By Guest Editor, Zeynep Rekkali, Editor & Content Curator, Mearto
The words that immediately come to mind about “Danish Design” possibly range along these lines: functionalist, minimalist, pure and sleek lines, meticulous craftsmanship, and sturdy yet elegant designs. Thriving mainly in 1940s to 1960s, Danish Modern, belonging to the family of Scandinavian Modern, branching from mid-century modern design, is now more popular then ever, with growing interest by each day.
All around the world, go to a contemporary restaurant, the probability that you are going to be sitting on a Wegner or Jacobsen chair is quite high. Danish design furniture adorns the most prestigious offices around the world, including the headquarters of Italian high fashion brand Prada. Fritz Hansen is opening new stores in Asia and once again Danish architects are designing buildings in Manhattan, complete with the furniture. Art fairs started to organize sections dedicated purely to design, meanwhile everyone is talking about how Copenhagen is the new Milan. But how did this whole thing transpire? In order to fully understand, we have to look at the whole story: the birth, rise, fall and finally the resurrection of Danish Modern.
The Danish Modern movement, like the mid-century modern, dates roughly from 1933 to 1965, with roots in the Industrial Revolution and post World War I era. The geographical position of Denmark was also a great influence on the design. The survival in the north required the functionality and logical simplicity, while the Nordic tradition of “hygge” –which I here refer as the cozy and warm domestic atmosphere– brought about the soul-warming and lightweight aesthetics. Modernism and rise of individualism are great factors in the formation of the Danish design ethos. Designers became prone to care more about functionalism and facilitating an easy and pleasurable life, rather than ornament and grandeur. The Danish craftsmanship was also a key factor in Danish design history. In the beginning of the 20th century, the interest and pride in the Danish arts and crafts were rekindling, especially with the establishment of Skønvirke magazine, published first in 1914 by the Selskabet for Dekorativ Kunst (Company for Decorative Arts). The name of the magazine came to be used as a name for a new style, which was the Danish answer to French Art Nouveau or German Jugenstil. Born in the same years as National Romanticism, this style focused on Danish materials and building style, laying the groundwork for modern Danish craftsmanship.
The father of Danish Modern
The complete destruction of the social order due to the First World War influenced the course of arts and design greatly. The new design movement, which simultaneously stemmed in a few different European countries, embraced functionalism, abandoning ornamentation in favor of form. The simplification of design in the interwar period and the gradual influence of art movements such as De Stijl (Neo-Plasticism), German Bauhaus and the geometric abstract of avant-garde Suprematism gave way to the awe-inspiring designs that emerged in Denmark, starting as early as 1914 with Kaare Klint’s Faaborg chair. The Furniture Department at the Architecture School of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts was founded in 1924, with Kaare Klint as the head. Considered the father of Danish Modern, and the teacher to many famous Danish designers, Klint’s work led to a complete renewal of Danish furniture design. He prepared the basis for the clear and logical structures, avoiding anything superficial and unnecessary. At this point, the principles of Danish design were set: honest and pure lines, combining best materials with genuine craftsmanship, maintaining the warmth and beauty of the traditional Danish cabinetmaking while adapting to the needs of modern-day living. Meanwhile the first exhibition that brought voice to Danish design has opened in 1925 at the Paris World Exhibition, featuring the furniture designed by architect Kay Gottlob and made by cabinetmaker A. J. Iversen. The collaboration between Danish cabinetmakers and designers, such as between Rudolph Rasmussen and Kaare Klint, A. J. Iversen and Ole Wanscher, and Erhard Rasmussen and Børge Mogensen, was the linchpin of Danish design. The result was a combination of the exquisite technique and material familiarity of Danish craftsmen, and innovative design. Utilizing new industrial technologies, Danish designers kept on inventing new techniques for production, creating comfortable furniture while keeping the design minimalist and effortlessly airy.
After the Second World War, improving people’s lives became an ever-growing theme in the Danish design. Danish Modern was a democratic movement, aiming to be accessible to all parts of society. Designers turned to mass production to make it more affordable for the public. Also, the use of plywood became popular due to the scarcity of raw materials in the post war period. The innovative technique of bent plywood designs by Hans J. Wegner or Børge Mogensen marked the beginning of a new era. Combining the innovative techniques and rich materials –like lush leather–, Arne Jacobsen, Hans J. Wegner, Finn Juhl and many other maestros created the designs that the world wanted to see – turning their faces away from the devastation of war, to the bright and warm light of future.
Meanwhile, the world was slowly being captivated by the waves of Danish Modern. The United States was already warmed up to European modern design with the interviews of George Nelson, introducing famous European designers such as Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Gio Ponti. However, the infatuation of the U.S. with Scandinavian Design was to become much greater. Danish design became a popular subject of interest when Edgar Kaufmann Jr., owner of the Kaufmann’s department store and a design enthusiast, bought Danish design furniture for his new weekend home, the Fallingwater, which is considered the masterpiece of Frank Lloyd Wright. The term “Scandinavian Modern” was coined in 1954 with the Brooklyn Museum exhibition “Design in Scandinavia” and swiftly the movement took America by storm, followed by other museum exhibitions and mass import of Danish design furniture. Soon American manufacturers bought the licenses to mass-produce Danish designs, gradually altering them to suit the American taste and lower costs. Sales peaked around 1963 but this was only the hike to the cliff. Around 1966, considered the end of the Danish Modern and mid-century design era, Mediterranean designs started becoming popular and the interest for Danish design declined.
Knoll´s direct sales
The popularity of Danish Modern waned worldwide through 1970s, leaving its place to different styles and materials. However, the subtle revival came in the 1980s, paving the way for the second spring of the Danish design in the 2000s and 2010s. In 1990s, Knoll manufacturers, which held the licenses for many mid-century designs, revived the old models and started to sell them directly to the people. Simultaneously, Herman Miller, Fritz Hansen and Carl Hansen & Søn started producing and marketing their cherished models from the hay day of modern design. Today, the designs of Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl, Ole Wanscher and many others are extremely popular in both the primary and the secondary market.
Danish Modern’s course of development is what makes it so unique and special today. Peter Kjelgaard Jensen, Department Head of Design and 20th Century Decorative Art at Bruun Rasmussen Auctioneers, says the collectors are interested in getting a piece of that extraordinary era when the planets aligned and these timeless designs were created. The classics such as the Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen, featuring the typical sculptural form and innovative technique of the era, are incessantly popular in the auction market. Jensen adds that they see a rise in the demand for earlier works from 1930s or early 1940s, such as Kaare Klint’s designs or Jacobsen’s work before he was a world famous designer. Regarding the reasons for the popularity of Danish Modern furniture from the original production era, Jensen states quality and sentiment. Even if one can buy a new Wishbone Chair by Hans J. Wegner, handmade in Denmark last year, the original production from 1950 is just as well made –maybe even better– and it is an ambassador of a certain historical and cultural moment. Moreover, the auction market often offers better prices. You can buy an original item, restore it gently and you will have a unique piece that you have also contributed to, which adds to the value.
Naturally, true collectors are not out to catch everyday vintage design chairs. Instead, they want one-of-a-kind and iconic creations with documented provenance and historical importance. The auction market for these record-breaking pieces grew rapidly in the last decade. In October 2015, the Nordic Design auction at London auction house Phillips witnessed a record for the most expensive piece of Nordic design. A dining table by Danish designer and cabinetmaker Peder Moos broke the world record by selling for £602,500, almost 4 times the original estimate. Designed in 1952, the table was a one-off piece commissioned by the lumber dealer M. Aubertin and his wife, for their house Villa Aubertin in Nakskov, designed by another famous Danish architect and designer Finn Juhl. Most of the furniture in the house was designed by Juhl, whom the couple admired, but the dining table was made by the master cabinetmaker Peder Moos, signifying the close collaboration between Juhl and Moos. The auction itself fetched a massive total sum of £5.2 million, proving the intense demand for Nordic design in general. The previous record for Nordic design was held by the 1949 Chieftain Armchair by Finn Juhl, which sold for £422,500 in 2013. The most expensive piece by Moos until this was a 1956 cabinet, which sold for £106,297 in 2014.
The Danish answer to strict Modernism
The renaissance of Danish Modern manifests in the series of significant sales at the Danish auction house Bruun Rasmussen, an expert in Danish and 20th century design. In September 2014, an armchair by Danish modernist designer and architect Flemming Lassen sold for DKK 1,775,000 (€ 238,000), nearly 3 times the estimate. The design, upholstered with light brown sheepskin and fitted buttons on the back, is called “The Tired Man”, quite consistent with its warm and snug appearance; it is exactly what a tired man would want to sit on. It was designed by Lassen in 1935 and executed by cabinetmaker A. J. Iversen in the late 1930s. The chair was designed for the famous furniture competition of the annual Copenhagen Cabinetmakers’ Guild Exhibition, for a “living room in a bachelor’s apartment”. This example was made from that design with slight alterations. It is the Danish answer to the strict modernism in the international scene –especially in Central Europe– in the 1930s. Compared to the cutting edge steel, glass and marble furniture of the era, this chair is a rebel and extremely rare to come across in the market. Flemming Lassen said that the aim of the design was for the person sitting in it to feel “like a polar bear cub held by its mother in the middle of the ice cap, feeling warm and safe”. Lassen’s designs are considered a synthesis between the international modernism and Nordic humanism. What makes this piece so special is the fact that it was a non-conformist, innovative design with its curvy and voluminous form and created a sensation at the time. And the design is like a father of many iconic designs. For example, you can see the resemblance to Finn Juhl’s Pelican chair on the curvy shape of the chair arms, but it was designed 5 years before Juhl’s quintessential piece. Moreover, the upper form of the back of the chair is also an inspiration to many designs, such as the Mama Bear Chair by Wegner, or even the Egg by Jacobsen.
In addition to “The Tired Man” chair, another good example of perfect design from original production is this pair of FJ 45 easy chairs, sold for DKK 460,000 (€ 62,000)+ %24 Buyer’s Premium + VAT, at Bruun Rasmussen in December 2015. Designed by Finn Juhl in 1945, these Brazilian rosewood chairs were made in the early 1960s by cabinetmaker Niels Vodder. The sides, back and loose seat cushions are upholstered with patinated honey-brown leather. The durable and beautiful Brazilian rosewood is very rare and it is listed “vulnerable” on the international IUCN Red List, which means it is an endangered species, making these chairs special. Even the finished products with Brazilian rosewood may not cross country borders. Moreover, they carry the stamp of Niels Vodder, a famous Danish cabinetmaker, which increases their value greatly.
Timeless = relevant?
The classics designed by geniuses and made by master cabinetmakers are on the pinnacle of the auction market, sought after by affluent collectors. The market for Danish design, both high-end and middle, is bigger than ever and growing. The prices are at an all time high. Contemporary retailers and manufacturers embrace the typical attributes of Danish Modern. The question remains: Why is Danish Modern so popular? How does it manage to stay relevant? Peter Kjergaard Jensen from Bruun Rasmussen says because they are well designed, well made and timeless, and adds, Danish Modern is more modern then anything and could never really be outdated. A lot of the iconic pieces have never been trumped. For example, Arne Jacobsen probably already designed the best chair ever. Or take the PH Artichoke Lamp by Poul Henningsen. He designed it in 1958, with layers of leaves that enable 360-degree light, without glare. It is a testament to Danish design genius and let alone going out of fashion, it is futuristic, still ahead of our time. The timeless quality of the designs makes them perfect for contemporary homes.
When it comes to the high-end of the art and design market, the pattern in collector behavior is a key element. The increase in demand for mid-century modern, including Danish Modern, came simultaneously with the decrease of interest in antique furniture and decorative arts, Old Masters and 19th century painting, when in fact, the demand for post-war and contemporary art is on a steep increase. Contemporary art collectors are attracted to iconic Danish Modern designs to combine with their art pieces. A Lucien Freud painting or an Anish Kapoor sculpture is bound to go better with a Jacobsen chair rather than a Baroque day bed.
Danish Modern is a little bit like the “Little Black Dress”: it is timeless, looks flawless and goes with everything. Besides, having one expensive but high quality black dress is better than having 50 cheap ones. Both for collectors and one-time buyers, Danish design offers integrity and value, or shortly “furniture for life”. It seems like the star of Danish design is not going to fall anytime soon.
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