Do you ever have the urge to make something with your hands? There’s a reason why so many of us have turned to kneading dough or furiously cross-stitching this year. Swedish artist Alfhild Külper felt a craving to do something tactile alongside her busy day-job, so began making incredible wool creations for – and about – her friends and family. Writer Marianne Eloise finds out more.
Made painstakingly by hand at home over the course of a month, Alfhild Külper’s creations were borne out of a personal desire for a tangible experience, but have started to take on a life of their own. By day head of design at a high-end fashion house, Alfhild enjoys her more hands-off role, but found herself craving softness and texture, having daydreams about creating by hand: “It was a physical longing for making something again. Thinking back now, it went hand in hand with needing to make something soft on my own, but also this intense longing for something emotionally soft,” she tells me. She found that the rugs were the perfect antithesis to a high-paced industry dominated by a harsh power structure, a way of acknowledging that you can do things differently, gently.
Speaking over Zoom from the home she shares with her partner in Amsterdam, Alfhild emanates the same playful softness as her rugs. She tells me that as the world slowed down and her schedule was stripped back, she found she finally had the time to work on her project. She started by creating rugs for her friends. “Every single [rug] is made for a specific person and place. They are all inspired by the energy of the person that they are for. “It feels like the opposite of making something in a corporate way. Like, this piece is only for you. There is no process, no meetings, not too much thought. Just an intuitive feeling,” she smiles. “A lot of people were in isolation, so to make something that felt so personal and so softening was a nice way to feel connected.”
The intensity of the process, for Alfhild, means that she develops powerful bonds with each and every rug. She references animism, the attribution of a living soul to inanimate objects. “When you make something that takes so long, it almost becomes its own being. Like a child, you start talking to it. You start treating it as if it were a living thing. It becomes so important to you that when you give it away, it really feels like you are saying goodbye to a child, or an animal,” she says, adding that it’s a state of mind that children have but that adults often lose. She called the rugs her “fuzzy friends,” in part because that’s how she began to see them, as not only her friends but also as moody children who refuse to cooperate: “Whenever there was a bit of a plan with how they were supposed to look, they always seemed to go the wrong way,” she laughs.
The inspiration for each of her pieces comes from the person it’s for combined with elements of nature, but there’s room for personal interpretation: “My mom said one looks like the moss behind the house. It comes down to abstract memory. Now you’re locked indoors so much, you start to really remember nature. I take things from reality as it was and turn it into something mirrored. This is a tactile version of that,” she smiles. Every aspect of her creations builds to make something entirely unique, a response to the monoculture and waste of capitalism that she abhors. “Nothing new is needed in this world at all, but if you’re going to make something new, then make something that somebody really wants,” she says. “If we can start making and promoting things in a different way and supporting others that do it, then we have a chance to make change happen. It’s so magical.”
The respect and wonder that Alfhild holds for her rugs is sewn into the fabric and tassels of every single one. The most striking are ones that feature slightly uncanny, leaping figures that become beyond human. The figures that live in her rugs signal a return to a past self less constrained by the rules of how Alfhild felt she was “meant” to draw: “It was how I used to draw when I was at Central St Martin’s. Eventually in my last year right before I left my lecturer said, ‘Alfhild, when you come out into the real world you’re going to have to draw people like they actually look,’” she laughs. The fluid figures were inspired by her mom: “She’s a dancer and I grew up watching her and her dancers perform, so it’s always been a way for me to draw people in motion. I forgot that that’s how I normally draw, because when you work in fashion you have to draw a certain type of body. It’s another type of abstraction, but it felt so generic.” While in lockdown, Alfhild found her old sketchbooks and reclaimed her original work.
Alfhild is bright and beaming, frequently throwing her head back in laughter. Over a year that many have found draining or difficult, she’s found herself getting in touch with her inner child. “You discover all these things, basically what you would do as a child when you had nothing else to do. You make up your own worlds, you learn something, you build something,” she says, adding that she’s even found herself dressing more like a child. “I realised that now, also, there are so many of these things that come back. With all the things that happened this year, it really feels like this big reset. If you have to reset humanity, do you have to start again as a child?” she smiles.
For Alfhild, creating her rugs is an intuitive, necessary process that induces a near-meditative state, combatting the bad feelings she felt creeping in this year. “I would have gone completely crazy without it. The mental health epidemic that is following an actual pandemic is so serious as well. We talk too little about just how unsafe and insecure everybody feels,” she says, adding that her rugs have created some comfort for her and her friends. “It absorbs bad energy. Everything goes away when you do something with your hands like this. Maybe it’s about the material. Wool feels so naturally comforting and warm and tactile. It’s so touchy and it has all these qualities and I always feel like it does take bad energy and bad things out of you when you work with it,” she says, adding that it became a compensation to the digital world.