Look around your home, and it’s likely that some piece of furniture shows the influences of Scandinavian design.
Since at least the middle of the last century, the style’s clean lines and simple yet beautiful use of natural materials have captivated designphiles. In Canada, the Nordic sensibility seems to speak to us even more directly than anywhere else—and its aesthetic approach is enjoying a resurgence.
For the first time, that idea is being explored and celebrated in an exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery. True Nordic: How Scandinavia Influenced Design in Canada features dozens of pieces made across this country since the 1930s. And though many of the works—by the likes of Kjeld and Erica Deichmann and Janis Kravis—draw from the midcentury when the style was at its peak, an amazing number of new furniture and lighting pieces in the show prove how strong the Scandinavian legacy still is today.
Rachel Gotlieb, a Gardiner Museum adjunct curator who put together the exhibit with cultural historian and collector Michael Prokopow, said the idea for the project started when the pair coordinated a Studio North exhibit of Canadian work at the Interior Design Show in Toronto several years ago. “We were looking at it saying, ‘Gosh, it’s amazing how many artisans are still resonating and still exemplify the characteristics of Scandinavian design,’ ” she tells the Straight from her office in Toronto. “So we both knew, as historians and collectors, that it was amazing to see it continuing in the 21st century.”
Gotlieb and Prokopow trace the emergence of Scandinavian design in Canada back to the 1930s, when a wave of immigrants with fine carpentry and artisan skills first came here, and then to after the Second World War, when they arrived again, and when Canadians also started going abroad.
A striking number of the new works in the show come from Vancouver.
“Scandinavian designers have a real respect for material and form and real simplicity, and that resonates particularly with contemporary designers,” Gotlieb observes. “Form and function and lack of ornamentation appeals to Canadian sensibilities. And you’re seeing that sense of place is important to a lot of makers today. They’re turning to local materials, and that stems from Scandinavian design.”
Here, meet a few of the local and Canadian talents who have designs in True Nordic.
Vancouver furniture-design icon Niels Bendtsen is a living, breathing example of the history True Nordic traces in its show.
In 1951, he arrived in Canada at eight years old with a father who was a highly skilled cabinetmaker. After apprenticing under his dad he opened a store called Danet Interiors in West Vancouver in 1963 to sell Danish-modern lines like Fritz-Hansen. He recalls how accessible the now-coveted items were at the time. “I remember a Hans Wegner Wishbone chair was 48 bucks,” he says with a laugh. “It was not meant for the elite.”
As he learned more about the industry, Bendtsen sold his store in 1972 and moved to Denmark to pursue a job as a full-time designer, working with companies including Eilersen. He designed the tubular-steel, cotton-canvas Ribbon chair, which sits in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and which will appear in the True Nordic show. Of that era—the last peak of Danish design—he tells the Straight over the phone: “It was just something that sort of made sense in the world, because there had been so much clunky stuff and clean lines appealed at that time.”
In the 1980s, Bendtsen returned to Canada. “Going back to Denmark, it felt very small when you’re used to all the openness and space,” he explains. “I needed the freedom and the air.” He bought back his store, now Gastown’s Inform Interiors, adding a manufacturing component to produce his designs. He was able to adapt some of the techniques he had gleaned from working with Scandinavian factories to his production in Canada. One of his newer pieces, Park, that he sells under his Bensen label, will also appear in True Nordic. It’s an upholstered, winged seat that slants back dramatically off a steel-leg base.
These days Bendtsen works globally, producing in Italy, designing products in the States, and selling his work around the world. “Today technology is a huge part of it. At that time [the 1960s and ’70s] they had amazing woodworking factories, but that’s difficult to find today,” he says. But for all that’s changed, he sees a strong return to core Scandinavian values in design: “I think there is some going back to these logical solutions,” he says.
Vancouver’s molo is well represented in True Nordic, with pieces like its sleek glass Float tea set on view, as well as its pleated, shape-shifting brown-paper soft blocks and walls that are being used to form the space for the exhibit.
Like so many other contemporary Canadian designers, the duo of Todd MacAllen and Stephanie Forsythe see alignments with Nordic design more than any direct inspiration.
“Some of it is very subconscious but it’s definitely a place we’ve looked to and admired and felt a kinship with,” Forsythe says over the phone. “We’ve had a lot of opportunity to travel with our work, and Scandinavia is the one place I feel ‘Oh, these people are a lot like us.’ There’s a groundedness, a closeness to nature, with smaller cities. They’re very straightforward and sensible and yet things are celebrated for their beauty—but always in an honest way. Materials like wood, metal, glass—they’re not hiding what they are. They’re very elemental, with simple lines.”
Forsythe studied in Finland, before she met MacAllen at architecture school in Halifax. She was inspired by the designs of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto—“buildings that didn’t end with the walls of the building but furniture too”—and studied at the university school of arts, design and architecture named for him.
Looking at molo’s designs, she can see how she might have brought some lasting Nordic effects home with her. “There are a few ways that nature finds its way into our work: sensory experience is very important to us, and that ties back into Scandinavian design,” observes Forsythe, who’s working with MacAllen on a redesign of the company’s Venables Street studio, as well as a remote new studio in Tofino on the edge of the wilderness. “When you live in a colder climate you spend more time indoors, except both of our cultures spend a lot of time outdoors, too.”
She points to molo’s Float teapot in the show as a perfect example: “It’s forming a centre for gathering,” she says. “It’s architectural because it does create a space for people to gather and it provides light and warmth and all those things—that’s very much a part of Scandinavian culture.
“But we didn’t say, ‘Let’s sit down and design a Scandinavian teapot,’ ” Forsythe adds with a laugh.
Look in the show for the Urchin Softlight, too, a glowing floor lamp that has a fluid shape you can mould with your hands. “Light can shape a space, too, and lighting is extremely important in a place that gets very dark,” Forsythe says of the Nordic connection. “We offer it in a warm and a daylight white—and warm is the only colour someone will buy in Scandinavia. The farther north you go, the darker it gets, and it’s that primal feel of candlelight.”
And with that it appears that Scandinavian design has come full circle with Canada; now our designers are shipping back homewares to places like Sweden and Denmark.
“We did not set out with any master plan, we just started designing things for ourselves and put it out into the world. Only five percent of our sales are in Canada,” says Forsythe, who adds sales to Scandinavia are more than double that. “We sell a lot in Scandinavian countries. We’ve even sold into the Aalto school!”
Designer siblings Lars and Jason Dressler may craft their salvaged- and locally-sourced-wood furniture in a Toronto workshop, but signs of their creations are everywhere you look in B.C. One of their iconic Branch chandeliers, the rustic yet sophisticated showstopper that’s become the key image for the True Nordic exhibit, hangs at Wolf in the Fog in Tofino; they’ve worked on designs for Deep Cove’s Cafe Orso and the Downtown Eastside’s Calabash Bistro. When the Straight reaches Lars, he’s packing one chandelier off to a residence in Whistler, and another to Kelowna.
He’s one of many Canadian designers who have absorbed the influence of Scandinavia, more than studied it.
“I don’t directly observe what’s going on there,” he admits over the phone. “But we grew up with pieces around our house that definitely had that influence—in teak or walnut.
“I think the big tie-in is we have this attachment to nature, and living here in Canada we were exposed to similar things. We have similar mindsets and go through similar seasonal changes. It’s almost like the philosophy is making do with what you have at hand, also working with our hands and looking at different methods—like steam bending or fine joinery.”
Sustainability fits nicely into that approach, and the brothers look for responsibly sourced woods (especially oak), building the Branch chandeliers out organically, so that every piece is different. They also craft everything from curvy birch-plywood loungers to modular sofas with built-in storage.
About all that’s different about True Nordic is the setting: “It’s an honour to be part of a gallery event,” says Lars.
True Nordic is at the Vancouver Art Gallery from Saturday (October 28) to January 28, 2018.