"The Chair" by Hans Wegner - Was this the start of Mid Century Modern?

I recently returned from an inspirational trip to Copenhagen. Naturally it was my intention to take in some of the iconic Danish design from the twentieth century. Seeing some of these pieces in the context for which they were designed never fails to impress but I had not expected the trip to raise more questions about design than it was able to answer.

The enduring influence of Scandinavian design in present day interior spaces cannot be questioned. Nearly eighty years since the period we now refer to as Mid Century Modern came to the fore how has Danish design stood the test of time?  Search up any of the lists of top twentieth century designers on the internet and the results will reveal a significant proportion from Scandinavia and very few from Britain. I want to know why.

As an upholsterer I have more than a significant interest in twentieth century chairs. An ambition of mine is to read the contents of my not insignificant reference library amassed over the past 30 years. One of the highlights of my AMUSF Diploma was the stage 3 research project; exploring the styles, periods and iconic designers of the twentieth century. This allowed me to revisit the subject area I studied within my design degree back in 1992 and my interest in the subject has remained bubbling just below the surface ever since. Back then, Post Modernism was the thing; now it is a part of history.

Design is ephemeral. The swing between rational and anti-rational design. My most cherished book Design in Context by Penny Sparke (Bloomsbury 1985) was core to my degree, but I reread it for the diploma through the eyes of history. The world is now a very different place. I don’t recall Danish Modern being the thing in the 1980’s here in Britain. Well established British companies like Ercol went all flowery and we were well into the realm of Laura Ashley. But in 1987, the first IKEA opened here in the UK. Habitat, the iconic home furnishing retailer of the 1960’s and 70’s was irreparably weakened by a number of poor commercial decisions, and the UK was an open door to the great blue and yellow giant of retail. The common factor between Habitat and IKEA is understanding the need for good affordable popular design.

Through a series of blogs I will take the time to look at what British design stands for. On the surface, the roots of both Danish and British modernism share much in common but the outcome and perception today is very different. Two designers play a significant role in the direction of modernism in these two nations; I want to look at the work of Gordon Russell and Kaare Klint – how influential was the Arts and Crafts movement to both? What makes good design? Is style affected by our national mood? Take for example Utility furniture and post war Britain – what are the factors influencing our perception of British design then and now? Are we buying happiness with Scandinavian design? With Danes listed as one of the happiest nations on the planet, and hygge seemingly a concept to aspire to, does design play a part in happiness?

Many questions to be answered, and as many rabbit holes to be explored. There are great number of books written on furniture design. The books which are more “encyclopaedic” do not hold as much interest to me as the papers written, exhibitions curated and the social and political contextualisation of the period. Getting below the surface and discovering interesting and beautiful objects, and understanding where they came from is what this is about. Perhaps it is just be a thinly veiled excuse to get out there and see first-hand the craftsmanship and aesthetic of design. Whatever the reason, I’m fascinated.

A tiny part of my library