Gardiner Museum exhibition explores influence of Scandinavia on Canadian design

The Gardiner Museum presents the landmark exhibition True Nordic: How Scandinavia Influenced Design in Canada, exploring more than seven decades of Nordic influence on Canadian artisans and designers. “True Nordic reveals how Canadian makers sought to create objects that would transmit ideas about place and the character of Canadian society,” says exhibition co-curator Michael Prokopow, Associate Professor and Dean of Graduate Studies at OCAD University.

True Nordic features over 100 works by more than 60 designers including Kjeld and Erica Deichmann, Carl Poul Petersen, Karen Bulow, The Brothers Dressler, and Heidi Earnshaw. The works reflect a simple yet vital Scandinavian aesthetic tied to natural forms, materials and imagery, and a desire to create attractive, functional objects.

“What is so remarkable is that visitors will be able to see Scandinavian-inspired ceramics, furniture, glass, textiles, pewter and silver together in a single exhibition. It’s a rare treat,” says exhibition co-curator Rachel Gotlieb, Adjunct Curator of Contemporary Ceramics at the Gardiner Museum.

Scandinavian Modern: The “Trojan Horse” of Contemporary

Beginning in the mid-1920s, Canadians witnessed the arrival of artisans from Sweden and Denmark in search of economic opportunity. These Scandinavian émigrés shaped the taste for contemporary craft in the postwar era, and Canadian cultural institutions and the federal government turned to Scandinavian design principles to cultivate a Canadian design culture and identity.

“In some ways, modernism packaged by Scandinavia was the Trojan Horse of contemporary,” says Kelvin Browne, Executive Director and CEO of the Gardiner Museum. “Prior to its arrival in Canada, modern design only surfaced as the chrome and leather seating in office lobbies. No one would have dreamed of having it in their homes.”

Between 1954 and 1957, the exhibition Design in Scandinavia, which featured 700 products from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden under four major themes—“Good Articles for Everyday Use,” “Living Tradition,” “Form and Material,” and “Scandinavians at Home”—toured twenty-four institutions across North America including the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the National Gallery of Canada, and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In conjunction with the exhibition, major department stores Eaton’s and Simpson’s organized their own special events and displays. A full-page advertisement for Eaton’s in The Globe and Mail in 1954 promoted Scandinavian design as a “fresh, functional approach to comfortable, modern living.”

Canadian manufacturers began adding Scandinavian designs to their repertoire, giving these new lines names like, Helsinki, Stavanger, and Scanda.

Today, Scandinavian modernism continues to resonate with some of Canada’s most notable contemporary artisans and designers, including Jeff Martin, Helen Kerr, Omer Arbel, and Niels Bendsten.

The Exhibition

The exhibition was designed by Andrew Jones, the Canadian designer behind the whimsical pink umbrellas on Toronto’s Sugar Beach. For True Nordic, Jones drew inspiration from the boreal forest—a dominant feature of both the Canadian and Scandinavian landscapes—using the image of the enveloping forest as a backdrop.

The show is organized around a large, U-shaped plinth, which directs visitors in a chronological path around the outside of the gallery. Atop the plinth sit three long sections of kraft-paper “softwall” created by the Canadian design company molo. The three sculptural walls form undulating alcoves for the display of furniture, referencing Alvar Aalto’s internationally influential Finnish pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

As visitors move through the show, they will encounter three sections, each made up of a range of artifacts, from pottery, to furniture, to large-scale textiles. The journey leads to a large inner alcove, which houses the final, contemporary design section. Spaces between the serpentine walls allow vintage and contemporary works to be glimpsed together, reinforcing the exhibition’s stylistic themes and their connections across time.

Notable works include Mariette RousseauVermette’s large wall tapestry Hiver canadien from the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, a rare Harold Stacey silver service from the National Gallery of Canada, and a stunning samovar by Carl Poul Petersen from the McCord Museum, commissioned by Edgar and Saidye Bronfman.

The exhibition also features historical photographs and videos of artisans at work from the 1950s, as well as the NFB short film The Story of Peter and the Potter, starring Kjeld and Erica Deichmann, Canada’s first full-time studio potters.

The Publication

The exhibition True Nordic: How Scandinavia Influenced Design in Canada is accompanied by a catalogue of the same name, featuring essays by co-curators Rachel Gotlieb and Michael Prokopow, as well as George Baird, Emeritus Professor and former Dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto, and Mark Kingwell, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

Programs & Events

True Nordic: In Conversation Wednesday October 12, 7:30 pm – 8:30 pm

Join Kelvin Browne (Executive Director & CEO) and exhibition curators Rachel Gotlieb and Michael Prokopow as they discuss how the Nordic aesthetic has been adapted and interpreted by Canadian designers over the past seven decades. Tickets: $15 General; $10 Gardiner Friends

Film Screening: The Story Behind Toronto’s New City Hall Thursday November 3, 6:30 – 8:30 pm Toronto’s City Hall is an iconic building that needs no introduction, yet the events leading up to the construction of Revell’s civic masterpiece have largely been forgotten. The film A Finn with an Oyster explores the now little-remembered history of the unprecedented international architectural competition, its planning and building, and its subsequent impact on the life of the city. The film will be followed by a Q&A with director Michael Kainer and producer Karen Teeple. Tickets: $15 General; $10 Gardiner Friends Panel Discussion: Buildings That Give More Than They Take Monday November 21, 6:30 – 8 pm The philosophy, traditions, and aesthetics of Danish design have influenced a broad range of interiors, architecture, and urban design internationally. This talk will explore how a Canadian-Danish collaboration spearheaded by Great Gulf and VELUX Canada have embraced a building concept that enables new buildings to give back more than they take. Tickets: $15 General; $10 Gardiner Friends

40 Years in Canada: How IKEA Took Over Our Homes (Culinary Event) Thursday November 24, 9 pm Join us for an evening celebrating Swedish culture, including a three-course meal of traditional cuisine, and a keynote lecture highlighting the history of IKEA Canada. Tickets: $85

True Nordic will be on display at the Gardiner from October 13, 2016 to January 8, 2017, before travelling to the New Brunswick Museum from March 3 to September 5, 2017, and the Vancouver Art Gallery from October 21 2017 to January 21, 2018. For more information, please click here.