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Artifacts for life

What is the meaning of exhibiting cabinets from a farmhouse in Hallingdal painted in the traditional Norwegian style of rosemaling together with the interiors from bourgeois city life in the 1700s? These two types of artifacts have long been cultural and historical dichotomies. The first conveys what is «Norwegian» and traditional, and the second relates to European fashions that are volatile and constantly changing. Of peasant culture, we see values, myths and history. Of the civic imports, we see vanity and abundance.

The exhibition «Artifacts for life» brings together items and reveals that they were originally asymmetrical halves of the same mental universe. The artifacts were created in a society that had clearly defined rules for what functions and symbols a set of objects should reflect. In their assortment of materials and techniques, the artifacts display their diversity in past societies and their breadth in a material culture.

Museums have long shared certain aspects of objects and artifacts, namely their craftsmanship, variation, as well as geographic distribution – that once the objects were caught up in different groups of people, they were assimilated, transformed and simplified. European imports were, in short, unloaded in Drammen, sold and copied so that their end form and decoration is based in the «folk art» of the upper valleys. These artifacts were also out on a sort of geographical journey from the city to the countryside. Culture researchers characterizes this as the result of a «social walk down” through the layers of society, where the styles were adapted as the objects lost their fashion value in society. Once an artifact had lost its value, peasant society would often purchased the inventory of an auction and used the objects to decorate their houses.

However, the objects that this museum displays reveal that the connections between the layers of society were more complex than is usually depicted. In populous districts of the lower Buskerud region, high social mobility and many luxury goods were in circulation. In 1784, the vicar Hans Strøm spoke of the “peasants’” draw towards luxury and fashion that was unbefitting to their condition.

Scandinavian Design

Scandinavian Design from 1930 to circa 1960.

The phenomenon of Scandinavian Design, for a long period during modernism, shows how the small countries of northern Europe became the trendsetters of good décor taste in many parts of the western world. The story of Scandinavian Design – an American term not found in any of the Scandinavian languages – includes the three areas: Japan, USA and Scandinavia. The background for simple, extremely well designed and functional everyday furniture can be found in Arts and Crafts, as well as Art Nouveau wooden furniture, hand blown glass and hand-turned pottery. Much of the inspiration for this comes from Japan, which, in its own time, also had a refined architectural and material culture based on Chinese models. Japanese influences were strong in the late 1800s, both in Europe and the United States, and they are found explicitly in particular with Danish furniture design of the mid 1900’s.
Scandinavian Furniture Design often uses natural organic materials such as wood and leather. The wood was shaped so that it both expressed and matched the body’s form and function. Much of the best Scandinavian furniture art used finely shaped wood – often in exotic types like teak, rosewood, mahogany, but also in maple, birch, oak, beech and ash. In addition to woodwork in solid wood, these designers often used plywood. Veneers were strong and sleek and could be molded. This is seen in much of what was created by Charles and Ray Eames’ (LCW) (1945) for Norway Says, in the publication Wallpaper Master (2002).

It was in the late 1930s – with the Finnish pavilion at the World Fair in New York – and especially in the 1940s and early 1950s that Scandinavian design influenced American design. The connections between Scandinavia and the U.S. had some main channels. Eliel Saarinen and his son, Eero Saarinen, Finnish-born architects and designers, made a strong mark on American design from the 1920s onward.  These famous Helsinki architects emigrated to America and in 1932, Eliel started the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, together with newspaper mogul and philanthropist George Booth. Frederick Lunning, director of the Danish design company Georg Jensen USA, created the Lunning prize, which went to Scandinavian designers, but was distributed in America. In addition, the two curators of design at the Museum of Modern Art, Eliot Noyes and Edgar Kaufmann jr, had great knowledge of and interest in Scandinavian designers. It was so popular that at the end of the 1940s, Alvar Aalto, who had designed the Finnish pavilion at the World Exhibition in New York, was commissioned to draw the large student house – Baker House – at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Finn Juhl, from Denmark, was awarded the contract to furnish much of the new United Nations building in 1952, including the Great Council Hall. And in 1960, when CBS televised the debates between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the candidates were seated in Danish Hans Wegner’s The Chair. This phenomenon continued. When the Museum of Modern Art built a new extension, they hired the Japanese architect Yoshi Taniguchi and all the restaurants, rest areas and coffee bars in the new museum, which opened in 2004, are filled with Danish furniture, including designs by Poul Holm.

For the Permanent Gallery, the Drammen Museum has now acquired a number of exquisite examples of the best in Scandinavian and American modern design. Of particular importance is the couple Charles and Ray Eames. Their most significant invention was to double-and multi-press plywood. This resulted in some of the postwar era’s finest and most elegant wood furniture, which was made according to their designs and manufacturing methods. Here, in the exhibition, visitors can see a replica of their most famous chair the LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) from 1945. Charles and Ray Eames worked together with European designers, but they remained a significant source of inspiration for Scandinavian designers. Thus, both Arne Korsmo and Grethe Prytz Kittelsen were inspired by the Eames, and Danish Arne Jacobsen’s most famous wooden chairs are inspired by their molded finér chairs.
Among the American designers who are represented here, Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames and Harry Bertoia were associated with the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles, with an American mother and a Japanese father. He grew up in Japan and returned to the United States at the age of 14 to continue his education there. In this collection, both the Noguchi’s glass table and Eames and Saarinen’s Organic Chair are new productions.

The rest of the furniture displayed are authentic antiques. The Organic Chair was originally produced in a very small batch, but the chair won first prize in a design competition organized by the Museum of Modern Art in 1940 and was put into a series of production runs, which are ongoing today. The same applies to Noguchi’s classic, which was first produced in 1944, but is still produced today. The Drammen Museum sees this as an interesting point, since it was actually designed and created for mass production. This applies to several of the classics, including the LCW, although the chairs seen in the museum are from the 1950s and were produced by renowned furniture manufacturer Herman Miller.

The permanent gallery

Det Faste Galleriet

THE PERMANENT GALLERY displays Norwegian artwork ranging from the time of JC Dahl to the present day. Within ten separately colored rooms, small historical art environments have been created. One room is dedicated to work from Hans Heyerdahl. The Drammen Museum has a large collection of Heyerdahl art with some of his major works, including Bathing Boys and Fisher Boy (mid 1880s). Another room displays old European artwork (still-life, landscapes and portraits from the 1700s), one is devoted to the national romantic style (IC Dahl and Hans Gude), while works from time spent in Dusseldorf and Munich lead to the French-inspired naturalism in yet another room. The museum has exquisite works from Zartmann and Matisse students (Harald Sohlberg, Thorvald Erichsen and Henrik Sørensen), as well as a room devoted to the 1920s and the art deco and new objectivity styles from the time between the world wars (Maurice de Vlaminck, Torstein Torsteinson and Roar Matheson Bye). In yet another room, one can view paintings with themes from work and life in the city and on the farms. Finally, highlights from the museum’s collections of modern art (Gunnar S. Gundersen, Ole M. Bakken, Bard Brodersen and Jacob Schmidt) are displayed, as well as Scandinavian design in glass, ceramics and enameled metals.

The museum has strived to present the work in meaningful cultural contexts. The design of the displays and settings was done by Asmund Thorkildsen and the aim is that the works of art are displayed in a way that focuses on their aesthetic qualities. The new displays are accompanied by texts that easily communicate the main features of Norwegian art history as it can be experienced at the Drammen Museum.