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Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980

March 24, 2023 @ 8:00 am July 23, 2023 @ 5:00 pm

Explore 90 Years of Design Exchange at the Milwaukee Art Museum


From March 24–July 23, 2023, explore the vibrant and varied exhibition Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980, which showcases more than 180 objects including furniture, textiles, decorative arts, drawings, ceramics, jewelry, glass, and product design.

Milwaukee Art Museum 
Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980
Thomas Dam (Danish, 1915–1989), Dam Things Establishment (Denmark), Dammit troll doll

The new Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition Scandinavian Design and the United States, 1890–1980 is the first to explore the extensive design exchanges between the U.S. and Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden during the 20th century. 

It offers visitors new research on this fascinating art and design relationship and examines themes such as sustainable and accessible design, the role of cultural myths in artwork, and the rich contributions immigrants have made to their adoptive communities. 

Spanning from the arrival of Nordic immigrants to the U.S. in the late 19th century through the environmentally and socially conscious design projects of the 1960s and 1970s, the exhibition showcases more than 180 objects that reflect the far-reaching effects of the Scandinavian and American cultural exchange. 

It also features books, magazines, and other print materials that demonstrate the popularity of Scandinavian designs and aesthetic sensibilities in mainstream American culture. 

The presentation offers visitors a deep dive into the lasting impact of Scandinavian designers who immigrated to the U.S. and American designers who studied and worked in Nordic countries, the strategic marketing campaigns around Scandinavian products that targeted American consumers, and the American and Nordic figures who championed sustainable and accessible design.

Finn Juhl (Danish, 1912–1989), manufactured by Baker Furniture Inc. (Grand Rapids, Michigan, founded 1890), Armchair, model 400-1/2, designed 1951. Leather and walnut
Marianne Richter (Swedish, 1916–2010), Sketch of tapestry for United Nations Economic and Social Council Chamber

SECTIONS INCLUDE: 

Migration and Heritage 

Explores how Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants have made meaningful and influential artistic and cultural contributions to their adoptive communities.

Selling the Scandinavian Dream

Examines the marketing strategy that applied a parallel of the “American dream” to Scandinavia to convince Americans that consumer capitalism leads to class mobility and a better quality of life and how this exploited stereotypes and myths about the Nordic region and people. 

Design for Diplomacy

Considers how nations have employed architecture and design to advance political goals; for example, pavilions at the World’s Fair and traveling museum exhibitions.

Teachers and Students

Highlights the ways Scandinavian designers and artisans who taught in American schools molded American design.

Travel Abroad

Showcases how travel fellowships, formal apprenticeships and formal academic programs helped sustain cultural exchange between the U.S. and Nordic countries.

Niels Diffrient, Alvin R. Tilley, Joan C. Bardagly, David Harman, Valerie Pettis, Henry Dreyfuss Associates, 
published by The MIT Press

Design for Social Change

Investigates how the sociopolitical conditions of the 1960s were a catalyst for designers to address widespread environmental and human rights issues, such as overconsumption, excessive waste, safety and physical barriers to access, through their works.  

“Our hope is that by engaging with the wide range of objects and accompanying research featured, viewers will gain new perspectives and insights on topics that remain central today, including the rich contributions of immigrants to American culture, the need to parse through the myths and stereotypes often embedded in advertising, and the critical importance of environmentally sustainable and universally accessible products,” said Monica Obniski, co-curator of the exhibition. 

Scandinavian Design and the United States, a collaboration with the Nationalmuseum in Sweden and the Najionalmuseet in Norway, is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

The exhibition is supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art, with major support provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and Nordic Culture Point. For more information, visit mam.org.