Scandinavian Design & USA – People, Encounters and Ideas, 1890–1980
14 October, 2021–9 January, 2022
The exhibition Scandinavian Design & USA examines how concepts and design from the Nordic countries influenced and shaped modern American design, and conversely how influences from the United States have influenced Nordic design. It is an international collaboration between the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, Nationalmuseum and Nasjonalmuseet in Oslo. The exhibition’s first stop is Nationalmuseum, with more than 300 artifacts on show from collections in the United States and Scandinavia.
For the first time, the relationship between Scandinavian and American design in the 20th century is the subject of an exhibition. Scandinavian Design & USA – People, Encounters and Ideas, 1890–1980 is the product of international collaboration between museums and new research. On show are more than 300 artifacts from collections in the United States and Scandinavia. Visitors can learn about the trends that shaped the design aesthetic, identity and philosophy that we encounter to this day. Among the topics examined are the significance of Scandinavian emigration and the large-scale marketing campaigns for Scandinavian Design in the United States in the 1950s. Co-organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum in collaboration with Nationalmuseum and Nasjonalmuseet in Oslo, the exhibition will tour between the museums until 2023, appearing first at Nationalmuseum.
When it was coined in the 1950s and promoted worldwide, the term Scandinavian Design referred to contemporary design from the Nordic countries. In the political and economic spheres, the concept became a brand embodying the traditions, culture, natural heritage and democratic values of Scandinavia. Although genuine to a certain extent, the concept is contentious, and the exhibition therefore reveals a multifaceted design history reaching back much farther. Examples that stand out include airline advertisements featuring a Viking, the industrial design of new household goods, and finely crafted silverware for the new cocktail culture. Other examples that illustrate the widespread appeal of the concept include interior furnishings for the United Nations headquarters and upscale private residences, and car interiors featuring woven textiles.
Many Scandinavian influences can be found in American design, and America has likewise had a big impact on the Nordic design scene. Eliel Saarinen, Carl Milles, Alvar Aalto, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen are just some of the influential thinkers who left their mark on design trends and design schools in 20th-century America. The exhibition also considers how the American perspective reached Scandinavia, and how the Nordic countries used design as a diplomatic tool. So did the United States, especially in the postwar period, when architecture, art and design served as manifestations of America’s superpower status. American touring exhibitions were dispatched as a form of public diplomacy, and when embassies and official residences were built and furnished, architecture and design were used to promote American values and political positions.
The story begins at a time when transatlantic contact primarily involved migration from Scandinavia to the United States. Starting in the late 19th century, some three million people emigrated from Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway. When people migrate, ideas and skills migrate with them. Traditional craft skills were kept alive in the settlers’ new homeland and passed on to later generations. Many migrants took jobs in manufacturing and brought new knowledge to the American consumer culture. Around the same time, Scandinavian folk art, handwoven textiles and Norwegian stave churches appeared alongside international industrial design at the world’s fairs in Philadelphia and Chicago. After emigration to America tailed off in the 1920s, exchanges of ideas between Scandinavia and the United States influenced developments in design. Trade and travel increased. Touring exhibitions and trade fairs paved the way for new ideas, lifestyles, cultures and worldviews. Concepts such as “the Scandinavian look” and Swedish Modern gained publicity and popularity through coverage in the mass media. The story ends at a time of change for the design scene, due to the emergence of other nations such as Italy and Japan, coupled with increasing globalization.
Curators are Bobbye Tigerman at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Monica Obniski at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Helena Kåberg at Nationalmuseum and Denise Hagströmer at Nasjonalmuseet.
Scandinavian Design & USA – People, Encounters and Ideas, 1890–1980 is on show on the upper level of Nationalmuseum from 14 October 2021 until 9 January 2022. The exhibition is co-organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum in collaboration with Nationalmuseum and Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo. The exhibition is made possible by major grants from the Terra Foundation for American Art (international tour and exhibition sponsor) and the Henry Luce Foundation (presenting sponsor). Generous support is also provided by Nordic Culture Point.