Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The joy of Danish design

Notwithstanding the fact that Danish design appears to be a current favourite of at least one New Zealand auction house (it forms a significant component of Art + Object's Nordic design sale on 22 October 2014), in the unlikely event that New Zealanders give much thought to the history of the subject, it’s most probable they’ll opine it emerged, fully formed, with the architect Arne Jacobsen’s well-known Myren stol (Ant chair) in 1951. There may be some slight awareness of earlier design endeavours including, possibly, a conflation of Scandinavian design (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) with Finnish design and a vague recollection of the work of the influential modernist Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). In terms of accuracy, this is probably on a par with believing that New Zealand comprises the pristine, clean, green paradise of the Saatchi and Saatchi ‘100% Pure’ advertising campaign for Tourism New Zealand, rather than the deeply compromised colonial landscape of pest plants and animals, factory farming, industrial forestry and motorways that it has become. It's always difficult to correct ill-informed myths.

Outsider views of the development of Danish design have tended to reflect its marketing as a thoroughly modern, contemporary, phenomenon. This stance is not entirely uncommon; most people tend not to think of the historical antecedents of the objects they commonly surround themselves with. In Denmark things are a little different thanks, in part to a long-standing educational programme about design that dates from the establishment of the Royal Danish Academy, Det Kongelige Danske Skildre-, Billedhugger- og Bygnings-Academie i Kiøbenhavn (now known generally as Kunstakademiet), in 1754. This programme of design pedagogy gained significant momentum following the striking success of Den Nordiske Industri-, Landbrugs- og Kunstudstilling, the Nordic industrial, agricultural and art exhibition, which was held in Copenhagen in 1888. In the aftermath of the exhibition and inspired by the activities of the Paris-based Union des Arts Décoratifs, a collaboration between Danish industrialists, artists and historians sponsored the establishment in 1890 of a museum of Danish design, Det Danske Kunstindustrimuseum (known, more colloquially, as Kunstindustrimuseet). Since 2011, the museum has been known by the gimmicky neologism Designmuseum Danmark.

Originally located near the Tivoli pleasure gardens, the museum moved in 1926 into the restrained rococo premises of the former kongelige Frederiks hospital (Nicolai Eigtved/Laurids de Thurah, 1752-57) on Bredgade (the hospital is best known to history as the place where Søren Kierkegaard died in 1855), near Eigtved’s equally delightful and better-known Amalienborg palace (1750). The conversion of an eighteenth century hospital into a twentieth century museum of design was undertaken by the furniture designer Kaare Klint (1888-1954) and the architect Ivar Bentsen(1876-1943). The integrity of their redesign of the hospital space remained intact until recently suggesting not only the simplicity of their re-arrangement of the space and its flexibility but also the enduring quality of their design.
A remnant display of late nineteenth century Danish design in the galleries developed by Kaare Klint and Ivar Bentsen in Kunstindustrimuseet. The glass cases along the right wall were also designed by Klint
The museum’s collection reflects both the extraordinary creativity of Danish designers and makers over the past two and a half centuries as well as the scholarship and research interests of not only its curatorial staff but also that of major donors to the collection over the past 125 years such as Hugo Halberstadt whose collection of Japanese arms and armour – given to the museum in 1941 – was, in the estimation of Nobuo Ogasawara of the National Museum of Japan, ‘one of the finest collections of its kind anywhere in the world’. The museum’s collection of Asian and European ceramics, while relatively small when compared with those of, say the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is encyclopedic and of a notably high quality. Moreover, the museum has one of the most comprehensive (and delightful) libraries of decorative arts and design to be found anywhere in the world.
Twentieth century furniture displays dating from the early 2000s located within the intact Klint and Bentsen galleries
However, along with its change of name, the museum seems to have decided that Danish design is best represented by exhibitions of modern Danish furniture and its current displays reflect this partial belief. Alongside a long-installed gallery of twentieth century Danish furniture, the museum is currently showing three temporary furniture exhibitions: Øvelse gør mester: Kaare Klints møbelskole (Practice makes perfect: Kaare Klint’s furniture school), which focuses on Klint's pedagogical activities; Møbler til folket! Børge Mogensen 100 år (Furniture for the people! Børge Mogensen’s centenary); and Wegner: bare een god stol/just one good chair, a comprehensive exhibition devoted to the work of Hans Wegner (1914-2007) curated by Christian Holmsted Olesen.
The Wegner exhibition, which runs until December 2014 and comprises some 132 objects, is the most scholarly and the best displayed of the three temporary exhibitions. The exhibition is complemented by a meticulously researched and illustrated catalogue that, conveniently, is available in an English language version. The Klint exhibition (on display until February 2015) is undermined by an obscure take on the subject, intrusive exhibition design and a touching belief in the effectiveness of electronic gadgetry. The Møgensen exhibition is comprehensively overwhelmed by the others.
Unidentified photographer, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, president of the United States of America, seated in Hans Wegner's 1949 designed 'Den runde stol (The round chair)' in 1960. The chair was manufactured in oak by Johannes Hansen Møbelsnedkeri.
Designmuseum Danmark
From a marketing perspective Wegner was the archetypal post-war Danish designer. Aside from his sheer productivity, the popularity of his designs in the United States, particularly during the 1950s and 60s, prompted a massive expansion in the export of Danish furniture around the world. The notable exception to this trend was in New Zealand and Australia where protectionist tariffs and import licensing regimes made its acquisition financially unfeasible for most consumers. Would-be Antipodean consumers of modernist furniture in the 1950s and 60s had to put up with what, more often than not, were shabbily-produced, pirated travesties of the Danish originals. Contemporary Antipodean consumers of modernist Danish furniture might be well-advised to visit the exhibition before indulging their tastes. If that proves impossible, then the acquisition of Olesen's impressive book would be an adequate, if less tangible, substitute. 

It's unfortunate that in pursuit of it's recently announced strategy 'of pursuing alternative exhibition and communication approaches' and re-jigging itself as a 'central exhibition venue', Designmuseum Danmark has decided to move its public focus from a collection that provided it with a unique identity and fostered a remarkable, scholarly, research culture. The museum's pursuit of the chimera of public relevance is hardly unique  – witness the sad spectacle of the V&A's social media-driven 'rapid response collecting strategy' – but it's depressing to see it being embraced with such unreflective abandon.