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Once upon a time, Modern played in Peoria.

W e tend to think of modernism as being something seen more in magazines of the Fifties than in houses of the Fifties. We figure that few people had Knoll furniture at home, and we're right- most high-end modernist design was too expensive and too austere in feeling for Middle America. But for twenty years or so, there was one subset of modernism that America loved- Scandinavian Modern. Called Danish Modern in the local furniture stores and mail-order catalogues where average people did their shopping, it's with us yet, and it's getting hot all over again.

Scandinavian Modern had been in evidence before World War II; Alvar Aalto's blond bent-plywood designs had been around for a while, becoming a hit at the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair. War's end brought a new Scandinavian esthetic, born of the despair and economic hardship generated in Scandinavia during the years of occupation. Looking for ways to express their faith and optimism for the future, talented designers and craftspeople worked during the war to express their hopes for a brighter, more rational era. Since many materials were unavailable, and manufacturing facilities crippled by shortages, Scandinavians looked to the past for inspiration. They saw that old cabinetmaking, pottery, weaving, and glassblowing techniques could be used to create designs that expressed tomorrow and respected yesterday. In barns and workrooms and houses, people began to carve and weave- and shape the future.

Much of the wartime experimentation was done with the only materials Scandinavian designers could get: native, natural materials such as oak, birch, rush, clay, and linen. By the time Europe had emerged from the war, a distinctive style had emerged, one that perfectly expressed the postwar desire to break with yesterday and yet whispered comforting echoes of the past. The new style began to draw worldwide attention when the designs of Hans Wegner and Finn Juhl were first offered for sale in Scandinavia itself.

BIG CHAIR, PAPA CHAIR, LITTLE CHAIR, CHIEF: Hans Wegner's "Papa Bear" chair (left), and Finn Juhl's "Chieftain" (right) were two early successes of Scandinavian modernist design.

NOT A CHAIR, THE CHAIR: Hans Wegner's Model 500 became known simply as "The Chair". At left, an early version with the cane-wrapped back, shown with Kaj Franck ceramics and Kay Bojesen toys. Right, a later example, with exposed finger joints in the back, and the light wood preferred in Scandinavia itself.

Wegner's work probably drew the most attention at first; his 1947 "Peacock" chair was a huge success. This clean new riff on the traditional Windsor chair eliminated every fussy carving and turning of the original, but retained its comforting, welcoming quality. His No. 500 chair for cabinetmaker Johannes Hansen was even more successful; it was a design of such rightness and beauty it became popularly known simply as "The Chair". Wegner's designs depended on the finest workmanship; his cleanness of line left no margin for error. "The Chair" was offered in several woods, with either a caned seat or a leather slip seat. Early versions all had the top rail of the back wrapped in cane to disguise the necessary joints; Wegner took a while to figure out a way to make a dovetailed joint he cared to have show. Wegner also had an interest in space-saving furniture; many of his dining tables change size and shape with amazing ease. One very popular design had leaves that slid underneath the table top for storage at the flick of a wrist. As Wegner continued his design efforts, he found inspiration in the very detail he had once despised; his later chairs have finger joints and inlaid details in their backs that are more beautiful than any method used to cover them could ever be.

If Wagner was the master of line and detail; Finn Juhl was the Sultan of Structure. Juhl's chairs and tables left an unforgettable first impression: chair seats and table tops appeared to float over the rest of the design, seemingly unconnected to the frame. It was a simple bit of trompe l'oeil, but it made Juhl's work uncommonly pleasing.

MANHATTAN'S TEMPLE OF MODERNISM: Bonniers was a New York retailer specializing in Scandinavian design. Missing from this shot of the store's elegant interior are the MoMA staffers who loved to shop there.

Scandinavian Modern found quick acceptance in the United States, largely due to one piece of great good fortune: Edgar Kauffman, Jr. found a great deal to like in the new style. Kauffman was on the staff of the Museum of Modern Art, and was the son of the owner of "Fallingwater", Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece built on a Pennsylvania waterfall. His like or dislike of any new design carried great weight in New York's design community, and his purchases of Danish furniture and accessories for "Fallingwater" created great "buzz" around the style. Manhattan stores like Bonniers, George Tanier, and Raymor were soon doing tremendous business offering Scandinavian products; even the venerable Georg Jensen started carrying furniture and accessories unrelated to its traditional sterling silver lines.

The success of Scandinavian design in New York was quickly replicated all across America; young moderns everywhere found it to be perfect for the new postwar lifestyle. The lines were clean and unpretentious, and the small scale was well-suited to the smaller houses of the 50's. The oil-and-wax finishes of wood pieces meant freedom from worry; if a tabletop got damaged, it could be owner-repaired with materials from the local hardware store and would be good as new. Slip seats could be easily reupholstered, and the light weight of most Scandinavian pieces made cleaning and moving days a snap. Best of all, the traditional materials and craftsmanship of the style meant that young moderns did not have to defend their choice to parents and in-laws; here was a modern even Mama's mother could love.

WHAT ABOUT DANISH MODERN, HONEY?: Mass-market manufacturer Lane offered several different lines of Scandinavian-inspired furniture. "Delineator" was Lane's top-of-the-line offering, designed by Paul McCobb, with the uncommon touch of genuine rosewood on its tops.

American furniture manufacturers were quick to exploit the possibilities of the new style; the copying began very early in the 50's. Quality manufacturers sometimes licensed designs directly from their Scandinavian creators; Finn Juhl's work was offered in America by Baker, Knapp, & Tubbs. Some manufacturers made great efforts to ensure authenticity in their designs; the American-born, Scandinavian-trained Larry Peabody was in great demand as a designer. One company, Selig, went so far as to have the finished wood components of all its designs made in Denmark; other parts like drawers, upholstery, and non-visible framing members were made in America. Selig then combined the Danish and American parts to produce its finished products; customers got an authentic Danish look and feel at lower cost.

REAL AND UNREAL: A genuinely Scandinavian rya rug (the famous "Park at Night" design) is shown with furniture from Selig, an American manufacturer. The Selig sofa shown had its finished wood arms made in Denmark, but the upholstered seat and back were added in America.

NOT QUITE THE SAME THING: American contract-furniture manufacturer Marble made this armchair, intended for waiting and conference rooms. Note that the sculptured wood elements seen in real Scandinavian modernism are almost completely absent here - only the back and seat are shaped.

In time, Danish Modern pieces were seen that would have amazed the Danes- bunk beds, TV/stereo consoles, and plastic dinettes were all offered to Americans who knew only that Scandinavian was the Latest Thing. When mass-market American companies did make an effort to make decent Scandinavian-style furniture, it was still very different to the real thing. Oil-and-wax finishes were replaced with American stain and varnish; linen upholstery with rayon, beautifully shaped wood drawer pulls with brass-toned pot metal.

DON'T BLAME THE DANES: This vintage RCA ad shows two Scandinavian-inspired designs, at the far left and right. The high-end model at left has an unlikely inspiration - the rarefied work of Kaare Klint.

ANT HILL: Arne Jacobsen's famed "Ant" chair was available with arms and without; both versions stacked for easy storage, encouraging sales to schools and offices.

American tastes even influenced what Scandinavia itself made; darker finishes and woods were used for export to the States. America was particularly partial to exotic woods; rosewood, teak, and wenge were seen much more often in export pieces than in ones intended for sale at home. The American love of matched sets of bedroom furniture - something seldom seen in Scandinavia - was accommodated by nearly every Scandinavian manufacturer. Some Scandinavian designers started bypassing Scandinavian manufacturers entirely; the American carpet-maker Cabin Crafts offered rya rugs in Acrilan ® designed by Swedish weaver Bittan Valberg. A new company was founded in Denmark by an American to offer Scandinavian-style accessories and dinnerware; it was given the name of Dansk Designs, Ltd., and as Dansk Designs International, is still with us today.

Perhaps in reaction to the wholesale, unprofitable American appropriation of Scandinavian design ideas, designers in Denmark began experimenting with new concepts in synthetic materials and moulded wood, restoring cachet to the country's design esthetic. Arne Jacobsen was the first to have a hit with his wildly successful "Ant" chair. His "Swan" chair followed, and was also extremely well received. His "Egg" chair was the most coveted Jacobsen design; its moulded shell was padded with foam and swathed in the finest wool or leather. A matching ottoman could be had, and there was no design more emblematic of financial success in the early 60's.

Poul Kjaerholm was one of the most idiosyncratic designers in Scandinavia; he did not restrict himself to a particular material or style. A Kjaerholm design might be steel, or moulded plywood, or aluminium, or woven cane- or might incorporate several of these materials. He did chairs that were somewhat Miesian, and chairs that the Eames might have designed; his extremely fertile imagination produced some of the most disciplined- and some of the most playful- furniture to come from Scandinavia.

YOUR MOVE: Other designers tried to move beyond Hans Wegner's use of natural materials with molded-shell chair designs. The "Ox" chair was Wegner's response. Check and mate.

Even Hans Wegner weighed in with a design that had nothing to do with traditional cabinetmaking techniques. He had become the grand old man of Scandinavian design. Now that upstarts were using new materials, he showed that he could do that, too- and better- with the "Ox". This awesomely refined chair was available in leather over a molded, foam-padded shell; its legs were chrome-plated steel tubing. As with Jacobsen's "Egg", an ottoman could be ordered for even greater comfort and greater standing as a status symbol.

DISH IT UP: American manufacturer Iroquois made this Scandinavian-style baking dish.

As the 60's dawned, Scandinavian Modern was available to every consumer at every price point. The rich had Jacobsen, Wegner, Juhl, and Jensen; poorer people made do with offerings from Sears, Penney's, and W.T.Grant's. Consumers were uncommonly well served, no matter their budgets; good Scandinavian-style tableware design could be found even at Woolworth's. Of all the mass-marketers, Sears made perhaps the most conscientious effort. Genuine Scandinavian-made rya rugs were offered through its catalogues starting in the early 60's, and there was also very decent American-made furniture in its retail stores. Even the hand-loomed Scandinavian curtains and linens of the rich were knocked off in machine-made versions for Sears - democracy in action.

1963 was probably the year in which Scandinavian design reached its greatest acceptance; it was impossible to open a design or shelter magazine without seeing huge quantities of it. As with everything wildly popular, there were already signs that the trend was waning. American furniture companies were starting to cheapen the physical quality of their offerings; wood-grained Formica was beginning to be used for tabletops, and molded plastic for drawer fronts. Flatware manufacturers were adding rosebud motifs to formerly stark patterns, in hopes of pleasing consumers who wanted stuff that was modern but not that modern. Lamp bases, formerly simple jar shapes, got wilder and wilder with "Jetsons"-inspired shapes and sparkly synthetic materials. Woven wall hangings gave way to Syroco plastic madness; you could be part of the Danish Modern movement just by buying one of their clock-and-wall-sconce sets. It all had to end somewhere, and it did.

By 1966, Scandinavian was definitely on the wane as a mass-market trend. First, the furniture selection offered by the big manufacturers began to thin out. Sears dropped the ryas that year; there was suddenly much less Scandinavian design to be had in the china, flatware, and textiles sections of the catalogue, as well. The Danish Modern TV consoles soldiered on for the moment, but there was a new direction in the 1967 Sears Big Book: Mediterranean.

Although Scandinavian design from Scandinavia continued to be offered to discriminating consumers through the mid-1970's; mass-market consumers became enchanted with Mediterranean; snapping up heavily carved pieces as avidly as they had purchased clean-lined ones a decade before. It didn't matter that Mediterranean wasn't a real style; manufacturers had simply started to design in a vaguely Spanish/Moorish idiom that had never been seen in Mediterranean countries. It didn't matter that most of it was too large for American houses and apartments. It didn't even matter that most of this ridiculous furniture wasn't even wood. It was the new Latest Thing, and that was all America wanted to know.

Scandinavian design had a last hurrah in America around 1980; teak-veneered shelving units were suddenly available everywhere, quite cheaply. There was a reason for this; the teakwood veneer was thin, of poor quality, and applied over very bad grades of chipboard. The stuff sold like hotcakes for a while, and then the teak forests began to give out. By the mid-1980's, even the most enthusiastic Scandinavian Modern maven was becoming hard-pressed to find products; stores weren't carrying it, importers weren't handling it, and even in Scandinavia, the trend was for more traditional styles. A ray of hope for Scandinavian Modern in America came in 1984; Cara Greenberg's "Mid-Century Modern" was published that year. Its coverage of classic Scandinavian design and its excellent photographs by Tim Street-Porter served to remind many a Mid-Century child of the modern Mama had.

YOU'RE WORTH IT: First famous in the early Sixties, the "Egg" chair was turned into a Nineties design icon when it co-starred with Heather Locklear in a L'Oreal commercial. The chair has been seen in countless ads since.

Interest in Scandinavian Modern now grows year by year. Jacobsen's "Egg" chair is almost a cliché in upscale advertisements; Baker Furniture re-introduced several of Finn Juhl's pieces for a time beginning in 1998. Wegner's work is finding new customers every day; sometimes well-loved originals, sometimes newly made pieces. Dansk Designs sell quite well in online auctions, as do the products of Orrefors, Royal Copenhagen, and Georg Jensen. Anyone wanting to begin investing in Scandinavian Modern will find great pieces still available at very reasonable prices (as long as you don't want an "Egg" chair!) Recently, The New York Times showed a pair of mass-market Danish Modern tables from Lane in an article by Pilar Viladas. The tables, from Lane's famed "Accent" line (click here for an article on this furniture), graced an exclusive, upscale interior; furniture originally created for subdivision dwellers has become a design icon.

Look around the next time you're in a thrift store, or visiting yard and estate sales. You may just find a piece of Danish Modern, with the patina of years and a Mid-Century family's history in its dings and scuffs. Mama loved it that much, and that long. You will, too.

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Mid-Century Modern: Furniture of the 1950s, by Cara Greenberg (Revised). Harmony Books, New York, 1984, 1995.
A Treasury of Scandinavian Design, Erik Zahle, editor. Golden Press, New York, 1961.
House Beautiful, Vol. 101, No. 7 (July, 1959).
Sears, Roebuck and Company General Catalog (Big Book), Spring/Summer 1966, also Spring/Summer 1967.
The New York Times, September 7th, 2003. "Modernism for Grown-Ups", by Pilar Viladas.


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The Modern Mama Had: Scandinavian Modern in America
Copyright (c) 2003 D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on September 26, 2003.