September 2008 | Nothing is harder to lose than a bad reputation, as a group of long-overlooked Danish furniture designers would probably agree. The furnishings and housewares that emerged from twentieth-century Scandinavia—particularly out of Denmark—had an enormous impact on modernist design. Whether working with fine rosewood or humbler materials such as bent plywood, Scandinavians had an unmatched talent for marrying elegant, novel, and sculptural form with perfect functionality and exquisite craftsmanship. The Danes, for example, could draw on a tradition of painstaking fabrication that dated to the 1550s1 as well as on studies of the proportions, purposefulness, and “livability” of furniture that predate those undertaken at the Bauhaus.2 Ever since it first appeared at exhibitions and trade fairs in the 1930s, Scandinavian modernism began and would continue to inspire and influence designers the world over.3 But just as the furniture reached its peak of popularity among consumers, in the years following World War II, Scandinavian design was, ironically, damned by its own success. The furniture would come to be identified with both a certain cultural ethos and, unfairly, commercial crassness—and that association would resonate in one, seemingly benign, descriptive term, coined by interior design of the time. That term was Danish modern.
When serious design collectors and high-end interior decorators found a new enthusiasm for modernist furniture in the 1990s, early pieces from Denmark—and, to a lesser extent, Finland and Sweden—found eager buyers. “There is a warmth to wooden Danish furniture that you don’t find in tubular-steel framed Bauhaus designs,” says Andrew Kevelson, owner of Baxter and Liebchen, a Brooklyn vintage design store. “The Danes are a culturally hospitable people, and—living in a cold climate with many short, dark days—they have always put a premium on having a beautiful home.” That said, twentieth-century Danish design was also based on critical theory—one that, if not as severe as Bauhaus “functionalism,” is at least as thoroughly reasoned. In 1917 Kaare Klint (1888–1954), considered the father of Danish modernism, began systematic research into the relations of human beings to the furnishings in their domestic environment. Espousing both simplicity and practicality in his teachings, Klint became, in 1924, the first head of the Furniture Department at the School of Architecture of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.4 While his own designs were pared down versions of classical—primarily English—furniture, his students and the graduates of the school would create many of the first examples of “organic” Scandinavian design. The work of these designers, notably Arne Jacobsen, Børge Mogensen, Finn Juhl, and Ole Wanscher—who all started their careers or completed their studies by the 1930s—became some of the pieces most sought after by the new crop of modern design collectors at the century’s end.5 Simultaneously, these collectors began to search out the colorful, futuristic, pop-inflected works from the late 1960s and early 1970s—rendered in materials like thermoplastic, fiberglass, and Lucite—by designers such as Denmark’s Verner Panton (1926–1998) and Finland’s Eero Aarnio (1932–).6 But the work of designers who came of age in the mid-1950s, the heyday of Danish modern, found few takers. Says Kevelson: “Collectors essentially skipped a generation.”