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Northern Lights: Scandinavian Design

May 23–October 4, 2015

Explore the innovative concepts that have shaped Scandinavian design, from the modern lines of mid-century furnishings to the video game "Minecraft." "In the world to-day there is no group of people who have designed better objects for the home than the Scandinavians," declared Leslie Cheek Jr., director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in 1954. This emphatic statement appeared in the catalogue for Design in Scandinavia, a groundbreaking exhibition that traveled across North American to twenty-four cities, including Richmond, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and Houston. Widely publicized in print and on the radio and television, the exhibition was seen by some 660,000 people, exposing a broad audience to the best of Scandinavian design and making household names of many of its featured designers and manufacturers. Commentators praised the aesthetic and functional excellence of the works they encountered, qualities that still characterize Scandinavian design today.

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Drawing from the museum's exceptional holdings, Northern Lights surveys Scandinavian design from its triumphant showing at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris to the present day. The exhibition places a special emphasis on objects made in the mid-twentieth century, when an interest and appreciation for Scandinavian design reached new heights both in the United States and internationally. A geographically diverse region, Scandinavia comprises five countries in northern Europe—Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland—each with its own distinct cultural identity and traditions. Yet their shared socioeconomic and political history has played a significant role in the creation of a unique and largely unified approach to design. Through objects in a range of materials, Northern Lights explores the underlying philosophies and aesthetic traits of Scandinavian design.

Furniture by Hans Wegner and others demonstrate a strong reliance on traditional techniques and natural materials that typifies much of the region's furniture production. Works like those by Axel Salto, who provided ceramic designs to the Royal Copenhagen factory for nearly three decades, highlight Scandinavian firms' practice of employing artists and designers. Ergonomi Design Gruppen's "Eat and Drink" flatware, developed for people with physical limitations, spotlights an interest in the social impact of design. The exhibition also includes work by contemporary designers who embrace traditional practices as well as those who challenge them. Minecraft, a hugely popular video game designed in 2009 by Swede Markus Persson in which users create a complex virtual environment with simple building blocks, represents an exciting convergence of design and technology.

Main Building


The exhibition is supported by Finlandia Foundation National, The American-Scandinavian Foundation, the Swedish Council of America, and Royal Norwegian Consulate General.


Donna Corbin, The Louis C. Madeira IV Associate Curator of European Decorative Arts

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