Ulrica Hydman Vallien (1938-2018) was one of Sweden’s most successful and popular glass designers. With her colourful, striking brushstrokes and characteristic design, she won people’s hearts – both in Sweden and internationally. Ulrica combined boundless playfulness with exquisite craftsmanship. She left no one unmoved. Her tulips spread everyday joy. She was a rebellious glass artist, a storyteller whose sense of humour brought her great public support and appreciation. With her expertise, she generously supported young artists who came through the glassworks, including Gunnel Sahlin and Åsa Jungnelius.
Ulrica was admitted to the ceramics department at the University of Arts, Crafts and Design in 1958. Stig Lindberg was her primary teacher, and her future husband, Bertil Vallien, was in her year. After graduating from the University of Arts, Crafts and Design, Ulrica took several trips to Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain to continue her studies. She also spent an extended period in the US and Mexico, where she studied more and honed her skills in ceramics.
When Bertil took a job as a designer at the Åfors glassworks in 1963, the Hydman-Vallien family settled down near the studio. Ulrica continued to work with ceramics and established her own ceramics workshop. However, several years would pass before she had the opportunity to work with glass at the studio in Åfors – which she had remarked upon aloud for quite some time. The director at the time, Erik Rosén, finally responded and worded the first assignment rather provocatively: “You’re a woman! You can design a romantic series! Because as a man, Bertil is incapable of it.” Ulrica accepted the challenge and responded with the Optikon series, comprising clear glass and opaline blue vases, driven and blown into optical shapes. The optical effects made the glass shimmer, and the ample designs made the series an immediate success. Next, the glassworks wanted to expand the collection with a product that would be suitable to present as an exclusive gift. This idea was miles away from her more radical view of acclaim. And her response – a glass bowl decorated with big, black rats – was promptly rejected by management.
In the 80s, 90s and 2000s, Ulrica helped to create Kosta Boda’s collections – the glassworks’ strong design profile. In addition to utility glass, she designed unique art glass pieces infused with stories, personal experiences, and feminine and biblical elements. The tulip and the snake make regular appearances in her efforts to depict paradise. Because of the stories, she is much discussed, incredibly popular – and continues to be viewed as contentious.
Ulrica enjoyed problem-solving to fulfil special wishes. The assignment to make something for “elderly gentlemen” to keep on their desks urged her to keep her mind open to the presence of others. The series Open Minds is a success for Kosta Boda. Ulrica did not hide away her success; she knew how important it was for her art to be mass-produced. She felt that making something broadly popular and purchased by the thousands was far more challenging than making a single, unique product. Her topsellers also include Caramba, Tulipa and Mine – not all of which were expected to be natural successes. Kosta Boda’s management had to be persuaded to produce Mine. The salespeople wanted to produce 3,000 of them, but IKEA’s order for 40,000 quickly turned the series into a bestseller.
Ulrica has summarized her provocative and creative motivations as follows: “Desire, energy and passion: I love and I hate at once. I am contrary and committed. With glass, everything is possible. Glass is immediate, intense, demanding, and never moderate. I paint and tell stories on and through transparent glass. Without rules or frameworks, governed by my emotions and instincts.” Ulrica was a multifaceted artist. In addition to her career as a glass artist/designer, she also made paintings, watercolours and textiles with characteristic motifs, and decorated everything from crystal vases to British airplanes. Her clients included companies like Kinnasand, Romella, Ericsson, British Airways and Rörstrand.