Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 22, 2017
Mark Mussari Danish Modern: Between Art and Design New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. 193 pp.; 33 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781474223720)

Hygge is hot. According to the New York Times (December 24, 2016) and the Guardian (October 18, November 22, December 16, 2016), the Danish concept, which translates roughly to coziness, is the lifestyle trend of the moment. Hygge is so popular that it made the Oxford Dictionary’s shortlist for 2016 “word of the year.” A number of recent books outline the concept, explain its history, and instruct on how to develop it in your own home. Hygge-dedicated websites sell blankets, candles, and other comfy accoutrements designed to cultivate comfortable conviviality. It is hardly the first time a Danish lifestyle export has caught on. Beginning in the 1950s and with renewed vigor since the early aughts, Danish Modern design has been coveted in the United States and elsewhere. This seven-decade fascination is the impetus for Mark Mussari’s book, Danish Modern: Between Art and Design. “They are still, and have always been, marketed objects,” Mussari writes of chairs like Hans Wegner’s Round Chair (1949) and Arne Jacobsen’s Egg (1958), Poul Henningsen’s sculptural pendant lamps, and Vibeke Klint and Lis Ahlmann’s woven textiles, “but the resilience of their trajectory indicates an appeal reaching beyond the marketing narrative once applied to them” (4). In a compact book that covers over one hundred years in under two hundred pages, Mussari aims to unearth the seeds of that appeal.

Though Mussari is interested in the long-lasting popularity of Danish Modern, his book focuses on the production of Danish classics rather than on their reception. Each of the ten chapters looks at a different designer (or set of designers, as in the chapter on weavers), their design philosophy, and a few exemplary objects. The figures are treated less as case studies than as instances of, as Mussari says, the interplay between ideology and execution. The result is a series of poetic descriptions of furniture and illuminating expositions on the philosophies of different Danish designers, which together demonstrate a varied rather than uniform approach to design in Denmark. While this succeeds in making familiar, canonical objects seem new again, it also betrays an approach to design that is thoroughly art historical and traditional in its method. With a PhD in Scandinavian Language and Literature, Mussari consults a variety of untranslated, Danish-language writings, but his archive is limited to primary texts penned by designers and the occasional design critic, secondary sources like exhibition catalogues and recent monographs, and a bit of theory. In this way, the book resembles a walk through an art museum: it highlights a selection of choice objects and presents them in an accessible manner, while also isolating design from the various contingencies (manufacturing, markets, trade, politics, culture, to name a few) that fundamentally distinguish it from art making.

Of course this treatment of design as art is deliberate. Mussari emphasizes it in the book’s subtitle—Between Art and Design. The interstitial positioning is in some ways apt. As Mussari describes, many of the big-name Danish designers courted careers in the world of art before homing in on furniture. Most famously, Finn Juhl fantasized about a career as an art historian before his father told him he had better not. Mussari shows how other designers, like Poul Kjaerholm, handled materials like a sculptor might, or, as in the case of Verner Panton, were taken by color in an almost painterly way. (When he discusses Panton’s obsession with red, the book’s black-and-white illustrations fall especially flat. This publishing limitation pushes readers to dwell on arguments about form, which are supported by the images, rather than those about color, which are not.) Emphasizing the “artness” of Danish Modern gives Mussari license to delve into designer philosophies and the particular objects through which those philosophies were realized. And while this is at times enlightening, it can also be limiting. For instance, in his discussion of Wegner’s famous Round Chair, Mussari compares the original iteration, with the top rail of its chair back wrapped in cane, to a subsequent iteration in which that top rail was made of solid wood. He attributes this to the fact that at first Wegner did not know how to make the necessary joinery look like a deliberate design (49). Maybe so, but the revision also owes to an eye on the export market—manufacturers and distributors were concerned about how cane would hold up in the American climates where they were hoping to expand their market. Design, Danish or otherwise, is hardly just the product of an individual’s theories and proclivities. It is shaped by (and participates in shaping) networks, structures, and systems far more capacious.

Instead of contextualizing Danish design within a broader postwar politics, economics, and culture, Mussari considers it in relation to international modernism, and to the Bauhaus in particular. He explores the connections with a dedication unusual in the scholarship on Danish design, and he does so with good reason: there are concrete, historical points of contact between the Danes and their European contemporaries. Henningsen won a gold medal at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris (1925), where Le Corbusier debuted his famous Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau and Aleksandr Rodchenko his workers pavilion, and he damned Bauhaus interiors as cold and antiseptic in his short-lived journal Kritisk Revy (1926–28) three decades before House Beautiful editor Elizabeth Gordon would tell American readers the same. When a major Dutch department store held a small exhibition of Poul Kjaerholm’s furniture in 1963, Gerrit Rietveld gave the keynote address. In books and exhibitions, Danish design is so often cordoned off with other Scandinavian stuff that it is easy to forget the Danes were also conversing with designers, theories, practices, and objects originating elsewhere in Europe. By contrast, Mussari reminds us that “many of [Danish Modern’s] roots lie in theoretical and aesthetic design and architectural changes beyond Denmark’s shores” (10).

To prove this, the book’s first chapter begins with a primer on early twentieth-century European modernism and its major players (Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Adolf Loos, etc.) before rewinding to late nineteenth-century Denmark. Subsequent chapters open not with the Danes but with Anni Albers (born in Germany) and Americans Joseph Kosuth and Donald Judd. The Danish story is thus made to fit within the familiar history of high modernism, as though the terminology and framework was always already in place. This is a missed opportunity, for one of the things the story of Danish Modern offers is a chance to remember that modernist ideology was not written in stone. It was there for the making, and functionalism and mechanization defined but one strand. Elsewhere, as in Denmark, modernism was differently conceived as in dialogue with, rather than in opposition to, tradition. At one point, Mussari calls this engagement with tradition “provincial” (19). But from the vantage of the twenty-first century, we need characterize it as such only if we accept the canonical story of modernism as dogma.

By focusing each chapter on a different designer, Mussari resists defining a homogeneous, Danish strand of modernism. But certain commonalities do emerge. Foremost among them is a preoccupation with timelessness. Mussari insists that this interest is not his own. Rather, he says, the fascination with timelessness belongs to his subjects. Although he fails to explain why not only the Danes but also modern designers across Europe were so preoccupied, he neatly outlines different approaches to cultivating timeless designs. While some, like Henningsen, contended that “only art bearing the stamp of its times lives forever” (23), others, like cabinetmaker A. J. Iversen, argued that only clear, pared-down forms would prevail and “endure the fickle nature of fashion” (21). But Mussari is not interested in simply reflecting on the ideologies of these twentieth-century practitioners; he is trying to make an argument about the durability of their designs. By focusing on designers, their writings, and their objects, he is arguing for the import of the maker. Mussari does not entirely dismiss the significance of reception. As he explains, designs are never completely bound to their origins “because users can continue to interact with each design in another context and another time” (153). Whereas current academic trends favor material culture, actor-network theory, and other approaches that privilege circulation and reception, Mussari reaffirms the significance of production. This is a method that will surely appeal to practitioners studying design history, but it is also important for scholars, including those interested in circulation and reception. Toward the end of Danish Modern, Mussari explains why: the principle of invariance. Even as designed objects are subject to “an ongoing and ever-changing reception” (171), the objects themselves remain stable. By understanding the origins of Danish Modern’s forms, Mussari suggests, we might stand a better chance of understanding the diversity of its embrace.

Maggie Taft
independent scholar