2003 Essay | Facing Reality: An Outline of Contemporary Danish Crafts

2003 Essay | Facing Reality: An Outline of Contemporary Danish Crafts

Facing Reality: An Outline of Contemporary Danish Crafts

By Louise Mazanti


Gitte Bjørn
Disquieting Pocket
Charms (detail), 2002
silver, 2d
photo: Jesper Hyllemose
represented by
Galerie Metal

Acting as a global catalyst, SOFA has created a unique opportunity to look at what is happening on the international scene. Galleries from all over the world are represented and the concepts of “sculptural objects” and “functional art” therefore encompass a wide range of cultural expressions, different perceptions of art, and a varied choice of materials.

SOFA CHICAGO offers a chance to view contemporary Danish crafts from a global perspective. It is precisely through the interaction with other forms of expression that a Danish uniqueness becomes apparent, with characteristics so ingrained in our approach that we barely notice them.

Since the 1950s, the concepts of Danish or Scandinavian design have become familiar to most people, a particularly Nordic look recognized all over the world. It offers a unique kind of functionalism, characterized by refined simplicity, respect for the material, good craftsmanship and, above all, an almost dogmatic insistence on the usability of objects.

What about today?

Contemporary Danish design now looks much more varied at first sight. Rather than confirming the sense of national identity, the strands of functionalism, post-modernism and the avantgarde now exist side by side. The chains of tradition have been severed, giving way to a more international pluralism.

Michael Geertsen
Wall Object, 2003
12.5 x 7
photo: Søren Nielsen
represented by
Galleri Nørby

As an example, consider the glass artist Steffen Dam’s deep blue dish Night, with holes drilled like stars producing light and shadow effects that discreetly reinterpret a classical concept of beauty. Another example is Gitte Bjørn’s Disquieting Pocket Charms, where the concept of time is relative and becomes the personal secret of the owner.

No matter what the aesthetic ideal—the beautiful versus the disquieting, humor versus seriousness, form versus concept—there is one characteristic that permeates all Danish design and which differentiates it from international trends: a sense of moderation— the human scale. It reflects the democratic instincts of Danish designers who rarely venture into creating art for art’s sake. They don’t usually allow themselves to be seduced into creating sensuous ornaments or objects without any function!

This is evident in ceramist Martin Bodilsen Kaldahl’s vessels Continuation I + II, which are restrained, with a simple sense of form. Even the striped ornamentation of the horizontal bands keeps all superfluous elements at bay. This almost minimalist clarity appears to assign these vessels to the pure sphere of the fine arts, remote from physicality, everyday life and functionality. But then you discover an opening via the attached tubes, which breaks the symmetry, arouses your curiosity and impels you to move around the vessels in order to maintain your perception of the object. In this way, the viewer is drawn into the physical space of the piece.

At the same time, these are exactly the qualities that characterize Danish crafts. By retaining the form of the “vessel”, the “dish” and the “pocket watch” as in the previous examples, there is a connection to the universal; to the familiar and usable objects that Danish designers never completely relinquish.

Even Michael Geertsen’s ceramic Wall Object— a piece without functional use, as the title suggests—conforms to the formal universe of kitchenware: the cut forms are based on the cup, the plate, and the bowl. Even in this decorative interplay of the free forms of pop art and humor, there is a reference to the sphere of everyday life, which is so characteristic of Danish crafts.

The Geertsen piece also revels in an industrial aesthetic. With its perfectly smooth surfaces, bright colors and clean forms, the object is no longer imbued with the characteristics of the handmade, but rather suggests the design of a mass-produced object.


Martin Bodilsen Kaldahl
Continuation I and II, 2002
stoneware, 12 x 17.5
photo: Søren Nielsen
represented by Galleri Nørby

This reference to the concept of design is essential to the understanding of Danish crafts. Going back to the early industrialization of the 1800s, there is a traditionally close relationship between industrial production and artistic creativity. The seed of the continuous reference to functionality and familiarity that still characterizes Danish crafts today is to be found in this particular historical background.

You might say that Danish crafts still haven’t dealt with their industrial origins and broken free to become an independent art form, one of the fine arts. But that close relationship is precisely why Danish crafts are so distinctive and occupy such a central position in contemporary culture. When crafts become an art form that maintains a continuous dialogue with the realities of everyday life and still retain a human scale, then it creates a whole new field of possibilities.

Through the clarity of abstraction, modern art was given a utopian vision of a better world. The fine arts then became an autonomous pocket of true values. In contemporary pictorial art, this art concept has almost been replaced by a more political, socially committed idealism.

To insist on a modernist concept of crafts as an autonomous art form is therefore to actually diminish the possibilities inherent in practice. By maintaining a connection to the reality of everyday life, if only through symbolic references, Danish crafts transcend the merely decorative. Danish crafts suggest structures and actions that may be almost invisible due to their familiarity, but which are imbued with significance through the artistic treatment.

Just think of Gitte Bjørn’s watches; hidden away in your pocket, but when touched, reminding you of the relativistic concept of time. Think of the woven rug Inside the Envelope by textile designer Kirsten Nissen, which on closer inspection turns out to be an accurate description of the present age: the safety envelope that represents the last remnant of our concept of privacy in a world where all kinds of information are freely available.

Jewelry designer Sten Bülow Bredsted’s Nomad Sculpture is poised exactly in this position between art and reality. A brand new function is suddenly apparent; a kind of stick or scepter for today’s nomad, where the interplay between the object and the owner is central. The work’s functionality keeps it firmly anchored in reality, but at a conceptual level, Sten Bülow Bredsted has created a cultural icon about human rootlessness and the loss of social belonging.

Goldsmith Torben Hardenberg’s Dish for Seal’s Liver in silver and quartz is another work loaded with double layers of meaning, although his starting point is quite different. Overwhelmed by the simple beauty of the work, at first glance it is hard to see how these precious materials in any way allude to a deeper layer of significance. In Greenland, raw seal liver is a delicacy eaten immediately after the seal has been caught and it is easy to imagine the blood red color spreading in the icy translucency of the rock crystal.

But by creating such a dignified and respectful image of Inuit culture, Torben Hardenberg counters the post-colonial prejudice prevalent in Denmark that the Inuit are socially and culturally inferior.

The dish is then both an aesthetically pleasing object, which joins simple materials with excellent craftsmanship, and an attack on social convention, which proves yet again that Danish crafts have ‘scores to settle’ with the world.

A similar feel for the sensuous qualities of the material is explicit in textile designer Ane Lykke’s Zen, a rug made of paper yarn. Through the material, you experience the sounds and feelings generated when walking across the rug. A meditative space is created involving both the intellect and the senses.

It is precisely this mix of functionality, aesthetics and sensuous qualities that is characteristic of the way in which Danish crafts interact with the real world, no matter what the starting point.

In contemporary culture, this middle position between the pure sphere of the fine arts and the functional reality of crafts is proving very interesting because it takes on a form of practice that not only rests on classic aesthetic qualities, but is as committed to real life as are the newer art forms. By combining the avantgarde with the aesthetic, Danish crafts occupy a position that is extremely relevant to contemporary culture.

Louise Mazanti, MA in Art History Studying for a PhD at Danmarks Designskole

Published in conjunction with Danish Crafts, the Danish Trade Council, and participating Danish galleries: Galerie Metal, Galerie Tactus, Galleri Grønlund, Galleri Nørby and Gallery deCraftig.

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