Lie Back and Think of Denmark

Art Review Magazine

The work of Danish furniture designer Poul Kjaerholm is the perfect embodiment of the Scandinavian Modern era. Its serene lines and meticulously function-friendly forms speak about high ideals and careful craftsmanship, values that triggers an immediate sense of nostalgia in many of us. However, Kjaerholm fans argue that the most important qualities of his work have nothing to do with the past. “The strange thing about Kjaerholm is that his designs looks like they could have been created yesterday,” says the New York-based architect and Danish design expert Michael Sheridan. Sheridan has set out to explore this timeless quality in the first museum retrospective ever of Kjaerholm’s work, which will open in June at the modern art museum Louisiana outside Copenhagen. The exhibition, which features 75 pieces of furniture and more than 150 drawings and sketches, follows Kjaerholm’s career from his days as a young cabinetmaker to international design icon. Kjaerholm, who died of lung cancer at age 51 in 1980 (he smoked three packs a day according to Sheridan), designed furniture up until his untimely death and was a professor of Furniture Design at the School of Arts and Crafts in Copenhagen from 1952 to 1956 and at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts, Copenhagen from 1955 to 1976. He is not as well known as his contemporary colleagues Hans Wegner, Arne Jacobsen and Verner Panton, yet he is revered with an almost religious zeal in design circles. So why do connoisseurs find his ouevres more time resistant and, ultimately, better than the designs of for example Charles and Ray Eames and Mies van Der Rohe? Sheridan thinks that the secret behind Kjaerholm’s greatness was his lack of design ego and respect for his material (he once stated: ‘I’d rather express the character of the material than my own character’). “He came from a long tradition of craftsmanship”, says Sheridan, pointing to the young Kjaerholm’s training as a cabinetmaker. “He saw himself as a furniture architect, not a furniture designer. His work had nothing to do with stylized design. Mies’ and Bauhaus’ furniture was all about form and visual effect. They embody a cold, efficient machine ideal that dates them to that era. But Kjaerholm’s forms were really a product of his material. It wasn’t where he started but where he ended up as a result.” William Lee of New York’s Modern Link, a design collective and retail shop that carries vintage mid-century furniture as well as the group’s own line, finds that its the high quality of Kjaerholm’s work that makes it so desirable. “If you look closely at the work by the American modernists you begin to find flaws,” he says, “But with Kjaerholm and the other Scandinavians, you discover more and more beauty. It’s not a superficial, form driven style.” Kjaerholm’s furniture is known for looking better aged than new as the patina of time adds character to the light and sleek shapes. His vintage leather upholstered chairs and sofas are especially popular. This is a result of Kjaerholm’s almost obsessive attention to construction and detail, which made the stuff practically indestructible. Each component was – and still is – hand made. “In the beginning of his career he was very driven by the socialist ideal of making furniture that was accessible for everyone,” says Sheridan, “But then it ended up being very expensive. But he justified that by saying that it was pretty good value in terms of longevity.”

However, longevity notwithstanding, how come the common image of modern Scandinavian design is still firmly attached to those dearly departed mid-century masters? Furniture that was conceived five decades ago is clearly no longer “modern”. So why hasn’t any real new talents emerged since then? It’s interesting to note that to many design fans, Kjaerholm and his contemporaries are still the most radical creators to come out of Scandinavia. While countries like Italy, France and Holland have moved on to produce contemporary design innovators, Scandinavia seems stuck in Wegner, Kjaerholm, Jacobsen and Aalto. Is the shadow of Nordic Modern movement so over-powering that it has stifled the design climate in Sweden, Denmark and Finland today?  Michael Sheridan thinks the greatness of Kjaerholm et al was partly due to social and political forces. “I think its important to realize that the rise of Danish design, and

Nordic Modernism in general, occurred due to a convergence of social forces. It was really a historical accident that resulted from a unique moment in history and the overlapping of different ways of seeing the world,” he says, referring to the swift transformation of Scandinavia from agriculture-based economies to industrialized, urban societies that took place in the first half of the 20th century. The Swedish artist Jonas Nobel, who also belongs to the experimental and performance-oriented design collective Uglycute, makes a similar point: “The Scandinavian Modern aesthetic was an expression of the political climate of the time. The social-democratic governments were busy creating a “new’ society. The modernists’ furniture fit in with that ideal.” But, he says, that large-scale, collective vision is no longer relevant. “Today our political life is scattered and there are a multitude of influences from all over the place, which I personally think is healthy.” Sheridan has the outsider’s perspective: “The idea of Nordic Modernism is rooted in a Nordic culture that is different from everyplace else and today that difference has largely been eroded.” But if the Scandinavian societies have changed, how come their design scene hasn’t changed with it? Because the aesthetic norms and expectations have stayed the same, according to Nobel. “There is this prevailing attitude that when you create a new object, you are prescribing a new way of living for everyone. A reaction that Uglycute often gets is: ‘Is this how our homes are supposed to look now?’ People don’t understand design as a suggestion and form of experimentation.” Since that kind of mass-market theory is pretty much the only design ideal that is taught in design schools, there has been little room for progress. “Why should you try to make the ultimate ‘modern’ chair when the modernists already perfected it?” he says. “There is no reason for it. Design has to be created as an expression of its time. It’s a way of communicating an idea.” However, Nobel, who also teaches at Stockholm’s College of The Arts, Crafts and Design Konstfack and Beckman’s School of Design, says that the modernist ideology has finally started to subside in the classrooms, giving way to a whole new wave of Scandinavian Expressionism. “A lot has happened in the past 5-6 years. There are a lot of new designers out there who are examining new ways to work with craft and material. It’s partly because people like me are beginning to show up on school faculties. And then in twenty years we’ll have a rebellion against that. Which is exactly the way it should be.”