Past glories in a new light On the making of Swedish 20th Century modern Furniture Classics
Anna WahlĂśĂś Architecture and build environment Lund University, August 2013
Contents Preface .............................................................................................................. 2 Introduction ...................................................................................................... 2 Conceptual Clusters .......................................................................................... 2 01 – On (Travelling) Concepts ............................................................................................. 3 02 – Classic, Affect and the Happy Family .......................................................................... 4 03 – An Ugly Duckling – Always an Ugly Duckling .............................................................. 5 04 – On the Concept of Aura .............................................................................................. 7 05 – The Copy – A Tribute to the Original? ......................................................................... 8 06 – Bias in the Canon of Furniture Aesthetics ................................................................. 10
Conclusion .......................................................................................................11 References ......................................................................................................12 Internet ............................................................................................................................. 13
Cover image: Picture from the shop Svenssons i Lammhult in Malmö. 1
Preface I used to work in an auction house for several years parallel to my art history studies and few years after that. I was sometimes surprised by how the price could differ between two relatively similar objects. I learned through the years that factors like signature, (production)year, material, origin, edition, style, condition, if it was a reproduction or not etcetera could be decisive for the sales price of an object. I also learned that neo rococo was cheap, that there was a magic boundary between the 18th and 19th century (objects from the 18th century were often much more valuable) and that Gustavian furniture and 20th century design (mainly from the 1950’s and the 1960’s) was hot (today has that slightly changed). Another thing I picked up was that some pieces of furniture were called modern classics or design classics. I understood that they were special. I never really figured out why and how and no one could give me a satisfying answer. What I did understand was that some object could not be called a classic, for example a neo rococo chair from the late 19th century or a chest of drawers in neo classic style [stilbyrå] from the 1940’s. I found several of the so called classics in my course literature and at museum exhibitions on Swedish arts and crafts and modern design. Today are they all over the place, not to mention all copies; in glossy lifestyle magazines, in TV-programs and in real estate ads. The modern classic is now my headache full time. I have left the auction world but use it sometimes in my research as it is a good indicator on how interesting certain objects are at the moment. The hype changes between different classics and new one’s emerges.
Introduction This conceptual coloring in-book is a result from the ResArc (National Research School in Architecture) PhD-course Philosophies - Architecture in Effect that I participated in spring 2013 at KTH, Stockholm. I have chosen own conceptual clusters along the course. Some of them will be a start or a contribution to a chapter in my thesis. Each cluster, in total six, discusses a question, raises an issue or is a comment to the modern classic. It is full of loose strings and questions that will be further explored. As the title of my work indicates focus my studies on the making of the classics. The overall research objective is to study how a Swedish modern furniture classic is created. I believe that the classic is a cultural and social construction, created by people in the culture and not something that spontaneously emerges or just is “out there”. The aim is to identify and investigate factors and mechanisms of importance to the furniture that has an impact on how we define and perceive them and moreover contribute to their aura and continued existence. Other aspects discussed and examined in my thesis are origin, context, content, expression, characteristics, communication and perception linked to the phenomenon.
Conceptual Clusters The different texts in the conceptual coloring in-book consist of two main themes – concepts and aura and examples thereof. The first two clusters (01 & 02) address concepts. I use two central concepts in my research, classic which is method oriented and aura that is more content based. As I believe that a term 2
chosen to describe a phenomenon is relevant to how it is perceived and interpreted I see it as important and helpful to reflect upon concepts in general, and in particular, “my” concepts. Cluster three (03) is a grouping attempt on ficto critical writing. The text raises the question on power and relation between “the guardians of good taste” and the classic exemplified through two chairs. Cluster four (04) is a short review on the term aura and how it ended up in my research. Cluster five (05) reflects briefly upon the copy in relation to the modern classic (the original) and what the copy can do to its aura. One question that interests me is the role of the classics and how it works – repressive or stimulating, or both in our sometimes stereotypical design history. That is the topic for the last text (06) that also questions the classic and how it emerges.
01 – On (Travelling) Concepts Literature professor Anders Palm claims that the vision of the author and the mission of the researcher are to articulate the best possible meaning of words. Poetry wants to free meaning. Science wants to fix meaning. But the language of science is like any other language: open to transformation (Boström 2000). Cultural theorist and critic Mieke Bal addresses travelling concepts, for example concepts that travel between disciplines or between science and culture, and their semantic change in Travelling concepts in the humanities: A rough guide. She claims that concepts are not fixed. “They travel – between disciplines, between individual scholars, between historical periods, and between geographically dispersed academic communities. Between disciplines, their meaning, reach, and operational value differ” (Bal 2002: 24). Bal argues that these
processes of change need to be assessed before, during and after each “trip”. Inherited concepts are all too often used without reflection on theoretical frameworks in which the concepts first were used (Boström 2000). It is important to consider that the concepts might have gone through devaluations through time or have changed their original meaning. As concepts are barely ever used in precisely the same sense (in different context/realms etc.) their usages can “be debated and referred back to the different traditions and schools from which they emerged, thus allows an assessment of the validity of their implications” (Bal 2002: 29). “While groping to define, provisionally and partly, what a particular concept may mean, we gain insight into what it can do. It is in the grouping that the valuable work lies. […] The grouping is a collective endeavor. Even those concepts that are tenuously established, suspended between questioning and certainty, hovering between ordinary word and theoretical tool, constitute the backbone of the interdisciplinary study of culture – primarily because of their potential intersubjectivity. Not because they mean the same thing for everyone, but because they don’t” (Bal 2002: 11).
Concepts have a potential in methodology. Defining and analyzing a concept can be a useful way of defining a research problem or phenomenon under study. To do that, it is important to reveal all the problems with the concept you are about to use. Give an account of its history, reflect upon former definitions, and check its etymology and the theoretical context in which it emerged. When that is done make the concept/it your own.
02 – Classic, Affect and the Happy Family Classic is a central concept in my thesis. It is a complex and problematic term. It is a travelling concept inherited from other disciplines (Classical studies, Literature, Art and Music). It is used ubiquitously; however it often lacks definition or explanation. In the realm of furniture the concept has become increasingly recognized. I believe that terms chosen to describe a phenomenon are relevant to how it is perceived, interpreted and contextualized. I will in the following cluster briefly reflect upon the concept of classic in relation to affect as explored by Sara Ahmed in her article “Sociable happiness” from 2008. There is no stable definition of affect as Nigel Thrift points out but it is often associated by words like emotion and feeling, for example, happiness (Thrift 2008). Ahmed illustrates a way to use affect in a practical way. She writes; “This paper explores how happiness is directed towards objects and directs us towards objects. Reflecting on happiness as the restriction of sociability, the paper considers the family as a happy object not because it causes happiness, but because of the demand that we share an orientation toward the family as a good thing. Those who are not oriented in the right way become affect aliens and kill-joys” (Ahmed 2008: 10). I
find her text relevant to my research, in particular her survey on the happy family as it has several similarities with the classic/classical concept. The way Ahmed reasons about the family as a happy object as in our collective memory works in the similar way for a classic. [Hemma hos] reportage from Metro Bostad. 22 March 2013.
We have been taught through the years that a classic is a good thing and stands for good taste. To like a classic is safe. To say that you like the mass produced, stackable white plastic garden chair called Monobloc (you have probably not heard the name before) is on the other hand not safe (even though more than half of the population in the world most likely has got one or has at least tried one, or maybe because of that). I believe that the term itself affects our perception of a classic. Classic implies that we are dealing with an ideal or norm, something that intends to express approval and to commend. The concept of classic is symbolically loaded with values, mostly good ones. The term has since the late 1800's widening its boundaries and is nowadays associated with all imaginable everyday things, not just matters of (high) culture (Peters 2004). A classic can be a traditional phenomenon, for example The Wimbledon Tournament as in a tennis classic. It can apply to major sport tournaments and competitions (spelled with a capital letter). Moreover can a classic be a film, a dish, an ice-cream, a car, a watch, a haircut, a song, a piece of clothing or a TV program. I guess is the same with the happy family. Who lives in a classic (nuclear) family any longer?
A selection of classics. From the left; Beethoven, Jaguar E-Type, the book Robinson Crusoe, Magnum and Acropolis.
I mean that the classic concept should be used with caution, whether it is a sports event, an ice-cream or a piece of furniture. To maintain its position and its credibility in the cultural furniture world the concept continuously need to be questioned. Open critical discussions are necessary, especially for a small country and a small market like Sweden. The problem as I see it is not primarily the concept of classic itself but also the selection of furniture pieces that in turn are considered classics. How is it done? What pieces of furniture should be called modern classics and who decides that?
03 – An Ugly Duckling – Always an Ugly Duckling “The timelessness of the furniture is one of the secrets to its popularity. Relaxing moments of solitude or comfortable dining and socializing, the versatility of the chairs is widely appreciated. New generations keep on discovering and appreciating the timeless designs. […] The classic design will always feel modern. The popular chair has a special place in the hearts of many, and is a cherished part of many gardens. […] The chair invites to many beautiful moments. Set out a chair or sofa as a solitary in the garden and make an inviting place for daydreaming, or arrange your chairs around the table for many good times and interesting conversations with family and friends.”
The chair (not to be mistaken by Hans Wegner’s chair The Chair from 1949) is made in plastic and comes often in white but is available in other colours just like the Eames’s chair DAR from 1948-50. It is a singlematerial, single-form injection-moulded chair just like the Panton chair from 1959-60. It is mass produced, stackable and has been copied at a large extend just like Arne Jacobsen’s Ant chair from 1951-52 and his 7 series from 1955. It is light-weight, portable, waterproof and requires minimum maintenance. The chair is called Monobloc and has been produced in millions since the 1970’s. It can be found in almost any corner of the world. It is cheap and available at superstores and home markets. It is a popular garden chair just like the chair described in the initial quote. Monobloc
The chair described in the quote is called A2. It was designed by factory owner Artur Lindqvist from Grythyttan Stålmöbler and introduced at the Stockholm Exhibition in 1930. It was an immediate success and has been manufactured since then. It is stackable, made in solid wood and in solid spring steel. There a numerous copies of the A2 on the market. The garden chair is often called a modern classic by those who see themselves as guardians of “good design”. Why is Monobloc not represented like Michael Thonet’s café chair Model no. 14 from 1859 at any of the national museum arenas in Sweden (for example the National museum, Nordiska museet or Röhsska museet) or the wall chart Vitra Design Museum Collection? Why doesn’t it have a given place in Charlotte and Peter Fiell’s book 1000 chairs or other design books about the 20th century? How come that it does not appear in articles in glossy interior magazines or in real estate advertisements? Why do we love to hate (probably) the most popular chair in the world? And why is it not accepted by the “taste community”? A2
However it is not completely true that the chair has been invisible in design literature and in the media. The chair is for example represented in the book Moderna möbler – design under 150 år [Modern furniture – design for 150 years] from 2009 by an article written by designer Martin Wellner, (four pages in total, including pictures, out of totally 703 pages, not that the text is written in three different languages). Monobloc exists as an entry in Wikipedia, appears on the web magazine designboom.com1 and has been found in real estate ads (but that would be living environments that have not been exposed by home staging I am sure). Social theorist Ethan Zuckerman describes the Monobloc. He writes: “Virtually every object suggests a time and place. The Monobloc is one of the few objects I can think of that is free of any specific context. Seeing a white plastic chair in a photograph offers you no clues about where or when you are. I have a hard time thinking of other objects that are equally independent of context. Asking friends to propose a similar object, most people suggest a Coke can… but I can tell you that Coke is presented very differently in different countries, in glass bottles as well as cans, with labels in local languages. The Monobloc offers no linguistic cues, no obvious signs that it’s been localized. Wherever you are, it’s at home”.2
Even though Monobloc has reached some acknowledgement lately and achieved a global ubiquity as Zuckerman suggests I do not think it will like the ugly duckling in H.C Andersen’s classic fairy tale from
1844 get a reimbursement.3 The white plastic chair will most likely not be included in the chairs “Walk of Fame” and be called a modern classic – maybe by the people but not the judges of good form.
Note: The description above comes from a product catalogue for an outdoor furniture producer, Grythyttan Stålmöbler from 2013. It describes the company’s best seller, the chair A2. I have exchanged the name of the manufacturer (Grythyttan Stålmöbler) and the name of the “family” (The Classic series) A2 belongs to in the company range in the original text by the chair.4 A2 – “Walk of Fame”.
04 – On the Concept of Aura The other central concept in my research is aura. Aura features from the work of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) in his theory of modernity and interpretive readings of modern culture. It first appeared in his essay “Little History of Photography” from 1929 and was later developed in his artwork essay; “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from 1936.5 Benjamin used the concept of aura to articulate the shift when the subject of capitalism turns into the subject of modernity in the middle of the 19th century. It appeared in the crossroads of literature, painting, photography, philosophy and modern subjectivity. According to Benjamin is aura the lustre or attraction that has been associated with the uniqueness of the work of art that subsists in our perception. He writes: “What is aura, actually? A strange web of space and time: the unique appearance of a distance, no matter how close it may be” (Benjamin 1927: 285). Benjamin claims that it is the aura of the work of art that withers in the age of mechanical reproduction. Even the most perfect reproduction of a piece of art is lacking in one particular way – its presence here and now. The process is symptomatic and its significance outreach beyond the field of art (Benjamin 1970). I first came across the concept of aura in economist Ivar Björkman’s doctoral dissertation; Sven Duchamp: Expert on production of Aura: A study on Entrepreneurs, Visions, Business and Art where conditions that influence the aura of a product are investigated. Björkman use the Swedish furniture company Källemo
The Ugly Duckling tells a story of a homely little bird born in a barnyard who suffers abuse from the others around him until, much to his delight (and to the surprise of others), he matures into a beautiful swan, the most beautiful bird of all (Wikipedia).
There are four different versions of the essay.
AB and its founder Sven Lundh as a case study.6 Björkman claims that aura is a social and cultural construction, created by people and is not something that is just “out there” He argues that the majority of aura experiences are interweaved with a variety of cultural factors that influence the experience. For example museums tend to reinforce the perception of aura and media tends to influence the observer’s consciousness of aura. Björkman has in his study tried to deepen the understanding of what is regarded as cultural context for a design company and how value is created in the company. He claims that aura is created in the "art world" which consists of a number of actors, from institutions to professional reviewers, who due to their high cultural credibility has the power to decide what is art and not art (Björkman 1997). Aura is an enigmatic term. Its nuanced understanding does not make it less inscrutable. “Concepts are never simply descriptive; they are also programmatic and normative. Hence, their use has specific effects. Nor are they stable; they are related to a tradition” (Bal 2002: 28). I find the concept of
aura useful in my work studying how particular pieces of furniture become classics. I am interested in how different factors and aspects (eg. context, quality and aesthetics) influence us in our perception and definition of modern classics that I also think contributes to their survival, visually and commercially. It is these qualities and values that add to the aura of the furniture or their uniqueness.
05 – The Copy – A Tribute to the Original? We have for a long time been indoctrinated that the original is worth more than a copy (eg. Norman 2004 & Londos 1993). For example do most people prefer the original oil painting to the reproduction and the reason is that we have learned that the former has a higher status than the latter (Norman 2004) and that oil paintings are more than any other technique objects for investment, speculation and expected increase in value (Londos 1993). In the context of modern attitudes to design, which value originality the concept of a “copy” or “to copy”, has a negative connotation according to Judy Attfield (Attfield 2000). In “Continuity: Authenticity and the Paradoxical Nature of Reproduction” (in Wild Things: The material culture of everyday life) she writes that originality is “a modern concept based on assumption that it is possible to create an entirely novel form never produced before, requiring new methods of manufacturing and non-traditional materials” (Attfield 2000: 106107). “A “reproduction” is by its own announcement a copy yet at the same time it objectifies authenticity even though it is not, nor does it pretend to be, that most valuable of commodities in this modern age - the real thing
(Attfield 2000: 119-120). Is that really the case? What happens when the copy loses its context and no one knows of the original anymore? Where does that leave the original?
Källemo specialize on exclusive “arty” furniture produced in limited editions where the most important quality aspect is the visual quality. Lundh stated the well-known quote “It [a piece of furniture] shall stand the wear of the eye”
There are numerous of copies and spin-offs and copies of copies of modern classics on the furniture market today, both legal and illegal. Copies and mutations are not, of course, always beneficial. Most are not. But can the copy be beneficial to the original in some sense and contribute to its auratic dimension? In several of the examples Bruno Latour draws upon in “The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original through Its Facsimiles” (in Switching Codes) feeds the original of the copy (Latour & Lowe 2011). Latour points at a number of examples in the disciplines of art and performing arts how copies and new versions are used where repetition/copies of the original are a common or even necessary thing. Copies are sometimes used preventively as a substitute for a fragile or unique object to protect the original from unnecessary wear and exposedness. Others could be pedagogical and entertaining purposes, for example in museum environments (Latour & Lowe 2011). I believe to think that the copy can be seen as an acknowledgement of success. The role model can inspire the copy and the copy can become recognition to the original. I think that the countless copies and ripoffs of for example the “Jacobsen chair” (the 7-series) on the market today could be seen as a tribute to the original, not only a result of legal loopholes and clever marketing. In the right “taste context” I think there is a prestige in being able to say for example that - I have a copy of Le Corbusier. Your statement shows that you know your design history and that you are aware of that the particular object of yours (literally the original) has a place there for one reason or another. It also shows that you possess the knowledge to decide that it is a copy and not an original. The copy can also help the original to subsist into the future. The whole idea of playing for example King Lear is to replay it according to Latour. To see an original play of Shakespeare as presented by Shakespeare himself is impossible, nor even the original text, but only numerous written versions with endless variations and glosses. In the performing arts the aura keeps migrating and might very well come back suddenly – or disappear for good. Too many bad repetitions may so decrease the fecundity of a work that the original itself will be abandoned; there will be no further succession. Such a work according to Latour dies out and will lose its aura altogether (Latour & Lowe 2011). Another example where the copy has played a role is in design history. It has contributed to our image of modern furniture. Art- and architecture historian Gleiniger argues that the remains of the Bauhaus furniture project, next to individual objects such as Peter Keler’s cradle, are the innumerable copies of Marcel Breuer’s and Mies van der Rohe’s and others tubular steel chairs - no matter how exclusive and expensive they still are. Their spread has lead to an acceptance by the public and has been incorporated in peoples everyday lives in the same way as Thonet’s café chair did earlier (Gleiniger 2009). I can see that that the copy has helped to popularise the “perfect” design and become part of the democratic process in a true modernistic spirit. On the other hand many of the original (modern classics) furniture have become desired, often very expensive collector’s items – in a non modernistic spirit. I believe like Latour that the copy can both increase and reduce the auratic dimension of the original. It can also make it lose the aura. One such example could be the Monobloc where the original is lost among all the copies and no one knows how the original look likes anymore. Was there ever an original?
Different models of the Monobloc.
06 – Bias in the Canon of Furniture Aesthetics There are a number of mediators that contribute to the aura of the classic. One is exposure of different kinds. One such channel of exposure is the writing of design history. Giving selected pieces of furniture and their designers repeated attention in student textbooks and reference works will consolidate their position in design history. To hold such a position is from an auratic point of view favourable. Design history characterized by a relatively repetitive structure according to art historian Cilla Robach (Robach: 2010). The Swedish design history has to a large extend been constructed around individual designers and craftsmen and descriptions of individual objects, objects that have fitted well in the description of the history of (good) form. They have been upgraded to icons, has been reproduced in books, exposed in magazines, acquired to the museum collections, displayed in exhibitions and become desirable collectibles. Hence the attention on these designers has grown and in turn their importance has become reinforced in the course of design history, making it more difficult for future design historians to overlook these particular designers and their objects. (Ibid.) This repetitive structuring creates a consensus that gives the objects a fictitious legitimacy according to Kerstin Wickman, professor in design history (Wickman 2007). She argues that critics, design journalists and museum curators create a hierarchy on how interesting something is regarded to be. Wickman means that there is a risk that the same information is repeated uncritically, particularly in cases where information is incorrectly depicted as a result of author’s inability to go back to the original source. The distorted material risk to be incorrectly reproduced in perpetuity. Wickman means that these design icons just like some pieces of art transfix our collective memory. These particular objects are considered, with all its layers of ideas, its technology, pioneering aesthetics and their social contexts, incarnate and confirm the design history (Ibid.). It is about showing an "ideal situation" in reference works and in magazines (Zetterlund 2003 & Attfield 1999). Approaches where anonymous design repeatedly is left out and where the design history is “mainly limited to modern design classics” leave us with a stereotypical picture of the past (Attfield 1999: 374). Many of the furniture pieces that have been given a position in design history are perceived as classics today by historians, scholars, museum curators, cultural journalists and other intellectuals from the ‘taste community’ as Bourdieu would call them (Bourdieu 1984). A central Bourdieuian idea is that judgments 10
of taste are related to social position, or are themselves acts of social positioning, and can create a theory of the distinction between different taste that illustrates the relationship between various positions of power and class structures in society. An important tool in the analysis is the concept cultural capital and symbolic values it represents (Ibid). This perspective of the writing of design history could mean that the classics are “created” on doubtful grounds. It supports my idea that the modern classic is a construction and not a spontaneous thing. The classics will to a large extend stand as examples of “the canon of furniture aesthetics”. In this sense allows aura us to identify with a community who subscribe to the same aura. The classic has become a power factor because of the demand that we share an orientation toward the classic as a good thing as suggested in “Sociable happiness”. As long as power and taste are not discussed and the design history mainly supported by “ideal” objects will the same taste prevail and be looked at over and over again and put pressure on coming historians and writers on design.
The chair Concrete. A modern classic emerge on doubtful grounds?
Conclusion I took the opportunity in this conceptual coloring in-book to explore different aspects on the modern furniture classic. The work has given my new insights for example; what concepts can do but also more fuel to my hypotheses that the classic is a construction, a man-made social phenomenon, created in a complex process in which many different factors, aspects and forces contribute. I have come to the conclusion that some of the factors identified as important aura contributors also can produce “dangerous” affects. So - is there even something that objectively can be appointed as a modern classic?
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NORMAN, Donald. A. (2004). Emotional design. Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books. PETERS, Pam. (2004). The Cambridge guide to English usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, reprinted 2006. ROBACH, Cilla. (2010). Formens frigörelse: konsthantverk och design under debatt i 1960-talets Sverige. Diss. Uppsala University. Stockholm: Arvinius Förlag. THRIFT, Nigel. (2008). “Emotion, Space and society”. Non-Representational Theory: Space, politics, affect. Routledge. WICKMAN, Kerstin. (2007). ”En katt bland hermelinerna”. Under ytan: En antologi om designforskning. Harvard, Åsa (red.). Stockholm: Raster Förlag & SVID, Stiftelsen Svensk Industridesign. WELLNER, Martin. ”Uniform Monoblock”. Moderna möbler. Design under 150 år. (2009). Fremdkörper Designstudio, Andrea Mehlhose & Martin Wellner. H.F. Ullman/Tandem Verlag GmbH.
Internet Wikipedia (27/06/2013) www.designboom.com/history/monobloc.html (27/06/2013) www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2011/04/06/those-white-plastic-chairs-the-monobloc-and-the-contextfree-object/ (27/06/2013) www.grythyttan.net (13/06/2013) Grythyttan Stålmöbler – outdoor furniture. Product catalogue from 2013.
Published on Aug 30, 2013