Cold Climate Cool
Ted Gachot - July/August 2008
In the style known as Scandinavian modern, now the object of desire of hip collectors and Nordic restaurant designers, form follows function—and certain other impulses.
"For me, comfort is not a matter of a cushy maroon sofa, floral high-backed chairs, a patterned carpet, and gold-framed pictures," says Håkan Swahn, owner of Aquavit in New York City (as well as Stockholm and soon Tokyo)—an admission that will come as little surprise to anyone who has dined there. Aquavit is a virtual paean to the understated but potent pleasures of modern Scandinavian design.
"When it comes to tabletop," continues Swahn, "the simplicity of Scandinavian design is very well understood by the culinary world—that old-fashioned plates with small faces and floral designs blur the picture while clean lines and a single color bring out the food, frame it. But for some reason Scandinavian furniture is not big in restaurants in this country. People find it sterile, not warm enough. ‘It feels like an airport lounge,' they say. Maybe an imaginary airport lounge… At any rate, this is very untrue."
Especially if one considers that as Scandinavian design flourished in the period following the Second World War, it brought a whole new tactile appeal to modernism by marrying it to the traditional Nordic rapport with materials and craftsmanship. An age-old understanding of wood, ceramics, and glass allowed designers like Hans Wegner, Kaare Klint, Finn Juhl, and Arne Jacobsen to develop modern forms with elegant functional simplicity that were also lushly expressive of their materials. And the designers' high level of craftsmanship enabled them to coax latent allure from such modern materials as steel, leather, and stone. These midcentury Danes, Finns, and Swedes in their own way rescued modern design from Platonic abstraction and utopian functionalism and let it mingle with the stuff of life. And they did it not only with skill and taste but also imagination: a strange perspicacious sort of imagination where biomorphic forms become almost rational and angular geometries so clear that they take on a subtle, haunting beauty.
Maybe that's why some people feel a slight shiver as they enter Aquavit in New York City. When the restaurant moved in 2005, Swahn did what he'd always wanted to do and furnished it tip to toe with exemplars of classic midcentury Scandinavian design. The rectilinear poetry of the Poul Kjaerholm and Bruno Mathsson/Piet Hein tables, the high-backed Arne Jacobsen Oxford chairs, and the chrome and leather Dux chairs that have sturdily and comfortably served Aquavit for 17 years impose a quiet formality on the soft-spoken, natural warmth of the main dining room, with its moss green carpet, walnut floors, and creamy white walls. There's a refreshing absence of the glad-handing or splashy. Indeed, in our age of staccato attention and exhibitionist splurges, one admires all the more the Nordic genius for keeping a bit of a lid on things. Not theatrical props drummed up for the occasion, the furnishings have an appealing integrity and a definite history behind them, which somehow radiate a kind of inner warmth that slowly grows rather than wears thin in the course of the evening.
A more exuberant side of Scandinavian modernism is on show in Aquavit's bar and lounge in the form of Jacobsen's iconic Egg chairs, Swan chairs, and Swan sofas. It's the side that caught on like wildfire during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s and that now excites raptures in collectors and aficionados who (as did Swahn) often make the pilgrimage to the hotel for which they were designed, the Radisson SAS Royal in Copenhagen. There, one finds the curvaceous Swan and Egg still in situ in the public spaces and can visit the inner sanctum, Room 606, the lone room preserved just as the maestro left it in 1958. Devotees will point out Jacobsen's mark on everything down to the knobs on the cords for the blinds. And why not? These were chairs that in their moment shaped the world: Jack Lemmon's office chair in Billy Wilder's The Apartment, for instance, is a Swan, and for decades they appealed to Freudians who reveled in their associations with Leda-like encounters and returns to the womb. One of the ironies of Scandinavian modernism is that all that incredible design acumen and sexless hard work resulted in furniture with a real smoldering sensuality. If one looks for it, not far beneath the surface there lurks a lot of sex and no small strain of madness. It's all part of its charm.
Perhaps it's that good-natured combination of quality and muffled sensuality that lends Scandinavian modern so well to mixing with other styles and periods. And indeed it's gained new currency in our age of hybrid eclecticism diluted with a drop of minimalism. Even in Scandinavia, where, Swahn says, "modernism permeates the whole society," it has begun to be treated as just another aspect of the vernacular. What he now sees in restaurants are "some originals used as accent pieces but also a lot of younger, less well-known designers reinterpreting the modern in new ways and especially a mix of modern design with the classic and old." In Signe Bindslev Henriksen's design for René Redzepi's Michelin two-star Noma, for example, the armchairs N. O. Møller spent his postwar career refining fit naturally into a sublimely scarred and beaten old quayside Copenhagen salt warehouse. And for Mathias Dahlgren's informal Matbaren (food bar) in the Grand Hôtel Stockholm, Ilse Crawford works the various forms of the vernacular into a near lather, mixing ancient motifs with new, rustic forms with polished finishes and Nordic simplicity with a pinch of chaos and a wisp of haunted exaggeration. All, of course, very carefully.