Defining Nordic Design

Simon Andrews is the International Specialist for 20th Century Decorative Art & Design at auction house Christies, with an emphasis on progressive design. He joined Christie’s South Kensington in 1994, after experience as a modern design dealer and furniture restorer and established its first sales of Modern Design in 1996. He has also published work on designers Ernest Race, Robin and Lucienne Day and Carlo Mollino.

How would you define classic Nordic and Scandinavian design?

The first thing you need to do is look at each country independently because design evolved differently in each nation. For example Denmark’s proximity to Germany and international trade routes meant it had access to fine and exotic timber like Cuban mahogany and Brazilian rosewood. A lot of its 20th century design can be traced back to the furniture school the visionary, highly influential architect-designer Kaare Klint created at the Royal Danish Academy of Applied Arts. He introduced the students to very balanced and geometric 18th century furniture, so their tradition includes a peculiarly British style of furniture with an emphasis on cabinetry and high-quality exotic woods. In contrast Finland was under Russian control until 1917, so their design style was born out of a surge of nationalism and a seeking of their own identity after years of rule – architects like Eliel Saarinen tried to create a truly Finnish style of architecture. In the 1930s Alvar Aalto – who was trained by Saarinen – came to the notice of the world via Fortnum & Mason and the New York World Fair. Sweden, which remained neutral during the war, has a much more stable, uninterrupted progression of design. Josef Frank, who was actually Austrian and founded the Vienna School of Architecture, was guided by a sense of purity with an arts and crafts aesthetic, and the country’s design is much gentler with a neo-classical, traditional feel. Norway is the outsider – as a wealthy country it did not have the same anxieties. As it didn’t have to rely on exports in the same way, there was an insularity to its design – it didn’t go out to a wider audience.

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Helge Vestergaard Jensen (1917-1987), a daybed, designed 1955. Executed by Peder Pedersen, Copenhagen, walnut, nylon. All images courtesy Christies Design Masterworks, sale 3762, 17 December and Design, sale 3901, 18 December at the Rockefeller Center, NYC

Why does this era have such a profound hold on people?

Nordic design communicates elegantly and fluidly with the viewer – it’s more soulful than other design movements. For example Bauhaus is fascinating intellectually but doesn’t enjoy the same widespread interest. It has a lot to do with materials – wood, glass, ceramics and so on – which we have an emotional response to, rather than high-tech, man-made materials like plastic.

Why is has there been a surge in popularity?

I’ve been working with Christies for 20 years and things do come around in waves. The prevailing taste in interiors at the moment is for hand-crafted, natural, simple design rather than, say, the bright colours and plastics of Memphis or industrial designs. It also helps that many of the original manufacturers have brought out classic Nordic designs, very often direct copies from their catalogues in the 1950s, so it’s highly visible and broadly accessible right now rather than just the preserve of the cognoscenti.

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Finn Juhl (1912-1989), a set of eight ‘bo-62’ chairs, designed 1953. Executed by Bovirke, Copenhagen, teak

Which designers are particularly desirable at the moment?

Most Nordic cultures are selling well but the most acute attention is on designers with the most hand-crafting. For example Fin Juhl [the designer who introduced Danish Modern to the US] worked with Niels Vodder in the 1940s-1950s and his pieces feature subtle but superb hand-crafting with excellent timber, and leather carefully chosen for its natural patination. It’s hard finding pieces: he didn’t make many. You can expect to pay up to £200,000-£300,000 for a very special piece with good provenance. Another one is Peder Moos, a really eccentric and interesting cabinetmaker who only produced on commission. His work can set you back anything from £10,000-£500,000. This is the elite apex of Danish design and it wasn’t widely available even at the time. At a less challenging price point you’ll find designers like Hans Wegner and Arne Jacobsen which is more like £3,000 to £10,000 for, say a complete dining room set of chairs and table.

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Finn Juhl ‘chieftan’ chair, designed 1949. Executed by Niels Vodder, Copenhagen. Teak, leather, metal

And which designers do you particularly admire?

I don’t want to identify any particular designer but there has been real diversity across ­design in the last 120 years. I find Finnish design very interesting and I’m impressed by how it bolstered national identity in a manner that was so gentle but with great personality, how it was born from human emotion not intellectual pursuit. I also love machine-made 1930s design – I am intrigued by how serial production and the introduction of military materials like aluminium and carbon fibre allowed design to become accessible to all. There’s so much to find inspiration in. As long as it communicates it’s interesting.

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Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985), a group of eight vessels, circa 1955. Produced by Iittala, Finland, comprising two coupes, five vases and one footed coupe, line-cut glass

What should you look for when buying Nordic Design, and are there any pitfalls?

You should focus on something in good condition or as near to perfect as possible. Provenance is increasingly important – can you trace the object back to its original sale? It’s that story that makes an object so interesting, that anchors it in history. If there are many examples of the form then the earlier the example the better – if a chair was produced from 1952-1982 then you want the 50s example, so familiarize yourself with the subtleties that distinguish early from late. Above all develop a relationship with design. You need to enjoy living with an object, and that’s one of Nordic’s greatest assets – it’s made for the human body.

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Arne jacobsen (1902-1971) a ‘drop’ chair from the SAS Royal Hotel, circa 1958. Executed by Fritz Hansen, Copenhagen, copper-plated steel, leather

What sales do Christies have coming up, and are there any particularly exciting items?

Our next big Nordic sale is Design Masterworks on 17 December in New York. We have work from Fin Juhl and Hans Wegner among others.

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Hans Wegner (1914-2007), a rare ‘easy’ chair, designed 1953. Manufactured by Johannes Hansen, Copenhagen, oak, leather, fabric upholstery

How is the design market in general at the moment? Is it a good time to buy?

It’s always a good time to buy! There’s always something special to be had and if you don’t go for it you’ll look for it next year and it won’t be available. There’s a limited supply and they get sold and disappear into people’s collections. You do need to do your homework, of course. Look at books, the internet, handle objects, find that piece that really communicates to you – and go for it. Don’t be afraid to ask. We’re in this business because we love design and what we do, and we love communicating our passion.

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Barbro Nilsson (1899-1983), a ‘faluratan’ carpet, designed circa 1952. Hand knotted wool

Are there any rules for using Nordic design in an interior?

None whatsoever. Design is about creating a dialogue and you can establish that with any object, it depends on what sensation you are looking for. It’s like cooking or music – it’s about how the ingredients are arranged.

Defining Nordic Design Article Lot 456b

Hans Wegner (1914-2007), a shell bench ‘fh1935,’ pair of shell chairs ‘fh1936,’ and table ‘fh1937,’ designed 1948. Executed by Fritz Hansen, Copenhagen, teak, plywood, and beechwood sofa

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