In Australia in the 1950s and 60s a taste for Scandinavian craft and design was evident everywhere – in blonde and teak timber, in furniture and architectural detailing, in organic forms, fabrics with strong patterns and textures and robust glassware.
This spirit inspired countless local imitators even in the field of cutlery where the local Splade spoon-fork-knife combination seemed designed for al fresco Scandinavian buffet dining.
Part of this influence on local designers was inspired by post WWII travels where blonde wooden furniture was not the only attraction of Scandinavia.
The Australian holiday guide, Off on Holidays, reported in the mid sixties that the northern countries were an ideal holiday destination: “Cities are open, clean and gay and the people are blonde and attractive. Life is free and easy in Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo...”
But for those who could not travel, an innovative series of exhibitions came out here. The Swedish Government worked with Australian State Art Galleries to enable four exhibitions to tour the country: Design for Living (1962), Design in Scandinavia (1968), Architecture in Finland (1973) and Adventures in Swedish Glass (1976). These shows and the accompanying publications helped propagate the Scandinavian style in Australia.
Design for Living
The Design for Living exhibition was a survey of international consumer goods amongst which Scandinavian consumer goods were prominent. Eighty consumer products from twelve countries were displayed, of which twenty-five were from Scandinavia or Finland.
Held in 1962, the exhibition had an educational focus and was mounted jointly by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), The Council of Adult Education and Education Department of Victoria. The exhibition toured all Australian State Art Galleries.
It is arguable that these exhibits of Scandinavian crafts and products of industry inspired in some commentators a response against industrialism.
Colin Barrie, director of the Industrial Design Council of Australia, expressed a crafts-based design sensibility as he wrote about the beauty and integrity of simple objects made by ancient civilisations: “The craftsman was the designer; he was also the master of his materials, for he prepared the raw materials of his trade and knew intimately the characteristics of those materials.
He knew what he could achieve with the tools he used to turn the materials he handled into useful and beautiful objects. It is not surprising that such a unified production process resulted in goods of a satisfying wholeness, in a unity of visual and functional elements.”
The unified production process admired by Barrie, and which he evidently saw in the Scandinavian craft objects on display, is not a part of modern industrial design practice where a division of labour occurs between industrial designer and manufacturer.
Scandinavian craft-based design objects such as hand-made timber chairs offered an alternative to the mass-production of other countries. Finnish stoneware pottery by the Arabia company was particularly noted for this individuality and passion.
Finland’s connections with nature were referred to in the catalogue essay: “Finnish designs have a rugged individuality and honesty that match the country and its people. When Tapio Wirkkala, a sensitive artist in glass, ceramics, plywood and metal, was asked to name his country’s greatest designer, he replied simply, ‘nature’.”
This favouring of craft (and not of mass-production) seemed to be how Australians chose to view the Scandinavian contribution. The words ‘Scandinavian’ and ‘Swedish Modern’ seemed to be used by local critics as synonymous with ‘warmth’, ‘craft’ and ‘humanity’.
Design in Scandinavia
Six years later the exhibition Design in Scandinavia was staged. Between February 1968 and January 1969 it travelled all over Australia.
The introduction to the exhibition catalogue written by painter, graphic designer and Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Hal Missingham, explained the intentions of the show: “We feel quite sure that this exhibition of the best products of arts, crafts, and industrial design of the Scandinavian countries will not only demonstrate their undoubted creative abilities but will materially help our own country to progress in these fields.”
National identity was a strong theme in the exhibition. The catalogue essay forged a strong link between national identity and industrial design. It further stressed the importance of the Scandinavian crafts tradition to Scandinavian industrial design.
Finally, it also gave a brief overview of Scandinavian design’s influence on international design: “By the 1930s, Swedish Modern was a world design centre.
After WWII, Danish Design, especially in wood, came to exert a world influence. By the middle and end of the 1950s, Finnish glass and ceramics attracted world attention. In the early 1960s, Norway was seen to be a new, dominant furniture centre.”
Many of the Scandinavian companies with objects in the Design in Scandinavia exhibition had agents in Australia and were therefore available for sale to the public through retail outlets.
A review of the Design in Scandinavia exhibition by critic Patrick McCaughey emphasised several themes: Scandinavian naturalness; Scandinavia’s role as an arbiter of taste; Scandinavia’s quality beyond functionalism; its human comfort and ‘humanness’; the legacy of its crafts tradition; its lack of engagement with mere ‘fashion’.
The Scandinavian position as world arbiters of taste was noted by McCaughey: “Scandinavian design provides us with our most powerful image of the good life.
Sitting at your natural wood table in your stream-lined chair, buttering your bread with your handleless Jacobsen knife, sipping your beer from a Boda glass and knocking the ash of your cigarette into an Orrefors ash tray would indeed make a hair-raising display of good taste.”
McCaughey also claimed that the strengths of Scandinavian industrial design went beyond mere functionalism – there was a ‘naturalness’ of the materials and forms that he found appealing.
As with other writers, he held the Scandinavian crafts tradition responsible for much of the various products’ appeal:
“The Scandinavian designer’s capacity to harness technology without becoming chillingly clinical represents one of their major coups. It points to the long and honourable craft tradition from which their post-war designers spring. Sometimes, as in the Norwegian pottery, a sense of sturdy peasant craft continues quite openly without being archly folksy.”
The ceramics of Norway featured in the display demonstrated these values well. At a time when the American industrial design industry in particular was being accused by the design-moralists in Britain of ‘styling obsolescence’, the ceramics on display and Scandinavian industrial design in general, was considered by Patrick McCaughey to be ‘direct’ and ‘honest’.
These exhibitions had a lasting legacy. As well as exposing Australian consumers and designers to what was perceived to be the best in international design objects, at around this time several Scandinavian design objects were acquired for the permanent collections of many Australian art galleries.
Around 1968 a number of Scandinavian chairs were purchased for the NGV: Hans Wegner’s Round chair, the Ax chair designed by Peter Hvidt and Orla Molgaard-Nielsen, Eero Saarinen’s Tulip chair and Arne Jacobsen’s Swan Armchair.
At a time when British design was either wallowing in nostalgic historical revivals or was itself looking to Scandinavia for its lead and early German modernity was considered ‘cold’, and the American industrial design industry was being accused by design-moralists of ‘styling obsolescence’, Scandinavian industrial design seemed to offer a fresh alternative.
The majority of Australian craftspeople and designers did not aspire to emulate the Scandinavians in their expertise with stainless steel and glass but instead with textiles, timbers, and ceramics. A renewed interest in the crafts in Australia was soon to boom, perhaps at the expense of mass-production industrial design techniques and materials.
Australian furniture designers were quick to emulate aspects of Nordic crafts and design practice. Notable amongst Scandinavian contributions to international furniture design was the use of ‘exposed seat webbing’.
The first chair to reach the consumer in this raw ‘webbed’ state was probably Alvar Aalto’s Armchair 406 of 1933. Australian versions of this technique appeared on the market designed by Melbourne-based designer Grant Featherston from 1947 onwards and the Sydney designer Douglas Snelling from about the same time.
Another notable aspect of Scandinavian furniture design was its choice of timbers. The ‘knotty’ grain of the timber and ‘blonde’ coloration many Australian industrial designers and house builders saw in illustrations in magazines was considered ‘very Swedish’ and very desirable.
Local manufacturer Danish De Luxe, Fler and Tessa and Parker used the dark teaks synonymous with Denmark, while the Malmo firm aimed to evoke the blonde timbers of Sweden. The names of these companies are, of course, equally revealing of the source of their inspiration. Today in Australia these interpretations of Scandinavian design values are highly sought after by collectors.