Elegant Simplicity, Website Design and a Pilgrimage to Sundborn

When Google rolled out their first search site in 1998 their website amazed everyone for its simplicity. At that time most websites seemed to strive for the chaotic jumble favored by portals like Yahoo, where the aim appeared to be to use every word, every font and every color that ever existed in the same page.

Sadly, though Google inspired many me-too search sites, most other websites continued the tradition of complexity, though perhaps with a little more elegance as website creators became more design-focused and less concerned with the underlying technology.

This year I was pleased to see the emergence of many new sites which moved clearly towards elegant simplicity where the complexity of the machinery in the website was hidden from view and the user interface a pleasure to see and to use. Websites like the Vox.io internet telephony service and the Zerply networking site are two examples I use regularly and are very easy on the eyes but clearly functional. There are plenty others, though not so well known.  (If you have created a site you think I might want to use as an example in lectures and workshops please send me a link.)

Unfortunately many other new sites ignore this trend and either continue in the tradition of visible complexity, some even reaching levels of visual confusion not seen since the heyday of Myspace -- there are too many of these to list, too, but two that merit a mention here are Empire Avenue and Unthink. Perhaps there are some people who like this style but it does seem a step backwards.

Looking at these neo-complex sites set me wondering what would have happened if some famous artists from the past had been web designers (I also wondered what might have happened if Matthew "Oatmeal" Inman had not been a web designer but a renaissance artist). It might, I thought, be an interesting exercise for a designer with plenty of spare time to imagine a website designed by Tamara de Lempicka or Keith Haring, and that reminded me of one of the most influential figures in the shift from cuspy, baroque design to what we now would consider a "modern" look, the Swedish artist Carl Larsson.

A hundred years ago when all of his friends and neighbors still furnished their homes with dark, complex, scary furnishings, Larsson and his wife Karin Bergöö -- also a talented artist in her own right -- developed for their own home a style that was decades ahead of its time, pioneering the Nordic look now popular the world over, and available to everyone in a degraded form from discount furnishing stores. Quite possibly the Larsson's style would have been long forgotten were it not for the happy fact that Carl had been commissioned to paint illustrations for the then new, mass-market, full-color printed books and often used his home as the backdrop for these paintings. These illustrations put his design vision almost literally in every home, popularizing a taste for the Larsson style.

For most dead artists we have to be happy with books, websites and the occasional exhibition of their works. For the Larsson's we are fortunate that the family home, Lilla Hyttnäs, in Sundborn, Sweden, has been preserved exactly the way it was in Larsson's day a hundred years ago. You can visit the house and actually stand in the midst of familiar scenes like the drawing room -- the background of many paintings -- and see the studios where he did most of his other work.

If you are interested in design and you are in the north of Europe the Lilla Hyttnäs estate in Sundborn, Sweden is something you mustn't miss. It is about three hours from Stockholm but well worth the trip since you find yourself immersed in the world of Carl Larsson and his unique creative vision, perhaps marveling like me at how he could be so far ahead of his time while so many of today's web designers seem to be so equally behind their own.

There are details about visiting the Carl Larsson Lilla Tyttnäa estate on the official website.  To visit the house you have to be in a group touring with a guide. Because the house is so popular and the space limited you should book your tour in advance.


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