“In the Midwest, the memories of Scandinavian Americans are found everywhere,” says Monica Obniski, who curated the Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition, “Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980,” opening March 24, that explores design exchanges between the United States and five Nordic countries—Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland—during the twentieth century.
But let’s take a step back: What does Scandinavian design really mean? Tranquil simplicity, minimalism, functionality, muted colors and natural materials come to mind. Having become synonymous with sophistication, coziness and harmonious ensembles that come together to provide a signature hygge experience, Scandinavian design emerged in the early twentieth century, and subsequently flourished in the 1950s. Since then its influence has been immense. Taking the arrival of Nordic immigrants to the United States in the late-nineteenth century as a starting point, the exhibition highlights the environmentally and socially conscious design movements of the 1960s and 1970s (read: accessibility and sustainability) and brings the powerful cultural exchange between Scandinavia and the States to the forefront. Featuring some 180 design objects, furniture, textiles, ceramics, toys (hello, Trolls) and all sorts of colorful artifacts, the exhibition refuses to accept the dominant conception that central European émigrés (with Germans at the very top of that list) shaped modern American design culture. The first exhibition to do just that, it was brought to life by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in collaboration with the Nationalmuseum Sweden and the Nasjonalmuseet in Norway and has been traveling internationally before coming to Milwaukee, which marks its last stop.
Obniski began her career as a researcher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, before serving as assistant curator of American Decorative Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago, as a curator of twentieth- and twenty-first-century design at the Milwaukee Art Museum and currently, as curator of Decorative Arts and Design at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. Shattering myths and stereotypes around all things Scandinavian design, she talks to Newcity about the exhibition’s groundbreaking nature, the past, present and future of cross-cultural exchange, and the ways Scandinavians truly transformed the Midwest.
Can you give us a brief overview of the exhibition and its significance for the Milwaukee Art Museum and the city?
The exhibition “Scandinavian Design and the United States” is the first exhibition to explore the design exchanges between the United States and the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden over the twentieth century. It is the product of many years of research and relationships that was developed by my colleague, Bobbye Tigerman at LACMA, and me, first when I was working at the Art Institute of Chicago and then continued when I moved to the Milwaukee Art Museum. In the Midwest, the memories of Scandinavian-Americans are found everywhere, from objects in art museums (like the many examples that are shown in the exhibition) and monuments like the Leif Erikson statue created by sculptor Anne Whitney (in Juneau Park, Milwaukee) or the Dala Horse in Andersonville, to architecture, the incredible story of the Norway Pavilion from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago that was moved to Lake Geneva, then Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, before going home to Orkdal, Norway a few years ago!
Although our exhibition is framed as a national story, Scandinavians truly transformed the Midwest, migrating by the millions beginning in the nineteenth century. We began working on this concept in 2014, and by 2016 (when we started traveling to the Nordic countries), the damaging rhetoric around immigrants in the United States was rampant, and we wanted to reframe the narrative by demonstrating the positive impact that immigrants can make on their adopted societies within the exhibition.
Can you talk about the historical impact of a century of cross-cultural design exchange between the United States and Scandinavia? Where do you see common ground—past, present and future?
Where to begin! We wanted to show the sustained impact that began well before the perceived “golden era” of the mid-twentieth century, so we selected works made by immigrants (think rag rugs made by Finns who settled in upper Michigan) for personal use in the home, but also professional craftspeople (for example, silversmiths trained in Scandinavia who brought their expertise to workshops in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere) and the objects seen in museum exhibitions and world’s fairs that would have demonstrated the best-in-class objects. The effect of teachers and design schools should also not be underestimated; for example, Cranbrook was brimming with Nordic instructors, and we believe the creation of this environment led to the most important generation of American designers and craftspeople (the Eameses, Jack Lenor Larsen, Toshiko Takaezu). Ideas surrounding learning and teaching traveled in both directions, as Scandinavian designers came to the U.S. to learn industrial design practices during the mid-twentieth century and American designers studied abroad (on Fulbright fellowships, for example) to gain expertise in myriad techniques (like silversmithing, woodworking, weaving). We end the show by exploring the turbulent late 1960s-1970s, a time that prompted designers in both the U.S. and the Nordic countries to think critically about their work and envision a new role for design within society to address systemic problems, like the planet’s dwindling resources, overconsumption and excessive waste, safety and physical barriers to access. Of course, these are all issues that continue to plague our society fifty-plus years later.
“Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980” is divided into six comprehensive thematic sections: Migration and Heritage, Selling the Scandinavian Dream, Design for Diplomacy, Teachers and Students, Travel Abroad, and Design for Social Change. What are you hoping the viewers will take away from this exhibition?
The big ideas are: That immigrants offer valuable contributions to adopted societies. They did one-hundred years ago, and they will continue to do so into the future. That we should critically analyze advertising and know how to decode the marketing messages that assault us every day. (Within the exhibition, this is articulated most clearly in the “Selling the Scandinavian Dream” section, where representations of Scandinavia were sold to Americans; outside of the exhibition, this is a critical skill that we need to employ in our daily lives, as Americans receive their news from diverse outlets.) And the ever-relevant ways that design can address environmental destruction and build a healthier planet, it can also eliminate barriers of access for all people.
Our intention is to explore the history of American design while also expanding the idea of what Scandinavian design means for Americans. For example, although Scandinavia is associated with humane design and sustainability, one object in the show is Norway’s 1892 Krag-Jørgensen rifle bought by the U.S. Army because it was a more efficient tool of war. We also address the fact that since the majority of Scandinavians were white Protestants, they did not face the same discrimination that many people of color have faced when arriving in this country, or frankly, just living in this country. This was a reason why Black American designer Howard Smith moved to Finland, and we have an example of his work in the show, for instance.
There are so many amazing stories—some better-known (like Jackie Kennedy wearing Marimekko dresses, which will be on view in the exhibition) and many more unknown (like the Troll doll that went around the world before heading to the White House)—that are revealed in this exhibition, there is bound to be something for everyone in this show!
What are you most excited about moving forward? This could be in terms of the exhibition itself, Scandinavian design more broadly, or upcoming projects at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
I’m excited by the fact that we are opening in Milwaukee in March 2023, nearly three years after it was originally supposed to open! Given the global pandemic, we had to reshuffle the order of the venues (debuting the show in Stockholm and closing it in Milwaukee), and that it is opening demonstrates the resiliency of the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the belief in this longstanding project. I hope that many visitors from the Chicago area make the trek to Milwaukee to see this show. For me, moving forward, I look forward to exploring contemporary design in the Nordic countries, which is something we couldn’t do in the show.
“Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980” is on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum March 24 through July 23.
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