"Scandinavian Design" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

"Scandinavian Design" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Sugarfree Necklace by Ida Forss

Sugarfree Necklace by Ida Forss

Mid-century madness shows no signs of slowing. With that in mind, American Craft connected with Cindi Strauss, curator for modern and contemporary decorative arts and design at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, (and ACC trustee) about "Scandinavian Design," which runs through January 27, 2013.

AC: Maybe it's the Mad Men-inspired obsession with all things mid-century, but it seems like the mainstream appeal of Scandinavian furniture and decorative objects has grown again in recent years. Is this exhibition a direct response to that interest, or did you have other reasons for showing these pieces now?

CS: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has a long history with Scandinavian design. In the 1940s, the museum outfitted a men's smoking room with bentwood furniture that included chairs, tables, and a folding screen by the now-legendary Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. In 1956, the traveling exhibition "Design in Scandinavia," organized by industrial design societies in the participating countries, featured objects by leading designers in glass, ceramics, metalwork, furniture, and fiber. At the end of each stop on the tour, an ambassador from one of the countries presented each museum with objects for inclusion in the museum's permanent collection. The MFAH received four glass pieces, and these were the origins of its Scandinavian design collection. Recently, the museum has built upon this history by acquiring outstanding objects by Scandinavian architects, designers, and manufacturers. These have been part of presentations over the years, but this is our first opportunity to look at this area in-depth. That it is happening at a time when Nordic design is being celebrated is just a happy coincidence.

AC:  How do you see the balance between one-of-a-kind pieces and work designed for mass production play out in the exhibition?

CS: I think that the show demonstrates the wide variety of creative opportunities for artists and designers in Scandinavia. Some artists worked in the studio as well as with industry while others aligned themselves solely with industry. Both endeavors were seen as equally fulfilling. And interestingly, in ceramics and glass, studio craft principles found their way into the factory. Departments for special art lines sprang up at factories in the mid-20th century and artists freely participated in the making of multiples.

AC:  What is unique about your process when curating a show featuring decorative arts? Do you display the pieces differently knowing they were designed for use in people's homes?

CS: The tricky part about decorative arts is the variety of scale, material, and texture in any given exhibition. Many decorative arts objects are sculptural and should be seen in the round, while others are better served by a single viewpoint. I try not to install vignettes if at all possible. I think that trying to mimic a room setting takes away from the individual power of the pieces and is not always appropriate for modern and contemporary objects. I also want to emphasize in my exhibitions that these objects are works of art in themselves, regardless of their function.

AC:  What do you hope people will take away from this show?

CS: I hope that people will see the incredible diversity of work produced in Scandinavia in the 20th century and the influence that it had globally. And perhaps it will inspire them to think more about the role that craft and design can play in their lives today.