"17 Swedish Designers" is an engaging, but just slightly insufficient, exhibition of innovative, diverse objects, from tables and lamps to knitted scarves at Seattle's Nordic Heritage Museum through Aug. 21, 2011.
In case Mary Poppins ever needs one, there is now an umbrella stand that is practically perfect for her. Created by Swedish designer Eva Schildt, the “Mary P” umbrella stand is a streamlined, metal form resting on a large sponge. It is at once magical and businesslike, whimsical and severe, just like Poppins herself. The clever design is on view at the Nordic Heritage Museum as part of “17 Swedish Designers,” an engaging, but just slightly insufficient, exhibition of innovative, diverse objects, from tables and lamps to knitted scarves.
Any exhibition of design — beyond the floor of a retail store — tends to amplify the forms, rather than the function, of the objects. Rather than immediately assessing how a bowl or coat stand would work in our homes, we can step back and appreciate the sculptural, textural, tonal, qualities of the pieces. This kind of show wraps an aesthetic context around the work, a context that is strikingly underscored at the Nordic Heritage Museum by the display of the objects on glossy-white floor panels.
The nature of this particular museum asks us to consider how these objects fit within a particular cultural context. What is it that is Swedish about these designs? And what connections can be drawn with Scandinavian heritage? These are questions that are not adequately addressed by the layout or wall text of the exhibition.
This is a traveling exhibition, produced by Svensk Form, the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, but it is the responsibility of the hosting institution to ensure a good fit between content and venue.
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The show is also labeled as an “exhibition of contemporary Swedish Women Designers,” with the introductory wall text asking: “Why are so many talented women designers working in Sweden today?”
Digging into the handsome exhibition catalog, I found satisfying explanations ranging from the contributions of pioneering female designers in the 19th century to Sweden’s current status as the “most gender-equal country in the world,” but the answer is not clearly laid out for the casual museum visitor.
The exhibition does, however, successfully demonstrate the diversity and depth of the talent of these designers. Ulrika Mårtensson, with her deliciously puffy bubble patterns, as seen in her “Wobbling Wool” shawl, and her ambiguous, squashy “textile jars,” has developed stunning new looks and uses for textiles.
Traditionally, textiles were one of the design arenas that were open to Swedish women, unlike other forms and media, like furniture design, which were considered more mentally or physically demanding.
Textile design is well-represented in the show, but these designers have not limited themselves in terms of material and form. There are vases, chairs, tables, candle holders, even a dollhouse, made from a variety of old and new media: glass, wood, ceramics, plastics.
The pared-down, contemporary approach embraced by most of the women eschews excessive ornamentation in favor of showcasing the overall form and substance. Anna Kraitz’s “Floor Lamp Girl” is a weirdly charming conflation of forms and materials — a red rubber braid of “hair” dangles down from the brushed steel dome of the lamp.
Many of the designs display wry or charming capers, both conceptual and visual. Monica Förster’s vibrant take on a midcentury modern chair is playfully called “Lounge Chair Spoon,” and Sara Szyber’s “Skew Glasses” are drinking goblets that tilt and lean as if they themselves have been imbibing.
In the end, this eye-pleasing show amply proves the aesthetic value of the objects and the prodigious talent of the women who created them, but leaves a few broader questions unanswered.