A lot of us have stories about midcentury modern furniture. When I was a kid, my parents bought a modern Danish dining set for our California ranch-style home; the pieces have now moved with my mom to Seattle to grace her bungalow, mixed in with more traditional furnishings.
And therein lies the beauty of Danish modern: It’s adaptable and timeless, even while it’s irrevocably connected to a particular era. The forms are sleek and pared down, but they’re never sterile. Organic lines and materials, playful names and references, a high degree of craftsmanship, an acute awareness of function and the human body — all these things can create very personal relationships with these objects.
A new exhibition at the Nordic Heritage Museum brings together some choice examples of Danish modernist furniture of the 1950s and 1960s. Organized by The Museum of Danish America (in Elk Horn, Iowa), it’s no blockbuster; it takes up just three small galleries. But it’s a little gem of a show.
The pieces are chosen well and are grouped in ways that allow us to appreciate form without overly fetishizing the objects. There are plenty of contextualizing images to remind us that these were functional things, meant to be used. The Nordic Heritage Museum’s sweet, creaky-floored galleries underscore the sense of livability.
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While there are some lovely toys, lamps — including Poul Henningsen’s well-known “Artichoke Lamp” — and other household items, the emphasis is firmly on chairs, a great decision not only because we respond to chairs in an intimate, one-to-one way, but because there were so many iconic chairs designed in Denmark during this time.
Arne Jacobsen’s “Egg,” “Ant,” “Swan” and “Seven” chairs? All present.
Helge Sibast’s “No. 8”? Check.
Hans Wegner’s “Y Chair” and “Round Chair” (later known simply as “The Chair”)? Yes and yes.
And we can even sit in some of them. For Tova Brandt, curator at the Museum of Danish America, this is an important aspect of the show, to really get a physical understanding of the thoughtful design behind these works. Without a lot of stuffed fabric to hide behind, these stripped-down forms need to get it just right. And, after trying out the chairs I can say, yes, the placement of a back splat (the vertical piece of a chair back) or the curve of a seat hit the body in just the right places.
While midcentury modern design in the United States embraced new materials and techniques (plastic, bent plywood) during World War II and immediately thereafter, the furniture coming out of Denmark was an extension of centuries of tradition of cabinetmaking and wood working. If you visit, be sure to lean in and look closely at the expert joinery and the carved, smoothed lines of natural wood. Piet Hein, Danish designer, scientist and poet, once wrote, “What made the Danish Modern? Three thousand years of practice.”
That being said, new materials and fabrication processes did come into play in the 1950s and even more so in the 1960s as tastes were running toward the mod. In one groovy grouping, Verner Panton’s glossy black chair, formed out of a single piece of plastic, is paired with his wire cone chair and a couple of molded plastic lamps. These works scream of their era.
But the overall impression of the show is that these pieces have stood the test of time. So, what explains the lasting appeal of Danish design?
For Brandt, the exhibition will have “particular resonance for visitors with Scandinavian heritage, particularly in the Seattle area with its strong, continuing links to Nordic cultures.” But, more broadly, Brandt points out that we can see these objects both “as works of art” and “as pieces that have withstood 50 years of use. We appreciate that as a contrast to the disposable furnishings that we’re so accustomed to.”