time, truck and bus chassis were imported into Riga, but their bodies were made here, locally. This helped save foreign currency and enabled local labour and local materials to be used. Passenger vehicles were fully imported though.

In the 1920s, goods for all shops continued to be delivered by heavy cart. Horses and horse manure were an inseparable aspect of Riga’s central streets. But cars really interested us, young girls.


Technology entered daily life later? Was the Minox camera a big event? 

Latvian army colonel and poet Raimonds Bebris, who was the Latvian Presidential Castle commander from 1936 to 1940, purchased one of the first Minox cameras for his daughter. Colonel Bebris’ daughter was in my class at school, and she took photos of us girls with the Minox. So, yes, I have held this camera in my hands. But people did not talk about it very much, as the everyday lives of most people in Riga were not affected by such technological wonders.


At first, apartment furnishings were quite simple too, even primitive. There was a mattress on which to sleep in one’s room, either on the floor, or raised slightly on wooden blocks. A little table was placed in the kitchen, but there were no cupboards or kitchen equipment. There was a little cupboard in the bedroom with an enamel bowl for washing and a similar jug with water. A bare electric bulb provided light. The first lampshades were very simple, of metal with an enamel surface. I lived through this time and witnessed how the living space gradually changed, how each person began to decorate their apartments as they understood and knew how. Furniture made in the constructivist style found its way into our home, although almost none of it has been preserved. The Daile Theatre caught fire in the 1930s. After the fire, the balcony in the viewing gallery was panelled with dark cherry-red plywood. Then, my father also made a chair of wooden slat construction, which was covered with good quality plywood right there at the Daile Theatre joinery workshops. The cushion on the seat could be removed and a box was located underneath it where small items could be stored, like some toy or slippers. At that time, children did not have many toys. I had a wooden horse, on which the children from Ansis Cīrulis’ and Emīls Melderis’ families had played before me. At that time, it seemed that an artist could do anything, even design furniture. Artists were the ones who introduced contemporary ideas.


There were few rich people, and they mainly had a specifically common sense of taste. The fact that Ansis Cīrulis’ proposal was chosen for the layout of the Latvian President’s Castle was definitely due to an adviser who was familiar with the arts. It was more an accident than the natural order of things. My school friend’s father, builder Aleksandrs Kažoks was also an exception. He had a large apartment building on the corner of Tērbatas and Stabu streets. There, in the master’s staircase and in one apartment, were wall paintings created by artist Romans Suta. Individual supporters of contemporary design and spatial layouts appeared, but this was not the standard in society’s tastes. The purchase of paintings for decorating apartments was the exception and spread only gradually. Initially, of course, realistically painted landscapes were purchased the most frequently. The layout for a typical bourgeois guest room included a sideboard, a round table with chairs that were stylistically suited to it and some Hugo Grotus painting with flowers or a bowl of fruit on the wall, which was markedly realistic, even painted naturally. Later, paintings of Latvian landscapes of high artistic quality became ever more fashionable. For example, Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš and similar artists were popular. But, works by the Riga Artists’ Group were purchased rarely, and these people attracted attention, so the rest of the layout in the apartment would be more contemporary than common.


In her autobiographical book Land unter, Baltic-German writer Gertrud von den Brincken remembers that the newly rich Latvians did not understand or value the artistic value of manor furniture.

The rich did not value it, but artists did. When the manors came into difficult times after the agrarian reform, and particularly in 1939 when many Baltic-Germans repatriated to Germany, a lot of their manor and apartment furniture appeared in shops. Artists actively purchased these, even speculatively. Even those artists who really did not have the money for them purchased this furniture. These antique items were not expensive, especially in 1939. Artists purchased historical-style furniture after the Second World War as well. But in my view, the fashion for these items among artists commenced even earlier. Vilhelms Purvītis had already proved that these kinds of items fitted in with the Biedermeier style furnishings in his apartment. This was not just in bourgeois, but artistic environments as well. Ģederts Eliass was also an example, with his family’s furniture having been brought over from Belgium. Artist Džonis (Jānis) Liepiņš created a space of bohemian character with historical style items. Seemingly, such items did not really suit his artistic signature, but he had them in his home and they also appeared in Liepiņš’ still life paintings. The environment portrayed in Leo Svemps’ paintings was similar to the layout in his apartment. Motifs from his paintings migrated to the arrangement of his interior and vice versa. Leo Svemps was an expert on oriental carpets. His house contained many Persian carpets. The carpets where the weaving master had deviated from his given sample drawing, permitting his own interpretation, were considered particularly valuable. Artists knew that in the carpet market, as in stamp collecting, the most valuable items were the ones where there was some skewing away from the standard issue, some error. The rich brown mahogany furniture tones in Leo Svemps’ apartment could also be sensed in his painting. The blue Dutchstyle plates often portrayed in his paintings also came into favour in decorating the apartments of other artists. My parents too had purchased 12 blue Dutch dinner plates at an antique store. Of course, this passion existed only among our artists and was not more widely popular.


And Latvian experiments in applied art?

The furniture created by Ansis Cīrulis was individually designed and not mass-produced. That’s why it was expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford to order furniture from Cīrulis. The demand for Latvian items increased during the era of Kārlis Ulmanis, but it did not really get established, and remained more at the level of slogans. But I do recall that furniture with Latvian ornamentation, some sort of features of an ethnographic character, also began to appear more often in the windows of furniture workshops. There were also increasing numbers of painters-decorators who knew how to and willingly used Latvian ornamentation in apartment décor. This could have been both a fashion of the time or a growing national self-awareness.


In the search for what was Latvian, there was both a literal adoption of the ethnographic as well as a contemporary interpretation of what was Latvian.

I think that the artists’ personal attitude and their personality was very important. Romans Suta and Niklāvs Strunke too, were very strong personalities, whose strength of personality and temperament may possibly have been influenced by the years they spent in Russia. Their Latvian nature came through very personal searches and discoveries. Yes, it is possible that there were areas that ethnographers and folklorists could, possibly, find fault or level criticism. However, these artists’ personalities also determined the contribution of modern art and constructivism to what it meant to be Latvian. This has also influenced me as an artist. In the sense that I can, without seeking anyone’s permission, almost shamelessly, and in opposition to the already constructed and accepted symbols, permit myself internal searches for freedom. There is good reason why Ansis Cīrulis is so strongly his own person. I remember him very well as an older man, and his facial features too. They were so proportionate. Not too round, not too square, not too large or too rugged. I can specifically see the subtlety of his facial features in the stroke of his brush as well as in the construction of his symbols. Cīrulis ignores some things or rejects something. He had such a sense of taste and style, which neither Jēkabs Bīne or any other masters in applied art possessed at that time. Yes, what is personal to Latvian artists, their tendency to the personal can be seen very well in the Latvian design which developed in difficult circumstances. There were no factories to develop design further.


Did artists gladly work with applied art/ design?

There were artists who enjoyed it.


Romans Suta had felt that he had frittered away his painter’s talent in ceramics and all sorts of applied arts projects, which were full of great imagination, but were still only “small art”.

But he had a real knack for applied arts projects. In my view, one can see that in this sense his gifts had limits, which he had already reached in his own works of art.


Applied arts projects were also an opportunity to make money.

Of course, this was also of some importance, but Romans Suta had an adventurous spirit. He enjoyed taking a risk and the creation of each new thing has a risk. He enjoyed this. It was not characteristic of Suta to create his system and then to calmly work within its framework.


Reading about Latvia in the 1920s and 1930s, it seems that everything existed for only a very brief period. The BaltarsPorcelain Workshop only existed for a few years, and the furniture workshops also closed after a few years, and changed one after the other.

Yes, it was like that. I wonder why it could not go for a longer period and develop further? It is hard to say why this did not take place. Yes, such a great and world-class phenomenon as Baltars quickly faded. Now, looking at it from the perspective of time, it can be seen that Romans Suta’s ideas for painting decorative interiors, as well as Baltars’ porcelain and Niklāvs Strunkes’ searches and Ansis Cīrulis’ ideas could have developed into a specific style, but were unable to. It all remained only as individual searches to unite the contemporary with the Latvian.


Were the difficult financial conditions the cause of this? The fact that one could not really earn anything?

Of course, such activities did not really bring in much money and one could not earn anything. The section of society that could afford to purchase something was very limited.


Could one achieve anything really substantial during the 20 years of the independent state?

Yes, the time was rather short for something to get really established and develop. However, what took place in these two decades was good and significant and could have developed further if the Second World War and the Soviet occupation had not disrupted it. But now we are talking like the people of today who are used to looking at any question from many points of view, dividing it up and developing it. At that time, everything was simple, stable, a little conservative, a little traditional, but the main thing – tasteful. Taste was an important concept. We experienced the later years of Soviet occupation with self-confidence and the conviction that we, Latvians, had a sense of taste, that we Latvian women have good taste. However, from our contemporary viewpoint, we can ask: was it really like that then and is it now? Now we are so smart that we can cast doubt on these views and allow ourselves to say that this is a myth that we have created about ourselves. My parents’ circle of friends who were artists often spoke with a markedly negative evaluation about eclectic and pseudo styles in relation to both fashion as well as arrangements for interiors. The fact that it was something bad was fed to me together with my mother’s milk. Such an attitude came from artistic circles, from people who expressed strong views, like Romans Suta and Uga Skulme for example. I remember artist Kārlis Padegs’ contribution to Riga shop-window culture. For example, in one of the display windows in some photo-salon in Marijas Street. He had great control of the space and left a delightful impression. What Padegs began also continued later. Maybe they were not quite as talented, but they had mastered the styles. Stylism or mannerism was quite characteristic in Riga, something that is called šnitīgums – as if it were modern, but still a little shallow.