I am a huge lover of anything Scandinavian. So when the opportunity arose to squeeze in a visit to Manchester Art Gallery to see Nordic Craft and Design I just had to go (I say “squeeze in” because I had a spare hour in Manchester before my flight to Italy for my year abroad, and I thought it would be a perfect send off to experience the diversity of British exhibitions one last time!). I first heard about the exhibition from a lovely design review on hannahsroom, which is a beautifully curated interior design blog from a Birmingham based artist and designer.
As the exhibition is a long-term installation, the location within the gallery is quite tucked away; it is like a hidden gem, deep inside the maze-like belly of the esteemed Manchester Art Gallery. The exhibition is in a huge, ornate room, where the ceilings and walls are adorned with plaster relief columns, figures, and patterns. It is striking how the traditional classicism of the room is directly contrasted by the minimalist, modern designs on display. In fact, this room was used as a private member’s club between 1803 and 1873 until it was badly damaged by a fire. During WWII, it was used to store and protect precious artworks. A slither of original fresco which once adorned a place high up on the wall has been preserved to show a glimpse of the room’s former glory.
The layout of the objects and artworks is dynamic and varied – some items such as clothes, mannequins, and chairs are openly displayed on box plinths, which helps the viewer to feel engaged with the objects. The layout is also varied in height with pieces of furniture and sculptural works displayed at different heights. This makes the space feel open, modern, and inviting. The items which have had to be encased are done so in sleek, graphite grey and sparkling glass display cases. This effect is reminiscent of Crittall glass windows which are popular in modern Scandinavian inspired architecture.
“The space feels open, modern, and inviting, and the viewer feels engaged with the objects”
The exhibition explores classic and influential design pieces from the 20th and 21st centuries from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. They have also included the work of British designers who have been inspired by Nordic style. These countries are lauded for their innovative and modernist, yet functional and ergonomic approach to design. Nordic design takes the form of graphic prints, textiles, home wares, and furniture, with a price range to suit any budget – this is a key element in Nordic design: to make sleek, stylish, and practical design available for all.
I decided to follow the room anticlockwise, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the order does not follow a chronological layout. Instead, exhibits are grouped together under five main themes: nature, water, colour, line, and shape. One of the first objects in the room is a table setup by Swedish interior giant, Ikea. I like how the exhibition chose to acknowledge the dominating influence of this brand early in the exhibition, despite its mainstream connotations. This is followed by a display case of a table and chairs set (1952) by Danish designer Hans Wenger (1914–2007). The table and chairs are all three legged, creating a futuristic and almost space-age aesthetic which was popular during the 1950s. The set pushes the boundaries of traditional design and harmonises with the “organic functionality” which is so crucial to Nordic design.
I really enjoyed the fashion and textiles element to the exhibition. Nordic fashion is known in the industry for innovating clean lines, bold shapes, and minimalist clothing, so the inclusion of designers like Marimekko, Vuokko, and Henrik Vibskov are essential to the exhibition.
One of the most striking pieces is ‘The Jaw Nuts Piece’ letter dress by Vibskov for A/W 2016. The dress combines performance art with wearable fashion, and is influenced by the physicality of theatre, dance, and movement. The shape is eye-catching and bold, combining a full-length wide sleeve with a tulip hem, finished with a blocky print in pale neon pink and burgundy.
There is a collection of three striking black and white graphic print dresses in the centre of the room. One of these is by the Finnish brand Marimekko (which translates as ‘The Mary Dress’), with the pattern design by Maija Isola (1927–2001). The brand is known for embracing bright and imaginative colours, but this selection of dresses shows a monochrome take on their outgoing patterns. The ‘Loki’ dress (meaning ‘seagull’) was inspired the play of light and shadow on a wavy curtain. It is just one example of how the Finnish designer sought inspiration from simple everyday surroundings, and transferred this into ground-breaking textile design. Despite being a mid–century design, the graphic print is timeless and unforgivingly modern.
“The Chieftain’s Chair’ by Finn Juhl is a true design classic and embodies the innovation and practicality of Scandi design”
The centre of the room is dedicated to the true heart of Nordic design innovation: furniture. On a raised box plinth is a glove cabinet by Danish designer Finn Juhl for Onecollection (2015). This is a classic example of Scandinavian design where ingenuity meets playful colour and space–saving form. The colours are based on Wolfgang von Goethe’s colour wheel. On the same plinth are the ‘Stuns’ chairs in red and yellow by Swede Johan Hudlt, designed for Innovator Design. The chairs challenge design conventions and embody the DIY ethos. They are comprised of tubular steel with wheels and castors, and a simple but functional cushion design.
‘The Chieftain’s Chair’ by Finn Juhl is a true design classic and embodies the innovation and practicality of Scandi design. It is crafted from a black leather and walnut and has a low seat position inspired by modern art and organic shapes. Introduced in 1949, the chair encapsulates one of the most recognisable styles of Danish furniture and helped to mark Juhl as one of the founding fathers of Danish Modern. See more of Finn Juhl’s classic designs here. The chairs on display each meet a different requirement: from stackable and space efficient, to functional and organic, to aesthetic, design-based form. Some common factors which unite the collection are the low seat positions, wave-like shapes, and often bulbous, smooth, and futuristic designs.
One of my favourite things about ‘Nordic Craft and Design’ was the way objects were grouped under relevant themes. Each of these was introduced by a panel of printed fabric hanging from the wall under its dedicated theme. For example, Carola and Daniel Olsen’s ‘Leaf’ (1964) for Heal’s Fabrics LTD is used to introduce the ‘Nature’ category. The repeated pattern of monochrome tear drop shapes has an organic and natural quality, and perfectly introduces the theme of nature within Nordic design.
“From sparkling glassware, to futuristic furniture, to bold print textiles: each discovery is another jewel in the crown that is Nordic design”
The exhibition explores a wide range of Nordic design periods, and also touches on early 20th century and contemporary designs. The inclusion of designs by popular high street Swedish brands like H&M and Ikea makes the exhibition relatable and shows how Nordic design is relevant in our everyday lives. I think most of the attention is given to mid-century design, which perhaps could be improved with more early examples to show the full progression of design. However, I think the exhibition has been curated in an innovative and beautiful way. The whole exhibition being in one room is refreshingly intimate, and really helps the viewer to feel engaged in the experience.
The use of five themed sections aids understanding, and it is great to see that the curator has thought outside the box, instead of opting for a chronological layout. The display choices are open and inviting and the gallery has done a fantastic job in making the viewer feel immersed in the exhibition. From sparkling glassware, to futuristic furniture, to bold print textiles: each discovery is another jewel in the crown that is Nordic design.
Overall, this exhibition is visually inspired and curatorially refreshing, and I highly recommend anyone passing through Manchester to have a look (and it’s free which is always a bonus!). ‘Nordic Craft and Design’ is open until 7th July 2019 so there is plenty of time to plan a visit, and get inspired by the popping colours, seamless lines, and timeless inspiration of Nordic design.