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19 Feb 15

Nordic Cool: Modernist Design

For many, the streamlined aesthetic of Nordic design, with its functional yet humanist qualities, epitomises twentieth-century modernism. The spectrum of this production, however, is diverse and often contradictory in its aesthetic. Scandinavian design may be characterised by a sophisticated grace and unmannered charm; by socially determined philosophies and its celebration of pure visual beauty; by innovative boldness and, at the same time, its conservative traditions. These contradictions are testament to the richness and variety of craft traditions that informed so much of the Scandinavian aesthetic that emerged following the end of the Second World War.

Nordic Cool: Modernist Design is drawn from the National Gallery of Victoria’s rich holdings of decorative arts and encompasses ceramics, glass, metalwork, furniture, textiles and lighting. The exhibition ranges from the 1920s to 1960s, with a particular focus on the period from the late 1940s to the 1960s when Scandinavian design came into its own and arguably defined a modern aesthetic. The works from this mid-century period set a standard of simplicity, quality and truth to their purpose and materials that is difficult to surpass, even today.

Many of these works were acquired in 1952 as part of a larger group of European decorative arts that represent the first contemporary objects purchased by the Felton Bequest. The works were selected by the far-sighted London Adviser to the Bequest, Mr A. J. L. McDonnell, who had travelled to America and Europe looking at contemporary exhibitions of Nordic design. He was much impressed, and wrote to the Felton Bequests’ Committee requesting permission to

form for the Gallery a small collection of contemporary decorative arts. I have for long thought that the traditions and qualities of craftsmanship, good design and taste have been most admirably preserved and expressed in these decorative arts … I hope your Committee will look favourably on this suggestion, as such a collection, besides being an asset to the Gallery, would surely be in keeping with Alfred Felton’s expressed desire to improve and elevate public taste.1 A. J. L. McDonnell, letter to the Felton Bequests’ Committee, 3 Oct. 1950, Felton papers, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

McDonnell chose well, buying directly from the manufacturers and selecting a rich variety of works that represented many of the leading designers of the day. He chose ceramics from the Swedish manufacturers of Gustavsberg and Rörstrand Porslinfabrik, and Danish works by the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory. He bought silver from the famous Danish manufacturers Georg Jensen, A. Michelsen and Hans Hansen Sølvsmedie, and in glass he acquired significant examples of Swedish Orrefors and Finnish works by Iittala and the Nuutajärvi Glassworks. Although McDonnell only acquired two examples of Danish furniture, his foresight in recognising the importance of seating design within the context of contemporary practice is notable. Many of the works he selected are now considered design classics, including Tapio Wirkkala’s Kantarelli, vase (Chanterelle), 1946 (designed), 1946–51 (manufactured), for Iittala (below); Johan Rohde’s 1925 silver Pitcher for Georg Jensen (below); and Orla Mölgaard Nielsen and Peter Hvidt’s Ax armchair, 1950, for Fritz Hansen (below). It is curious that McDonnell did not acquire works by Norwegian manufacturers and this remains an area of the collection still to be addressed. The only Norwegian work in Nordic Cool is the Armchair designed in 1953 by Torbjørn Afdal for Bruksbo, purchased in 1961.


From the 1960s to 1980s the Gallery continued to augment the collection, purchasing a number of key metalwork and ceramic designs, including Henning Koppel’s iconic silver Fish dish, 1956 (designed), c. 1980 (manufactured), for Georg Jensen (below). Koppel’s training as a sculptor is evident in his strikingly original silver volumes that function as tablewares. He wrote passionately about his design philosophy, stating:

Things should be worth looking at. I am sick to death of all this talk of functionalism. Practicality is not the primary goal when you make a serving dish like this. My serving dish is a work of art, and it should be a delight to see. You display it, look at it, enjoy it every single day. It is not supposed to be put away in some cupboard. In my opinion beauty is the first thing to strive for in everything.2 Niels-Jorgen Kaiser, The World of Henning Koppel, Georg Jensen, Copenhagen, 2000, pp. 79–80.

In 1973 the Finnish Ambassador, Mr Tuure Mentula, presented the NGV with what is arguably the most iconic work in Nordic Cool – Alvar Aalto’s glass Savoy, vase, designed in 1936 and named after the luxury Helsinki restaurant for which Aalto and his wife designed the interior furnishings and fixtures. The vase’s famous organic form has been variously likened to an Eskimo woman’s leather pants, the official description given by Aalto when he first entered it in a design competition, to the shape of the Finnish landscape from above, with its myriad lakes. Despite these varied interpretations, what is clear is that much of the inspiration behind Aalto’s organic aesthetic came from his close dialogue with numerous avant-garde artists of the day, including László Moholy-Nagy, Jean Arp, Alexander Calder and Fernand Léger. Today Aalto is considered one of the leading architects and designers of the twentieth century, and his work esteemed as a paragon of a human-centred modernism.

The Gallery has continued to develop its holdings of Scandinavian design and recently acquired two significant examples of lighting design by the Danish designer Poul Henningsen. The 1927 PH 4/3, table lamp is one of Henningsen’s earliest lighting designs, developed from his prototype PH lamp of 1924. The prototype won a gold medal at the Paris 1925 Exposition Internationale and Henningsen went on to develop the concept of nested shades with mathematically determined curvatures that evenly dispersed reflected light – his aim was to eliminate glare and produce a broad spread of non-dazzling, warm illumination. Henningsen stated: ‘The PH-lamp should be the lamp for the home. The aim is to beautify the home and those who live there, to make the evening restful and relaxing’.3 Poul Henningsen quoted in Tina Jørstian, & Poul Erik Munk Nielsen (eds) Light Years Ahead: The Story of the PH Lamp, Louis Poulsen, Copenhagen, 1994, p. 220. The lamp has been in continuous production since it was first introduced and remains a classic of twentieth-century industrial lighting design.

In 1958 Henningsen designed the most sophisticated version of his multiple shade principle for the Copenhagen restaurant Langelinie Pavilion – the Artichoke lamp. The lights still hang in the restaurant today, but can also now be found in public and private interiors all over the world. The Gallery’s example, included in Nordic Cool, is a rare, early production from 1960.

This is the first time that the NGV’s holdings of Nordic design have been shown together in one display. Nordic Cool: Modernist Design celebrates the great diversity of Scandinavian designers and manufacturers while constantly holding to the line of pure visual beauty. Ultimately, it is this that defines the exhibition.



A. J. L. McDonnell, letter to the Felton Bequests’ Committee, 3 Oct. 1950, Felton papers, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.


Niels-Jorgen Kaiser, The World of Henning Koppel, Georg Jensen, Copenhagen, 2000, pp. 79–80.


Poul Henningsen quoted in Tina Jørstian, & Poul Erik Munk Nielsen (eds) Light Years Ahead: The Story of the PH Lamp, Louis Poulsen, Copenhagen, 1994, p. 220.