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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Promoting Scandinavian Design History

National Library for Art and Design,
Copenhagen, Denmark


Scandinavian Design and Scandinavian Modern are still concepts associated with simple, functional form, good materials and excellent workmanship. For fifty years or so, the Scandinavian countries have built on the successful idea which put Scandinavia on the map for furniture, decorative art and industrial design after the Second World War.

The immediate expectation would therefore be that along with the long-established interest in design - in the sense of a broad concept incorporating both public and private environments - there would have come an interest in their history reflected on a theoretical level. However, that has not been the case.

Compared with the history of art, which is the sphere most closely related to design history, there are not many “practising” design historians - a phenomenon, incidentally, which is not only found in Scandinavia, but which is general. As theoretical subject areas, arts and crafts and applied art have always been overshadowed by the history of fine art just as arts and crafts have themselves ranked below both visual art and architecture for the past two hundred years. Only in recent times have there been signs of a growing interest in the subject in both Nordic and, for instance, British and American universities, and this has resulted in an improved status for it. In Scandinavia, however, this has not yet produced any fully qualified graduates.

In 1982, a general concern for the subject and not least irritation at its humble status led me along with a Norwegian and a Swedish art historian to found the Nordic Forum for Design History ( Nordisk Forum for Formgivningshistorie ), which meets every other year. This has helped to bring together scholars who have otherwise felt isolated in their subjects.

Meanwhile, it was my view that if the field of study is to attempt to make its mark, if research is to be promoted and a dialogue that is both interdisciplinary and international is to be established, this could best be achieved by means of a journal.

In 1989 preparatory work began on obtaining financial support from various funds for translation and printing, and negotiations started with a publishing house that could take care of printing and distribution. Everything else is the responsibility of the editor.

Then, in 1991, the first issue of Scandinavian Journal of Design History appeared. The aim was - and still is - to promote Scandinavian design history, that is to say the history of arts and crafts, decorative art, industrial design and graphic art as well as set design, fashion etc., all subjects in which there is practical and theoretical training on many levels in our educational system, from grammar schools to evening classes, from design schools to teacher training colleges. But where, on the other hand, insufficient research is undertaken.

From my own experience I knew how difficult it was to interest people in your ideas; on the other hand, there was a small group of museum people, university teachers, design school teachers and others, who are professionally concerned with this area. So it might be an idea to make available a journal for the articles they already had in their writing desk drawers.

And so it turned out. An issue has been published each year - no. 7 has just appeared. But apart from the practicality of a single person undertaking both the practical work of editing and seeking suitable material, it has turned out that dialogue with colleagues in the same field, which I often missed in my years as a university teacher, is one of the things that have been most successful in promoting research, or perhaps rather in passing on the results of research. Not in the sense that I am familiar with all the areas covered by the journal; but my questions often persuade authors to structure their article in a different way, to explain themselves more clearly, while at the same time the dialogue can also provide an impetus for new ideas on the part of the authors. I sometimes send articles to members of my advisory board, but if the journal is to be effective, there must be one person with responsibility, one person who is ready to follow a matter up. This is generally speaking a daily task throughout the year.

Another dialogue that needs to be promoted is, as I say, the international one. There is no point in a small specialist area such as design history isolating itself. Consequently, the journal is published exclusively in English. This is expensive, but it has turned out to be useful, as the journal is now widely read in a large number of museums, libraries and universities - from the USA to Russia and Japan.

An important element in the periodical is represented by the reviews section. Here, too, there is a dual aim. It is important to inform design historians throughout the world about new publications in Scandinavia and Finland. And on the other hand, it solves the problem that for many years there has practically speaking been no real professional assessment of works published in this field. In addition to promoting dialogue, such criticism can at best also help to further research.

It should be emphasised that the Scandinavian Journal of Design History is both editorially and financially independent of both the Nordic Forum for Design History and the Danish Museum of Applied Art. Nordic scholars can write on any subject at all in the field of the history of arts and crafts and design history; the subject is limited neither by time nor place. In order to justify the contents, however, I have had to limit non-Scandinavian authors to writing on the Nordic field. The journal works largely on the word-of-mouth principle; I usually encourage all those interested to help spread knowledge of it, both to potential authors and to subscribers!

There will probably be some who will ask what this means for my work as a librarian. I think it has increased attention to certain types of publications, but primarily it has furthered the idea of contemporary documentation, for the need for “source material” on the 1950s and 1960s is clearly reflected in many of the articles in the publication.

Among the tasks facing the National Library of Art and Design at the Danish Museum of Decorative Art in promoting Danish design and design history, two are absolutely central: obtaining literature and information for the designers of today, and creating documentation for - future - history of design. This documentation is of many different kinds and in addition to literature on everything from invitations to exhibitions, catalogues and posters, it consists of sketches, drawings and photographs. As for the drawings in the Print and Drawing Room - and here I am taking my own library as my starting point - the collection has been divided into two, in that the large collections of drawings by Danish designers and firms and other archival material have been separated off from the rest. This has been done principally in order to introduce a more economical system of cataloguing than that obtaining hitherto, in which every drawing was considered a work of art in itself. But it is also because this collection contains items other than drawings, items such as account books, order books etc. Whereas policy on collecting used to give priority to the artistic aspect, resulting in the making of an aesthetical choice - which of course was subject to the preferences of the day and therefore largely consisted of rejecting items - a great change has now taken place. The comparison can, of course, be made with the selection of printed sources. On the one hand, the library has adopted a more critical attitude to the many coffee table books on design and interior decorating, and on the other hand we now collect far more brochures and advertisements, catalogues, design manuals etc. than formerly to document not only Danish arts and crafts and design, but also the large range of articles for everyday use which are marketed in Denmark at the present time. For reasons to which I shall return in a moment, in individual cases we accumulate large collections of drawings and archival material throwing light on all aspects of the activities of a firm working in our field. This often implies hundreds of drawings. It might be asked if this is not a burden both on the library, which has to register and house it all, and on the researchers of the future who will no longer be presented with a qualified selection, made by the librarian who happens to be in post at any given time?

Since the 1960s fine arts institutions have, with increasing speed, undergone a quite radical change. Resulting from the developing social and economic situation in Europe after the Second World War, the 1960s saw a profound change in consumer durables, a change that was as profound as that accompanying industrialism in the previous century. Until far into the 19th century and even a good way into the 20th, it was possible to divide applied art into the traditional, anonymous, unassuming on the one hand, and on the other modern products that were characteristic of the age, to which it was usually possible to put the name of a specific artist or craftsman. However, a subsequent age has seen the wiping out of the distinction between mainstream arts and crafts, not to mention the avant garde, and the mass-produced objects; what used to be called “good taste” and was determined by class, can no longer be so easily defined. As design historians, we talk today of good quality instead of good taste. We use it as a kind of synonym, but the change is more fundamental. We can still agree with our closest friends and acquaintances or colleagues on what is “good taste” - or perhaps in particular what is in bad taste. But the problems arise when we have to choose as historians, scholars or documentarists. And they have a profound effect on the art libraries, which do not only exist to provide researchers with the available monographic literature.

On the other hand, in the research libraries it has not been possible to postpone until better times the discussion of objectives, which the museums of applied art have not yet seriously tackled. If a country’s stock of design in the widest sense of the word is to be documented, it must be here and now. The pulper is waiting just around the corner. But whereas the range in a museum depends on the choice of those in post, things are different in the library of today. As information centres, libraries must be responsive to the needs of their borrowers; and since the range of subjects called arts and crafts, decorative art, industrial and graphic design can be neither quickly nor easily classified according to “good” or “bad” taste, the decorative art libraries (which in Scandinavia are all linked to a museum) must ignore this relationship, for we cannot argue that other libraries have undertaken the task. So it has been necessary to some extent to expand the concept of design from being an exclusively qualitative concept to a more general one. Furthermore, art reception studies as a scholarly discipline and other new ways of looking at things have made new demands on decorative art libraries, as has also the interdisciplinary aspect which is part and parcel of the history of articles for everyday use. Although design history has in theory developed from the history of art, ethnography, anthropology and archaeology are also concerned with this field. It is as a result of a changed constellation that arts and crafts and design archives are now being created. Whereas it used to be the case that a “collection” was established first with “examples”, i.e. selected articles, and later gave priority to artistic examples, the archive collection now aims at greater breadth and a certain degree of comprehensiveness, which among other things entails collecting various materials to throw light for instance on the history of a firm or the oeuvre of a designer.

Decorative art, design, applied art, or whatever we choose to call it, is an area of interest to all. For everyone has some relationship with the things close at hand, a chair, a table, a vase on the table or the cutlery with which they might be eating for half a lifetime. And so everyone has an opinion about design, just as everyone has an opinion about food or the weather. When it comes to other specialised areas of the humanities, people are far more cautious. Visual art, for instance, with which design is related, is today often so complicated and difficult of access that we leave it to experts to explore it. Whereas pictorial art has become highly theoretical, design has become the property of everyone. Both need some adjustment. But without documentation and research in the subject, it will not be possible to give higher priority to design in the educational system or in relation to fine art.

Starting out from work on Scandinavian Journal of Design History , I must mention another problem related to the work of the librarian.

We can easily agree that art and design history are not counted among the exact sciences. But that does not mean that the terminology relating to them should be as inexact as is the case. It is one thing that the terms applied art, decorative art, arts and crafts, crafts, minor arts are often used synonymously - but not always. It is quite another matter that especially institutions of applied arts seem to have a predilection for changing their names. The third and most confusing factor in an age in which we are aiming at common retrieval systems is that a long discredited tool such as, for instance, style terminology is being watered down because of imprecise definition. To tighten this up is obviously a problem for art history.

Incidentally, one of the factors that started me on the publication of the Scandinavian Journal of Design History was irritation at Scandinavian design being classified as sub-divisions and derivatives of the great international movements. But this is most certainly not the case: both Nordic neo-classicism, the movement from around 1900 known in Denmark as Skønvirke (Beautiful Handiwork), and not least Nordic functionalism are all markedly different from their French and German equivalents. The same applies to the English movements, though of course this is universally recognised. Thanks to its social aims, Nordic functionalism managed to engage not only architects, but also producers and politicians. Nordic functionalism cultivated natural materials, wood and not steel, the wood’s own structure and not a painted surface in white, black, and red. And in yet another contrast to international functionalism, it filled all small Nordic homes with flowers and plants. For reasons of art history, but certainly also for reasons of classification, a definition and breaking down of the old concepts of style are necessary. For ordinary people and authors, i.e. those who borrow from the libraries, still use them.

Work with my translator has led to an attempt to systematise the concepts. In addition to this, Glyn Jones along with two colleagues is editing a dictionary of official English names for Danish institutions, to be published by the Gyldendal publishing house in Copenhagen.

In discussions of classification and technical terms or subject headings, reference is often made to AAT, the Art and Architecture Thesaurus. Here, of course, we find all the concepts and terms from this particular area, and these ought to provide a translator with a short cut. But before we use the term day-bed or japonaiserie, we must agree on whether we are talking of a chaise longue or a canapé, on whether it is the entire field of Japonism or only the very earliest we are talking about.

Closer cooperation between universities and libraries in order to compile dictionaries covering specific fields and also subject-specific bibliographies is an undertaking that needs to be encouraged. In fact, both state institutions and the Nordic research councils are aware of this problem. And this means that financial support can probably be expected.

With the introduction of computerised cataloguing, the need for an unambiguous Danish terminology for arts and crafts art and design has become obvious. If, furthermore, we are to talk to each other across subject and national boundaries, it is also important for researchers to have as precise a linguistic terminology as possible. However, before an international solution can be produced, an answer to this question must have been found in each individual country. And this calls for cooperation between libraries and scholars.