The lost generation of Danish design

Gregory Cerio Furniture & Decorative Arts

The Magazine ANTIQUES | 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 1550s 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.”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.”

Among Danish design aficionados and dealers, three currently obscure mid-century designers are touted as comers:

  • Hans Olsen. The Copenhagen-trained designer had a talent for both sexy and eyecatching designs—such as his 1961 bent-plywood Bikini chair (Fig. 4) and his 1956 Fried Egg chair (Fig. 1)—as well as for practical, space-saving pieces. “Olsen really captured the essence of organic design, but he also knew how to design for real life,” Kevelson says. “He made an expandable table in 1958 that sits on V-shaped struts or folds up like an accordion, and in 1964 he produced a dining table and chairs in which the seatbacks slip in to become part of the round table skirt” (Figs. 3a, 3b). No less a personage than Gio Ponti (1891–1949), in his magazine Domus, declared the latter design a “new classic.”9
  • Illum Wikkelsø. The architect and designer had a wonderful sense of detail. He would place a saw-toothed joint in the seatback of a side chair (Fig. 5), lending a racy feel to a simple piece, or peel the arms away slightly from a chair to give it a sense of movement. The arms of his c. 1964 Barrel chair (Fig. 6) envelop the sitter, yet the piece is a model of precise joinery, in which a leather backrest pad is fitted into the chair with small tabs. In certain of Wikkelsø’s highly stylized modern pieces some detect a reference to Danish design of a thousand years past. Commenting on a coffee table with a glass top set on an X-shaped frame (Fig. 7), Malowanczyk says he sees in the wooden support a “form that reminds me of the bracing structure on which they built Viking ships.”
  • Johannes Andersen. Excelling at seating furniture with dynamic detailing, Andersen can offer a jazzy “Martini Modern” air similar to that in the work of Vladimir Kagan. The effect can be aerodynamic—as on a wide, low-slung sofa on teak sleigh legs (Fig. 2), or an angular blond-wood coffee table (Fig. 9) perforated by a slot to hold magazines—or simply elegant, as a low rosewood table with gently arced and beveled sides (Fig. 8).

Designers and pieces such as these should help erase the stigma of Danish modern, while at the same time offer proof that there are many great Danes left to be rediscovered.

1 Takako Murakami, in his preface to Noritsugu Oda, Danish Chairs (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1999), p. 11. 2 Michael Ellison, introduction to Ellison and Leslie A. Piña, Scandinavian Modern Furnishings, 1930–1970: Designed for Life (Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, Pa., 2002), pp. 8–9. 3 Ibid., p. 9. 4 Ibid., p. 8; Oda, Danish Chairs, p. 18. 5 For examples of the work of these designers, see Oda, Danish Chairs, pp. 52–64, 26–40, 84–101, and 66–74. 6 For examples of the work of these designers, see Cara Greenberg, Op to Pop: Furniture of the 1960s (Little Brown, Boston, 1999). 7 Ellison, in Ellison and Piña, Scandinavian Modern Furnishings, p. 12. 8 See Twentieth-century Decorative Art and Design, Christie’s, New York, March 29, 2007, lot 225; Twentieth Century Design, Sotheby’s, New York, March 28, 2008, lot 68; and Los Angeles Modern Auctions sale, June 29, 2008, lots 7, 23. 9 Domus, May 1964, from The Complete Domus, ed. Charlotte and Peter Fiell (Taschen, Köln, 2006), vol. 5, p. 463.

GREGORY CERIO is a regular contributor to Antiques.