Far from functionalist, Scandinavian design displays its sensual lines in NGV’s Nordic Cool exhibition.

By Andrew Mackenzie.

Northern lights of nordic cool

NGV’s Nordic Cool: Modernist Design exhibition.
NGV’s Nordic Cool: Modernist Design exhibition.
Credit: Garry Sommerfield

A few years ago I was in Copenhagen to attend the Index awards, which lavish 500,000 euros each year on dozens of designers, making it the richest design awards program in the world. Its tagline is “Design to Improve Life”, which means Index likes to celebrate design that changes the world, old school – helping to reduce infant mortality or exploring the use of bioluminescence on roads. Parametric plastic chairs and machineguns turned into lamps don’t tend to get a guernsey.

While in this city renowned for its civic virtue, I took the opportunity to have an evening stroll around the back streets of neighbouring Frederiksberg, for the disreputable purpose of peering into people’s homes at night, my analog version of invading privacy in the name of information gathering.

What I saw made me think that Matt Blatt, or some other design parasite, had set up shop and was making a killing. Swan chairs by Arne Jacobsen were scattered around like everyday furniture. Artichoke lights by Poul Henningsen cast their warm gentle glow on many a sleepy living room. Drapes shimmering with the vibrant unmistakable palate of Marimekko. A sea of replica furniture, I thought. But as I later discovered, none of it was fake. The Danes don’t do that sort of thing.

What both the Index awards and my evening stroll taught me about Danish design, which I believe holds true for Nordic design, is that good design need not be what you put on a pedestal. Nor should it be about glittering excess or “buying the brand”. Design in countries such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland is unambiguously about improving everyday life – its citizens exercising their inalienable right to own nice well-made things. This is nothing new. “Beautiful Everyday Goods” was a Swedish slogan from 1919, proclaimed by the world’s oldest design society, Svensk Form.

This humanist attitude to design and its central place within Nordic culture is clearly on display at the Nordic Cool: Modernist Design exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria until the end of the year. Though nothing like the scale of last year’s Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design, this exhibition of what its curator Amanda Dunsmore describes as “80 to 90 per cent of the museum’s Nordic collection” opens the visitor to a fascinating story of design and national identity, materials and processes, aesthetics and ethics. It is also a story that connects Australia’s mid-century design journey with that of northern Europe.

In the ’40s and ’50s, design from the Nordic countries found multiple routes into the design culture of an inquisitive band of Australian designers and architects. Furniture designers such as Fred Lowen travelled to Denmark and Sweden and became inspired by “how machines could simulate the look of handcrafted details”.

For Lowen, this resulted in the Narvik range of 1961. Architects were also inspired by Nordic innovation, returning from their travels clutching books such as Sweden Builds or Swedish Housing in the 1940s.

The bond that formed between Nordic and Australian design back then remains as strong as ever.

In the case of the NGV, the acquisition of much of its Nordic design collection here on display overlooking the Great Hall was down to the astute judgement of one London buyer working on behalf of the Felton Bequest who single-handedly acquired much of this collection in 1952. A. J. L. McDonnell, or to be more precise Lieutenant-Colonel A. J. L. McDonnell, was no stranger to travelling around Europe identifying the best art and craft of the time, often carrying a machinegun.

Some years earlier he had been one of the Monuments Men who had helped recover hundreds of thousands of artefacts stolen by the Nazis during World War II.

Doubtless due to his expansive exposure to the wider world of European culture, McDonnell’s taste was broad and catholic. His breadth of design appreciation therefore provides one of this exhibition’s main strengths, but also betrays a minor weakness. For the collection itself is a joy of diversity, yet one yearns for an exhibition narrative that better joins the dots.

For despite the collective sensibility suggested by such terms as Nordic design or Scandinavian design, the objects that are brought together in this exhibition display great differences in their attitudes to nature and artifice, utility and decoration and, of course, the then fraught relationship between handcraft and machine reproduction. These differences are noted in the associated captions, but not elaborated. This is partly a function of the exhibition’s modest size, but one cannot but imagine how much more engaging this might have been had the sequencing of objects and their narration explicitly engaged the nature of their differences and the historical context in which the work was made.

The predominance of timber in most Nordic furniture, for example, is due not only to a long craft tradition, but also due to decades of protectionist trade agreements during the ’30s and ’40s that encouraged furniture manufacturers such as Fritz Hansen in Denmark to maximise the potential of timber lamination, while disdaining the need for imported steel or plastic.

So rigid was the region’s commitment to natural materials that the two chairs that broke the mould – Verner Panton’s bright-red Panton chair (the first moulded plastic chair in the world) and Eero Saarinen’s aluminium and fibreglass Tulip chair – were both produced primarily for an American market. The Michigan manufacturer Herman Miller sold the former, while New York based Knoll sold the latter.

Another story worth exploring is the complicated relationship this work had to that growing dogma of the time – functionalism. It is a word that has an assumed presence in the exhibition captions, notwithstanding the fact that Henning Koppel is quoted as saying “I am sick to death of all this talk of functionalism. Practicality is not the primary goal …”

Indeed. Modernist catchphrases such as “form follows function” make no sense here. Take Alvar Aalto: first, an undulating line forms the ceiling of his Viipuri Library in 1935, described by Sigfried Giedion as “the irrational curves of the ceiling glide through space like the serpentine lines of a Miro painting”. A similar meandering organic line is extruded to form the Savoy vase in 1937 before finally morphing into the undulating plan of his Lapua Forest Pavilion of 1938. Aalto was inspired by many things – the folds of the traditional Sámi dress, the torsion in the limb of a tree. Form follows desire more like.

Far from the functionalist creed of its Bauhaus contemporaries, what in fact distinguishes much of this work is its exuberance, experimentation and delight. Indeed, Koppel is true to his word. For the ultimate debunker of Nordic functionalism you can’t
go past his Fish dish (1956) designed for Georg Jensen. A more bonkers transformation of domestic kitchenware into sensual fetish object you will not find. To coin a phrase, functionalism is to Nordic design as a fish dish is to a bicycle.

Objects such as this, alongside Hans Wegner’s anthropomorphic Valet chair, or Tapio Wirkkala’s Kantarelli (a miraculous glass chanterelle-shaped vase) defy any easy design cliché, presenting a more nuanced relationship between form and meaning. If you’re willing to read between the lines and look carefully, this is a rewarding exhibition. On the other hand, you could just be seduced by its material craft and sensual lines, and start saving up your pennies (Koppel’s Fish dish sold at a Christie’s auction recently for $US160,000).

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 7, 2015 as "Northern lights".

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Andrew Mackenzie is an architectural writer, publisher and consultant.

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