The lost generation of Danish design

A number of factors contributed to the market’s indifference. One was the connotation surrounding the phrase Danish modern. It conjured up the stale aroma of Eisenhower era blandness; the slightly mildewed scent of ranch houses with carports and wall-to-wall carpeting; and, most pungently, the budget-conscious air of postwar “starter” decorating suites. And this perception is partly justified. In the mid-1950s the Scandinavian look “became so popular in the U.S.A. that American companies started copying the style in domestic factories and commissioning production of…less expensive variants from countries like Yugoslavia and Taiwan,” Michael Ellison writes. “‘Danish Modern’ came to cover the entire panoply of goods from abominable knockoffs to the finest hand-crafted pieces from Danish workshops.”7 Even the genuine designs were affordable, contributing to their ubiquity. “The U.S. economy was strong at the time, but the Danish economy was weak,” Kevelson says. “Danish furniture didn’t cost much even though a lot of man hours went into each piece. It was cheap in price, but it wasn’t cheap in quality.”

To compete in the global economy, the Danes came to rely on techniques to make shipping easier and to boost production rates. They pioneered the creation of so-called knockdown pieces: furniture that could be broken down into its component parts, packaged in a thin flat crate, then reassembled once it reached a showroom abroad. More and more Danish companies began to use machine-tooled wood in the manufacturing process. It was an expediency, but not a compromise to quality, says Wlodek Malowanczyk, co-owner of the Dallas design store Collage 20th Century Classics: “The designers and the makers held themselves to the same standards as the masters when making production pieces. They didn’t skimp on details like dovetail joints. The furniture was made to last.”

These pieces, in fact, have lasted long enough to have found an audience again. “Sophisticated collectors are now realizing how beautiful and well-made Danish furniture from the fifties and early sixties is,” says Peter Loughrey, head of Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA). “You can find wonderful pieces in solid teak, or in rosewood, which is simply unattainable now.” What’s more, as at Christie’s and Sotheby’s,8 the Danish modern pieces attracting buyers at LAMA are by nonbrand-name designers. Part of this is a function of the ceaseless search for fresh objects of desire in the modern market—as Malowanczyk notes: “How many Arne Jacobsen ‘Egg’ chairs can you see before they become boring?”—another is the “eclipse factor”: “It’s like the art world, where a Picasso overshadows many other artists,” Malowanczyk says. “The masters in Danish design get all the attention, but if you search a little deeper you find so many great talents who aren’t famous at all.”

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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