Call it the Mad Men Effect or just a natural resurgence of an enduring style, but appreciation of mid-20th-century Scandinavian design has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Once again, we’re yearning to surround ourselves with a streamlined and functional aesthetic that projects an ideal of beauty in simplicity.
Now you can see the real deal at the NGV International’s Nordic Cool exhibition, which explores the mid-century movement through diverse objects such as furniture, tableware, clothing, glassware and lighting.
“I think it has to do with the combination of clean-lined design, functionality, real craftsmanship and beautiful materials,” Nordic Cool’s curator Amanda Dunsmore says of the increase in interest in Scandinavian modernism.
“Those are time-honoured principles which never really go out of fashion. Scandinavian design celebrates the inherent beauty of natural materials, and I think this resonates with a lot of people today, because we’re living in a world of plastic, synthetic, throwaway materials. When you’re living in a world of mass production, people increasingly start to look for and appreciate handmade furniture and objects.”
With the exception of one work – a chair on loan from a private collection – Nordic Cool draws exclusively from the NGV’s own archives of mid-century design. Many of the pieces were donated in 1952 as part of the gallery’s Felton Bequest, a philanthropic trust from Australian art collector Alfred Felton. In the middle of the 20th century, the bequest’s adviser, A.J.L. McDonnell, recommended to the committee that it begin acquiring contemporary, rather than historical, objects. McDonnell bought directly from manufacturers in Denmark, Sweden and Finland; many of his purchases, from the likes of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and Danish designer Hans Wegner, are now considered design icons of the era.
Nordic Cool gives design lovers a chance to see the work of some of these names up close. Highlights include Aalto’s glass Savoy vase, Henning Koppe’s silver fish dish for Georg Jensen, original Marimekko clothing designs, Hans Wegners’ much-copied Round chair, Arne Jacobsen’s Swan chair and Poul Henningsen’s classic 1958 Artichoke lamp, reproductions of which still grace the interiors of design-conscious homes around the world. Although the “mid-century” moniker usually refers to 1950s and 1960s design, Nordic Cool expands those boundaries to take in works dating back as far as the 1920s and the 1930s, decades during which the streamlined Art Deco/Moderne movement came to prominence. What does Dunsmore hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?
“A greater awareness and appreciation of the beauty of everyday objects,” she says, “be it cutlery, tableware, a vase, the light in a room or the chairs that we sit on.”
Nordic Cool: Modernist Design From the NGV Collection is at NGV International until December 31. Entry is free.