Published: August 14, 2018
By Kate Eagen Johnson
CHICAGO – “We wanted to celebrate Modern Design through this exhibition and the beautiful objects made by the Georg Jensen company over the course of the Twentieth Century… For people who are familiar with Georg Jensen, I wanted to emphasize both his work as an artist and craftsman, and his important role in fostering a vibrant design culture at the firm.” Alison Fisher, the Harold and Margot Schiff associate curator of architecture and design, clearly expressed the aims driving “Georg Jensen: Scandinavian Design for Living,” an exhibition bound to inspire and refresh museumgoers at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 9. Fisher has curated the first major exhibition in the United States devoted to the silver hollowware, silver and stainless steel flatware, and other items for the home offered by the Danish firm. In museum and collecting circles, these decorative art objects have often been outshone (in a figurative sense) by Jensen’s sumptuous jewelry. Fisher has made the bold move of “setting aside” Jensen’s wonders of personal adornment in order to focus attention on functional objects designed to enrich daily life.
The exhibition grows in part from the Art Institute of Chicago’s historic association with the Jensen firm. In 1921, the museum mounted the silversmithy’s first solo exhibition in America. It was accompanied by the first English-language book on the company, Georg Jensen, An Artists (sic) Biography by L.C. Nielsen (Copenhagen, 1920).
In her chronologically organized presentation, Fisher focuses on the history of the firm during the Twentieth Century, incorporating more than 200 objects from the Georg Jensen Archive in Copenhagen, private collections and the Art Institute of Chicago’s own holdings. While silver pieces predominate, items fashioned in part or in total from teak, cherry, leather, jute, stainless steel, melamine and other materials are also held up for admiration.
The still-active company has had its share of ups and downs. Having achieved only limited success as a sculptor and as the owner of an art pottery business, the artist Georg Jensen (1866-1935) founded a silversmithing company in the city of Copenhagen in 1904. While he served as the firm’s only designer at the start, he invited others to join the enterprise not long after. The company launched satellite shops in Berlin (1909), Paris (1918), London (1921) and other cities. Particularly important to this exhibition is the New York City branch opened by Frederik Lunning in 1924. But all was not glorious. Georg Jensen suffered much personal loss (three of his four wives died before him) and also became somewhat alienated from the firm during the last decade of his life.
The World War II years were particularly dark for the company. With the German invasion of Denmark in 1940 came the inability to access formerly lucrative markets and shortages of material, not to speak of the impact on employees’ lives. The legendary firm reinvented itself after the war, winning international acclaim for home wares that were useful, well designed, minimalist and democratic in spirit. In 1973, Royal Copenhagen acquired the firm, making it part of Royal Scandinavia Group. It was acquired by new owners in 2001 and again in 2012.
Fisher spoke movingly about the designers, approximately a dozen in number, who are highlighted in the exhibition and whose collective artistic output spans the Twentieth Century. They shared a common respect for Jensen’s design legacy even as their individual artistic voices differed. In fact, each designer, upon joining the firm, studied pieces previously produced at the company. Fisher observed, “following the longstanding qualities of ‘Georg Jensen style,’ abstracted ornament, smooth expanses of silver and designs capturing the luscious quality of silver – all were active in the design evolution of the company.”
Among these amazing talents were Henning Koppel (1918-81), Johan Rohde (1856-1935), Harald Nielsen (1892-1977), Sigvard Bernadotte (1907-2002) and Oscar Gundlach-Pedersen (1886-1960). They expressed their own design and style preferences while working within the Jensen rubric. For example, the silver designed by Jensen’s brother-in-law Nielsen was initially almost indistinguishable from that of Jensen’s in its naturalistic ornament and other characteristics, but as Nielsen charted his own path, he came to embrace a deceptively simple, austere aesthetic exemplified by the sphere-like pitcher, model 606. Similarly, the swelling, supple, sculptural forms beloved by Koppel stand in contrast to the stark, “mechanical” shapes brought forth by Bernadotte. Even so, the work of both is recognized as “Jensen.”
In conversation, Fisher stressed the themes of Home and Style as also central. She described how favored domestic forms and styles shifted during the period under study, pointing to the introduction of cocktail shakers and stainless-steel flatware as emblematic of lifestyle developments while also referencing a style progression from Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts to Modernism and beyond. Fisher underscored that some of the firm’s success can be attributed to its adeptness at weathering change.
Incorporated into the exhibition is a special learning area titled “Laying the Danish Table.” It features period photographs of trade show and related displays from the Georg Jensen Archives. Fisher noted that thematic vignettes, with titles such as “A Child’s Birthday Party” and “A Danish Beer Party,” were used to showcase silver and stainless steel by Jensen and tableware made by others but retailed by the firm. Stated Fisher, “I want people to understand that these products were not used in isolation but were part of a Danish home.”
The generously illustrated catalog contains essays by Fisher, independent curator Maggie Taft and director of the Museum at Koldinghus Thomas C. Thulstrup. In “Outfitting the Modern Home: Georg Jensen Style,” Fisher examines the internal and external factors influencing the firm’s activity in this area of production. In her contribution, Taft addresses the relationship between Jensen silver and Danish furniture of the sort designed by Finn Juhl and Nanna Ditzel, especially as it played out in America during the mid-Twentieth Century. She also discusses how popular publications and exhibitions such as “Design in Scandinavia,” which traveled in the United States and Canada during the years 1954 to 1957, promoted Scandinavian Modern home dÃ©cor throughout North America. Thulstrup rounds out the catalog with his concise corporate history.
This volume joins other publications on Jensen, including the Renwick Gallery’s Georg Jensen Silversmithy: 77 Artists, 75 Years (1980); Janet Drucker, Georg Jensen, A Tradition of Splendid Silver (1997); Janet Drucker and William Drucker, Georg Jensen: 20th Century Designs (2002); Jason W. Laskey and David Taylor, Georg Jensen Holloware: The Silver Fund Collection (2003); Thomas C. Thulstrup, Georg Jensen: Silver & Design (2004); and Georg Jensen Jewelry (2007), edited by David Taylor.
Designers fluent in diverse styles found the Jensen firm – a combination silversmithy, design incubator, interior design resource and international retailer – an environment conducive for realizing their concepts. They did this while honoring Georg Jensen’s venerable commitment to fine design and craftsmanship. This welcome exhibition mounted by the Art Institute of Chicago pays tribute to a less, well-understood and appreciated aspect of Jensen’s commercial design program and to the enduring company’s sterling birthright.
The Art Institute of Chicago is at 111 South Michigan Avenue. For more information, www.artic.edu or 312-443-3600.
The accompanying catalog Georg Jensen: Scandinavian Design for Living by Alison Fisher, Maggie Taft and Thomas C. Thulstrup has been published by Yale University Press.
Kate Eagen Johnson is an expert in American decorative arts and an independent museum consultant, historian, lecturer and author.
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