… the blog
The site covers architecture and design in general from the Nordic countries and design history along with book reviews and comments on travel. There are plans to broaden topics covered to look at design galleries and at craftsmanship and makers so the category links in the side bar are useful if anyone wants to focus on specific themes. Tags can be used to take you to posts about the same designer or the same subject but will be added to so they link to similar and related posts. Links to pages on architects, designers and manufacturers that drop down from the navigation bar will build up, as more links are added, to create a quick reference place for biographical information. The search feature of the Squarespace software works well to find references within posts where that name may not be tagged.
In general photographs were taken specifically for the blog. I am happy if these are copied but if they are reused, particularly for a commercial site, I would be grateful if Nordic Design Review is acknowledged as the source.
Nordic Design Review has no sponsors so the views expressed are my own. If you disagree with me or if I am simply wrong about something then please send me an email or add a comment to a specific post - I am happy to amend a post and acknowledge the reason and give the source of the new information.
… so why me and why this blog?
My parents set up house together in the very early 50s. They were not too keen on simply copying the furniture and styles of decoration chosen by their families and friends so they bought some Utility Furniture - simple, functional, wardrobes and chest of drawers made with plywood during the War and in the following years. Rather than try to get hold of carpet - not readily available anyway - they stripped and waxed the plain floor boards and began to seek out the newly-available American journals and design magazines for inspiration, buying the odd piece of 'Contemporary' furniture or pottery. When I was little and she was heavily pregnant with my brother, Mum spent hours stripping back layer upon layer of Victorian and Edwardian wallpaper so she could paint rooms white or plain colours.
By the early 60s I remember going with them to shop at Choses in Hampstead and buying Swedish glassware (this was before Terence Conran opened the first Habitat shop with his aim to transform English taste) and I have vague memories of a Danish Design Centre in London where we bought chairs although I’ve started to wonder if that is a false memory as I can’t find any trace of it in histories and trade directories of the period. I got to like the fact that by then we had sisal carpets when mates lived with nylon swirls of violent colour that gave you a shock if you shuffled across their rooms or touched anything metal.
The photograph is of a teak ice bucket made in Denmark that appeared on our kitchen worktop sometime in the 60s. As my parents were not the sort of people to have cocktail parties Mum used it for biscuits. Ordinary biscuits for a snack after school could be found in an ordinary tin but this was used for really good chocolate biscuits so I suppose it’s not surprising that, from an early age, good design and good food were linked together in my mind. The barrel sits now on the worktop in my kitchen.
At the age of eleven I went to grammar school but that school was about as far as you can get from the image most people have of a home-counties grammar school. It was in brand new buildings with fantastic art and science facilities and was described as a Technical Grammar - aiming to produce the scientists and engineers of the future. Unlike most grammar schools, where French and Latin were taught, German was our first foreign language and Russian was taught from the second year because these, it was thought, were going to be the languages of the future.
There was a good art department and art was part of the core curriculum so everybody - however academic or however technical their future was to be - learnt pottery and textile printing. And in lessons about design we learnt about Form and Function and honesty of design that respected the material. We had school trips to places like Sanderson's wallpaper factory and trips to art galleries.
For me, one of the key moments, learning about art and design, was a school trip to the first major exhibition in England about the Bauhaus that opened in London in 1968. I still remember the theatre costumes and the furniture in detail. The only school trip that possibly made more of an impression was when a mad (his description not mine) Russian teacher took us off to London to see the musical Hair not long after it opened … so before word got out about what happened on stage and before parents might say no.
I thought about textile design as a career but then realised my work was neat and methodical rather than being inspired so went off to university to read Art History. I was never a good art historian … never fired up by iconography or provenance … and sneaked off regularly to the School of Architecture to learn about architectural history from a more practical approach and discovered the study of vernacular architecture.
Even back then, it was difficult to know what to do with a history-of-art degree so I stayed on in Manchester to take the post graduate diploma in museum studies. The course was brilliant in the sense that you couldn’t bullshit. It used the amazing museum collections around - from the Wedgewood Collection in the potteries to the huge collections of applied arts in the museums in Manchester and Liverpool - as teaching aids where we had to give what were literally hands-on tutorials. We had to give lectures about 18th-century china or 19th-century commemorative glass or tin-glazed tiles or whatever with the items in our hands and passed from person to person so we couldn't get away with rash pronouncements like you could when talking in front of a slide or photograph. We were taken to workshops to see glass being blown and to have a try at glass cutting though nothing I did came quite up to Waterford Crystal standard and we were taken to see bottle kilns loaded with saggers and ready to fire so we understood exactly why Burslem was about technical and design revolutions and not about posh dinners on posh plates.
Suddenly art history and architectural history made sense if you picked things up and turned them round and looked to see which bits looked right and which bits didn’t. Ok you can’t actually flip over a building and look to see if it has a maker’s mark but you can look at buildings critically and think not just about the aesthetics or the “school of” bit or with paintings the how much should it be insured for bit. Buildings and their furnishings tell you a massive amount about the period in which they were constructed; the reasons they took the form they did; about who commissioned or paid for them and, more important, why people wanted those things and of course why a form or a style survived or why it was rejected by the next generation.
I didn’t actually want to work in an art gallery so I went back to the academic side to try my new approach to art history in, of all places, the Courtauld Institute and then I landed the perfect job for me … as an Investigator of Historic Architecture with the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments. Unfortunately the Commission did not survive the cuts and “rationalisation” of government-funded services in the late 1990s but from its foundation by Royal Warrant in 1908 the Commission recorded historic buildings and archaeology that reflected the history and way of life of the people of England or, to quote the Warrant more accurately, we were to record monuments “connected with or illustrative of the contemporary culture, civilization and conditions of life of the people in England.” It meant I spent nearly 20 years looking for evidence about how and where people had cooked or slept or housed their servants or kept their horses or how watermills really worked or where and how people prayed or taught or buried their kin.
That’s one of the reasons why, over the years, I’ve spent so many happy hours in the open-air museums in Stockholm and Lund and the amazing Frilandsmuseet in the northern suburbs of Copenhagen and why, maybe sometimes too often, when looking at modern design, I try to trace back colours or shapes or forms in contemporary furniture or tableware to a national or to a local tradition that has evolved from what every-day objects people need and why. Understanding how something is produced can be as important as understanding why it was produced and maybe sometimes that approach also helps to explain why today's must have will be tomorrow's curious artefact.
Well for much of my working life I have spent my time looking at, thinking about, researching the history of and writing about buildings and furniture and how houses were and are used so, I guess, I talk the talk … even if, like most English people, I’m lazy about coming to grips with foreign languages so, strictly, in that sense, I actually don’t talk the talk.
As for walking the walk - well I first visited Scandinavia as a student in the mid 70s when I took my backpack and took the overnight ferry from Newcastle to Bergen. From there I went by ferry up through the skerries to Trondheim and then on by train and bus and ferry to as many places I could get to this side of the Russian border. I’ve been back and more and more frequently over the last ten years.
why a blog now?
Well - over the last two years I provided general help at a new Scandinavian design shop in Cambridge, putting together their blog, putting together furniture (a fair bit of furniture is dismantled for shipping), taking photographs and talking to customers, as a captive audience. They knew all about Scandinavia - as children they loved Danish bacon and always had Lurpak - though with all those cholesterol warnings - well maybe not so much now. And Scandinavian design? Well of course everyone has a few things bought in IKEA. And food? Well meat balls (from IKEA of course) are remarkably tasty.
OK - I’m being harsh on my countrymen (country people??) but to be honest if you stop anyone in the street in England and ask them to name the Scandinavian countries 90% will get it wrong and if asked to list the Nordic countries most would look slightly perplexed. They know that there is somewhere that is generally homogeneous and called Scandinavia but few have any idea just how large and how diverse, in fact, the region is.
I am sure they would be surprised to find - thanks to Google Earth - that if you live in Sonderborg near the Danish border with Germany you are 2,537 kilometres, give or take, from Tromso by road and it would take you about 30 hours to drive there. Naples, on the other hand, is a mere 2,000 kilometres away to the south and it would only take you 18 hours to get there by car. No one would automatically link together the modern furniture produced in Denmark and Southern Italy but somehow taste in Bergen and Helsinki must be similar.
A quick poll of friends - most very well travelled - and I found virtually no one has actually been to any of the Nordic countries because in the Summer English people head south for sun or in the Winter either head off to somewhere exotic or, for sport, to somewhere higher and steeper.
Curiously, having said all that, Scandinavian TV, un-dubbed, from Wallander to the Killing to Borgen is phenomenally popular in the UK and from those programmes, at least, people have seen that ordinary families in Copenhagen can have a PH 5 lampshade even if people don’t (yet) know that it’s called a PH 5.
And of course for years good Nordic design has sold in England - Alvar Aalto went to England with some of his designs in the 1930s for an exhibition of his furniture at Fortnum and Mason and, as a result of potential demand, his wife and friends persuaded him to set up Artek to make and sell his furniture; Habitat was selling glassware from Iittala in the 1960s and Skandium have been steadily building a following in London since 1999.
But perhaps now really is a good time to reassess what we take from and what we learn from Finland and the Scandinavian countries.
In terms of style, the interiors of the 60s and the classic furniture designs of the 50s and 60s are far enough back in time to be re-assessed fairly and hopefully appreciated anew. Nordic design is having a Renaissance. Above all, concerns and discussions, as we come out of a recession, make it the right time to rethink our views of what is fashionable and, by that very definition, throw away, and how, maybe, one better option is to invest in good design and good craftsmanship for things we really want to keep - not only for aesthetic reasons but for sensible reasons of sustainability.