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Then Now, Tomorrow: Art and Design

The values of Swedish design withstand a century of change, still expressing sensibilities for simplicity, practicality and beauty.


As I reflect on the world’s fair of 1915, I think of the characteristic Swedish traditions still alive today. Swedes at their pavilion displayed their ingenuity and craft in many objects, particularly those with a practical bent. Then, as now, Swedish design has created an avenue for many successes — for professionals, those who never attended university and especially immigrants. A new design store has come to San Francisco, and Scandinavian design is what was highlighted on the very first day of business.

The opening of San Francisco's new boutique design store, Zinc Details, included the program “New Nordic Design Trends,” which featured Scandinavian design collections from respected designers such as Normann Copenhagen, Muuto, Iittala, Menu, Marimekko and Design House Stockholm. The store was packed — it was standing room only with young people and old, all interested in Scandinavian design. Roberth Sundell, chef and owner of the sensational Swedish restaurant, Pläj, served up fanciful and tasty delicacies accompanied by Kukkula wines from Paso Robles.
The big draw this evening was Anders Färdig, CEO and founder of Design House Stockholm, the publishing house for more than 70 of Sweden’s top designers. The program featured a conversation between Vas Kiniris of Zinc Details and Färdig, with questions from the audience. Färdig recounted highlights from his start in the industry 40 years ago, when many new designers across Scandinavia were making names for themselves and their designs were capturing the imagination of the U.S.
This was helped greatly by Williams-Sonoma and others who, discovering Scandinavian fashion, were able to make large purchases and ship caseloads to sell here. As a matter of fact, Färdig said, that was the origin of the famous name “Crate and Barrel,” for that is how glass and stemware often was shipped in those days. In conversation with Kiniris, he explained that fundamental to Scandinavian design is simplicity. This is because originally Swedes needed products for everyday use, where shape and function is more important than decoration. Not that long ago the country was very poor; and Sweden has retained the sensibility that products must not only be practical but also stand the test of time. In this, he noted, they are very similar to the Shakers in America, both in practicality and in egality. Scandinavian design distinctively reveres this value and combines it with the esthetic professionalism of the designer.
From 1920-1960, Swedes worked in their own factories on products designed by Swedish professionals and made by skilled Swedish craftsmen. But then other countries copied their style and produced knockoffs so cheaply that Swedes could not compete, even at home. So, designers then learned to design at home but produce abroad, where they had to find less expensive but skilled craftsmen.
By going abroad to manufacture products, designers also became more international, admiring others’ practical designs for common problems. But the single most important factor in Scandinavian design was the rise of IKEA since the 1950s and '60s, which taught all Swedish designers that their products must be affordable. So, price became an important ingredient of the design challenge.

Scandinavian philosophy affects international design
The new wave of international lifestyle, reflected in the international reputation of the new Swedish cuisine, has also influenced today’s design. Färdig believes the key factors incorporated by designers are the attention to details and the focus on using natural and native materials. Another aspect basic to Swedish and Scandinavian philosophy is the use of simple, basic, practical tools in the kitchen, at home and everywhere else.
When Kiniris noted that the American press extols Scandinavians as among the happiest people in the world, Färdig remarked on the simplicity and seasonality of food, which was key both to notable California cuisine and Swedish cuisine. This alone indicates this state and that nation share many common values. It is why Färdig and so many immigrating Swedes feel quite at home here. We agree on the essentials in life.
Another value that both share is innovation. San Francisco and the Bay Area is a national hub of innovation. Färdig noted that today Swedish design is a combination of fantasy and function. However, to create these whimsical yet practical products, Swedes seek out new technologies, new materials and new techniques to mass produce products, above all to keep their products affordable so more people can use and enjoy Scandinavian design. Now more than ever, again with thanks to the example of IKEA, Swedish designers are looking for technical solutions and investing more in tooling. This has become essential and is why Scandinavian design today continues to grow in popularity.
As for the future of Scandinavian design, Färdig is very positive, because Swedes now share even more basic values with others. People respect the Swedes not merely for the design of their products but for how they take care of employees in their factories, how they rely on natural products, and how they produce affordable and attractive products for all. Scandinavian design has regained its unique brand image.

The art of music
The Scandinavians don't stop at filling life with inspiring design and food, they also fill it with beautiful music — also manifested in song at the 1915 world’s fair. Denmark, Norway and Sweden all had pavilions at the world’s fair and all were inaugurated by their male choruses with additional concerts throughout the year. This staple was taken for granted, like herring or butter.
In the 19th and 20th centuries male a capella choruses were very characteristic of all Nordic countries. When I was growing up in San Francisco the Union of Swedish Singers was a part of every important event. Always they wore suits, with white jackets and their typical student caps. So very early on, if it wasn’t weekly in church or on significant occasions, song was something everyone shared as characteristic of their native Scandinavian lands ... whether or not they could stay on pitch or carry a tune.
A concert by one of our city’s newest choruses was recently held in one of our city’s most historic sites, the Mission Dolores Basilica. San Francisco was invoked into being when the Franciscan priests celebrated mass several days before our country’s Declaration of Independence on the other coast. The white-washed little rural mission, together with the Spanish Presidio, anchored San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena) as sentinel of the Bay. During the 19th century the larger adjoining basilica was built, and then rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake as a Spanish-Rococo temple.
This church is restrained though massive. Sitting there alone or during a concert, one experiences why such a structure is spiritually impressive, even if no religious element is present. And when the human voice fills the space, it would be hallowed in any case. What is remarkable about the structure, which really accentuates it as a concert venue, is that it is principally a nave bounded by its aisles. But the transepts and the areas behind for choir and altar are quite truncated. The architectural arms of the building’s cross are barely an arch — the facing choir stalls and altar’s apse are arced with a quarter sphere; but the architectural crossing with its huge dome is the perfect megaphone for acoustically amplifying sound to all in the pews.
This concert, titled “Symphonic A Cappella: Grand Repertoire for Voices,” displayed why a chorus of only human voices can be as complex, dynamic and artistic as any instrumental concert. Members of the exclusive Cappella SF chorus were chosen by Swedish-born Maestro Ragnar Bohlin, director of the highly acclaimed San Francisco Symphony Chorus, which itself has won several Grammys.
That night, before a large congregation, the chorus sang a range of music from the 16th through 20th centuries, from Gabrieli’s “Omnes Genetes Plaudite Manibus” to Bach’s “Der Geist Hilft Uns’rer Schwachheit Auf” to Rheinberger’s “Drei Geistliche Gesänge” (the composer and song were new to me) to Strauss’ “Der Abend.” This not only made everyone feel comfortable but all admired the precision with which the chorus crisply yet with feeling executed every note and nuance that Bohlin had interpreted.
I was fortunate to hear the first part of the concert, during which the chorus divided into four parts for dramatic contrapuntal effect, both at the transept and high up in the balcony. The basilica is a perfect auditorium with no echo.
The second half of the concert was a wonderful seminar in contemporary choral music. Penderecki’s “Song of the Cherubim” was, to use Bohlin's introductory words, “liberating sound beyond all tradition” that ushered in the more modern pieces. This piece was a treat because it had been dedicated to and written expressly for the 60th birthday of Mstislav Rostropovich, the eminent cellist and conductor whose discernment would far surpass that of any future audience. Harking back to medieval Orthodox church music it still was very modern, alternating with difficult textures, tonality and techniques. It was exciting to hear the rest of the chorus float upon the deep male sonority, so typical of Slavic choral tradition. The division of multiple voices resolving gradually into unison was quite moving.
The next two pieces, designed for this chorus, were incredible. Elliot James Encarnación, himself a choral conductor and composer as well as a member of this ensemble, had written “O Magnum Mysterium,” fittingly dramatic for the magnitude of the mystery that the stable animals were the first to witness to the birth of the Lord. At the end of this piece, the composer descended from the back of the chorus to sustained applause.
David Conte, chair of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Composition Department and recipient of many commissions is this year’s Composer-in-Residence for Cappella SF. He reworked his chorale, formerly for male chorus, of a poem by the World War I English poet Siegfried Sassoon. It was a soothing and sensual benediction.
But Bohlin saved the best for last. This was a very interesting and difficult piece by one of Sweden’s most eminent modern composers, Ingvar Lidholm. Bohlin alerted the audience to be prepared for surprises. This piece was commissioned from the prolific composer in 1973 by Sweden’s governmental arts board. Taken from the Purgatorio, it describes Dante’s ascent from the netherworld, with Virgil as his guide, to the moment when just beyond the boundary he glimpses “those things of beauty that heaven wears,” the stars. Here the soprano soloist beautifully invoked that moment of ecstasy, lyrically sustained over the whole chorus as they concluded.
For its encore, the chorus once more spread itself in an arc across the transept, surrounding a great portion of the audience, as they sang Mahler’s setting of a poem by Friedrich Ruckert. Here, even if one were not religious, this concert magnified and gratified the spirit.

By Ted Olsson
San Francisco

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