The Making of Classics, Part 2

(Re-post of article here)

By Nynne Just Christoffersen, Bard Graduate Center, MA candidate

// This is a response to RCA/V&A graduate Justine Boussard’s article, The Making of Classics Part 1, part of the Cross-Atlantic Dialogues in Design project. To read more about the project, click here. //

By systematically presenting a select body of work, design collections all over the world have participated in creating a unified thesaurus of modern furniture. Since classics within design museums are often easily recognizable ‘best-offs’ from a limited group of designers, the same armchair will inevitably appear in collection after collection. All would be fine and well with this homogeny if only design museums did not simultaneously fall for the temptation to try and sell their ‘greatest hits’ as something preciously rare. The very concept of classicism in museum design collections, indeed, can be enough to raise the question: when does a modern piece of furniture turn into a classic?

Many art historians have argued that specific national traits can explain why some objects have been canonized as ‘classic’. In the case of modern Danish furniture design, international success has generally been credited to a Nordic crafts tradition and the resourcefulness in choosing the materials at hand –wood – to overcome the general scarcity of raw materials in the inter- and postwar period. As well as a social awareness that induced architects to produce high-quality yet reasonably priced furniture for The Joint Association of Danish consumer cooperatives, FDB, which brought the quality of architect-drawn and semi-mass-produced furniture into the homes of the Danish middle class.

A sketch of an armchair from 1945.

Watercolour by Finn Juhl. A sketch of an armchair from 1945. Photo by Pernille Klemp. With Permission from Design Museum Denmark.

The history of ‘Danish Modern’ furniture is linked with the establishment of the Department of Furniture and Interior Decoration at Copenhagen’s Academy of fine art under the direction of architect and designer Kaare Klint in 1924.(1) During the thirty years Klint was the director, till he passed away in 1954, he conducted a series of studies measuring the proportions and the movements of the human figure, that he assigned his students to take use of when designing furniture. Klint established a school for strict form lined, simplistic and functional furniture. He was inspired by the lines and forms of the Bauhaus movement and, agreeing to the statement of architect Le Corbusier that a house should be seen as a machine to live in, Klint declared “a chair is a machine to sit in.” 2 Kaare Klint’s concept of functionalism formed the generation of designers that defined ‘Danish Modern’ movement, including such household design museum names as Hans J. Wegner, Børge Mogensen, Arne Jacobsen, Poul Kjaerholm and Finn Juhl.

Danish art historians have widely agreed to relate the international acclaim of architect-drawn Danish furniture of the postwar period with a specific national aesthetic. Another explanation for how Danish furniture design became ‘classic’, however, is to be found in the economic mechanisms that were caused by the political turmoil of the mid-century. Throughout the Second World War the domestic market for furniture design was protected against competing foreign products and influences. During this time, collaborations between the carpenter’s guild of Copenhagen and Danish architects were established, and nursed through a series of yearly exhibitions organized by the cabinetmakers’ guild, the Snedkerlaugets exhibitions. After the war new markets opened up and for a select few designers the contact with the rest of the world, and particularly America, opened up for a major export adventure.

John F. Kennedy

Hans J. Wegners’ best known design was simply known as ‘the chair’. In its most historic moment, it was chosen in 1950 as the seating for the TV debates between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. With permission from PP Møbler.

Furniture designer Hans J. Wegner exhibited his work for the first time at MoMa in 1948, with Chairs in molded plywood for MoMA’s competition on low-cost furniture. Wegner was the first Danish Designer to be introduced to the USA in 1949 by the highly influential importer George Tanier. 3 Much of the pieces of furniture that are today considered to be Danish design icons were produced specifically for an export market, and thus found their way to the classical design exhibitions. It was through exposure in the rest of the world that the ‘Danish Modern’ movement was defined internationally. The introduction to a world audience via USA meant that furniture such as Wegners’ chair, along with the works of several of his contemporary colleagues became synonymous with Danishness.

References

Ellison, Michael and Leslie Pina, Designed for Life: Scandinavian Modern furnishings 1930-1970. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd. 2002.

Gura, Judith. Sourcebook of Scandinavian Furniture: Designs for the 21st Century. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Hansen, Per H. Da Danske møbler blev moderne: Historien om Dansk Møbeldesigns storhedstid. Copenhagen: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2006.


1 Judith Gura, Sourcebook of Scandinavian Furniture: Designs for the 21st Century. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 16-18. And Per H. Hansen.  Da Danske møbler blev moderne: Historien om Dansk Møbeldesigns storhedstid (Copenhagen: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2006) 49-66.

2 Per H. Hansen and Klaus Pedersen, 250 Danske Designmøbler (Copenhagen: Aschehoug, 2004), page 12. Translation by author from; ”en stol er en maskine til at sidde i”.

3 Michael Ellison and Leslie Pina, Designed for Life: Scandinavian Modern furnishings 1930-1970. (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd. 2002), 174.

© Nynne Just Christoffersen. All rights reserved.

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