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Making Danish Modern, 1945 – 1960

Maggie Taft [University of Chicago]
Twelve-Month Chester Dale Fellow, 2011 – 2012

When Finn Juhl (1912 – 1989) was asked about the inspiration for his Chieftains chair (1949), he would explain that the idea came to him one morning when he was seated uncomfortably beside the fireplace in his home in a Copenhagen suburb. He imagined a chair that would suit the space as well as his desire to recline with the morning paper, and then drafted the design in a single day. Months later Juhl exhibited the chair at the annual cabinetmakers’ exhibition in Copenhagen, presenting alongside it a careful selection of artifacts that included a large bow, a butterfly specimen, a photograph of an African tribesman poised to bite into the head of a fish, and a thick slice of a tree trunk hung vertically on the wall, like a picture. Whereas Juhl’s story of origination highlights the popular postwar preoccupation with domestic culture and comfort, his exhibition employed modernism’s familiar references to the natural and the native.

My dissertation mines this duality through an investigation of the fabrication, distribution, and use of Danish Modern furniture design in Denmark and abroad between 1945 and 1960. Studying Danish Modern as both a local development and an international phenomenon, I trace and analyze the interrelationship between the politics of consumption and the discourses of modernism during the early years of the Cold War.

Although Denmark exported design throughout Western Europe and the Americas, I focus on transactions with the United States, where modernism was relocated through prewar expatriation and where it was subsequently reconfigured. Denmark, with its landscape, economy, and industry left largely intact during the war, appeared to offer both continuity with European modernism and distance from its failed formations.

The appeal of this combination was particularly strong in America, where designs such as the bowed Round Chair (1949) of Hans Wegner (1914 – 2007) became popular icons. Known simply as “The Chair,” it seated Nixon and Kennedy in the televised 1960 presidential debates, figuratively bringing Danish Modern into homes across the United States. The Chair served as a surrogate for a mythic Danish nation: its sleek functionality displayed the country’s modernity, while its constituent wood and natural fibers supplied a reassuring organicism that seemed linked to the land. My dissertation seeks not to upend such meanings but to historicize them, explaining how the material and formal properties of the furniture both carried cultural significance and intervened in national formations of modernism at a critical moment in its development. To this end, I have organized the dissertation into four chapters: materials, dwellings, exhibitions, and nations. Beginning with close analysis of the furniture objects and then broadening in scope to incorporate progressively larger contexts for analysis, each of these chapters also takes up one of the four terms most frequently attached to Danish Modern — organic, democratic, timeless, and quality, respectively. The purpose is to periodize the terminology in order to describe its discursive formation and the ways in which it simultaneously conveyed and constructed the furniture’s material and cultural power.

For instance, the first chapter, which marries materials and organicism, in fact unmoors their assumed connection; teak, viewed in America as quintessentially Danish, was actually indigenous to Denmark’s East Indian colonies. This fact was widely publicized in Denmark, where teak evoked not the pastoral, as it did in America, but instead the metropolitan, connecting Danish Modern and, by extension, the nation that created it to a burgeoning globalism. In Denmark, the organic was linked not to the land but to the body. Among designers, critics, and public alike, there emerged a subterranean discourse on the furniture as not only accommodating the body, but approximating it. Similarly, attention to the furniture’s skeletal forms, the preparation of its materials to mature over time, and similarities between upholstery textiles and period fashions connect Danish Modern’s organicism less to a natural world than to a social one.

The second chapter, on dwellings, interrogates Danish Modern’s embodiment of a specifically postwar notion of democracy that was nevertheless tied to prewar modernist social values. The third focuses on how American exhibitions of Danish design that traded on the furniture’s timelessness simultaneously intertwined with and broke from Danish traditions and innovations in domestic production and use. Finally, the fourth chapter, which joins the concepts of nations and quality, considers designers’ paranoia about plagiarism, which dominated the international market, in order to assess how Danish Modern and the environments it created came to figure and fashion a sense of authentic Danish identity that was at once nationally defined and globally positioned.

By studying forms and materials within a social and geopolitical framework, I hope to articulate the implications of a Danish idiom for the modernist paradigm. What visual language of furnishings and environments did Danish Modern offer that made it a surrogate for Denmark, rhetorically giving form to Danishness abroad? And how, at the same time, was it employed as a mode of self-fashioning, a deliberate formal intervention into national ideology and Cold War politics? To answer these questions is not only to advance the study of Danish Modern’s sculptural forms, but also to better understand the state of modernism at midcentury.

During the 2012 – 2013 academic year Maggie Taft will continue as a PhD candidate in the department of art history at the University of Chicago.

Related Publications

The image found in the original report can be accessed in Center 32.