America’s Love Affair with Scandinavian Mid-Century Modern Furniture


The weekend trip to IKEA has become one of the more popular past times in American society. The marriage between Scandinavian design and big box stores seemed a match made in heaven. But the appeal of Scandinavian design goes deeper than a flat box. Beautiful, simple, and highly functional designs inspired by nature and accessible to all – Scandinavian mid-century modern furniture continues to attract and please today. Characterized by light colors and natural materials, these designs are a natural reaction to Scandinavia’s short days and long winters where homes need bright and warm interiors.


Evolution of Design

Nordic design evolved through their culture and history. Scandinavians always had a strong craft tradition and were particularly adept at combining handwork with machine production. They considered the integrity of each object more important than the latest trend.

Inspired by continental Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly the German Bauhaus, Nordic designers rejected the more austere look of geometric and metal elements and added curves and wood to soften the look, making it more readily accepted by Europe and the US.   In addition, the Scandinavian approach to functionalism including furniture that could expand, stack and fold – a practical solution embraced by buyers of all sized homes. Adapting a social democratic society after World War II, Scandinavians believed that beautiful and functional products should be available and affordable to all.

Of the five Nordic countries that encompass Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland), it is Denmark that is best known for its furniture hence the term “Danish Modern.” The Danish designers and craftsman have a close collaboration. Many famous designers such as Hans Wegner, Finn Juhl, Morgens Lessen, Peter Hvidt, Grete Jalk and Borge Morgensen started as trained cabinetmakers. This craft understanding enabled them to transform their ideas into objects that could then be mass produced. Makers used imported teak from Thailand and rosewood from Brazil, the rich colors and grains of the wood gave the furniture an elegant look. After WWII, Denmark was able to return rapidly to normal pre-war production and soon “Danish Modern” was widely available and affordable.

Hans Wegner
Hans Wegner (Danish, 1914-2007) Pair of Wishbone Chairs
circa 1950, Carl Hansen & Son, Oak, cord
Heritage Auctions, May 17, 2016, Sold for $440

In the 1930’s the Functionalist movement (called Funkis in Finland) evolved where traditional designs with much heavier elements were replaced with functionality.   The most important designer of modern Finnish furniture from 1930 to 1950 was Alvar Aalto.


Artek and the Aaltos – Furnishing the World

There is currently an interesting exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, New York City,

“Artek and the Aaltos, Creating a Modern World” through October 2, 2016.

Finnish architects, Alvar and Aino Aalto, a husband and wife team, are known for their famous mid-century designed interiors whereby all of the decorative objects – furniture, lighting, glass and textiles -were created within the architectural project. Their Finnish firm, called Artek, is a combination of art and technology, (“Ar-tek”).   By the 1930s, Artek began to furnish the world. Among companies that sold modern furniture, Artek had one of the largest international sales networks.


Artek Furniture

Arkek’s philosophy was to bring “a human perspective to modernism”. By developing a unique process of bending and laminating wood they combined the purity and functionalism to modernism with the warmth of wood. They were also interested in producing furniture with the fewest number of elements for easy manufacture and lower cost.

The cantilever chairs use this process of laminated plywood and later inspired designs by Charles Eames and other important modernists.  The frame is made from laminated birch and is manipulated to produce a unique cantilevered shape, an armchair without straight lines.

In his “Paimio” chair, Alvar Aalto redesigned the tubular metal furniture first created by Marcel Brewer at the Bauhaus to an all wooden cantilever design.

Alvar Aalto
Alvar Aalto, Armchair (model no. 41) “paimio”, designed 1931-32,
this example ca. 1943, bent plywood, bent laminated birch and solid birch


Artek became adept at combining mass production processes with the flexibility of individual customization. Design standards were developed whereby individual parts such as legs could be used for different designs. The prototype pictured below was later included in Finmar catalogue (a wholesaler and major importer of Scandinavian furniture to the UK) offering customers standard Aalto models in a variety of color and lacquer finishes.

Alvar Aalto chair
Chair (model no. 31) Alvar Aalto, prototype
designed ca. 1932, bent laminated birch and
bent plywood; stepped runners.
A similar chair sold at Claude Aguttes auction,
February 21, 2013, for $2,526 including premium.


This chest is a good example of how Aalto’s’ design uses curved legs (“L leg”) to soften the piece and provide a more elegant look. The birch wood is light in color and its natural grains are rich and warm.

chest of four drawers
Chest of four drawers (model no. 204), birch
1945-50, 39” x 33”
A slightly larger Alvar Aalto birch chest of drawers,
circa 1946-1956, 39” x 43”, sold at Bukowskis Stockholm:
November 11, 2015 for $5,357 including premium



Historically, Finnish art glass was made by hand. Examples of designs made for mass production can be found in the 1930s. The best known designers were Alvar Aalto, Arttu Brummer and Gunnel Nyman.

An Aalto Savoy vase produced today by Iittala is available for sale at for $174. An early Savoy vase from 1937 produced by Karhulan Lasitehdas sold at Christie’s London: Tuesday, November 4, 2014 for $25,983 including premium.

AA glass vase
Alvar Aalto, Savoy glass vase, designed 1936, originally by Karhula,
now produced by Iittala, 5 ½” high, current production



Aalto was a master at using light to enhance the mood of interior spaces. Fixtures were made to be glare free so that it is impossible to see the light bulb from any direction. The design actually alters artificial lighting to simulate natural light.   In the 1950s Aalto worked with Viljo (“Sparks”) Hirvonen to develop standing, hanging and table lamps. Many of the light fixtures, such as the models in the picture below, provided lighting that was intentionally dim and meant to be hung in groups, which added to the ambiance of the interiors.  A set of three Alvar Aalto ceiling lights, model no. A335, designed 1955, painted tubular metal, painted metal, brass, sold at Phillips London April 28, 2016 for £7,500.

AA ceiling lights



Artek textiles were designed with bold contrasts in black and white and color to be used for different purposes. Still manufactured today, the company offers original patterns from the 1950s in a variety of products including decorative pillows, blankets, aprons, oven mittens, napkins, etc. See

Artek textiles

Artek’s designer, Maija Heikinheimo, created a number of screens for a model apartment at the Interbau exhibition in Berlin in 1957. The adjustable screen is made of wood and fabric which hangs around a central post.

A set of wallpaper samples for the apartment includes an adoption of Elissa Aalto’s “H55” textile design from the exhibition of the same name.

Elissa Aalto textile
Elissa Aalto, textile length, “h55,” black-white colorway,
designed for h55 exhibition, Helsingborg, Sweden, ca. 1955, printed cotton

You can see from these few examples how the original Swedish concept of rackrare vardagsvara (“more beautiful things for everyday use”) makes Scandinavian furnishings so popular to this day.










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Using the Monotype to Create Infinite Possibilities

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty at the Museum of Modern Art through Sunday, July 24, 2016

Edgar Degas, Dancer, circa 1976-77, (left) monotype (right) pastel and opaque watercolor over monotype
Edgar Degas, Dancer, circa 1876-77, (left) monotype (right) pastel and opaque watercolor over monotype

When we think of Degas, we think of painting. We imagine ballerinas in white tutus and pointe shoes while Degas is holding a palette with a thumb-hole and brush, poised, ready to create and inspire. It’s a traditional image, familiar to all. But did you know Degas the printer? Or Degas the rule-breaker?

How Did Degas Use the Monotype?

Monotype is thought to be discovered in the late 17th Century but become more popular in the 19th century when artists like William Blake, Paul Gauguin, and Degas started using the method in their work.

Degas started working with monotype in the 1870s and he instantly fell in love with its possibilities. To create Dancer, Degas first drew on a glass plate then ran the painting through a press, transferring the black ink onto paper. Then, Degas the rule-breaker, ran the plate through the press a second time. The result was the creation of a “ghost” image, ethereal and illuminating. Enhanced using pastel and watercolor, or by smearing the ink with his fingers or a brush handle, Degas was able to vary tone and mood, capture movement or aspects of modern life such as landscapes from a moving train or the illuminated light from electricity. This was groundbreaking for its time.

Early Monotype Inspirations

Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic, Views from the Bank of the Scheldt, 1870-76 Sunrise ( left) and Rain (right), etchings with variable inking on paper

Degas was tremendously influenced by his long time friend and artist, Ludovic Lepic, who began using the monotype to create the same landscape at different times of day and weather conditions.

Lepic began with an etching. In etching, the plate is covered with a protective coat of resin. The artist then scratches his design through the resin with a needle and immerses the plate in a bath of acid, which “bites” the metal wherever the resin has been removed. The resin is removed and the artist inks the plate pushing black ink into the etched grooves. Then the surface is wiped clean leaving only the etched areas retaining ink. The plate is covered with paper and passed through a press. This process is repeated for each print to create an edition of identical prints or multiples.

In the above two examples above, Sunrise (left) and Rain (right), you can see the same horizon line, vegetation and sailboat that were etched into the plate. Lepic ran the plate through the press again to make a ghost print. By wiping the excess ink differently on each plate Lepic created over 85 different monotypes of the same landscape. The variety of this approach is what fascinated Degas.

Edgar Degas, The Engraver Joseph Tourny , 1858, etching on paper
Edgar Degas, The Engraver Joseph Tourny , 1858, etching on paper

Degas was also influenced by the Master Etcher, Rembrandt (1606–1669), the great innovator and experimenter in this medium, often handling traditional materials in unconventional ways.

Rembrandt’s great gift as an etcher lay in preserving a sense of spontaneity while scrupulously attending to close detail. Rembrandt sometimes took several years to finish a plate to his satisfaction, and he sold prints from the various states of his work. It is not uncommon to find as many as four or five different states of the same etching; sometimes the changes are minor and sometimes radical.

In The Engraver above you can see Rembrandt’s influence on Degas both in the portrait composition and the mood achieved by the inking and wiping of each plate.

Polaroid transfer (left) Polaroid emulsion lift (right)

Similar Modern Photographic Techniques

A technique in Polaroid photography yields a similar feel as some of Degas paintings over monotype. “Polaroid transfers” and “Polaroid emulsion lift” is created through a process in which, after an image is developed on the Polaroid paper, the paper can be separated from the chemicals and either side can then be transferred onto another type of medium (glass, paper, wood, metal, etc.) The transfer has the look of a first pressed monotype, a shadow of the original developed image. With the emulsion lift, the image has movement and depth. Degas was not only a rebel but also a true visionary. His affinity for monotype was proof of his instinctual knowledge that this artistic method would prove its legacy and influence throughout the ages.

Edgar Degas, Heads of a Man and a Woman (1877–80), monotype on paper
Edgar Degas, Heads of a Man and a Woman (1877–80), monotype on paper

How Have Degas Monotypes Sold at Auction?

A similar work to Heads of a Man and a Woman, 9.1” x 11.2”, sold at Christie’s London, March 29, 2011, for $59,514 including premium exceeding the presale estimate of $23,000-$32,000.

Degas’ Chanteuse de Café-Concert, A pastel over monotype, ca. 1875–1876, 9.1” x 11.2”, sold for $362,500 including premium exceeding the presale estimate of $250,000-350,000 at Sotheby’s New York, November 2, 2012. While this print was not part of this exhibit you can view a photo here.

About the Museum of Modern Art Exhibition

The Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty exhibit includes 189 works from 89 lenders; half from the US and half from outside; half are from public collections and half from private. There was an enormous effort by the curatorial staff to locate pairs that include a first impression and then a second ghost impression with pastel or other media to communicate the depth and breadth of Degas’ experimentation with monotypes.

Be sure and take advantage of the free audio headset with insightful commentary by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints.

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd St, New York, NY, through Sunday, July 24, 2016, open daily 10:30-5:30, member early hours: 9:30-10:30.


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