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Canadian designer of Swedish origin Sigrun Bülow-Hübe is best known for the AKA store on Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal. AKA represented the best of Scandinavian design—simple, beautifully crafted, locally made furniture and fabrics—still to be found, over forty years later, in many Montreal homes.
Bülow-Hübe was born in Linköping, Sweden. She spent her early years in Saltsjöbaden at the inner edge of the Stockholm archipelago. The family moved south to Malmö in 1921 when her father, an engineer, became Director of Town Planning.
She studied under Kaare Klint at the School of Architecture of Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi (The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts) in Copenhagen and spent her vacations as an apprentice in a furniture factory which had never before taken in a woman. Upon graduation she was employed by the office of the Royal Cathedral Architect for Southern Sweden, restoring medieval churches and designing church furniture until a recurrence of childhood tuberculosis sent her to a sanitorium for almost a year.
At the end of 1936 she was hired by Rolf Engstromer who was doing the most important interior architectural work in Sweden. His Jefta Furniture continued to produce her tables, chairs and beds until she moved to Canada in 1950. Between 1936 and 1942 she designed interiors for private homes and official buildings including city halls, court houses, theatres and museums, and she did representational interiors in Sweden and elsewhere including the main reception room of Eltam Hall, a medieval English castle.
In 1942 she was Chief Interior Designer for Malmö Stadsteater, the first cultural centre built in Scandinavia. No precedent existed for its planning and it fell to Bülow-Hübe to solve many new and complex technical and aesthetic problems in, for example, the storage rooms, the magazines for costumes, the room for musical instruments and so on. The timeless, elegant furniture she designed for the theatre’s great lobby is still in use.
During World War II building activity was strictly curtailed and Bülow-Hübe worked for the Swedish Housing Research Committee to establish space norms and standards for apartments and small houses that would be built later with state loans. She became a popular lecturer on building issues and a frequent contributor to newspapers about practical home-crafted solutions to problems of furnishing. By war’s end Bülow-Hübe had established her own consulting office and was remodeling private houses, designing wall papers, printed fabrics and furniture for mass production. She was also organizing Swedish exhibitions at home and elsewhere and won a Gold Medal at the Exposition Internationale de l’Urbanism in Paris in 1947 among other awards.
In 1948 and 1949 Bülow-Hübe traveled to the United States on a double fellowship awarded to her by the American-Scandinavian Foundation and by the Swedish Cooperative Organization. She drove alone across the country studying American production methods for prefabricated houses and mass produced furniture. Returning to Sweden she wrote many articles comparing American and Swedish methods and gave lectures about her research tour. Her ideas were incorporated into Sweden’s display at the Housing Exhibition
in Zurich in 1949 and the Travelling Exhibit on Swedish Building Policy, both of which she designed.
In 1950 Bülow-Hübe wrote Vi Tänker Bygga (We Think To Build), a highly successful book about housing for laymen which explained everything from how to get a loan to completing the most complex plumbing tasks. This enormously helpful book illustrates Bülow-Hübe’s rational, comprehensive approach to whatever she did. For her, good design was a serious social responsibility which married the well entrenched traditional values she had been brought up on (methods that worked and results that lasted) with modern technology. Vi Tänker Bygga was serialized in newspapers across the country.
In the same year she was invited to act as a design consultant for the T. Eaton Company in Montreal (which maintained several buying offices in Europe). Bülow-Hübe worked at Eaton’s Studio until 1953 when she went into partnership with a small furniture factory to form AKA Furniture Company. She remained AKA’s Chief Designer until 1967. Her work in those years encompassed general space planning and lay-out, and every stage of design and organization inherent in the creation of new furniture types. She sketched designs and prepared work drawings which included structural details and assembly methods, constructed prototypes and supervised the actual fabrications of the furniture. She also prepared perspective presentation drawings, selected fabrics and other finishing materials and completed cost estimates. In other words, she handled every aspect of the interior architect’s profession as it was known in Europe. In Canada at the time, she was unique in this field.
Bülow-Hübe's early yeasr at AKA were pioneering years for furniture designers in Canada, and hard ones, especially for women. Along with her partner Reinhold Koller, Jan Kuypers and James Murray in Ontario, and Earl Morrison and Robin Bush on the west coast, Bülow-Hübe was among the first group of professional furniture designers in this country.
AKA specialized in custom built high quality furniture and interior woodwork for both private homes, official buildings and public places including the Main Council Chamber in Ottawa City Hall, for board rooms and executive offices of Air Canada and McGill University, and for public spaces at Place des Arts and McGill. Bülow-Hübe won twelve Canadian National Industrial Design Council Awards between 1955 and 1959. The work was exhibited in many foreign trade shows in the fifties and she received wide international attention, especially in Scandinavia. In the mid 1960's Bülow-Hübe furnished an apartment in Moshe Safdie’s famous Habitat ’67.
In the 1970s, Canada’s home furniture industry was severely affected by a decline in public and private spending coupled with an increase in the cost of materials and labour. Bülow-Hübe left AKA in 1968. Between 1967 and 1970 she conducted an extensive kitchen research program under a grant from Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Her aim was the improvement of kitchen planning and cabinet design. In 1971 she was hired by the Office of Design at the Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce as Senior Design Consultant. Among her many responsibilities in this capacity she acted as advisor to the government and to industry on the availability of Canadian designers. She was also responsible for Design Canada’s Scholarship and Grants Programs under which a number of the most highly creative young people in the country were trained.
Bülow-Hübe was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1973. She retired from the Office of Design in 1977 and reestablished herself as a consultant in Brome, Quebec, where she died in 1994.
Taken from Judith Adamson's biographical article "Sigrun Bülow-Hübe Living Design". For the full version see Sigrun Bülow-Hübe : A Guide to the Archive- Guide du fonds. Montreal: Canadian Architecture Collection, Blackader Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University, 1997