Redesigning the Canadian Identity: The Influence of Scandinavian Style

Niels Bendtsen (b. 1943) Bensen, Vancouver, BC, manufacturer Park Lounge and Ottoman, 2011, moulded foam, steel, upholstery. Courtesy of Nancy and Niels Bendtsen. Photography by Eydís Einarsdóttir

For anyone who’s ever wrestled with an Allen key and products with unpronounceable names like Grönadal, Äpplarö, and Poäng, Scandinavian design is nothing new. But its influence dates back much farther than the 40 years of everyone’s favourite flat-pack home-furnishings store. In the Gardiner Museum exhibition True Nordic: How Scandinavia Influenced Design in Canada, the impact of Scandinavian design on everything from furniture, pottery and tableware to textiles and tea cozies is covered in fascinating detail.

The first groups of Scandinavian settlers began arriving in Canada around the 1870s, as part of the great of waves immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Forming communities primarily in Manitoba and Alberta, Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, and Icelanders tended to be somewhat insular, creating decorative work for themselves, but rarely selling it to the outside world.

Katherine Morley (b. 1973), Arctic Bookends, 2013, slip-cast porcelain, Courtesy of Katherine Morley. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid

When Scandinavian design did enter the Canadian mainstream, it had a major impact. According to the exhibition’s curators, Canadians searching for a unique design identity would eventually adopt the Scandinavian look as their own. Although “a lot of our [Canadian] craft practices tend to be regional, whether it’s the Ukrainians in Manitoba or the Quebecois,” said co-curator Rachel Gotlieb, in an interview with NGC Magazine, the Scandinavian influence “in a way helped to create our national style.”

True Nordic’s story of the co-mingling Scandinavian and Canadian identities begins in the 1930s, with the arrival of emigrés such as Danish textile artist Thor Hansen. Working by day as the art director of the British American Oil Company in Toronto, Hansen helped “forge a new kind of crafting identity through a more Modernist sensibility,” said Gotlieb. He wielded his influence over staid Canadian sensibilities through works such as the two bright, stylized, northern-themed textiles that appear in True Nordic

Thor Hansen (1903-1976), designer. A.B. Caya Ltd., Kitchener, ON, manufacturer. 
Tundra, 1956, hand-screened fabric, 120 x 194 cm. Gift of Libby Toews, Textile Museum of Canada Collection. T2012.26.1. Photo: Maciek Linowski

Characterized by bright, cheerful colours, simple patterns, and a relatively pared-down aesthetic, modern Scandinavian design has long been renowned for its clean lines and no-nonsense construction. And, while Scandinavian design has been a major influence around the world, the curators of True Nordic believe that Canada has been especially receptive to Scandinavian design ideals, and that the Scandinavian style has had a profound resonance in Canada since the 1960s.

“Canada got taken up with Scandinavian influences because of the desire to find the appropriate expression for the character and quality of life of this country,” co-curator Michael Prokopow told NGC Magazine. “Rather than just being one style amongst many, it had a type of cultural and ideological depth in Canada.”

Gotlieb stresses that True Nordic showcases only work produced on Canadian soil, sometimes by immigrants from Nordic countries, but also by Canadians who had Nordic teachers, or were simply captivated by Scandinavian style. The idea for the exhibition was born eight years ago, she says, after “Michael and I had noticed this very strong, pervasive influence of Scandinavian design in Canada, in use of materials as well as aesthetics.”

Esa Niemi Design, Etobicoke, ON, Printed textile, c. 1975, cotton, polyester, Private collection. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid

Eighty-five artisans are represented in the exhibition, with individual items contributed by private collectors, public galleries and the families of the artists. One of the more serendipitous works in the exhibition is a “remarkable curtain” by artist Esa Niemi, which turned up unexpectedly at a Goodwill store in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, near the Finnish artist’s former studio.

Another leading light among early Scandinavian-inspired craftspeople was Harold Stacey, who was strongly influenced by the Swedish metal artist Hokan Rudolph Renzius, and once studied with Baron Erik Fleming, silversmith to Sweden’s King Gustav V. While Stacey, whose exquisite Coffee Service (1950) is on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, was, according to Gotlieb, “an important silversmith, considered a real master of his craft,” he had a difficult time working as a craftsman in Canada. A silverware line he designed for the Department of External Affairs never went into production, and plans for mass-retailing also collapsed.

Harold Gordon Stacey, Coffee Service, 1950, silver and rosewood, dimensions variable. NGC

These travails were typical of a broader Canadian malaise. “Canada was a modest place,” says Prokopow, and while a few wealthy patrons would commission work by master craftsmen, there was a limited mass market for luxury goods, particularly in hard times. Canadians also tended to buy European imports when their thoughts turned to Modernism, rather than commission work from homegrown craftspeople. To make matters worse, for a time Scandinavian style fell out of favour.

A renaissance occurred in the 1960s, however, when political shifts and a counter-cultural ethos aligned with the egalitarianism embedded in the Scandinavian style. A suburban explosion and the rise of “Utopian” ideas involving a more democratic distribution of material comforts led to a new interest in a “Scandinavian modernism that was less formal, less rigid, less anxiety-producing,” says Prokopow.

“Old furniture styles like Chippendale communicated refinement on the part of the owner,” he adds. “But Scandinavian aesthetics were progressive and casual. The emphasis was on comfortable living, not showing off your propriety. That suited a change in temperament in society.” Sleek Danish chairs took the place of overstuffed “French Provincial” sofas, and wallpapers and textiles abounding in pastel flowers and butterflies gave way to bold graphics in bright primary colours.

Doha Chebib Lindskoog (b. 1981), designer Loyal Loot Collective, Calgary, AB, manufacturer, Untitled (log bowls), 2004, reclaimed logs, acrylic paint, water-based glass finish. Courtesy of MADE Design. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid

The artisans themselves also projected a Bohemian charm that resonated with the times. “When they were featured in lifestyle magazines, they were presented as European artisans, wearing their berets,” says Gotlieb. But though some achieved a measure of celebrity, making a living remained a challenge.

“I’ve interviewed many of these designers, and they did not live well,” says Gotlieb. “It was always hand-to-mouth. And I’ve interviewed their children and they would say ‘my parents were always working.’ It took real commitment to live this kind of life, and there were no guarantees.”

Prokopow believes one of True Nordic’s most remarkable features is its scope. “We’ve tried to look at objects produced across the class hierarchy,” he says. “The Stacey coffee service is a remarkable piece of work: rare, expensive, labour-intensive. We also have an Esa Niema tea cozy, and it’s also a very telling object, but produced at a different price point. You put the two types of objects together, however, and you can see the same type of language at work.”

True Nordic: How Scandinavian Design Made Canada Modern is on view at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, until January 8, 2017. It will also be on view at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John from March 3 to September 5, 2017, and at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver from October 21, 2017 to January 21, 2018.

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