Theme

Milano, New York, Toronto, Warszawa … When the exhibition machine started


International design exhibitions 

After World War II, the Landsforeningen Dansk Kunsthaandværk (National Association of Danish Crafts) played a central role in promoting Danish design in international exhibitions and trade fairs. The members of the association included craft makers and cabinetmakers as well as major industrial art factories, such as the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory. The journal Dansk Kunsthaandværk (Danish Crafts), which came out in 1948–68, was both a membership magazine and the association’s platform in the debate about quality, applied art, and craftsmanship. The content reflected the members’ professional and commercial interests and the association’s purpose, which was ‘to promote awareness of Danish crafts and contribute to its continued development, in regard to both quality and commercial opportunities’. Exhibitions were one of the association’s principal activities; the following looks at four significant manifestations.

Triennale di Milano

Of the many design presentations during the 1950s, the triennial exhibitions in Milan were of particular importance for the international reputation of Scandinavian design. Seen from outside, the Nordic partnership behind the manifestations in Milan underscored the image of a close bond between Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. In 1951, at ‘unreasonably short notice’, as the then director of Landsforeningen, Viggo Sten Møller, put it, it was decided that Denmark would take part in the 9th Triennale. In great haste, architect Erik Herløw was commissioned to plan the presentation, including selecting the exhibits for the Danish section in collaboration with the companies involved. Thus, in contrast to many international exhibitions, there was no jury involved. The budget was limited, so the presentation was simply a floor space of 100 square meters with a podium in the middle for furniture and rugs and, along the walls, 13 display cases showing the smaller items.

Erik Herløw: Plan of The Danish exhibiton at Triennalen i Milano. 1:l00. Showcase nr. 1 Georg Jensens silver, nr.2 Hans Hansen, Inger Møller and Frantz Hingelberg. Nr. 3: A. Michelsen. Nr. 4: Saxbo and Kay Bojesen. Nr. 5: Chr. Poulsen and Mogens Zieler. Nr .6: Haandarbejdets Fremme. Nr. 7-8-9: Den kgl. Porcelainsfabrik/ The Royal Porcelain Factory. Nr. 10-11-12: Bing & Grøndahl.Nr. 13: Kay Bojesen, Anker Kysters Eftf. and Holmegaards Glasvæk

Dansk Kunsthaandværk no. 7, 1951, features an interesting text by Viggo Sten Møller about the Danish representation, in which he criticizes the authorities for a ‘slow grant process’, which had made it difficult for Landsforeningen to stage an efficient, low-cost process. In the same text, he praises Erik Herløw for his performance under these difficult conditions, which undoubtedly influenced the architect’s choice of ‘a safe but somewhat ordinary international retail style as a basis for the presentation’. (fig. 2)Nevertheless, the Triennale jury subsequently awarded Herløw the highest accolade, the Grand Prix, for the design of the Danish section. Without detracting from Herløw’s contribution or the other awards in Milan, it is fair to say that the 1951 jury was very generous.

Denmarks exhibition room at theTriennalen, 1951

Design in Scandinavia 1954 – 1957

Design in Scandinavia: An Exhibition of Objects for the Home from Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden
was a catalyst for the export of modern Danish furniture and applied art during the 1950s. A total of 660,000 visitors saw the exhibition during its tour to 24 museums in the United States and Canada. In several of the venues, the exhibition surpassed previous attendance records; a success that the joint Nordic organizing committee promptly reported back to the domestic media and the authorities that held the purse strings. The purpose of the exhibition was to present modern interior design products, a brief that the four juries (one for each country) interpreted rather broadly. Thus, the selection included a wide range of products, from handicrafts to applied art to industrial products. For example, the diverse exhibition showcased hand-knitted Norwegian woolen socks and mittens in traditional designs alongside Danish furniture, such as Arne Jacobsen’s Ant chair, designed in 1952, and Finn Juhl’s Chieftain Chair, from 1949. The handicraft products in particular sparked criticism, and as a result, some items were withdrawn from the exhibition and replaced with others. Again, the exhibition architect was Erik Herløw, who had won the commission in a competition with 11 other architects, among them Finn Juhl. For the exhibition Herløw had developed a new system of display cases that could be converted into transport crates when the travelling exhibition went back on the road.

In the media coverage of the exhibition, it is striking that the architect and his ‘invention’ received more attention than the exhibits on display. Not that interest in the exhibition was lacking. The organizers had developed a comprehensive ‘propaganda strategy’, as they called it, which was executed both in the print press and in the broadcast media.

From Design in Scandinavia at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond 1954
When Design in Scandinavia came to a new city, it was greeted by department stores and shops launching theme weeks focusing on Scandinavian products and designs and creating imaginative shop and window displays that echoed the exhibition’s graphic design and architectural expression. Åke H. Huldt, the director of Svenska Slöjdföreningen (The Swedish Society of Crafts and Design), visited New York in Easter 1954 and reported to the readers of the Swedish magazine FORM that 5th Avenue and the adjacent streets were decorated with the Nordic colours and that Scandinavian design and craft objects were showcased in the shop windows at Georg Jensen, Bonniers, Sloans, SAS at the Rockefeller Center, Swedish American Line and Pan America Airlines.
From Design in Scandinavia at Brooklyn Museum, New York

The Arts of Denmark. Viking to Modern. 1960-61

Even before the Design in Scandinavia tour was completed, both Danish and American stakeholders were pushing to take advantage of the favorable position that Danish furniture and crafts had attained in the United States. Although Landsforeningen Dansk Kunsthaandværk was not actually ready to take on another international exhibition project, it recognized the importance of striking while the iron was hot.
Architect Finn Juhls draft for The Arts of Denmark at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This time, the travelling exhibition was designed as a purely Danish culture and export initiative. In collaboration with several Danish museums, Landsforeningen had selected examples from Danish crafts and fine arts from prehistoric times to 1960. Finn Juhl was the exhibition architect, and on 14 October 1960, The Arts of Denmark opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with the attendance of the Danish King and Queen. Here, the exhibition was seen by 80,000 people before it continued its American tour.
The Arts of Denmark exhibitions last room. Note the drawing on the back wall - Jørn Utzons first draft of the Oprah house in Sydney.

Warszawa dreams

Dea Trier Mørch, looked after the Danish design exhibition in Warsaw in 1965. She tells vividly about the exhibition’s life and people’s interest in Danish design and crafts, behind the Iron Curtain. The exhibition was an influential happening that set the Poles in motion.

“No matter what they knew about Denmark in advance, they now feet that it is a country where you have time, money, energy and the opportunity to an extent unknown to them.”

The outreach efforts of Landsforeningen Dansk Kunsthaandværk were not limited to international design exhibitions. The association and its network nimbly seized every opportunity to secure media coverage of Danish design and applied art. The association’s magazine, Dansk Kunsthaandværk, paints an intriguing picture of the period and often offers detailed insight into its many activities.

Sources 

Dansk Kunsthaandværk, 1951–66.

Fallan, K. (2017). Designing modern Norway: A history of design discourse. Routledge.

Guldberg, J. (2011). Scandinavian design as discourse: The exhibition design in Scandinavia 1954–57. Design Issues, 27(2).

Hansen, P. H. (2018). Danish modern furniture 1930–2016. Syddansk Universitetsforlag and Lindhardt & Ringhof.

Huldt, Å. H. (1954). Rapport om Design in Scandinavia. FORM. Svenska Slöjdföreningens Tidsskrift, 122–123.