Danish Modern Furniture 1930–2016: The Rise, Decline and Re-Emergence of a Cultural Market Category

This review Originally appeared in the Vol. 25 No. 2 / fall-winter 2018 issue of West 86th.

Danish Modern Furniture 1930–2016: The Rise, Decline and Re-Emergence of a Cultural Market Category
Per H. Hansen
Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark
(Syddansk Universitetsforlag), 2018.
510 pp.; 141 color and b/w ills.
Cloth $53.00
ISBN 9788776749033

Though the original Danish version of this book was published in 2006,1 sustained interest in Scandinavian mid-century modern design in popular and academic circles makes this new, expanded English edition most welcome. Hansen’s study emphatically departs from the hagiographies, both national and international, that remain so enduring in the field of Scandinavian design and its hero-designers. His determination to effect a shift in this narrative is manifest in the scale of the book.

Danish Modern Furniture 1930–2016 is, as the title indicates, a study of a cultural phenomenon: the rise, decline, and reemergence of Danish Modern as a brand and a set of ideals, visual forms, and associations. As a business historian, Hansen frames this phenomenon as a market category. But the scope of the study goes far beyond an analysis of marketing materials alone. Using a broad range of primary sources, Hansen excavates the origins, evolution, and function of the narrative that came to define Danish Modern furniture for Danes and the wider world.

Hansen’s aim is to dismantle and historicize this tenaciously persistent narrative through the revelation of the history of its construction, function, mutations, and compromises. By doing so, he contributes to an ongoing scholarly effort to tackle the mythologies that surround Scandinavian Modern Design. Hansen meticulously traces the coevolution of the narrative of Danish Modern alongside the development of the furniture design and manufacturing sector in Denmark. Though he focuses on narrative as his central theoretical paradigm, there are parallels to Bruno Latour’s “Actor Network Theory,” which the author acknowledges. Designers appear as only one group of actors among a wider network of craftsmen, industrial manufacturers, retailers, and promoters within an institutional framework of professional bodies, exhibition groups, sales outlets, museums, and more.

The conclusion that Hansen strives to make inescapable is that Danish Modern and the golden age of Danish furniture cannot be understood as the inevitable result of a flowering of talent among a handful of genius designers. Rather, it was the result of the intersection of interests among the actors outlined above, in conjunction with social and economic developments and resonating with the evolving identity projects of the expanding middle classes through the mid-twentieth century. The necessary mapping of these multiple dimensions is a labor of love, and is presented with admirable clarity—and goes a long way to making the otherwise daunting scope of the minutiae of interlocking agendas, individuals, and relations digestible. The structure and clear sign-posting at the start and end of each chapter keep the threads evolving, and the language is consistently clear and engaging, a testament to both Hansen’s skill and Mark Mussari’s translation.

The book starts with Hansen setting out his stall regarding his aims for the book. Interestingly, for a book that will likely reach an audience of specialists and nonspecialists alike, it effectively has two introductions. One is a general introduction, while the second chapter, presented to the reader as optional, is more emphatically academic, in which theory, methodology, and historiography are treated in depth. This model might well prove useful for writers seeking to straddle the line between accessibility and scholarly rigor.

The rest of the book is in large part arranged chronologically, starting with the prehistory of the circle around Kaare Klint (1888–1954) at the Danish Royal Academy, who represent the ideological and systemic foundations for Danish Modern. The interwar period is, for Hansen, a necessary precursor to the “golden age” of the 1950s and 1960s, yet this phase is seminal in establishing the narrative. This period is covered by chapters which look at the Cabinet Makers Guild (Snedkerlaugets), its furniture exhibitions, and the relations between cabinetmakers, architect-designers, and the furniture industry. Through these chapters emerge the picture of the interlocking network of actors and the tensions in the narrative that developed to mediate between them and the public. This was the Klintian narrative of a visionary designer, the enduring value of Danish craftsmanship, and the balance struck between modernity and tradition, which were to become pillars of the Danish Modern story. From the outset Hansen shows us how this narrative flexed to cover potential cracks or omissions, such as the fact that Klint’s “practical,” “rational” furniture was routinely made out of exotic woods, or that Finn Juhl was largely an incongruous fit for much of the Klint School narrative, and yet had to be accommodated anyway (38, 47).

As architects sought to access the lucrative furniture market, and cabinetmakers fought for the increasingly anachronistic survival of craft production, a careful alliance was forged that met their shared interests and resonated in the reformist climate of interwar Denmark. Modern furniture was presented as rigorously designed by experts searching for the perfect functional form, the perfect product. It was the opposite of, and salvation from, fusty neo-historical styles or the foreign, superficial forms of “funkis,”—showy and foreign mass-produced modernist furniture (89). This message was disseminated in exhibitions, lectures, journals, newspapers, broadcasts, and advertising in an era when experts felt no compunction about telling people how to furnish their homes.

Hansen’s research reveals just how networked the entire phenomenon was and brings to the fore many key actors whose contribution to the story has long been overshadowed by those of the hero-designers. Any attempt to condense the content of this book devalues the richness of a work that presents interrelations and events that went well beyond cause and effect. For example, the cabinetmakers guild exhibitions play a central role in the first half of the volume. Here, new models were presented every year and their value inscribed in the prizes awarded. Competition between exhibitors kept the sector on its toes. As Hansen puts it, “The Guild’s furniture exhibitions became a meeting ground where cabinetmakers and architects interacted with both consumers and the press”(107). This was a key arena in the shaping of the narrative of Danish Modern, and Hansen charts how the boundaries of the narrative were firmed up through the 1930s.

Another part of this story is the industry response, an aspect that has largely been excluded from the narrative of craftmanship yet was always present in the field. Some industrial manufacturers, such as Fritz Hansen, showed at the cabinetmakers guild exhibitions from the outset. Other manufacturers, through collaborations with architects who also, in turn, collaborated with cabinetmakers and showed their furniture with them, could become a part of the narrative. As this former arrangement began to dominate production, a veil was consistently drawn across the actual realities of machine and mass production. Hansen shows how the uneasy balance between this reality and the narrative of craft production was maintained and how, as the speed of social change quickened into the 1960s, it became increasingly untenable.

There has been considerable work done on the international reaction to Scandinavian design.2 A large exhibition focusing on its reception in America is planned for 2020 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Milwaukee Art Museum. Hansen’s contribution to this ongoing discourse on production and consumption is to create a bridge between Danish aspirations toward North American markets and American expectations that were met by means of Danish furniture. The intricacy of interrelations already established continues, albeit with new actors in import, export, and promotion added in.

The concluding portions of the volume deal with the decline and reemergence of Danish Modern as changing circumstances in the 1960s, alongside developments in the furniture industry worldwide, shifted the terms of engagement. Hansen examines how the narrative, so long successful in holding disparate parties in an effective alliance, began to create drag, restricting experiment and market agility as key actors clung to what had worked in the past. Chapters 20 and 21 follow the story up to the present day, demonstrating how the concept of cultural narratives can be used as a tool to understand the return of mid-century modern furniture to popularity. Nordic design companies continue to employ elements of the traditional narrative, with subtle adjustments and evasions, to capitalize on positive associations, without some of the restrictions that stifled developments in the 1960s.

Throughout the book Hansen is able to make clear, without diminishing the importance of design as a practice, the importance of the development of the narratives that were used to make sense of that practice. These narratives were fostered by designers to distinguish themselves from others and from industrially produced, imported, and/or historical reproduction furniture. The narratives were used by designers, retailers, cultural critics, marketing boards, and others to mediate between these approved designs and the broader public, creating meaning and value. Hansen’s contention is that these narratives are not simply secondary or tertiary framing devices or marketing tools; they are central to how these objects were understood and the process by which they came to (and continue to) carry meaning.

Hansen is a little dismissive of design historians, whom he sees as prone to perpetuating the narrative, rather than critically examining it, as if still caught in the spell woven by beautiful objects (22n31). This is certainly a challenge for the discipline of design history. The centrality of objects to this discipline is unavoidable, and it is, at the same time, a perennial criticism of design historians reviewing interdisciplinary research in which the objects are missing, or relegated to illustrations. While the desire to “let the objects speak” through close visual and material analysis is valid, Hansen’s work provides a pointed reminder that what they say is culturally constructed elsewhere. Hansen’s history of the narrative of Danish Modern is predicated on this fact:

We cannot understand the world outside of narratives. They create memory about and legitimize some things and they exclude and delegitimize other things. This is why narratives are fundamental for our perception of the world. Narratives are collective and contribute to shaping not just individuals’, but groups’, nations’ and organisations’ memories and world views. They allow us to make sense of the world but at the same time they constrain the way we see that world. (24)

Design historians have been making strides in this direction in recent years. In the arena of Scandinavian design, some examples include Petra Čeferin’s study of Finnish architectural exhibitions abroad, Kjetil Fallan’s contributions to Norwegian and Scandinavian design history, and Helena Mattsson and Sven-Olov Wallenstein’s collection of essays on Swedish modernism.3 My own history of modernism in Scandinavia similarly attempts to embed the close study of objects in the wider narrative framework of shifting social and political context, and of the self-positioning of practitioners, institutions, patrons, and consumers.4

These examinations may indicate a groundswell of sociopolitical approaches to the subject, but this is not an easy challenge to meet. As Hansen’s work shows, the thorough excavation of the narrative is, by its nature, painstaking and convoluted. Reality is far more untidy and nonlinear than myth. Though it is in no way baggy or antiquarian in its coverage, the book is justifiably described as “magisterial” on its back cover, as it ranges across five hundred pages and twenty-one chapters. The furniture pieces themselves are discussed only in passing, as actors and bearers of the narrative. The supporting illustrations make a parallel argument of the presentation of the furniture in exhibitions, marketing material, and curated photographs of museums and the design press. The captions to these images add another layer of often amusing anecdotal detail indicating that, despite the scale of the volume, it still represents only the tip of the iceberg of Hansen’s knowledge of this subject area.

Greater familiarity with these objects is either already expected of the reader or must be sought elsewhere, and yet one shrinks from suggesting any expansion to a text that is already so substantial. Hansen is clear from the outset that he is not setting himself up as a design historian. Yet one could repeat the views raised recently by Megan Brandow-Faller in her review of Elana Shapira’s Style and Seduction: Jewish Patrons, Architecture, and Design in Fin de Siècle Vienna in this journal: as design history moves forward, we must find a way of synthesizing the depth of understanding found in contextualizing approaches like Hansen’s with our more familiar object-centric histories.5

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Charlotte Ashby is a lecturer in art and design history at Birkbeck, University of London and Oxford University.

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  1. 1 Per H. Hansen, Da danske møbler blev moderne: Historien om dansk møbeldesigns storhedstid (Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2006).
  2. 2 Kevin Davies, “‘A Geographical Notion Turned into an Artistic Reality’: Promoting Finland and Selling Finnish Design in Post-War Britain c. 1953–1965,” Journal of Design History 15, no. 2 (2002): 101–16; Jørn Guldberg, “‘Scandinavian Design’ as Discourse: The Exhibition Design in Scandinavia, 1954–57,” Design Issues 27, no. 2 (2011): 41–58; Erin Leary, “‘The Total Absence of Foreign Subjects’: The Racial Politics of US Interwar Exhibitions of Scandinavian Design,” Design and Culture 7, no. 3 (2015): 283–312.
  3. 3 Petra Čeferin, Constructing a Legend: The International Exhibitions of Finnish Architecture, 1957–1967 (Helsinki: SKS, 2003); Kjetil Fallan, Designing Modern Norway: A History of Design Discourse (London: Routledge, 2016), and K. Fallan, ed., Scandinavian Design: Alternative Histories (London: Berg, 2013); Helena Mattsson and Sven-Olov Wallenstein, eds., Swedish Modernism: Architecture, Consumption, and the Welfare State (Dublin: Black Dog, 2010).
  4. 4 Charlotte Ashby, Modernism in Scandinavia: Art, Architecture and Design (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).
  5. 5 Megan Brandow-Faller, “Style and Seduction: Jewish Patrons, Architecture, and Design in Fin de Siècle Vienna,” West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 24, no. 2 (2017): 264–68.

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