1900 - 1960
Many countries have played a decisive role in the course of modernist design, the lead continously changing hands in a forward march from past to present to future.
The new brash art movements and styles erupting at the turn of the century became increasingly international in scope, enriched by the unique offerings of each nation. Sharing little commonality of purpose, they contributed to the progression of form and function in their own way depending on long-standing traditions, geo-politics, geography, language, natural resources, and the critical, yet often coincidental, availability of creative genius.
As with most of Europe, modernity in Scandinavian design represented a radical shift from provincial isolation to self-assertiveness in an international design setting. A century of intense design activity had commenced about 1880 throughout Europe and no less in the vast and diverse geographic region encompassing Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland. From Scandinavia's variegated matrix of politics, cultures, languages and traditions, there emerged a multifaceted design philosophy that became a major international influence.
Each country within Scandinavia played a significant role in the formation of a modern tradition, and each responded to the challenges of the modern world in a distinctive manner. All the countries recognized social equality, industrialization and urbanization as major factors of modern life. Yet, these factors and their impact on the arts and crafts were encountered differently in each country, giving a special identity to the design traditions of each. By the mid-century, however, these designs became known as a style and the history of modern Scandinavian design suggests there are unifying features – humanism, tradition, moderation, hand-crafted perfectionism, modesty, quietude and purposefulness – within the traditions of each country that encourage such a generalization. This exhibition of decorative arts and design attempts to address both these unifying qualities and the distinct differences.
Although many Americans are familiar with the Scandinavian design style of the 1950s (1), few are as aware of developments in Scandinavia prior to that decade. The European countries that were most successful in imparting a modern aesthetic to their traditional craft industries were Scandinavian – particularly Denmark, Sweden and Finland – countries with small, fairly homogeneous populations and natural resources which encouraged strong craft traditions. With the breakdown of the craft guild system in the mid- nineteenth century, they established a number of institutions to protect them from an influx of inferior, foreign mass-produced goods. The Svenska Slšjdfšreningen (Swedish Society of Craft and Industrial Design), for example, was established in 1845 to foster high standards in Swedish craft production.
Prior to 1900, the five countries drew largely on national folklore for their decorative inspiration, especially in Norway, where Viking-revival imagery enjoyed great popularity. The world first became aware of the Nordic arts and crafts movement when many such works were exhibited at the 1897 Stockholm Exhibition of Arts and Industries followed by the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Of particular success were the works of the Swedish Ršrstrand porcelain factory (2), a firm excelling in a painterly repertory of radiant flowers sculpted in shallow relief by such artist-designers as Alf Wallander and Nils Erik Lundstršm who took nationalistic pride in turning native flora and fauna into three-dimensional vessels of exceptional beauty.
Importantly, the Art Nouveau movement reflected a new sense of unity across the visual arts, from architecture through decorative arts and graphics. However, it was primarily allied to craft production and available only in rather expensive, exclusive objects. Danish Art Nouveau metalwork was dominated...