At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a new exhibition featuring Nordic design from the previous century includes dozens of objects you likely already know and love: a Finn Juhl chair, sleek and modernist; 1960s Marimekko textiles with bright florals; and Alvar Aalto’s glass Iittala vase, with its sinuous contours. There are also late 19th- and early 20th-century works that, predating midcentury modernism, are more ornate and likely less familiar: wooden chairs and iron punch bowls inscribed with lace patterns, vikings, and dragons, and hand-woven tapestries and elaborate jewelry. And finally, the show includes more than a handful of presumably American items you might be surprised to find there at all, like Lego sets, Eames chairs, and Fiskars scissors.
At its heart, Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980, on view at LACMA through February 5 of 2023, is an exhibition focused on the immigrant designers and craftspeople from Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland who “played an enormous role in shaping American design,” says LACMA’s Bobbye Tigerman, who cocurated the exhibit with Monica Obniski of the Milwaukee Art Museum.
The exhibition, designed by Los Angeles architect Barbara Bestor, serves as a follow up to Tigerman’s book of the same name, released in 2020, which is packed with examples of Scandinavian design influences on America. Charles and Ray Eames, for example, owe some credit to Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, who, like many Nordic immigrants, arrived in the American midwest early in the twentieth century. Saarinen designed both the campus and academia of Cranbrook Academy of Art outside Detroit, Michigan, inviting other Nordic immigrants, including ceramicist Maija Grotell and weaver Marianne Strengell, to join the faculty. The school eventually became the incubator of some of the most acclaimed American designers, including the Eameses, Florence Knoll, and many others.
The exhibition also highlights moments when the United States mutually influenced Nordic designers. The formica-and-walnut midcentury desk that greets visitors at the entrance of the museum is a 1952 design by Greta Magnusson Grossman, a Swedish designer and architect who immigrated to California in 1940. “With this desk, she’s using a traditional cabinet-making wood with an American production technique,” Tigerman says. “To me, it’s a really nice marriage of her Scandinavian and American experiences.”
Further into the exhibition, there’s a vintage set from Danish brand Lego, which arrived in the United States just in time for the Christmas of 1961. “It’s a fun example of how a Scandinavian product captured the excitement and the fascination of an American audience,” Tigerman says. By that point in the twentieth century, Americans were huge fans of “Scandinavian design” as a marketing catchphrase, however incomplete our vision of Scandinavia might have been.
“While we use the phrase ‘Scandinavian design’ to capitalize on the term’s continuing currency, we acknowledge its shortcomings and limitations,” the exhibition catalog reads, pointing out the ongoing generalizations made about this region of the world. A lot of them can be attributed to marketing strategies after World War II, Tigerman explains: As the midcentury American economy boomed and the Nordic countries wanted to ally themselves with the U.S. side of the Cold War, advertisers on both ends of the Atlantic sold “Scandinavian” as a single, homogenous style, characterized by simple, organic, well-made forms. “Exhibitions of Scandinavian design that came to America tried to associate these objects not just with modernism and natural materials, but with freedom and democracy,” Tigerman says.
In reality, Scandinavia comprises three countries with very different cultures and economies with their own highs and lows. (And Finland is actually not a Scandinavian country, but a Nordic one.) But for the American palate, “Scandinavian design” was an ideal fantasy. Exotic but not too exotic, it found immense popularity in the pages of House Beautiful and American homes, so much so that in the mid ’50s, a New York couple founded a brand of colorful kitchenware and called it Dansk—the Danish word for Danish.
The show ends in the 1980s, where under a new globalized world order, Italian and Japanese design rose to prominence while the fantasy of Scandinavian design began to fade away, although not completely. These days, designs from Nordic countries are commonplace, characterized by minimalism, more subtle colors, and the coziness of hygge. But like so many other immigrant groups in the history of the U.S., the contributions Nordic people made to the country through the early and mid 1900s remain indelible to American culture today.